According to Gerald Gardner, ancient Paganism managed to survive in Europe, despite all attempts by the Christians to extirpate it, in the form of the so-called witch cult, a term he takes over from Margaret Murray. It was this witch cult, in Gardner's view, that served as the primary matrix from which Wicca was born.
In Chapter XIII of The Meaning of Witchcraft, Gardner states (on page 170 of the 2004 Weiser edition), regarding ancient forms of Paganism and their relevance to Wicca, that "the only kinds of paganism with which we are concerned here are those which may have had some influence on the witch cult." Gardner then names three such sources of influence in particular: (1) "Druidism, the religion of the Celts", (2) "the religion of the Great Mother Goddess or the old Hunting God", and (3) "the Mystery Cults of the ancient world".
Having cited the Mystery Religions as an important part of Wicca's connection with the ancient Pagan past, Gardner then poses the question, "have we any way of ascertaining what the Mysteries taught?" To which he immediately provides the answer:
"Fortunately, we have. In the fourth century A.D., when paganism was engaged in a fierce struggle with the new creed of Christianity, Sallustius, who was a close personal friend of the Emperor Julian (called the Apostate because he tried to restore the old religion), wrote a treatise called Peri Theon kai Kosmou, About the Gods and the World. It is probable that this treatise was a kind of manifesto of the highest type of paganism prevailing at that time, and it is evident that its author was an initiate of the Mysteries."At this point, Gardner launches into an extended commentary on the contents of Sallustius' "Pagan Manifesto", with lengthy quotations from several sections of that work. (Gardner uses the English translation of classicist Gilbert Murray, the full text or which is available online in several places, such as: diipetes.tripod.com, hermetic.com, and goddess-athena.org. The translation was originally published in Murray's Five Stages of Greek Religion.) At the end of this, having given a fairly detailed summation of selected aspects of Sallustian Paganism, Gardner then states:
"Now the thing that will, I think, strike most the consciousness of the reader who is well versed in the teaching of the higher type of spiritualist and occult circles generally is not the antiquity of this teaching of Sallustius, but its startling modernity. It might have been spoken yesterday. Further, it might have been spoken at a witch meeting, at any time, as a general statement of their creed .... [T]he spirit of his teaching, the spirit of the Mysteries of his day, which is also the spirit of the beliefs of the witch cult, is timeless."Anyone (genuinely) interested in looking for the (actual) roots of Gerald Gardner's Wicca would be well advised to think long and hard on what he has written here.
In coming installments in this series on Modern Paganism and the Ancient Mysteries, I will look in far greater detail at Sallustius' Peri Theon Kai Kosmou, as well as other sources cited by Gardner, in order to explore the relationship between ancient and modern Paganism.
[The rather astonishing photo of Gerald Gardner at the top of this post was found at Fearlono's rather astonishing blog: The Cottage of Electric Hell.]
Modern Paganism and the Ancient Mysteries: