The Really Old Religion

Also known as the “We were here first” theoryEarly books (and some modern ones) refer to Wicca as the Old Religion, a religion that survived in secret in Europe through the Christian period. Frequently, the age of that “Old Religion” is stretched to astronomical proportions.

The late Dr. Margaret Murray traced back and saw Witchcraft’s origins in Palaeolithic [sic] times: 25,000 years ago. She saw it as a more or less unbroken line through the present, and as a fully organized religion throughout western Europe for centuries before Christianity.

Unfortunately, the late Dr. Margaret Murray also didn’t know what she was talking about. While her theories were once respected, they were completely dismissed decades ago based, among other things, on her complete lack of supporting evidence.

Hinduism and Judaism are among the world’s oldest religions, and their age can only be measured in a handful of millennia. No religion comes close to being 25,000 years old, for a variety of reasons:

  1. To our knowledge, no culture has survived anything close to 25,000 years. As cultures merge with each other, religion merges with them, and when cultures are overrun or die out, their religion generally follows suit.
  2. Most of that time period existed before the advent of writing. The written word is incredibly valuable in preserving a religious tradition.
  3. Even if a tradition did persevere for tens of thousands of years without the help of writing, we would have no way of knowing about it. Artwork and artifacts can give us glimpses of possible beliefs, but even those are frequently categorized as “possibilities,” not facts.
  4. Needs change. There were no cities 25,000 years ago. There was no agriculture. People hunted and gathered in small groups, because small groups were all that could be supported by their lifestyle. As culture evolved, so, presumably, would beliefs. Hunting gods might lose attention as people turned to agricultural gods, for example. The needs and wants of a city are very different from those of a nomadic tribe.

Furthermore, since the advent of writing, there has never been a single religion uniformly practiced across western Europe before Christianity. That is a fact. Each of the cultures dotting that continent possessed their own pantheons, their own stories, their own creation myths and afterlifes. Pick up any book on European mythologies or pre-Christian religions and see for yourself. There are some similarities, the result of occasional interactions between the cultures, but each religion and mythology is its own independent entity. For that matter, you can find similarities between those religions and Christianity too. That does not mean that they are all the same, nor that they all originate from a single common religion for which there is no evidence for.

Moreover, the idea that Wiccans are following ANY pre-Christian religion is in error. Many of us worship old deities, and some of us try to incorporate the flavor of the old rites, but the simple fact is our knowledge of those rites varies from incomplete to extremely sketchy, depending upon the pantheon in question. Even Gerald Gardner acknowledged:

the rituals he received from Old Dorothy’s coven were very fragmentary, and in order to make them workable, he had to supplement them with other material.

That supplemental material came mostly from ceremonial magic sources: The Order of the Golden Dawn, Thelema, Freemasonry, and other occult entities of the 19th and early 20th century. But even the age of those “fragments” is hardly ancient. There just isn’t any evidence suggesting the survival of an Old Religion through the Middle Ages. Yes, aspects of the pagan beliefs remained in altered forms – gods became fairies, spirits and saints, for example – but that is not to say the religion itself survived. Yes, people continued to believe in and even practice magic, but the practice of magic does not require the existence of a pagan religion. Indeed, there are records of nuns creating magical amulets invoking Jesus and Mary.

It’s like saying anyone who celebrates Christmas (exchanging gifts, getting together with family) must be a Christian. There are millions of people who celebrate the holiday every year without holding religious significance to it. Just because some aspects of a religion survive, does not mean the religion has survived.

These facts do not make our beliefs invalid. They simply make them not ancient.