Miracles of Our Own Making
A History of Paganism
Distributed for Reaktion Books
Miracles of Our Own Making
A History of Paganism
“An absolute must for anyone interested in the development of paganism in the modern world. I cannot recommend this book enough.”—Janet Farrar, coauthor of A Witches’ Bible
“At last, we have a history of British Paganism written from the inside, by somebody who not only has a good knowledge of the sources, but explicitly understands how Pagans and magicians think.”—Ronald Hutton, author of The Triumph of the Moon and The Witch
What do we mean by “paganism”—druids, witches, and occult rituals? Healing charms and forbidden knowledge? Miracles of Our Own Making is a historical overview of pagan magic in the British Isles, from the ancient peoples of Britain to the rich and cosmopolitan landscape of contemporary paganism. Exploring the beliefs of the druids, Anglo-Saxons, and Vikings, as well as Elizabethan Court alchemy and witch trials, we encounter grimoires, ceremonial magic, and the Romantic revival of arcane deities. The influential and well-known—the Golden Dawn, Wicca, and figures such as Aleister Crowley—are considered alongside the everyday “cunning folk” who formed the magical fabric of previous centuries. Ranging widely across literature, art, science, and beyond, Liz Williams debunks many of the prevailing myths surrounding magical practice, past and present, while offering a rigorously researched and highly accessible account of what it means to be a pagan today.
352 pages | 7 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
History: General History
"Miracles of Our Own Making is, in certain respects, less a history and more an inside job of sorts by a serious practitioner who prefers authenticity to mystical pantomime. As Williams shows, there is no need for the son et lumière of fabrication; the evolution of magic is so compellingly strange and beautiful in its truth that, even in these improbable times, it bewitches without effort."
"[An] engaging and often entertaining history of all strands of paganism and magic, taking in witchcraft, shamanism, Druidry, heathenry, and more. The author is a 'level-headed' journalist, SF author, and practicing witch, who nevertheless has zero tolerance for woo-woo, a fact which makes this particularly accessible."
"Williams brings her own lively curiosity and frame of reference to the work—one of the book's strengths is that it is so inviting. . . . History should engage with readers intelligently, accurately, and respectfully. This is an inventive, authoritative, and lively history of paganism and magic, with a practical twist. It deserves a wide readership."
Marion Gibson | BBC History Magazine
"A witty and clear-sighted account of paganism and magic in Britain over the past two-thousand years. Where evidence is lacking, Williams doesn't speculate. In fact, she sets out to 'debunk some of the prevailing myths.' . . . Altogether this is an informative and entertaining roundup."
"The author writes in an easy, fluid way, avoiding jargon—or explaining it when it is unavoidable, steering well clear of academic complexity for its own sake, and happy to insert a humorous touch where appropriate. . . . For someone with a sympathetic interest in the topic who wants to understand it more fully, I think it would be hard to find a better guide."
Magonia Review of Books
“This is a book that should be on every pagan's bookshelf—highly recommended!”
"The book is engagingly written, and I can see it gaining a wide readership in modern Pagan circles."
Ethan Doyle White | Nova Religio
“At last, we have a history of British Paganism written from the inside, by somebody who not only has a good knowledge of the sources, but explicitly understands how Pagans and magicians think.”
Ronald Hutton, author of "The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft"
"An absolute must for anyone interested in the development of paganism in the modern world. I cannot recommend this book enough."
Janet Farrar, coauthor of "A Witches’ Bible"
"Paganism has a mysterious, complicated history. In Miracles of Our Own Making, Williams cheerfully guides her readers through the mists that too often shroud this fascinating topic. With good sense and sound judgment, our amiable guide takes us on a magical journey from the ancient world to the present day. Along the way, she highlights common pitfalls and evaluates how far contemporary paganism is indeed rooted in historical magical traditions. Although primarily focused on Britain, Miracles of Our Own Making is a wide-ranging book. Topics covered include Viking runes, Anglo-Saxon leechcraft, Tarot cards, Hellfire clubs, Druids, the Golden Dawn, and much more. Throughout, Williams eschews unnecessary controversy and avoids unproductive conflict. Instead, she synthesizes a litany of key primary and secondary sources, and does so with tolerance, kindness, and sympathy. Those drawn towards pagan paths will find Miracles of Our OwnMaking a fine overview of the mysterious and complex history of magic."
Thomas Waters, author of "Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times"
"An informative and well-informed history of paganism, sensibly written with both knowledge and sympathy."
Carolyne Larrington, University of Oxford, author of "The Land of the Green Man"
"In this highly engaging and informative book, Williams shares her wide knowledge of British Paganism in the past and present. From druids to grimoires, and antiquarians to occultists, the book is rich in detail and interesting characters."
Owen Davies, author of "Grimoires" and editor of "The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic"
Table of Contents
1 Ancient Origins
2 Saxon Spells and Viking Victories
3 Medieval Magic
4 Renaissance Rites
5 Georgian Gentlemen
6 Victorian Values
7 The Twentieth Century
A person holding religious beliefs other than those of the main world religions
A member of a modern religious movement which seeks to incorporate beliefs or practices from outside the main world religions, especially nature worship
In this book, however, we are also going to look not only at the history of paganism in the UK, but at the development of magical practice more widely. The dictionary definition of ‘magic’ states that it is
the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces
Many pagans treat their spirituality as a religion, rather than as a method of dealing with the world. Most pagans believe in science. But many also do believe that magic works, although there may not be a direct relationship between cause and effect. It is perceived as being subtler than that, and is often concerned with personal transformation. We will see that, over time, magic has sometimes been intertwined with pagan beliefs, and sometimes it has been separate. But independently or together, paganism and magic have a continuity of history in Britain and beyond, and we are going to examine the linear development of both.
It is a long history. The human desire to control reality is probably as ancient as we ourselves are, and there is evidence that people have been practising magic from very early times. The oldest burial in Britain—the so-called ‘Red Lady’ of Paviland in South Wales (actually a male), dating from 33000 BC—contains grave goods made of mammoth ivory, whose purpose is unclear but which are likely to be of religious significance. Sumerian accounts list magical practices, and we know that the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans practised spells and divination. In Britain and Europe, ‘cunning folk’ worked among their communities from at least the Middle Ages, and some of the practices they upheld are with us today. We will be looking at these ancient roots throughout this book.
But anybody who is interested in contemporary British paganism and magical practice—although over the course of this book we will encounter customs and beliefs from around the world—will soon become aware that there are a great many claims about their origins, ranging from the notion of an unbroken underground tradition dating from the time of the ancient Druids, to assertions that our knowledge comes from lost Atlantis, or a matriarchy of Celtic warrior priestesses, or a wide variety of other sources. Disentangling these claims can be an uphill task, for the stories about the roots of this modern spirituality are interwoven with political, religious, cultural and ideological narratives that may tell us more about the time in which they were written (including the present day) than the ancient pagan world.
So where does contemporary paganism originate? Does it really have ancient origins? Or is it a completely modern invention—the religious equivalent of historical re-enactment? As far as we can tell, there is some truth in both claims. Modern paganism does have a very old ancestry, but its roots are long, spindly tap roots that may go back quite far but which are not easy to trace and—in the UK, at least—do not really allow us to claim an unbroken line of descent from the magical theory of 3,000–4,000 years ago. Traces of Egyptian magic persist into English medieval magic, but they are only traces, not solid practices that have existed in an unmodified form for thousands of years. The current worship of Celtic gods—many of whom weren’t gods in the first place—is largely revivalist, not ancient: much of it goes back to the nineteenth century at the earliest.
Magical practice is clearly ancient. And by the dictionary definition, paganism itself is genuinely very old. However, despite the claims of twentieth- and twenty-first-century practitioners, it is highly unlikely that there are many—or perhaps any—unbroken traditions of pagan worship, certainly in the UK. Although there are people living today who may indeed have had cunning folk among their ancestors, you should be very wary of anyone of British ancestry who claims to come from an unbroken hereditary tradition. Magical practice of varying kinds has a continuity, but the evidence for strong unbroken systems of pagan belief in this country is simply not there.
Modern Wicca, for example, gained momentum in the 1950s, drawing material from esoteric traditions such as Theosophy and Rosicrucianism, and from Freemasonry. Western neopaganism as a whole draws on folklore, on literature and on the work of groups as diverse as the late nineteenth-century occult society of the Golden Dawn and the Woodcraft Folk. Its origins lie in medieval grimoires and the poetry of William Butler Yeats; in the spiritualism of Madame Blavatsky and the Eastern interests of a former tea planter named Gerald Gardner. We will meet many of these people as we progress through this book. We will look at other traditions and their origins, too, trying to unravel the Ariadne’s thread of information and misinformation. Since this is a historical and not a theological work, we shall not be examining in detail the elephant in the room: the question of the veracity of divine or supernatural origins for these beliefs. But that question must nonetheless be kept in mind by the reader.
When we are talking about paganism or magical practice, we need to be cautious about who is making a claim: whether it is in a history book, for example, or in a work of popular fiction, or on the Internet. The last in particular is a minefield, with a multitude of websites and forums generating some extraordinary assertions and drawing on earlier misinformation in order to promote ideological agendas. In this, paganism is in line with pretty much every other religious and political belief system, but this is not much help to the newcomer, who can find the sheer volume of contradictory information bewildering.
Our remit here covers a huge span of time, but we will strive to be as in-depth as possible, and we will also try to address—and debunk—some of the prevailing myths about British paganism and magic, and about their origins. To do so, we will be trying to examine what is fact and what is fiction, as well as where these claims come from and why they were made.
This is obviously a developing process. The history of magic and of paganism has not been a priority of academic researchers until relatively recently, and even now there are large gaps in the study of magical practice in Britain, and corresponding gaps in our knowledge. Claims made outside academia are wider but do not always weather the standards of academic workings and cannot be verified, despite, in some cases, substantial stridency in favour of their truth. And there are quite a few modern theories reliant on earlier works which simply have not stood the test of time.
We need to note, for example, inaccuracies in the work of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century authors who did not have access to the sort of historical evidence that we have today. Historical accuracy is a process, not an event, and an understanding of the workings of history is of great help to anyone looking at the way in which paganism (and indeed anything) has developed.
Many authors have already done a great deal to correct such inaccuracies and deconstruct prevailing myths. Ronald Hutton and Owen Davies, for example, have brought enormous academic rigour to the study of contemporary paganism, and I would recommend their work to anyone wanting further in-depth analysis of its various facets. There are pagans involved in university history departments, in archaeology, in museum work and conservation, and all of these people take a dim view of some of the wilder claims. For instance, we are just about losing the long-held ‘fact’ that nine million witches were slain at the stake during the ‘Burning Times’. This comes from an eighteenth-century misapprehension of how to treat statistics – which Hutton unpacks in his Witches, Druids and King Arthur (2003) – and has been repeated ever since; so often that it was treated as gospel during the 1970s and ’80s and has only relatively recently been discarded. But for every rejected ‘fact’ there are a dozen more: we have a veritable hydra.