Friday, November 5, 2010

Urban Legends: Neo-Pagans & Golden Dawn Forgeries - Answer to Ronald Hutton and Ellic Howe

I am saddened at the way certain historical notions are so easily swallowed by the esoteric community and so effortlessly give birth to harmful and enduring urban legends. All too often, such fables are engendered merely because someone considered to be an academic authority publishes a text based on personal bias, substantiated with what scant evidence they, as non-initiates, are permitted access.

One example of such a harmful myth created by an uncritical reliance on academic authority is the prevalent belief that the Golden Dawn is based on a "forgery." This urban legend arose due to an credulous reliance on the authority of Ellic Howe, whose otherwise fine history of the Golden Dawn is marred by Howe's intense personal dislike of the order. The destructive myth arising from Howe's biased theory that the foundational "Sprengel" letters written to W.Wynn Wescott were forgeries, in reality has been substantiated by nothing more than the so-called, "expert" testimony of Oscar Schlag, a Swiss Thelemite who, like Crowley himself, was out to destroy the Golden Dawn.

Golden Dawn Senior Adept, Dr. Robert Word (of the August Order of the Mystic Rose), recently submitted the Sprengel-Wescott letters for independent examination to a truly objective, professional Germanist. Her results verify the Sprengel-Wescott letters not to have been forged by a native English speaker as both Howe and Schag erroneously and misleadingly claim. The letters instead appear written in completely correct Sutterline German entirely consistent with the period. As a trained Germanist myself, I subsequently submitted these letters to personal scrutiny as well. Admittedly, my personal findings can in no way be considered unbiased, due to the key leadership role I play in the contemporary Golden Dawn. Nonetheless, I have been trained as Germanist for over 30 years and - contrary to the enduring urban legend - I also judge these letters to be authentic.

And yet, the myth that the Golden Dawn is based on a "forgery" tenaciously persists until today, among all but those who have actually bothered to investigate the matter for themselves!

Another such urban legend is the prevalent belief in the modern Pagan movement that no Western Pagan religion has survived from antiquity, and consequently that ALL contemporary Pagan religion is but modern revival, with no historical roots. This belief has resulted in many contemporary Pagans mistakingly identifying themselves as "Neo"-Pagans, and has tragically cut off the modern Pagan movement from its historical roots in antiquity.

This destructive myth has become entrenched in the Pagan community in large part due to an uncritical reliance on the authority of Dr. Ronald Hutton's book, "The Triumph of the Moon," an examination of the historical roots of Wicca. In this well-researched work, tenured historian Dr. Hutton presents a rather convincing argument that Wicca is a synthetic religion pieced together from bits of Gerald Gardner's personal experiences in India with Goddess worship, anthropological data from Dr. Margaret Murray, Sir James Fraizer and Charles G. Leland, and the Golden Dawn, with membership drawn in part from the Naturist (Nudist) movement in England.

Even in regard to Wicca, the evidence presented by Dr. Hutton, while difficult to ignore, a decade later does not remain undisputed. For example, Philip Heselton has provided compelling data that G.B. Gardner was indeed initiated into the pre-existing New Forrest Coven. Consequently, contrary to Hutton's premise, it is unlikely that Gardner completely made up his witchcraft tradition.

Nonetheless, the urban legend tenaciously endures that no European Pagan religion has survived from antiquity. This myth survives not based on factual evidence presented by Dr. Hutton on the origins of Wicca, but merely based on sweeping pronouncements Dr. Hutton makes on the antiquity of Pagan traditions in Continental Europe.

There remain gaping holes in these proclamations. Firstly, Dr. Hutton's historical inquiry is limited to southern England, as he readily admits in the opening of his investigation. Moreover, Hutton presents no solid historical evidence to substantiate his decrees on Italy and the rest of the world. Hutton spends five pages merely parroting the opinions of others on the trustworthiness of Leland’s informant, for example.

Finally and most importantly, such matters are better the province of anthropologists rather than a historian. Hutton inappropriately does not limit himself to the examination of the written word as is properly the province of the historian, but frequently relies on personal reports he gathered himself, which Hutton presents according to his personal bias, rather than as the results of intense scrutiny by the rigors of ethnographic method.

Despite these gaping holes in Dr. Hutton's underlying conclusions, the urban legend that no European Pagan religion has survived from antiquity, has tragically deprived much of the modern Pagan movement of its historical roots, and has led to the audacious conclusion that ALL Pagan religion today is but Neo-Pagan revival.

This audacity arises directly from the erroneous presumption that the historical roots of all modern Paganism stand or fall with Wicca. This is an extremely Anglo-centered vision, as though no European Pagan traditions have ever existed outside of England, Ireland, and Wales!

Such an Anglo-centered Pagan vision negates, for example, the possibility that vestiges of ancient Greek or Roman Paganism might have secretly survived intact. This is as mistaken a notion as the myopic vision I have encountered again and again in the Golden Dawn community, as though the Golden Dawn arose as an exclusively British affair, completely separate from its Continental European context and Hermetic and Rosicrucian roots.

In the decade following Dr. Hutton's study, new anthropological evidence has surfaced, for example, that casts serious doubt on these urban legends. For example, the polytheistic Kalash Kafir religion, still practiced today by about 3,000 people in Chitral, has a strong resemblance to ancient Greek Paganism. This has led some to theorize that the Kalash religion arose directly from the invading Greeks.

When the great hero and general, Alexander, reputed as great as the gods Apollo and Zeus, left troops on the mountainsides of the great Hindu Kush, he asked them to stay there without changing their beliefs and traditions, their laws and culture until he returned from the battles in the East.

The Kalash people living until today in a village in Pakistan, proclaim with pride that they are the direct descendents of Alexander the Great. In fact, there are many similarities between them and the Hellenes of Alexander the Great’s time. Similarities such as religion, culture, and language reinforce their claims to Hellenic ancestry.

The Kalash are a polytheistic people and the gods goddesses they believe in closely resemble the twelve gods of Ancient Greece. Shrines are found in every Kalash village reminding us of religious sanctuaries we would stumble across in ancient Greece. These serve as houses of worship where prayers and sacrifices are offered. Oracles who played a major role in acting as mediators and spokespeople between the gods and the mortals still hold a position of importance in the social structure of the Kalash. Every question or prayer towards the gods is customarily followed by a sacrifice of an animal. This is reminiscent of the sacrifices the Hellenes gave to the gods to assure them a victory over the city of Troy.

The Kalash also practice a ritual that is celebrated on August 6, named the Day of the Transfiguration. This is the day where grapes are brought out to the god to be blessed and to guarantee them of a plentiful crop. This ritual can be traced back to Ancient Greece where it was practiced by the cult of Dionysus who paid their respect to the god of fertility and wine. An active member of the cult of Dionysus was Olympia, mother of Alexander the Great, said to have recruited many of her son’s soldiers and who in return practiced it throughout their expedition (Alexandrou, pg. 184).

The Kalash also live a lifestyle that can be positively compared to that of the Ancient Greeks. For example, the Kalash are the only people in the East who make and use accessories such as chairs and stools that cannot be found anywhere else in the surrounding regions. Their chairs are decorated with drawings such as the ram’s horns which symbolize the horns that decorated Alexander the Great’s helmet. Battle scenes depicting Greek soldiers are also observed. In the recent archaeological discoveries in Vergina, Greek archaeologists found the exact same replicas as the ones the Kalash use in their homes today (National Herald, pg. 7).

Certain scientists and anthropologists dispute, however, the notion of the Kalash being direct descendants of the ancient Greeks. Significantly, no genetic ties between Kalasha and Greeks has as yet been discovered. Moreover, the Greeks merely passed through in 327 B.C., probably within 50 miles of Chitral, but did not enter Chitral itself and did not stop or stay for long.

Even more skeptical anthropologists, however, agree that the polytheistic Kalash religion and the Greek religion at least appear to have a common origin. One prevalent theory is that the Kalasha are Indo-Aryans whose religion has commonalities with pre-Zorastrian Iranians. The strongest anthropological evidence, however, indicates that both ancient Greek Paganism and contemporary Kalash polytheism came from a proto-Indo European religion which was carried along with the Indo European language when the Chitralis first got there some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. No matter which of these theories ultimately prove true, the bulk of this anthropological evidence nonetheless casts serious doubt on the urban legend that no ancient European Pagan religion today survives intact.

Clearly, such a conclusion may not reasonably be drawn merely based on the work of Ronald Hutton. From an academic point of view, Hutton's work is dismissible on three counts. Firstly, Hutton's research is over a decade old and as I have shown in this article, new evidence has meanwhile come to light refuting Hutton's remarks about Paganism outside of England. Secondly, Hutton's attempt at the anthropological method is outside his field of expertise. Thirdly, the statements Hutton makes about Paganism outside of his stated research area are perfunctory, and as such should not be taken as gospel. 

The scope of Hutton's actual research was limited to Wicca and Paganism in southern England, whereas ancient Pagan religion flourished across a far broader region. Clearly any remarks Hutton makes regarding Paganism outside of Southern England should be taken - not with pinches - but with BUCKETS of salt. Thus the conclusion, based on Hutton's research, that the entire contemporary Pagan movement is but Neo-Pagan revival is revealed as fatally flawed.


  1. Thanks for this post, GH Fr.

    Philip Heselton and Ronald Hutton are not really at odds,as evidenced by Prof Hutton's warm foreword to his books. Where they disagree is simply that Hesleton pushes the envelope back a few decades than Hutton to earlier in the 20th century. Even if he is right, hardly a major blow to the generally agreed thesis by lots of scholars, Anthropologists included, about Wicca's origins.

    Amount of RELIGIOUS pagan activity in Europe(not just artistic/philiosophical clubs) or customs etc BEFORE the 1950s = virtually zero.

    Amount of religious pagan activity after 1950s ce (well really about mid 60s) = lots and lots.

    Publication of Gardner's work and publicising of Wicca = 1950s-1960s.

    You do the math :)

  2. Mr Griffin,

    I wonder, what is the harm or help, in the age of something, in terms of its viability?

    Does something being "Older," suddenly mean that it is more reliable, or more authentic, than something that is not?

    What does it matter whether the documents are 130 years old, or 1300 years old... if the information is the same in them?


  3. In the internet age, finding one's "grain of salt" can be as easy as using an academic search engine to look up the latest research on opposing opinions. It is really a pity that people will attach themselves to ideas they like and vigorously defend them when they have not even gone through the effort of looking at it from other (often dissenting) angles. Confirmation bias, indeed.

  4. Care Frater Peregrin,

    Once again, you are falling into the trap of Anglo-centric myopia.

    Pagan does not = Wicca.

    Europe does not = England.

    Activity that is "publicly known" does not = activity.

    David Griffin

  5. Care Frater VLM.

    Of course authenticity and viability are certainly NOT dependent upon age.

    However, in seeking to understand the Golden Dawn, for example, its place within the context of the entire Continental European Hermetic and Rosicrucian traditions yields a far deeper understanding than merely considering it as an isolated phenomenon, as so often has occurred due to Anglo-centric myopia.

    The same is the case with Pagan religion, as clearly illustrated by the comments of Frater Peregrin, who, despite my having clarified the matter over and over for him, tenaciously considers only Wicca as though the entire spectrum of European Paganism begins and ends with the British isles.

    David Griffin

  6. Here in Finland the old folk religion survived at least until early 20th century (of course in somewhat syncretic form, help was asked from Mary and the saints often in the same runos which also turned to the spirits of the nature, ancestors, and the old gods).

    All this is a well researched and publisized fact.

    The same goes for the Baltic countries and large parts of western Russia.

    Maybe Hutton doesn't believe Finland and these other North-East European countries are actually part of Europe?

    Mikael R.

  7. What you point out, Mikael is but one example of the gaping holes in Dr. Hutton's investigation. Where Hutton stays within the specified area of his inquiry, namely Wicca and southern England, Hutton does make a very strong case. It is Hutton's sweeping proclamations concerning the rest of Europe that erodes the overall credibility of his investigation.

    Take, for example, Hutton's rather pedantic attack on Charles Godfrey Leland, author of "Aradia, the Gospel of the Witches." Without any justification whatsoever, Hutton proclaims that:

    "No other modern Italian folklorist has turned up evidence for anything like the Vangel."

    What about the eminent Italian scholar Carlo Ginzburg then? Has Hutton even read Ginzburg?

    Charles Leland states that Aradia is the name of a Pagan goddess, citing Pipernus as the source of this assertion. Leland also discusses his own reasoning for this identification at length in "Etruscan Roman Remains." This, however, doesn't prevent Hutton from deceptively proclaiming that Leland has provided "no evidence" for this assertion, and interjecting that Aradia is clearly but Herodias from Christian tradition.

    As a matter of fact, Carlo Ginzburg has catalogued long-standing traditions of witchcraft-like beliefs in precisely the same area of Italy as Leland's Vangelo. Furthermore, Ginzburg has even provided ample substantiating evidence for the Pagan origins of the name Aradia.

    A central argument in Hutton's "Triumph of the Moon" is that by the time of the witch-trials there was no pagan religion still surviving in Europe to be construed as witchcraft, and thus accused ‘witches’ could not have been Pagans. Hutton elsewhere even misrepresents Ginzburg as never proposing that pagan survivals’ featured in the beliefs and practices of any of the accused. In fact, the major thrust of Ginzburg's "Ecstasies" is precisely the opposite.

    ...And this is by far not the only instance of Hutton misrepresenting the conclusions of other scholars as "overwhelming evidence" of the validity of Hutton's own theories.

    - David Griffin

  8. @Pallas Renatus

    it is sad that far too many Pagans uncritically tske Hutton at face value.

    This becomes insidious when Christian apologeticists (like Peregrin) seeking to debunk Paganism refuse even to discuss specific issues in a serious manner, and instead merely retort that 'basically all scholars agree with Hutton.'

    In truth, when actually investigated, it becomes apparent that not all scholars actually do agree with Hutton. In fact, not even all of the scholars that Hutton cites in Triumph of the Moon as providing confirmation of his theories agree with him. Far too frequently Hutton has actually misrepresented their findings as supporting his theories, as I mentioned above in the case of Ginzburg.

  9. @Fr. LES:

    Although I'm agreeing with most of your criticisms so far (I'd have to do the research myself before forming a real opinion, of course), I believe you're dismissing Fr. Peregrin far too quickly out of hand.

    He never said that Wicca was the end-all-be-all of paganism, he said that pagan religious activity (in all its various colors) became widespread (keyword here) only after Wicca did. Although some of this religious activity was unrelated to and did not draw from Wicca, it seemed to appear appear out of a vacuum, which gives credence to the idea that most (another keyword) pagan religion was "revived" after this point.

    Although surely there are some truly surviving pagan religions, I know of very, very few instances of modern pagans actually practicing them outside of isolated communities. You say that many modern pagans "misidentify" themselves with the "neo" prefix. Where are the examples of modern pagans (especially in the West) practicing these living traditions, rather than a revival? I'd love to be proven wrong here, but I've seen no evidence for myself that suggests that any of these living traditions are in widespread use.

  10. Hello again,

    Sorry if I do not have the energy or time to really go into this. I have done all this before and do not wish to go over it too much. Some stuff is on MOTO, most was years back and not on-line. This is why I ask folk to do their own research.

    Just a few points then.

    As Pallas says (thank you) I am referring to some not all.

    Of course Pagan does not equal Wicca. However, there is no physical EVIDENCE to suggest paganism remained a viable RELIGIOUS path in Europe up to the 20th century.

    Of course there were and are pagan survivals; customs, deity prayers, conflation with Christian saints etc. No one disputes this. What I am saying is that there is no evidence that these survivals existed as a religious alternative to Christianity as a full religious tradition. Sadly Christianity subsumed or killed most of these traditions. Folk magical practices, awareness of deities at wells etc do not a religion make, especially when most of the folk doing this named themselves Christians and would attend Christian churches.

    Hutton never asserts beyond England and I speculate based on physical evidence.

    The leaders of most neo-pagan traditions that became visible in the 60s and 70s had some contact or training with Wicca. Whilst not Wiccan, many from that time drew from Wicca. It is only from the 80s and 90s that we see Pagan reconstructionism consciously forming itself apart from (and sometimes in opposition to) Wicca.

    As for your suggestion that unknown pagan activity may have been happening, it really matters little. We can only judge by the evidence. There may have been a secret cult of the Easter Bunny or the Intestine of Judas…if we cannot see evidence of it, we do not know.

    To assert or believe something without evidence requires a level of base faith. This I think is inappropriate in mature religion and certainly has no place, to my mind, in the esoteric traditions. We do not accept literal interpretations of scripture without evidence. I see no reason to accept interpretations of Europe’s pagan past without evidence also.

    And while my ego appreciates being described as a Christian apologetic, this is really beyond my field of expertise.

    Thanks :)

  11. I would like to suggest people interested in the origins of the Golden Dawn read Stairway to Heaven: Chinese alchemists, Jewish Kabbalists, and the art of spiritual transformation, by Peter Levenda. In one of the later chapters Mr Levenda finds plenty of evidence for a connection between the Golden Dawn and the Asiatic Brethren, giving credence to their European origins.

  12. I think, and by no means I have not done any research but it seems that there is a christian agenda here, to dismiss paganism as a falicy which has no roots is pretty stupid. Remove the opposition, perhaps this is the true agenda of Dr.Hutton's "Research".It is a marketinp strategy, It is shameful to continue this "I am holier than though" routine behind the disguise of scholarchip. Perhaps he is a front man of the roman catholic church. I don't hold any grudges agains anyone, but if we look at history christiand has by its very roots been fundamentalist. There is only one faith etc. This isn't meant as an attack on any religion and we have thr right to worship in the way we deem best personally. But we have the right to know about our heritage ,worship is as much of an importance as knowing who your granparent were. I.e we have the right to know where we came from.

  13. Please see my rebuttal to Peregrin's above comment at

  14. Hi, i've just come back from the Kalash valley and must correct a dangerously erronous statement in the text above. Kalashas have been in theses areas for around 3000 years, which sets them there long before the greeks arrived. More than likely they are a strands of Aryan invaders that sought a passage through the HinduKush and stayed there. there are a few Vedic references, some of the ritual could even offer reminiscences of old Nordic paganism. The dances and song are that of shamanic cultures.
    with brotherly love

  15. Continuation is often decried - the whole Gardener/Wicca story is still open to speculation and often is disputed. However, some years ago I spent some months in Tuscany and found myself involved with the local strega. These were not neo-Pagans, but locals who were following the traditions that had gone before them. What was interesting, was to note the similarities with some fundamental aspects of wicca. The initiation - physically diffefrent from wicca was basically the same structure - the cermonial scourging, etc, could quite possibly be Gardner's addition. The idea of waiting a 'year and a day' also appears to have it's roots i the rural stregan structure. The tools, a black handled wooden knife and wands, are directly connected to these initiatory similarities. I am hoping to go into greater detail in the book I am currently working on, outlining my experiences with the strega. However, as for the idea that pagnism goes no further back than the 50's and 60's, the tools I was presented with predate Gardner and the 60's occult revival by at least twenty years, possibly more.