Most research into Neopaganism
focuses on the British Isles and on the North American subcontinent, and that’s partly the reason that led me to research the Israeli Pagan community. Israel is often the last place on earth in which Pagans from Europe and North America expect to find fellow Witches
or followers of Asatru
. Israeli Pagans themselves time and again feel as though they inhabit the far (far) periphery of the Neopagan world, and some often perform more spiritual pilgrimages to sacred sites in Britain and Ireland, than to ruins of pagan temples and cities in Israel.
It is interesting though, that while modern-day Israel occupies virtually no place (or at least none of importance) in the mind of most Contemporary Pagans worldwide, some early British Wiccans and other figures which influenced the Wiccan
movement spent considerable periods of time in the region.
We start our journey with Margaret Murray
, who died in 1963, age 100. Murray was a noted Egyptologist and Archaeologist – the first woman to have been trained in the profession in England. Her teacher and mentor was Sir Flinders Petrie
, of University College London – the father of modern Archeology. Modern Pagans, however, know her due to her writings on the European witch-trials period. These formed the basis for the foundation of the myth connecting Wicca with the ‘witches’ burned at the stake by the Inquisition during the Middle Ages (Murray even wrote the preface for Gerald Gardner
‘s Witchcraft Today
in 1954), which persisted long after the Murray thesis was debunked by a stream of focused historical treatments of the subject. Did Murray herself believe in witchcraft? There are conflicting opinions. During her lifetime it was argued that she cast a spell on a colleague whose appointment she abhorred, but Murray herself objected to ‘superstition’ in her autobiography
and presented her argument throughout using a rationalistic approach. The truth will probably never be known…
What’s certain is that during the 1930’s Murray joined archaeological digs in British-mandate Palestine under Petrie.With Petrie heading the excavations at Tall al-Ajjul (In today’s Gaza Strip), Murray arrived to the famous city of Petra (In present-day Jordan), and later wrote on the digs carried there in her Petra, the Rock City of Edom (1939) and A Street in Petra (1940). In Tall al-Ajjul Murray found grooved stones which she believed to have been used for certain magical aims. World War II disrupted Murray’s excavations in the region. She returned to England, but Petrie himself died in Jerusalem in 1942, where he is buried to this day.
And what about old Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), founder and propagator of Wicca? Well, as many of my readers know, Gardner served as a colonial official in the rubber plantations of Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Upon retiring in 1932, Gerald and his wife, Donna, boarded a ship at Singapore – destination Britain. But while Donna stayed on board all the way to England, Gerald disembarked in Port Said, and headed to Gaza after surveying the ancient ruins of Egypt. Gardner reached Tall al-Ajjul, where he received a tour of the dig site by Petrie. Gerald was impressed by the way in which Petrie managed to bring the site back to life through his descriptions. He was interested in a long secret passage which was discovered at the location, containing Irish gold. Philip Heselton, Gardner’s biographer, estimates that he spent a few weeks working with Petrie at Tall al-Ajjul before setting sail to France, and then to England. Gardner returned to British Mandate Palestine in 1936. This time he joined the excavation of the biblical city Lachish, which was one of the most important cities in the Kingdom of Judea until its destruction by the Babylonian Empire in 587 BC. One of the discoveries which drew Gardner to Lachish was the dual temple to Yahweh and Astarte. Gerald then traveled to Jerusalem for Easter, and returned to England through Turkey, Greece, Belgrade, Budapest, Vienna and Nuremberg.
By the way, Jack Bracelin, a member of Gardner’s original Bricket Wood coven who is mostly remembered today as the official author of Gardner’s first 1960 biography (Gerald Gardner: Witch), served as a young man in the Palestine Police Force during the British Mandate period.
The last figure I shall present here is that of Stewart Farrar (1916-2000). As most of my readers would know, Farrar joined the coven of Alex and Maxine Sanders (of the Alexandrian Wiccan tradition) during 1969, and in 1971 wrote What Witches do for Alex. Stewart bonded with with fellow initiate Janet Owen, and together the two founded their own coven and eventually married. Their co-authored books (such as A Witches Bible, The Witches Goddess and The Witches God) are some of the most known and cherished among British Wiccans to this day. However, as it turns out, if Stewart Farrar had not visited the region during the mid-1960s, Wiccan history might have been significantly altered. Before he met Alex for the first time, Farrar maintained a brilliant career as a reporter, screenplay and radio drama writer (he worked as a reporter for Reuters and Reveille magazine, and in 1968 even won a Screenwriter’s Guild award). During the mid-1960’s he worked on a series of documentaries focusing on the Holy Land titled Journey of a Lifetime, for which he toured the length of the tiny state of Israel. Shooting also occurred in a Greek Orthodox monastery in the Golan Heights, then under Syrian control. When Farrar and one of the monks overlooked the majestic views atop the cliffs, the splendid sights stirred something within him…. He began finding interest in spirituality and ceased describing himself as an “interested agnostic”. Stewart then began to search actively for a deep, meaningful spiritual path. It was for this reason that the editor of Reveille sent Stewart to meet and interview Alex Sanders in 1969. If it wasn’t for his spiritual experience on the edge of the Golan Heights, Farrar would not have met Sanders, would not have adopted Wicca as his spiritual path, and certainly would not have authored the books which so successfully aided in its exposure to many thousands of spiritual seekers worldwide.
Guerra, Elizabeth and Janet Farrar. 2013 . Stewart Farrar: Writer on a Broomstick. Cheltenham: Skylight Press.
Heselton, Philip. 2012. Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner. Loughborough: Thoth Publications.
Murray, Margaret. 1963. My First Hundred Years. London: William Kimber.
Whitehouse, Ruth. 2013. “Margaret Murray (1986-1963): Pioneer Egyptologist, Feminist and First Female Archeology Lecturer”. Archeology International 16: 120-127.