The Evolution of “The Burning Times”

It’s interesting to watch a phrase transform over time. Usage often indicates the function of the phrase in the context of a community’s current relationship with the rest of the culture. A meme, such as “The Burning Times” can serve, among other functions, to increase or decrease the distance the individual employing it intends to create between a subculture and its parent.

The idea of the “Burning Times” seems to excite less solidarity these days as it does animosity toward the people who reference it. It has become one of the several tropes that will have the “anti-fluffy” crowd (who spend an inordinate amount of time evaluating others’ practice, to the extent that I often wonder if they’re doing much of anything else) target one for the sort of viciousness once reserved for heretics. The stated reason for this is that historical inaccuracy causes the mainstream to look down on Pagans.

There are a number of reasons why I find this debatable. What I really think is going on is a generational shift from the counterculture pose of the mid-seventies through the early nineties to the more (for lack of a better term) integrationist bent of the current decades. Very early uses of the phrase (in the works of Gardner) seem to be mainly aimed at giving a pedigree and also of justifying the secrecy and obscurity of the teaching. The Wiccans of that period were arguably bohemian, at least some of them, but not counterculture. Gardner was, after, a postal worker. In the seventies, we see the Craft develop into a spiritual path for radicals, and as an adjunct to the women’s movement. The usage of “The Burning Times” changed accordingly: into a narrative of past persecution that formed the template for all future persecutions of women and indigenous peoples.

The years through which we currently pass are of a different character entirely. Whether we like to admit it or not, the conservative backlash against the counterculture has marked our thinking. In some ways, this was a good thing, in others bad. One of the more detrimental outgrowths was the Neoconservative movement, which began as an internal reaction to some of the New Left’s more “radical” aspects and drifted steadily rightward. The early core of the Neoconservative movement was heavily academic, and brought with it both a sense of being part of an empowered elite (mostly through the influence of Leo Strauss, who is far less egregious than the movement created by his “followers”) and the new disciplines of postmodernism such as Deconstruction.

It was this latter that allowed them to “reframe” many policies, such as international interventionism, that were extremely unpopular at the time. They also became masters of co-opting the language of the oppressed, much in the same way that Ayn Rand attempted to with her insistence that the wealthy were the most oppressed group in the world. One would hear a Neocon referring to “prejudice” against the wealthy or “bigotry” against those who stood for “traditional values.”

The Neocons understood the media better than the Left, because they either owned them or were part of “think tanks” who conducted studies on how to use media and language to maximum effect. The furor over “political correctness” was almost entirely orchestrated by media moguls connected to the Neoconservative movement. In many cases they outright lied, insisting that people were being fired for not employing the most ridiculous linguistic spaghetti to describe simple differences between people. There is absolutely no proof that the term “political correctness” was used in the specific sense that it is used to day before the Neocons used it that way in the 1990s. Before that, it was an ironic term used by some sectors of the New Left. Regardless, the stigma of being thought “PC” can be quite difficult to remove.

This is just many of the ways in which our current culture has been marked by the Neoconservative movement. Long after the actual political clout of the New Right fades, we will still be hearing the phrase “PC” as a snarl word, with all the unexamined assumptions that it brings to the table.

Bringing it back down to the micro level of the relationship of Modern Paganism to the broader culture, I think the current reaction to the “Burning Times” meme is a manifestation of the overall tendency to deradicalize and identify with the mainstream. We saw early, but still quasi-radical in praxis, movement in this direction with the attempt to disidentify with Satanism. This was, it must be noted, almost never attempted simply by pointing out that Pagans don’t (generally) believe in Satan. The point was not distinction but self defense. Thus the image of Satanism promoted in the mainstream was tacitly accepted and made the target of sometimes open hostility. That this was also helping to criminalize a religion, something should never occur in a country with a separation of church and state, didn’t seem that important at the time. Twenty years on, the damage is clear.

Personally, I think courting or even expecting the respect of the average secular/agnostic zombie is a waste of time at best. I think we will primarily receive a kind smile and a damnation by faint praise. But, given that Modern Pagans emerge from the same cultural stew as others in our society, the shift seems inevitable. Our use of language and our attitude toward memes such as “The Burning Times” will adjust accordingly. I can only hope that sacrificing our distance will not prove to be a mistake. We can only know what the change will look like after its done happening.

  1. Some Pagans so eagerly crave acceptance from mainstream society that they become to Paganism what someone like Alan Keyes is to African Americans.

    At the height of the witch-hunts even modest estimates make the rate of the docmented killings comparable to that of documented lynchings during the century of Jim Crow in the American South. And records indicate that for every person put to death at least one person was tortured. In both cases (the Witch Hunts and Jim Crow) the documented killings barely scratch the surface of the reign of terror.

    But in the case of the Witch Hunts the situation is far more evil. First of all that was just a peak in a 15 century long campaign of religious violence that began when Christians first achieved political power in 312 AD. Second, violence against those suspected of being Witches and/or Pagans was combined with violence against Jews, lepers, and those accused of “crimes against nature” (ie, being gay). AND this was also combined, by the 15th century, with the horrific violence of European colonialism, African slavery, and the savage genocide committed in the name of Christianity in the western hemisphere.

    Any decent human being, Pagan or not, should consider the centuries of religious persecution that make up the vast bulk of the history of European Christendom to be something that should never be minimized or explained away. If some people was emotional and perhaps exaggerate the numbers, that in now way justifies those, like Ronald Hutton, who now want to say it really wasn’t all that bad after all.

    • Indeed. It would seem that since a single detail, that the people who were tortured and killed in well documented trials were not part of an organized survival of Pagan religion, it’s somehow not okay to reference them. Voltaire said “Remember the atrocities,” and he wasn’t kidding. In our desire to become a more respected religious community, I think we do a disservice if we help Christians gloss over the fact that when the Church enjoyed absolute control, people were tortured and killed in huge numbers. It was really only the Enlightenment that made Christianity into something more than an imperialist ideology of blood, terror, and hatred.

  2. Gerald Gardner was never a postal worker. Wikipedia would have told you that.

    He was a rubber planter and a customs agent in various British Asian colonies.

    Of course, the Wikipedia article relays the story about the 1939 initiation, for which there is no source other than GBG himself, and which I personally think did not occur!

    Best wishes.

    • Thanks for the correction.

  3. tea said:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. Thank you!

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