(Essay) The Controversy of the 'Old Religion': The Necessity of Intrafaith Dialogue by Patricia 'Iolana

Avebury Circle and Chapel - Photo by Patricia 'Iolana
Avebury Circle and Chapel – Photo by Patricia ‘Iolana

As a presenter in the Contemporary Pagan Studies Group at the recent American Academy of Religion, I was looking forward to the possibility of some meaningful intrafaith dialogue (dialogue between members of the same faith tradition) among members of my own faith community. While I had a wonderful time at the annual meeting and connected with a wide range of both radical and reformist scholars in a variety of sub-fields, I found the annual meeting to be a rather solitary affair amongst 10,000 attendees. Granted, my perspective and experiences of the recent SBL/AAR conference in San Antonio might be different than other attendees, so it should be noted that these are my experiences—unique to me. Here are a few things that I noticed about being a Pagan scholar at the AAR.

  • The annual meeting, while certainly more accepting and open to alternate faith traditions, is still, in its majority, a Christian conference.
  • My multi-disciplinary tendencies were best served in the Mysticism and the Interfaith panels and presentations.
  • I was unable to meet many of my colleagues.
  • The term ‘Pagan’ is highly problematic and should be revisited as we move forward in Pagan studies.
  • Our presentation room, while suitable in size, was located on the far opposite side of the convention centre and one had to earnestly search to find our room on Sunday morning.

However, one experience was a shocking reminder to me both that a) intrafaith dialogue is severely needed in this community labelled as Pagan, and b) that although this community is highly pluralistic in its various beliefs, I may have crossed an invisible line in the sand.

My paper and presentation on Dr Margaret A Murray and her disproved 1921 thesis about the Witch Cult in Europe, put me at odds with many in my own community.  By discrediting the term ‘Old Religion’ and describing how Murray’s thesis of a historical legacy of Witchcraft has been refuted and condemned in various academic disciplines, I positioned myself as a Pagan scholar who refutes the imagined and idealised history that many in my community still hold as relevant and important to their religious/spiritual identity. Despite her academic censure, Murray’s ideas remain prevalent with many contemporary Pagans, Wiccans, and Witches. While I was praised, post-presentation, for my scholarly approach and courage, I was also chastised for taking a detrimental stance on the historical legacy of Witchcraft and Wicca and for denigrating the term ‘Old Religion’.

I was not so naïve as to imagine that I would not face criticism or questions regarding my theories and research, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the word ‘traitor’ uttered underneath someone’s breath as I left the room. Traitor. My heart sank, and I left the room without comment. With one sharp word, I began to understand the dilemma in which I found myself.  As a scholar, we are trained and encouraged to think critically and challenge commonly-held assertions, but as practitioners, we are expected to accept the myriad of beliefs that prevail in the Pagan, Wiccan, and Witchcraft communities. In those communities, most hold Margaret Murray in high regard as the midwife of Modern Wicca.  As a practitioner, I, too, once used the term ‘Old Religion’ and spoke of a historical legacy until I was faced with Margaret Murray and her theses.  Once confronted with the evidence during my doctoral research, there was no way I could continue to neither use the term ‘Old Religion’ nor continue to espouse about a historical legacy of Witchcraft (other than being able to historically trace Wicca back to Gerald Gardner in the early 1950s). The scholar in me had now significantly impacted my inner adherent.

I walked out of that room on Sunday morning feeling that what was required was an honest intrafaith dialogue between my vocal critic and myself—this charge of traitor must be addressed. Yet any meaningful intrafaith dialogue was impossible not only because the comment was made under one’s breath in the guise of anonymity after the panel had concluded, but also because of the nature and anonymity of the accusation, I was not given the opportunity to respond.  If she only could have posed this as a question during the Q&A so that some meaningful dialogue could have ensued.

I do believe that many of the faith traditions that are seeing an influx of adherents, such as various forms of Paganism, Witchcraft, or Wicca, are contemporary constructions (or recreations) based on traditions that existed long ago. Credible evidence proves there were faith traditions in existence long before the birth of Judaism and Christianity. Catal Hüyük, an entire city unearthed in Anatolia, Turkey, dates to 7000 BCE and was found to be a thriving cosmopolitan community with monumental images of Goddess throughout the city. The Hypogeum in Malta, which dates to 3300 BCE, was an elaborate underground labyrinthine sanctuary comprising more than 6,000 square meters on three levels and was the centre of spiritual life in Neolithic times. Worship of Isis, Osiris, and their son Horus dates to 3150 BCE in Ancient Egypt. I agree that these various traditions existed and thrived long before the introduction of Judaism in roughly 1000 BCE (Christianity follows tracing its official date to St Paul of Tarsus in 45 CE). I also agree that the ‘Strega’ or Witch has a long and obfuscated history in Italy; Charles Leland’s 1899 Aradia: Gospel of the Witches captures some essence of the contemporary Witchcraft in the Tuscany area of Italy at the turn of the twentieth century. This text was deeply influential for Margaret Murray. What I do not agree with is Murray’s assertion that all contemporary practitioners of Witchcraft are continuing a faith tradition through a historical legacy past down over the millennia.

Many in this wide-ranging community are at opposite ends in this debate as reclamation is still the buzzword and the proclamation I hear most. Consequently, I was labelled a traitor by someone in the audience who believes firmly in their reclamation path. The Pagan Minister in me understands that her path is unique to her, and my beliefs may not be the same as hers. The scholar in me, however, realised how important the academic pursuit of Pagan Studies has become—how necessary it is to find some fluid definitions and boundaries—to clear up many long-held and inaccurate beliefs. It also demonstrated how precarious and vital intrafaith dialogue within the Pagan community can be, but it is a minefield worth entering for this Pagan scholar.

(Meet Mago Contributor) Patricia ‘Iolana.


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Susan de Gaia

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Susan de Gaia, Ph.D. Philosophy and Religion, Central Michigan University, Global Campus General Editor, Encyclopedia of Women in World Religions, ABC-CLIO Publishing

On Sat, Jan 28, 2017 at 6:18 PM, Return to MAGO E*Magazine wrote:

> patriciaiolana posted: ” As a presenter in the Contemporary Pagan Studies > Group at the recent American Academy of Religion, I was looking forward to > the possibility of some meaningful intrafaith dialogue (dialogue between > members of the same faith tradition) among members of my” >

Mago Work Admin

Sorry for the convenience, it is back now.


Interesting. I see your photo of Avebury Circle and notice no mention of the Norse or (pre)Celtic traditions in the post. Just wondering why.


Rev Dr Patricia 'Iolana
Rev Dr Patricia 'Iolana

Thanks for your comment Ann. I work with a number of faith traditions, Norse and Celtic are only part of them, and while they are very important to me on a personal level, they were not the thrust of the paper or presentation regarding Murray. Norse practitioners (for the most part) don’t build on Murray as they already have an ancient tradition (same with the Celts). I used the Avebury photo, one I took in 2006 because of the juxtaposition of the chapel within the stone circle. My visit there was life-altering. .

Thank you for your research, scholarly integrity and willingness to share with the larger religious community. I posted the following to my FaceBook feed. The pagan community needs scholars like this author, who are willing to stand up to the tide of historical misinformation. I applaud her courage to take on a controversial topic like the misinformation Margaret Murray portrayed as fact. The pagan community needs to be open to new research, new idea, and the discrediting of old ideas. We are not the People of the Book; our faith isn’t codified in the writings of our early scholars, nor… Read more »

I guess I live under a rock, but it really surprises me that any pagans are still holding on to that “old religion” ideal…