Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review of Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches

Jewish date:  22 Siwan 5772 (Parashath Shelaḥ).

Today’s holidays:  Tuesday of the Tenth Week of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Sparky/St. Gerard Hoffnung (Church of the SubGenius).


I have begun work on reading (and listening to) books on Neopaganism, which like LaVeyan Satanism has a strong magical component.  One of the many issues in which they differ is that LaVeyan Satanism is the product of a single man and continued by people who largely agree with him philosophically.  As such, in my LaVeyan Satanism review, I could have easily ignored everything not written by Anton Szandor LaVey and still have arrived at the same conclusions.  Neopaganism, on the other hand, is the product of and has been shaped by many people.  It has no canon, and Neopagans vary wildly in theology, morality, and practice.  Thus what is true about one Neopagan or Neopagan group may not be true about another Neopagan person or group.  Furthermore, the Neopagan literature, even that in my personal library, is more extensive than that of LaVeyan Satanism.  As such, I have decided that rather than write a single, overarching Neopaganism review, which at best would be months in the future, I will instead write a number of smaller reviews.

The work I am starting with is Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches by Charles Leland, published in 1899, which seems to be one of the first, if not the first, book of importance which influenced Neopaganism.  Now, everyone knows that Europeans used to be mostly pagan, and then Christians came and conquered and converted them over several centuries.  And everyone seems to agree that traces of paganism remained among Europeans afterwards and arguably still do until today.  (Where do you think such things as Christmas trees and Easter eggs come from?)  The question is how long people practiced overt paganism (with worship of the pagan gods rather than sneaking things into Christianity) in Europe.  Much of Aradia is a translation of a purported religious text from Italy, provided to Leland from a woman working under the pseudonym of “Maddalena”, telling of the survival of a polytheistic religion well into Christian times.  In the first part of Aradia, the creator Diana and Lucifer (also known as Dianus) are the high gods, and due to the suffering of the people due to the Catholic hierarchy, they send their daughter Aradia as a messianic figure.  Aradia goes about teaching witchcraft as a religion, decreeing that people should perform rites in the nude and make merry.  (There is also a fourth god, Cain, but he does not seem to do much of anything in this story).  The second part of the book consists of magic spells.  The third part is a number of witch-related folktales which are not part of Aradia’s gospel, but which Leland tacked on, as he thought they were somehow relevant.

Is Aradia a genuine religious text?  Probably not.  There is a blatant mixing of religious systems, Greco-Roman paganism (Diana) with the Abrahamic religions (Lucifer and Cain), with the result being credible in neither.  (E.g., Cain (= Qayin) is not supposed to be anything resembling a god at all.)  Now, some people are not rational about their religion, so a bungled mixing is possible.  But Leland does not give any evidence that anyone ever believed in or practiced the Aradian religion.  Religions actually practiced leave behind more than just texts.  There are no eyewitness accounts of the practice of any Aradian ceremonies (at least before the founding of Wicca).  There are no claims made by anyone of being an Aradian.  There are no Aradian artifacts left behind.  What we do have is a story which reads like it was written by someone who did not like Christianity and wanted to get naked and party.

Does anyone actually believe in this text?  So far I have not discovered any sign that anyone believes that the story in Aradia actually happened, at least the way it was written.

So what is the significance of AradiaAradia suggests the idea of a witchcraft-based religion, which is taken over into Neopaganism.  Secondly, a number of ideas are borrowed by various Neopagans, such as ritual nudity, liturgical texts, merrymaking, female empowerment, a disdain for Christianity, borrowing elements from other religions, and polytheism, especially a theology dominated by a god and a goddess.  Expect these things to recur in further reviews in this series.