Jason Mankey and I are both amateur Pagan history nerds. One thing we often disagree about is the importance of Gerald Gardner in the history of contemporary Paganism. In a recent post entitled, “Magick & Deity are Two of the Foundations of Modern Paganism“, Jason Mankey argues that “almost all early Modern Paganisms contained two rather noticeable traits: belief in magick and/or deity.” I would agree, with this caveat: that the term “deity” is undefined. If you’re going to claim that a belief in deity is one of the foundations of modern Paganism, then it’s important to be clear what you mean by “deity”.
In this article, I’m going to address the first of Jason’s two examples: Gerald Gardner. It seems appropriate to start with Gardner, since Jason (who is a Wiccan) believes that contemporary Paganism started with Gardner. (I date it to the formation of three early Neo-Pagan groups in the U.S. 1967.) Jason quotes from Gardner’s 1954 book, Witchcraft Today, to show that belief in deities was foundational to modern Paganism. In the quote, Gardner describes the “drawing down” ceremony in which the witch experiences “communion” with the god or goddess. Of particular interest is this passage:
“It is no use saying: ‘This is only suggestion, or the subconscious mind.’ They reply: ‘We quite agree; suggestion or the subconscious mind are simply some of the tools which we use to help to open the Door. …”
Jason interprets this as a dismissal of psychological interpretations of deity. But it’s clear from this quote that Gardner was at least familiar with such interpretations.
The other thing to note about the quote above is that Gardner isn’t describing his own beliefs, but rather the beliefs of his subjects, British witches. Much of Witchcraft Today purports to be an anthropological account of witchcraft survivals and contains many statements about what modern witches do and believe. No doubt, much of it is Gardner’s own gloss or even made up by Gardner whole cloth. Nevertheless, if we want to know what Gardner himself believed, we need to look beyond what he says about the beliefs of the witches and to what he says about his own beliefs. So let’s turn to Gardner’s The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959):
“I have already told of the belief of the Wica in the Ancient Gods of these islands. This is not mere superstition or a figure of speech. Initiates will understand me when I say that the Gods are real, not as persons, but as vehicles of power. Much food for thought upon this point will be found in such books as The Mystical Qabalah, by Dion Fortune, and The Art of Creation, by Edward Carpenter; by those who care to seek. Briefly, it may be explained that the personification of a particular type of cosmic power in the form of a God or Goddess, carried out by believers and worshippers over many centuries, builds that God-form or Magical Image into a potent reality on the Inner Planes, and makes it a means by which that type of cosmic power may be contacted. Nor is the worshippers’ belief vain: for though they may themselves have built the Magical Image, the Power which ensouls it is real and objective, if the building has been done in the right way.”
What Gardner is saying here is that there is an (singular) impersonal cosmic force that is transformed into particular god forms or god images through the belief and worship of human beings. The cosmic force is real, but the myriad divine images which we are familiar with are human constructions. Where did Gardner get such a strange idea? Well, we just need to read on to find out.
After the quote above, Gardner he proceeds to explain that, in addition to witches (“the Wica”), there are other occult groups which seek to contact the gods. These “generally work with the Egyptian and Greek Gods and Goddesses”, in contrast to the witches who worship what Gardner claimed were the god and goddess of the British Isles. The other occult groups that Gardner is here referring to here undoubtedly includes the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Gardner was not a Golden Dawn initiate, but he would have been very familiar with their rites. Indeed, in Witchcraft Today, Gardner coyly acknowledges that “The people who certainly would have had the knowledge and ability to invent [the Wiccan rituals] were the people who formed the Order of the Golden Dawn”.
Two decades earlier, in 1937, the secret ceremonies of the Golden Dawn had been published by Israel Regardie. The following year, Regardie had published The Middle Pillar, which was subtitled, “a co-relation of the principles of analytical psychology and the elementary techniques of magic.” Regardie cites Jung in the book and discusses Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious. For Regardie, God and the collective unconscious were interchangeable terms, depending only on the religious or metaphysical system one chooses. As Regardie explains, the collective unconscious includes archetypes, which are psychic forms that have been molded by repeated ancestral experiences. The archetypes, according to Regardie, take the form of gods and angels in magical practice.
Gardner would have been familiar with these ideas, and they likely inspired Gardner’s understanding of deity, which is reflected in his quote above. But if we really want to understand what Gardner meant when he said “the Gods are real, not as persons, but as vehicles of power,” we need look no further than the two books he explicitly cites: The Mystical Qabalah, by Dion Fortune, and The Art of Creation, by Edward Carpenter.
Dion Fortune (a.k.a. Violet Firth) was also an occultist who belonged to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Her influence on contemporary Paganism has been documented by Ronald Hutton in Triumph of the Moon (1999).
Fortune studied psychology and actually practiced as a psychoanalyst for a time. In the course of her studies, she was influenced by the writings of Freud and Jung, both of whom she writes about in her first publication in 1922, Machinery of the Mind. Fortune frequently uses the term “archetype” in her esoteric writings, and Jung is cited in both her nonfiction and her fiction. She is credited by Chas Clifton with being the first occult author to approach magic from a Jungian perspective. Fortune believed that a “sound knowledge of the psychology of the subconscious mind” was necessary for the safe practice of occultism. She also believed that in ritual magic there might be found “an invaluable therapeutic agent for use in certain forms of mental disease.”
Fortune’s first major esoteric work, The Mystical Qabalah, was published in 1935. It’s to this book that Gardner refers to explain his understanding of the Gods in the quote above. Fortune interpreted esoteric practices as techniques of auto-suggestion for creating altered states of consciousness. She writes, “Viewed as a means of invoking the spirit of God, ceremonial is pure superstitution; but viewed as a means of evoking the spirit of man, it is pure psychology, and that is how I view it.”
The focus of Fortune’s book is a psychological interpretation of the Qabalistic Tree of Life. Like Jung, she believed that the human soul was “many-sided” and the goal of esoteric work was to balance the forces of the subconscious under the dominion of the “Higher Self”. This is accomplished by taking advantage of the “symbolizing power of the subconscious mind”, which draws associations spontaneously between symbols. According to Fortune, the Tree of Life is a microcosmic map of the human mind. She relates the gods and goddesses of the various pantheons to the various positions on the Tree. Meditation on the Tree is then used “to evoke images from the subconscious mind into conscious content” producing an “artificially produced waking dream”, similar to Jung’s practice of “active imagination”.
Like Jung, Fortune taught that the gods are personifications of the forces at work in the subconscious of the individual. In answer to the question whether the gods are real, Fortune wrote that they are neither “real persons as we understand personality” nor illusions; they are rather “emanations of the group-minds of races”* which are powerful because of their influence over the imaginations of their worshipers. Fortune frequently used terms like the “racial mind”, “racial imagination”, and “racial subconscious”*, by which she seemed to mean something like Jung’s “collective unconscious”. She related esoteric work to dream association, except, “in the case of the Qabalah the dreamer is the racial subconscious.”*
According to Ronald Hutton, Carpenter was a socialist, nature mystic, and pioneer of gay liberation. His book, The Art of Creation, is the second book Gerald Gardner cites in support of the proposition that “the Gods are real, not as persons, but as vehicles of power.” Chapter VIII of Carpenter’s book is titled “The Gods as Apparitions of the Race-Life”.* According to Carpenter, the gods are neither generalizations of natural phenomena, nor anthropomorphic superstitions, nor idealizations of heroes. These explanations, days Carpenter, fail to account for the power the goods have over the human mind. Carpenter insists that the gods represent “real forces”, but they “are realities in the sense that they so deeply influence us.” Jung said the same thing.
Carpenter’s thesis is that the gods are the “great formative Ideas of the race* … whose essence is eternal but whose form … is apparitional and dependent in some degree on outer circumstances”. Though the gods vary outwardly, depending on the cultural circumstances, they are “in essence the same in all races and peoples.”
According to Carpenter, we both create the gods and are created by them. He explains that the gods are the result of the “chiselling of thousands of minds through the centuries”, but they also work on the same minds to inspire their worship.
“The actual figures of the Gods, in fact, accepted and adopted by the various races, cannot be said to be realities, but are rather symbols or representations, adapted to the ordinary consciousness, of real powers working in the race* and profoundly moving and inspiring it.”
Carpenter goes one step further than Fortune and roots the gods in the human body. The gods, says Carpenter, lie slumbering within our biology, specifically in our nervous system. He explains that it is not a biological inheritance of ideas, but a biological inheritance of a propensity to respond to certain images in certain ways. This is pure pure Jung. Thus, says Carpenter, “the body is not only a Temple of God, but a collection of temples” because “the gods themselves dwell in the centers and sacred places of the body.”
Was Gerald Gardner a Jungian?
Coming back to Gerald Gardner, we see that for Gerald Gardner, the gods not real persons, but are “vehicles” of a real power. To explain his meaning, he refers the reader to two authors whose concepts of deity were strongly influenced by Carl Jung. And there is other evidence of Jung’s influence on Gardner. Later in The Meaning of Witchcraft, Gardner explains that the origin of the gods of the witches is to be found in the collective unconscious:
“The unseen Powers that have interested man most in his early history have been the powers of fertility and of contact with the spirit world; of Life and Death. These are the elementary powers that became the divinities of the witches, and their worship is as old as civilisation itself. The meaning of witchcraft is to be found, not in strange religious theories about God and Satan, but in the deepest levels of the human mind, the collective unconscious, and in the earliest developments of human society. It is the deepness of the roots that has preserved the tree.”
And then Gardner proceeds to identify the god and goddess of the witches to the Jungian archetypes of the Old Wise Man and the Great Mother:
“Between the idea of the young woman he loved and the old woman he feared, man found a goddess to worship, who loved him and protected him, and at times punished him. Those modern psychologists who belong to the school of C. G. Jung tell us that buried deep in what they call the collective unconscious of humanity are certain primordial concepts which Jung calls “archetypes”. He defines these as “inherited predispositions to reaction”, and as “perhaps comparable to the axial system of a crystal, which predetermines, as it were, the crystalline formation in the saturated solution, without itself possessing a material existence.” We might call them “primordial images”. Jung defines two of the most potent of these archetypes which dwell in the mysterious depths of the unconscious mind of man as “The Great Mother” and “The Old Wise Man”, and judging from the description of them given in his works they are undoubtedly identical with the goddess and god of the witch cult. Dr. Jolan Jacobi, in The Psychology of C. G. Jung, says, “They are well known from the world of the primitives and from mythology in their good and evil, light and dark aspects, being represented as magician, prophet, mage, pilot of the dead, leader, or as goddess of fertility, sybil, priestess, Sophia, etc. From both figures emanates a mighty fascination ….” These are precisely the deities of the witches, and this fact may be a clue to the mystery of the cult’s amazing endurance.”
In short, it’s no exaggeration to say that Gerald Gardner was a Jungian. It’s clear from reading his own words, as well as the words of the sources he cites, that Gardner did not believe in the gods as literal beings. Rather, like the others occultists who were influenced by Jung — Regardie, Fortune, and Carpenter — Gerald Gardner understood that the gods were archetypal images, aspects of a singular cosmic force, images which we both create and are, to an extent, created by.
So, yes, we can say that deity was one of the foundations of contemporary Paganism, but only if deity is defined broadly enough to include Jungian psychological interpretations such as Gardner apparently embraced.
* Note: The use of the term “race” by these authors is disturbing. It’s not clear to what extent the authors were referring to the “human race” or to distinct races among humankind.