Monday, June 6, 2011

Undervaluing Non-Harming: On Brendan Myers on the Wiccan Rede

Hey boys and girls, it's that time of year again! That's right, it's Pagan Values Blogging Month!!

So, what should we discuss? I've got a suggestion: lets discuss noted Pagan philosopher and author Brendan Myers' criticisms of the Wiccan Rede.

Myers' critique is based on his contention that the ethical stance of the Wiccan Rede amounts to what he calls "utilitarianism". In my opinion, Myers is wrong both about what the Wiccan Rede actually means, and about the nature of genuine Utilitarianism.

In a follow-up post to come soon I'll say more about the true philosophical import of "an it harm none", but for now here is Myers in his own words from a discussion he initiated in March of 2010 at MysticWicks on "Alternatives to the Wiccan Rede" (March 4, 2010) (scroll down for more links):
As some of you may know, I'm not a big fan of the Wiccan Rede. I see it as too utilitarian: this is a problem because some questions of right and wrong have nothing to do with benefit and harm. I also see it as too 'negative': it tells us what we should not do, but does not offer positive alternatives. It's an ethic of freedom, which is obviously a good thing, but the Rede doesn't teach anything about what our freedom is for.

My own preferred alternative is a system of heroic honour and classical civic virtue. But this is perhaps not the only alternative.

Anyone else out there find themselves unsatisfied with the Wiccan Rede? What alternatives do you prefer?

Last edited by BrendanMyers; March 4th, 2010 at 09:38 PM.
Other relevant links (writings on ethics by Brendan Myers available online):

Other (more or less) related posts on Pagan Ethics (with a special emphasis on Socratic ethics) from this blog:

A Question for Ronald Hutton

"You know what happens at our meetings? There is the little religious ceremony, the greeting of the Old Gods, then any business which has to be talked over, or perhaps someone wants to do a rite for some purpose; next there is a little feast and a dance; then you have to hurry for the last bus home!"
[Gerald Gardner, The Meaning of Witchcraft, Chapter 1, "The Witch Cult in Britain"]

Here is the first paragraph of the new article by Ronald Hutton on Writing the History of Witchcraft: A Personal View:

Many religions have foundations myths or legends. Wicca, the most influential and numerous variety of Paganism in the late twentieth century, is unusual in that its foundation claim was bound up indissolubly with historical research. As most or all readers of The Pomegranate will know well, it was revealed to the public by Gerald Gardner, between 1951 and 1954, most notably by his book, Witchcraft Today. He claimed specifically that the Pagan witch religion into which he had been initiated was essentially the same as that which most scholars of the time believed had been practised by the victims of the European witch trials of the early modern period.

I have a simple question for Ronald Hutton: Where does Gerald Gardner say what you say he said?

Put another way: Professor Hutton, please tell us exactly what sources you rely upon for your specific historical claim that the "foundation claim" of Wicca is "bound up indissolubly with historical research."

The fact is that if one actually bothers to read Witchcraft Today (and while we're at it, lets throw in The Meaning of Witchcraft) and one seeks out those places where Gardner specifically discusses the historical influences on Wicca, you will find all of the following:

1. Gardner explicitly states that he does not know the relationship between Wicca and "what the Druids believed and taught":
"If we only knew really what the Druids believed and taught, whether there was only one form of belief and whether they had various sects among them, it would be easier to say whether there was any connection or not with witchcraft. The latter may have been purely orthodox, thought of as extremely high or ultra low in type, the fanciful religion of a lot of women, a vile heresy, or simply the religion of the natives that no decent person might have anything to do with. It is quite possible that it was several of these things at different times and in different parts of the country."
[Witchcraft Today, from Chapter 2, "There have been Witches in all Ages"]
2. Gardner explicitly states that the members of the Wiccan religion do not claim to "know the origin of their cult.":
"The witches do not know the origin of their cult. My own theory is, as I said before, that it is a Stone Age cult of the matriarchal times, when woman was the chief; at a later time man's god became dominant, but the woman's cult, because of the magical secrets, continued as a distinct order. The chief priest of the man's god would at times come to their meetings and take the chief place; when he was absent, the chief priestess was his deputy."
[Witchcraft Today, Chapter 3, "Witch Beliefs"]
3. Gardner concedes that at one time he had thought of Wicca as "directly descended from the Northern European culture of the Stone Age, uninfluenced by anything else." But then Gardner explicitly rejects that idea:
"I fancy that certain practices, such as the use of the circle to keep the power in, were local inventions, derived from the use of the Druid or pre-Druid circle. At one time I believed the whole cult was directly descended from the Northern European culture of the Stone Age, uninfluenced by anything else; but I now think that it was influenced by the Greek and Roman mysteries which originally may have come from Egypt. But while it is fascinating to consider the cult existing in direct descent from ancient Egypt, we must take into account the other possibilities.
[Witchcraft Today, Chapter 4, "Witch Practices"]
4. Gardner speculates that among those who had "brought some new ideas into the cult" could be numbered Byzantine scholars, Rosicrucians, and Freemasons. Before that, Wicca had also been significantly influenced by Greco-Roman mystery religions. After ticking off all of these possible influences on Wicca, Gardner states nonchalantly: "but this is all guesswork on my part."
"In ancient times probably many magicians, amongst the scholars and learned men, before and during the fall of Byzantium, came West and many may have made contact with the cult; also men who read forbidden books would be apt to come to the only places where they could meet people with free minds, the houses of the witches. Later Rosicrucians and Freemasons might have attended. They might not have known that their hosts were witches in all cases, though they would have known there were places where they might discuss things reasonably without fear of being tortured and burnt.

"There are resemblances to Freemasonry in certain parts of the rites which I think cannot be due to chance, so I think the one influenced the other. And it is probable that all these people may have brought some new ideas into the cult; but I think the only great changes were made in Roman times when contact was made with the mysteries, although this is all guesswork on my part. I can only judge on the evidence I can find.
[Witchcraft Today, Chapter 10, "What Are Witches?"]
5. After Witchcraft Today, Gardner came out with The Meaning of Witchcraft, first published in 1959, in which he relays one of the very first descriptions of the doings of the Witch Cult that he had been given, first hand, once he had "got 'inside'":
"You know what happens at our meetings? There is the little religious ceremony, the greeting of the Old Gods, then any business which has to be talked over, or perhaps someone wants to do a rite for some purpose; next there is a little feast and a dance; then you have to hurry for the last bus home!"
[The Meaning of Witchcraft, Chapter 1, "The Witch Cult in Britain"]
6. In Chapter XIII of The Meaning of Witchcraft, Gardner states that he is only interested in the "kinds of paganism ... 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". See page 170 of the 2004 Weiser edition.

7. Continuing on from the above, Gardner (on page 171) focuses in on those mysterious "Mystery Cults" and asks, "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 .... "
8. The closest thing to a "specific historical claim" that Gardner ever makes about the roots of Wicca is precisely this theme of "the Mystery Cults of the ancient world." In fact, a few pages later, Gardner says this about Sallustius' On the nature of the Gods and the Cosmos:
"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."
[p. 174]
Anyone (genuinely) interested in looking for the (actual) roots of Gerald Gardner's Wicca (or at least knowing what Gardner actually says about those roots), would be well advised to think long and hard on these eight points.

Interested readers are strongly encouraged to directly consult the primary sources:
Witchcraft Today
The Meaning of Witchcraft