This past Friday I was lucky enough to lecture at one of our local bookstores about the History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. It's a talk I've been doing off and on for ten years, and one that has constantly evolved over those ten years. If you had asked me in 2001 if Gerald Gardner had been initiated into a coven I would have said "no," if you ask me now I'll give you an emphatic "yes." While I still don't think Modern Wicca is more than 110 years old, I do think that there could be generally "old" elements within it. The more I research "magic" the more I'm amazed at how resilient and widespread it was (and is).
I think there's a pre-conceived notion that most of us have about magic. People tend to think of it as something rare, and something that needs a religious context to work, both assertions are entirely wrong. Magic can be extremely effective (and popular) without a religious context. Despite what the history books tell you, people practiced magic in Old Europe and the New World with regularity, and not everyone who practiced it was considered a witch or burnt at the stake. Most practitioners allowed magic and Christianity to blend together without any thought that such blending might be "wrong."
The "Grimoire" (or "High Magic") tradition was equally strong. The history of magic books can be traced back 1200 years, and books of magic existed at the height of the "Witch Trials" (though in fairness many were burned back then, but they always managed to stay in print). In the 19th Century books full of magic became best sellers, just like schlock like "The Secret" is a bestseller today. My point is that magic has always been popular and seen as important, but magic is not Witchcraft.
A friend of mine likes to constantly make the argument that Witchcraft is a part of the Western Magickal Tradition, a tradition that extends from the Ancient Greeks to the present day. I agree with that statement to a large extent, but I wouldn't call the development of that tradition a continual one, instead it's moved along with starts and stops, and a nugget of wisdom from the year 300 CE might fall off the grid for 1600 years before being picked up again. Modern Paganism is certainly related to Classical Paganism, we worship many of the same gods, celebrate some of the same holidays, but it's all generally done through a modern world-view and a mixing and matching of various cultures and beliefs.* (Take me for example, I love Greek Gods, but I tend to celebrate Celtic and Norse holidays, all of those things are "old," but the context is completely different.)
During my workshop I was asked about the "Egyptian Papyri," and why they were so similar to Modern Witchcraft. I have to admit the question caught me a bit off guard because I was unfamiliar with the idea of the "Egyptian Papyri." According to the questioner these papyri contained traces of a magickal system that was similar to Modern Witchcraft, utilizing circles, four quarters (with color correspondences equal to those used by most Modern Pagans), and calls to deity. That's certainly possible, I'm not sure it's related to Modern Wicca.
The question caught me off guard because the question was framed incorrectly. The papyrus fragments the questioner meant to ask me about are more accurately known as the "Greek Magical Papyri" (though many of them were in fact written in Egypt), and yes they did sometimes contain four quarters, circles, and calls to deity, but they were different from Modern Witchcraft in how they approached the gods. The GMP generally call deity into circle to manipulate it, to get something out of it, to control it. Modern Witchcraft calls to deity for assistance sometimes, but it doesn't seek to order it around. The GMP are also not a cohesive body of work, consisting mainly of fragments-some from books and isolated spells. They don't represent a cohesive approach to magic, let alone religion. These papyri might have certainly influenced Modern Witchcraft, but only after they were rediscovered, it seems unlikely that they were passed down for generations.
I do believe that something like Modern Wicca would have eventually emerged in the early part of the Modern Era had Christianity not suppressed Classical Pagan Religions. A move towards a more monotheistic paganism had been developing for centuries, and more syncretic ways of thinking were beginning to set in, gods and goddesses were merging in certain areas, and paganism was starting to coalesce as one large religion, not several smaller ones. This process though would have taken many hundreds of years though, the more monotheistic schools of pagan thought were occupied almost exclusively by educated elites and not the rank and file of the Roman Empire. While a philosopher in Athens might have seen Mithra, Jesus, Apollo, and Sol Invictus as the same god, it's doubtful whether the average farmer in the field would have felt the same way.
If anything the GMP have more in common with traditions in Renaissance Magic where powerful forces were called upon and forced to do certain things. Christian Magicians in the Renaissance commonly called upon angels and demons to perform certain tasks. When I call Kokopelli to circle I might ask him for assistance in the love making department, but I certainly don't tell him to do it for me. Those are seriously different ways of doing ritual and working with higher powers.
Every once in a while I attempt to join an online Pagan community, and then find myself getting thrown out of it for doubting the existence of "Fam-Trad" Witchcraft. For the record, a "fam-trad" is a family tradition passed down in secret for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. Generally fam-tradders characterize their traditions as both religious and magical. The latter part of that argument I don't necessarily doubt. It's certainly possible that a family might pass down a certain magical point of view for generations, but I find it hard to believe that belief in a Mother Goddess and Horned God came down in those beliefs. I have trouble swallowing the idea that these fam-tradders would have used the words Witch or Witchcraft. Until the 19th Century it just wasn't a positive word, if you lived in 1701 you just wouldn't have thought of yourself as a "witch," the word was loaded, and loaded in a bad way.
At the same time, I don't think all of those people are lying either. I think folk magic traditions are extremely compatible with Modern Witchcraft, and that the compatibility has led people to believe they've been doing it their whole lives. It's sort of a self-delusion, not a malicious lie. No one is intentionally trying to mislead anyone, it's just that someone has already misled themselves. "My grandmother played with dried herbs and did spells, she must have been a witch, therefore I was in a traditional family witchcraft group."
When I was in the second grade I had warts, like a lot of little kids. No matter what we tried they would not go away. I used Compound W and would burn those little suckers until they were gone, in a matter of days they'd be back. After trying for two years to get rid of them, a friend of my father's gave him something called the "Moon Trick." The Moon Trick had to be done in the light of a full moon, and you had to bathe your warts in moonlight while saying some very witchy words. My dad led me through the Moon Trick, and within a week my warts were gone. My dad was not a witch, I'm not in a family tradition, but you can see how one could delude to themselves into thinking they were. My dad and I used magic because it's something people do sometimes, it didn't make me a seven year old witch.
So while Modern Witchcraft has a foot in the Western Magical Tradition and Folk Magic has survived for generations, that doesn't mean Wicca is a genuinely old religion. If Modern Witchcraft was actually 1500 years old, it would have been the best kept secret of all time. Can you imagine not having a paper trail for 1500 years? In all of that time not one person broke an oath and handed over a Book of Shadows? Truly, it would be the most incredible thing ever. People can't keep an affair private, just imagine thousands, if not millions, of people keeping a religion secret for over a thousand years.
Within fifteen years of Gerald Gardner first going public as a Witch, parts of his Book of Shadows were published and available to anyone willing to track them down. He hadn't even been dead for ten years when most of his BoS was published by a mainstream publisher. It seems amazing to me that something could be kept hidden for 500 years and then get completely outed in the matter of a decade. It certainly casts into doubt any claim that Wicca is hundreds of years old.
Why do people persist in believing that Modern Pagan Witchcraft is hundreds of years old? Probably because it is a romantic notion, one that is extremely appealing to many people. I find comfort in the idea that some of the magical parts of it date back centuries. Christians refuse to recognize the historial Jesus because the idea of their savior as just a man isn't as magical. The idea of a relatively modern Witchcraft bothers some people because they tend to equate age with legitimacy. Yes, Modern Pagan Witchcraft, has a long, distinguished history, and it's influences are a tangled web, but as a complete system and religion, it's (probably) pretty new.
Yes, my Reconstructionist Friends I know you are mostly different, however I doubt very many of you are sacrificing goats.