Academically, I am a Political Scientist and a Gardnerian Witch, in both cases for about 40 years. I encountered the Craft soon after gaining my Ph.D. at Berkeley. I cut my ideological teeth as a young conservative in high school and libertarian my first years in college, and, over the years, gradually abandoned these views to become a kind of liberal with a Hayekian twist. While I have not identified myself as a conservative for many decades, and while most of what calls itself ‘conservatism’ today is closer to right wing nihilism, I still pay attention to what I regard as intelligent conservative writing. In my view, the best magazine of this sort is The American Conservative. There is right wing twaddle galore there, but also penetrating and insightful essays.
To my surprise, in the Sept-Oct issue for 2022, I discovered an article that appeared to be a review of Ronald Hutton’s new book Queens of the Wild: Pagan Goddesses in Christian Europe. It was by the Catholic apologist Michael Warren Davis and so, I hoped, might offer an interesting take on Hutton’s work from a perspective rarely encountered on these issues.
The first paragraph was evidence I would be disappointed. Davis got three of its four sentences wrong. Yes, Gerald Gardner did have while hair in his later years. But he and his wife did not live in Herefordshire, they lived on the border between Hampshire and Dorset. Gardner was a Tory, but not a very involved one. Philip Heselton writes in Witchfather:A Life of Gerald Gardner, v. I., that he did not appear to “take a very active part.” (224-5) He subscribed to The Daily Telegraph, as Davis notes, but only wrote to it once, a letter supporting a strong local defense if the Nazis invaded. Finally, the word “Warlock” does not appear in any of Gardner’s writings.
These are errors of laziness and sloppiness, but there are far more serious ones to come.
To my disappointment it was not a book review. Hutton gets very little attention and his new book even less. Davis initially focuses on the scholarly rejection of Margret Murray’s work which, for most Wiccans and other NeoPagans, Hutton included, is old hat, recognized and assimilated decades ago. Instead, in Queens of the Wild Hutton focuses on whether there was any evidence of Pagan survivals in Europe from pre-Christian times. In the English case he finds very little, though customs such as celebrating the Spring indicate the survival of Pagan themes that have taken different forms over the centuries. Hutton’s is a complex analysis that, ironically for a ‘book review,’ gets no discussion at all.
Davis has other agendas, a political one, and a more subtle theological one. Supposedly, Gerald Gardner and his fellow Wiccans were old style conservatives led astray by bad history to link their rejection of secular modernity with feminism. Supposedly Gardnerians believed in an ancient pre-Christian matriarchy. To be sure there is that thread in some feminist and Pagan writing. But there is no such connection made in Gardner’s work, nor in that of Margaret Murray, for that matter. Some texts associated with Wicca, but much older than Gardner or the New Forest Coven of his time, do emphasize the role of goddesses, as we do, such as the Italian Aradia, but this has nothing to do with feminism.
Davis writes Gardner envisioned Wicca as the ‘natural’ religion of Britain, like Shinto for Japan. Gardner and Wicca honor pre-modern society and so lean in reactionary ways, of which Davis approves. On the other hand, Gardner’s approach has fascist implications, of which his own Catholic position does not.
Seeking to find a connection between Gardner and fascism, Davis compares Gardner’s views with Hitler’s supposed interest in the occult, who, he claimed, was a more competent leader in the “pagan revival” of the time. To be sure, there is a connection between Gardner and the Nazis, but it is the opposite of what Davis insinuates. They didn’t like him. Gardner’s letter to the Daily Telegraph advocating citizen resistance to the Nazis if they invaded elicited a sharp protest from the Nazi Frankfurter Zeitung. Covering this story, the Christchurch Times reported Gardner “says he does not like annoying anybody, but in this case it affords him very much pleasure.” (Witchfather, v. I, 232)
There was an occult dimension to some Nazis’ thinking, particularly with Himmler and the SS, but it had little in common with Germany’s natvist NeoPaganism, which manifested particularly within its youth movement, the Wandervogel. Most serious studies of Hitler, perhaps all, indicate he was basically an atheist. In his Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer, who knew the man well, quotes Hitler:
“What nonsense! Here we have at last reached an age that has left all mysticism behind it, and now [Himmler] wants to start that all over again. We might just as well have stayed with the church. At least it had tradition. To think that I may, some day, be turned into an SS saint! Can you imagine it? I would turn over in my grave …”
Not only was Hitler not an occultist, when he consolidated power he outlawed all such movements.
There is nothing in Gardner’s writings about a divine leader, a Führer Prinzip, or empire, with its hierarchies of ruler and ruled. The largest coven ideal is 13 members, each group being completely autonomous. The connecting thread is the initiations, not what the group otherwise does.
Gardnerian Wicca makes no claims to be the true religion of genuine England, and unlike reconstructionist Pagan traditions, which sometimes do lean strongly towards right wing nationalism and authoritarianism, is open to every culture. There is no nationalist current in Gardnerian Wicca, and there are Gardnerian covens in many countries.
Davis then moves on to discussing a genuine occultist, and fascist, Julius Evola, who, with Gardner, supposedly make up “two peas in a pod.” Davis pretty obviously has read neither Gardner nor Evola, who supported Nazi Germany and wrote a book Fascism Viewed From the Right. There he critiqued Mussolini for not living up to fascist principles. Evola’s Paganism was primarily political and endorsed a caste society, nothing of which exists in Gardner’s writing. In fact there is no quotation of Gardner or Evola in the article, just name dropping and guilt by supposed association.
Anyone reading Gardner and those around him will be struck with their almost complete lack of interest in politics, in sharp contrast to Evola whose ‘Paganism’ has mostly political. Evola admired the Pagan Roman Empire. Indeed, he had little beyond scorn for the German NeoPaganism of his time which did share some themes with English NeoPaganism, although unlike it, their emphasis was on Woden, a male deity, and the sun rather than the moon. Like Gardnerian Wicca, it emphasized the sacredness of the land and nature, not human power.
Davis does see one important current in modern NeoPaganism but utterly misunderstands it. By and large, NeoPagans do reject the modern secular view of reality, and find the world inspirited in ways remarkably similar to older Pagan and indigenous traditions. In this important but limited sense I suppose we could be labeled ‘reactionary.’ We share the rejection of secular modernity that apparently characterizes much of Davis’ own work. But NeoPagans are moderns and in most cases accept basic liberal and democratic principles. We make up a very disproportionate number of contemporary scientists and people involved in computer technology. Davis is an American and yet his discussion of NeoPaganism makes no mention of Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon, which would have tipped him off that rejecting secular modernity and instrumental reason as the highest road to truth can come from a number of directions, including otherwise modern ones.
So why embarrass himself writing such an incompetent account of Gardner and Wicca?
Small in numbers as we are, we constitute a threat to traditionalists, such as conservative Catholics, who also reject secular modernity and find values intrinsic to reality rather than existing as subjective ‘preferences.’ The premodern world those like Davis idolize led to the modern world because of its inability to integrate the sacred with human well-being.
A thousand years of ideological conformity, enforced by pulpit, pyre, and sword, left its mark on how people thought. As I explain in my book God is Dead, Long Live the Gods, secular modernity arose from scientists who believed their work would buttress Biblical dogma. They gradually abandoned these Biblical arguments because they proved false. Even now, the modern world still for the most part assumes theologically rooted assumptions that people are qualitatively different from the rest of life, and that morality is uniquely human (even if now regarded as simply a preference).
Pagan polytheists generally argue values are immanent in the world and our connections with the rest of life are deep ones. We also accept the gifts modernity brought to humanity while healing its divorce from Spirit. Compared to this, traditions looking backwards to the pre-modern Catholic world have nothing much to offer. Hence it is vital for them to discredit the Pagan alternative. I think that is Davis’ ultimate aim.
In seeking to buttress a position that lacks much appeal on its own, Davis is attacking people, movements, and events about which he knows very little, depending on wild claims lacking foundations both historically and logically. His essay is a remarkable example of how a (very) little learning, combined with a strong ideological agenda, leads to confusion and bad analysis.
Sometimes The American Conservative has important articles. This is not one of them.