Monthly Archives: September 2016

Fraud, and why it matters

What is a fraud?

In the context of witchcraft, it is someone who deliberately and knowingly seeks to deceive others about the origins and nature of their tradition, or claims that they were initiated by a genuine practitioner of a tradition, but they weren’t. In other words, they lie about their origins to make themselves seem more authentic.

Examples include claims that a tradition calling itself Wicca, or possessing a Gardnerian book of shadows, is older than Gardner, or used the word Wicca before Gardner; these should be treated with extreme caution. (There are witchcraft traditions that are pre-Gardner, but they mostly don’t call themselves Wicca.) Claims that a tradition has an unbroken initiatory lineage back to ancient pagan times are also fraudulent. Claims to an unbroken initiatory lineage stretching back any earlier than 1900 should also be treated with extreme caution.

Why does this matter?

If you are going to trust someone enough to engage in transformative and powerful ritual with them, you want to be able to take them at their word. You want to be sure that they know what they are doing, that they have been taught a tried and trusted set of techniques, and that you are not going to be asked to do something that is massively outside your comfort zone.

If someone lies about something as simple as where they got their initiation from, or the origins of their tradition, how can you trust their word about anything else?

It has been observed that fraudulent claims about origins, and fraudulent claims of initiation, are often accompanied by abusive behaviour. I don’t think an implausible origin story should automatically be seen as a sign of potential abuse, unless it is accompanied by other warning signs of abusive behaviour.

It is advisable to seek external confirmation that someone’s story (either about their initiation, or about the origins of their tradition) is true. Get a vouch from other Wiccans.

In a previous article, I mentioned that the Frosts were never part of Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca. Indeed, they never claimed to be. However, Gavin Frost did claim to have invented the word Wicca before Gardner did, and the Frosts claimed to be running “the oldest Wiccan school in the universe” (if you don’t believe me, look at their blog, it is right there in the header).

What is not fraudulent?

Any tradition or group that does not lie about its origins is not fraudulent.

A tradition that cannot trace its initiatory lineage to Gardner or Sanders, but doesn’t claim to, is not fraudulent. There are many Wiccan and witchcraft traditions, particularly in North America, that do not claim lineage back to Gardner or Sanders, but do call themselves Wicca. That is definitely not fraudulent. Wicca is a useful term for ‘softening’ the word witchcraft in areas where fundamentalism is rife. It is not fraudulent to call yourself a Wiccan if you don’t have a Gardnerian or Alexandrian lineage – as long as you don’t lie about your origins, lineage, or initiations.

Some Gardnerians and Alexandrians object to anything outside their traditions being known as Wicca. That is a different argument, and should not be confused with fraudulent origin stories.

A person who has been lied to by their initiators, but believed the story, and repeats in in good faith, believing it to be true, is not fraudulent. A bit gullible perhaps, but not deliberately lying about their origins.

A tradition that possesses a Gardnerian book of shadows, and thereby believes itself to be Gardnerian, but doesn’t have a lineage back to Gardner, and doesn’t claim to – not fraudulent; not actually Gardnerian by the standard definition of the term Gardnerian, either; but not actually fraudulent, because it is not lying about its origins.

Witchcraft traditions that are not fraudulent include (but are not limited to) Reclaiming witchcraft, Feri witchcraft, Bread and Roses, 1734 witchcraft, Clan of Tubal Cain witchcraft, Central Valley Wicca, Georgian Wicca, Wiccan Church of Canada, Blue Star Wicca, Mohsian Wicca, Kingstone Wicca, Algard Wicca, to cite some well-known examples. None of these traditions claim to be much older than Gardnerian Wicca; they have clearly traceable origin stories, and don’t claim a lineage that doesn’t exist.

There are clearly some traditions of folk witchcraft that do pre-date Gerald Gardner, but not by more than fifty years, as far as I am aware. Claims of origins back in the mists of time should be treated with extreme caution.

Some groups are not entirely sure of their early history. In these cases, an honest answer to a question about origins would be, “We don’t really know for certain, but to the best of our knowledge and belief, what happened was this…” If new evidence comes to light which refutes the origin story, the members of the tradition accept the new historical information. For example, if contemporary Alexandrians and Gardnerians discover that Sanders or Gardner made something up, we admit it, and don’t seek to cover it up.

Once Ronald Hutton had traced the historical origins of Wicca (in The Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern Pagan witchcraft), the vast majority of Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans accepted the new information and stopped claiming older origins for Wicca. Subsequent research by Philip Heselton has shown that Gardner’s story that he was initiated into an existing coven was true (and they sincerely believed themselves to be reincarnations of nineteenth century witches). I believe that Gardner sincerely believed he had stumbled upon something really old, whose fragmentary nature he sought to supplement based on his reading of Margaret Murray’s work and The Key of Solomon.

Conclusion

A fraud is someone who deliberately and knowingly seeks to deceive others. If you can’t trust their word, it would be inadvisable to trust them about anything else.

“Good” people do bad things: statement on the Frosts

There is absolutely no excuse, ever, for advocating the molestation of children.

Therefore, there is no excuse for the publication of chapter 4 of the book by Gavin and Yvonne Frost which claimed to be about Wicca, which (until it was modified in 2007) advocated for the sexual molestation of minors. If they had repudiated the chapter and apologised for its inclusion and tried to do something to make reparation for its consequences, perhaps there might be a reason to rehabilitate them, cautiously.

Even in the 1970s, when some people were apparently rather confused about the boundaries of what consent was, the majority view was that sex between children and adults was always wrong. I am informed by people who were in the Pagan scene at the time that the issue was discussed in the pages of Green Egg and other zines, and plenty of people stated that it was unethical.

But the Frosts never did apologise or repudiate it or seek to make reparation for it. (They did say that it didn’t apply to people under 18, but what they advocated is abusive even if it involves people over 18, and it was 40 years before they even did that, despite numerous people in the Pagan community strongly rejecting what they wrote.) So there is no reason to pretend it didn’t happen, or try to claim that they did good things other than that. They may very well have done – people can do both good and bad things – but unless and until they apologised for the publication of such an unethical ritual, it should neither be forgiven nor forgotten.

Many people have been put off of Wicca by reading that book, as they assumed it spoke for all of Wicca.

The Frosts were never part of either Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca, and their organisation is not recognised by any legitimate Gardnerian or Alexandrian, nor by most other witches and Wiccans.

Legitimate Wiccans do not and never have engaged in sexual activities with minors, and consider such actions extremely unethical.

The Frosts also advocated sexual initiations at every initiation. Legitimate Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans do not include sexual intercourse as part of the first or second degree initiations, and it is optional at third degree and may be replaced with a symbolic ritual act.

In my personal opinion, sexual intercourse should not form part of the third degree unless it has been discussed a long time beforehand, and enthusiastic and informed consent (which can be withdrawn at any time) has been established.

We also need to realise that “good people” and “nice people” do bad things. Being “nice” doesn’t make someone immune from being an abuser, or a racist, or a transphobe, or a homophobe, or an exploiter of slave labour in the third world. Far too often, people deny that someone can have engaged in abusive behaviour, because they are “nice”. But you only have to look at public figures who have been revealed to be serial abusers to realise that they too were previously considered “nice”.

I am very disappointed that several self-styled “elders” of the Pagan community have continued to defend the Frosts and try to excuse or diminish what they did. I am sure it is true that they also did good things – very few people are all bad – but that does not mean we can or should sweep this under the carpet.

This is why we need the Pagan and Heathen Symposium Code of Conduct for all events. This is why we need to discuss consent culture and strive to create it in our Pagan communities. This is why “big name Pagans” need to speak out and condemn those who advocate for or commit abuse, and refuse to invite them to events, or attend events where they will be speaking. We also need to stop seeing things as a binary (the idea that people are iether all good or all bad is extremely dangerous and makes getting away with abuse easier), and help to create a culture where people can retract a statement that they made which they might regret. We all make mistakes – but if someone calls you out on a mistake, the correct response is to acknowledge it and try to make reparation, not to double down on it and continue to advocate for abusive practices.

Some people may ask why I am mentioning this now. I honestly thought until now that people realised that proper Wicca does not involve these practices. It seems that some people thought that the Frosts spoke for all of Wicca when they advocated compulsory sexual initiations or the practice of deflowering virgins with a dildo. They absolutely do not, and if you come across a coven advocating such practices, run a mile.

Yvonne Aburrow

Further reading