The Rosicrucian Roots of Modern Witchcraft Cults
For the past forty or so years the fastest growing religious movement in the Western World has been Wicca, or Witchcraft. Recent census results in Australia had almost 9000 people declaring themselves to be Pagans or Witches with evidence indicating that there are many more that, for one reason or another, chose not to declare their beliefs in the census yet who actively practice some sort of witchcraft. In other parts of the Western World the figures indicate the same thing and Wicca must now be considered as one of the major religions of the world with hundreds of thousands of adherents, Yet even as short a time as sixty years ago witchcraft as a religion was unknown, the name Wicca had yet to be coined, and pagans were the ancient Romans with their pantheon of gods and goddesses. Where then did Wicca and Neo-Paganism come from? What are the origins of this major modern spiritual movement?
To examine the roots of Wicca we must go back to the occult revival at the end of the 19th Century. The origins of this surge of interest in occultism were in the Freemasons and so ultimately derive from Rosicrucianism which heavily influenced it from its beginnings. In 1867 Robert Wentworth Little found some documents in the Freemasons Hall in London that purportedly gave instructions for the structure of a Hermetic Rosicrucian initiatory order. Together with Kenneth MacKenzie he founded the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia and broke away from the Freemasons thus beginning a new line of orders and fraternities that have endured to this day. At this same time William Robert Woodman was admitted to the SRIA as a 7º=4Δ Exempt Adept and soon afterwards Wynn Westcott introduced the study of Qabalah to the curriculum of the order. By 1888 it would seem that the SRIA needed new material as Woodman fortuitously found the famous Cipher Manuscripts with which he, along with Westcott and Samuel Lidell MacGregor-Mathers, used to found the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In 1891 Woodman died and Westcott took over the SRIA with MacGregor –Mathers in charge of the Isis-Urania Temple of the Golden Dawn.
With these developments the foundation of modern occultism was in place. The Golden Dawn was perhaps the most famous occult society in history and numbered a parade of luminaries amongst its members. Most important of these to the development of occultism was certainly Aleister Crowley who in 1904 received the Book of the Law as dictation from a “praeter-human” intelligence named Aiwass. This event inspired Crowley to develop his school of magick and to publish its papers in a periodical volume called The Equinox. The Equinox has, since its first publication, become the standard reference work of modern occultism and from its pages the founder of modern witchcraft, Gerald B. Gardner began to collect material with which he hoped to create a Neo-Pagan working group in England just before the Second World War. Gardner, like many of his generation, was much impressed by the works of Margret Murray that have since been much maligned for their accuracy and scholarship, but they inspired him to compose a book of ritual practices and to organize a group of witches. Gardner’s first “Book of Shadows” was compiled from the working ceremonies of a proto-pagan group that Gardner was involved with outside of London, Gardner’s own poems and with material gleaned from Crowley’s writings in the Equinox.
The final component for the founding of modern witchcraft came in 1946 when Gardner was introduced to Crowley by Arnold Crowther at the Beast’s final residence at Netherwoods in Hastings. The pair only met on a few occasions but Crowley had long been interested in establishing a new “nature religion” and he seemed genuinely enthusiastic about Gardner, giving, or selling, him a charter to establish an OTO Lodge in England at their first meeting. It was after this that Gardner composed his first “Book of Shadows” which is now in the possession of Allen Greenfield, past head of the OTO in the US. According to his essay A True History of Witchcraft this handwritten manuscript, in the hand of Gardner (and not Crowley as many have claimed) is composed of a collection of Gardner’s poems, traditional magickal ceremonies well known from old grimiors, and Crowley’s writings, most notably quotes from the Book of the Law. Gardner’s Book of Shadows went through two more major revisions, mostly to replace Crowley’s work after Gardner’s coven was connected with the Wickedest Man in the World in the press following Crowley’s death in 1947. Throughout the 50s Gardner’s witch cult continued to grow and develop until, sometime around 1963, another sect of witches emerged after Alex Saunders, with copies of Gardner’s original Book of Shadows (the edition with the greatest amount of Crowley’s material still included) established his own sect of witches and the cult was split into Gardnerian and Alexandrian witches.
Due in a large part to the 60s counter culture movement, modern witchcraft was exported from England where it had originated, to every part of the globe, most especially to the USA and Australia where the new cult quickly gained a following. In America Gardner/Saunders’ cult evolved at a rapid rate, developing much of the language of Wicca that is used today, including the name of the cult itself. Since the 70s Wicca has become a well known, popularized, spiritual practice that has generally maintained its traditions that were established by its founders. Along with Θελημα, Wicca remains the only religion to have been started in England, long held to be the Land of Magic. A recent period of popularization of Wicca, with several celebrity witches gaining a sizeable public profile, and the introduction of witchcraft and Wicca into mainstream fictional TV dramas has seen a broadening of the cult with an attendant departure from tradition and discipline, yet the two main schools of Wicca continue to thrive and evolve, attracting more adherents every year.
The old accounts that have been given of the origins of the Golden Dawn and of Wicca were most certainly tainted by a perceived need to connect the new movement to well established historical sources in an effort to acquire credibility amongst their potential followers. Woodman’s tale of finding the Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscripts in a bookstore in London and the subsequent correspondence with Frau Sprengle seems at this distance to be mostly fabrication. Similarly, when Gardner first established his witch cult he went to great pains to make a connection to an older tradition of witches. There is no evidence that there were any active, organized covens of witches prior to Gardner, perhaps there were some others sharing his interest in pagan rites experimenting with witchcraft, but to all intents the tradition of Wicca begins with Gardner himself.
Once having gotten past this need to invoke a traditional connection for our modern occult sects it becomes obvious that the genuine roots of both Θελημα and Wicca lie in Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry. Crowley was well aware of this fact and was an active Mason, seeing the Hermetic Schools as an evolution of their lodge system. Freemasonry, in turn, derives from Rosicrucianism and so it was that when Little and MacKenzie wanted to form a new Masonic Order they derived their material from Rosicrucian sources, again calling on a long established tradition to give their new movement credibility. This is the genuine lineage of Θελημα and Wicca; they are both parallel developments of Rosicrucianism. This makes both of them a continuation of a previous spiritual practice rather than a new movement, an evolution not a genesis of religious thought. It confers a long traditional history onto both practices as Rosicrucianism can be traced back to the 12th Century in basically its modern form.