German philosopher and founder of the Bavarian Illuminati, 1748–1811. Born in the Bavarian university town of Ingolstadt, Weishaupt came from an academic family with connections to Baron von Ickstatt, a member of the Bavarian Privy Council. Ickstatt’s patronage won the young Weishaupt a scholarship at a Jesuit school. The rigidly conservative education he received there irritated Weishaupt, but the discipline and organization of the Jesuits themselves impressed him deeply. At 15 he finished his studies with the Jesuits and enrolled at the University of Ingolstadt, where he studied the writings of liberal French philosophers such as Voltaire and Diderot and quickly earned a reputation as a brilliant and independent thinker. He graduated in 1772 and immediately received a teaching position at Ingolstadt.

In the following year the Society of Jesus was dissolved by Papal edict. The conservative faction of the Ingolstadt faculty included many Jesuits, who retained their positions and opinions despite the abolition of their order, and struggles between liberal and conservative faculty broke out almost at once. Despite his youth, Weishaupt took an active part in these quarrels and was appointed to the chair of canon law at the university, which had been held by Jesuits for 90 years but became vacant in 1773. See Society of Jesus (Jesuits).

The bitter struggles that followed, and the rumors that the ex-Jesuits at Ingolstadt and elsewhere had reorganized in secret, convinced Weishaupt of the need for a secret society to support progressive ideas. He considered naming it the Society of Perfectibilists, after the belief in the perfectibility of human nature he drew from the liberal French authors he loved, but finally settled on the name Ancient Illuminated Seers of Bavaria. He and four friends founded the Order of Illuminati, as it was usually called, on May 1, 1776. See Bavarian Illuminati.

Weishaupt spent most of the next eight years working long hours for the order, creating an extensive study program for its members, drafting rituals and symbolism, amassing a large library for the order, and corresponding constantly with its members. During the early 1780s, the glory days of the order, he and a small number of associates controlled an order with more than 650 members scattered across most of central Europe, and secretly controlled scores of Masonic lodges in Germany and elsewhere.

In 1784, when the order was exposed and the Bavarian government moved against it, Weishaupt fled the country in time to escape arrest. He found a new home at Gotha, in relatively liberal Saxony, where the reigning Duke Ernst II gave him a pension and a position as ducal counselor. Weishaupt remained there for the rest of his life. He became an important figure in the German philosophical scene of his time, and wrote several books about the Illuminati and his experiences in Bavaria, but these received little attention amid the flood of conspiracy theories that gathered around the Illuminati in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

Further reading: Roberts 1972.


English occultist and Freemason, 1848–1925. One of the most influential figures in British occultism in his time, Westcott was born at Leamington, Warwickshire, the son and nephew of physicians, and studied medicine in turn. In 1871 he joined his uncle’s medical practice and began his lifelong involvement with secret societies by being initiated into the Freemasons. In 1876 he became a member of the Swedenborgian Rite, a small Masonic offshoot based on the mystical teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. In 1879 he set aside his medical practice for two years of intensive study and practice of occultism, and in the midst of this retreat, in 1880, he joined the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA), the most influential Masonic esoteric order in England at the time. See Freemasonry; Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA).

At the end of his magical retirement in 1881, newly married and with a daughter on the way, Westcott moved to London and entered the civil service as a deputy coroner. In 1883 he was elected to the secretive Society of Eight, an order founded by the eccentric occultist Kenneth Mackenzie for the study and practice of alchemy. On Mackenzie’s death in 1886 Westcott became Supreme Grand Secretary of the Swedenborgian Rite, and received all Mackenzie’s Swedenborgian papers from his widow. Along with them, the evidence suggests, he received a manuscript in a simple cipher giving outlines of rituals for an occult secret society called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. See Mackenzie, Kenneth.

These rituals fired Westcott with the ambition to create a magical lodge of his own. With the help of fellow Freemason and occultist Samuel Liddell Mathers, who turned the ritual outlines into fully workable ceremonies, Westcott launched the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1887 and served as one of the order’s three ruling chiefs, writing many of its lectures and managing its training program. In 1897, however, Westcott was forced to resign his membership after someone informed the Home Office of his involvement in a magical society and he was told to choose between his order and his job. Westcott’s resignation left Mathers in charge of the order, which led to the Golden Dawn’s collapse in the early 1900s. See Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Westcott had remained active in the SRIA, and was elected its Supreme Magus in 1892, and was also involved in the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, studying practical occultism with Helena Blavatsky until her death in 1891. The SRIA became the focus of his activities after his departure from the Golden Dawn. In 1918 he retired from the civil service and moved to Durban, South Africa, to live with his daughter and son-in-law. He died there in 1925. See Blavatsky, Helena Petrovna; Theosophical Society.

Further reading: Gilbert 1983.


One of the most influential secret movements in Chinese history, the broad spectrum of secret religious organizations commonly termed White Lotus societies can trace their ancestry back to the twelfth century CE, if not before. Their precise origin is unknown, but the movement seems to have emerged from a fusion of Taoist and Buddhist ideas in Chinese folk religion. The societies have many names – Eight Trigrams Society, Great Sword Society, and Observance Society among them; White Lotus Society was the name of one of the first such societies to become widely known, and is commonly used to refer to all of the societies of its general type.

Most White Lotus societies have a distinctive religious faith. They offer reverence to a primordial goddess of many names and titles – Wu-sheng Lao-mu (Ancient Unoriginated Mother) is among the most common – who brought the world into being and sends prophetic messengers at intervals to rescue humanity from ignorance and oppression. Most White Lotus societies believed that at some point in the near future a new messenger would appear and transform the world, restoring peace and happiness to all. In the meantime, White Lotus initiates practiced a variety of spiritual disciplines, including Taoist internal alchemy, and also commonly took up the practice of martial arts. See Alchemy.

In imperial China, with its traditional belief that emperors ruled by the Mandate of Heaven, the White Lotus teachings inevitably had political implications. White Lotus societies first appear in history as leading factors in the risings against the Mongols that liberated China in 1368 and put the Ming dynasty on the imperial throne. When the Ming dynasty fell to the Manchu in 1614, White Lotus groups became a significant force in the anti-Manchu underground, and staged several risings against the Manchu emperors. Massive White Lotus-backed revolts in 1773 and 1794 were put down only after hard fighting. In response, the Eight Trigrams Society – one of the largest White Lotus organizations of its time – carried out a bold daylight attack in 1813 against the imperial palace in Beijing itself, coordinated with general uprisings in several provinces. The imperial government responded to this rising with a policy of violent persecution, but in 1861 the Black Banner Society – yet another White Lotus organization – staged another large peasant rising that lasted for two years.

White Lotus societies played only a relatively small role in the revolution that finally overthrew the Manchu dynasty in 1911 and ushered in the short-lived Chinese Republic. After the fall of the Republic in 1949, the Communist Party did its best to suppress all secret societies, and any White Lotus groups that remain on the Chinese mainland today are very well hidden. In Taiwan and many Chinese communities overseas, however, White Lotus groups remain active today, though most play down the political dimension of their teachings and focus on spiritual practices instead.

Further reading: Chesneaux 1971.


In nineteenth- and twentieth-century occult parlance, a term used for systems of magic that were, or at least claimed to be, morally good, as opposed to “black magic” which was morally evil. Efforts to define the boundary between the two have strayed all over the philosophical map, but most descriptions of white magic focus on the relationship between the magician and the higher spiritual powers of the universe, however these are defined. White magic, according to this definition, is magic worked with the intent of harmonizing with the purposes of higher spiritual powers, while black magic is worked with selfish intentions and with no reference to higher powers. In practical terms, most systems of white magic reject any form of magic meant to hurt or dominate another being, and look askance at magical workings carried out for purely selfish purposes. See black magic; Magic.


Originally named the Black Order, this international neo-Nazi secret society was founded in January 1994 by Kerry Bolton, formerly a leader of the far-right Nationalist Workers’ Party in New Zealand, who abandoned electoral politics in the late 1980s to pursue a more magical approach to fascism. In 1992 Bolton founded the Order of the Left Hand Path, renamed Ordo Sinistra Vivendi (OSV) two years later. In 1994 he and neo-Nazi Satanists in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States organized the Black Order as a network seeking to project racist and fascist ideals into popular culture in the West by way of the industrial music scene, right-wing political groups, and the Satanic end of the occult community. Functioning primarily as a support network for neo-Nazi secret societies, it keeps occult fascists worldwide updated on one another’s ideas and actions through a quarterly magazine and an active book-publishing program overseen by Bolton. See National Socialism; neo-Nazi secret societies; Satanism.

In 1997 the absurdity of a white supremacist organization calling itself “the Black Order” finally seems to have registered, and the order changed its name to the White Order of Thule (WOT). In that same year the headquarters of the Order moved to Richmond, Virginia, as Bolton stepped down from his leadership position to concentrate on publishing projects, and in 2001 it relocated to Deer Park, Washington State, in the inland Pacific Northwest area long since staked out by American racists as the site of a future independent white nation.

Further reading: Goodrick-Clarke 2002.


The first known Irish political secret society, the Whiteboys first appeared in Tipperary in the autumn of 1761. Enclosure Acts passed by the Irish Parliament permitted local landlords to seize village common pasture for their own use. In response, bands of local farmers gathered at night to destroy the ditches and fences erected by the landlords. Members of the bands took to wearing white shirts as a uniform, making recognition easy at night, and this gave them their name: Buachaillí Bána in Irish, Whiteboys in English.

As the movement spread it became a vehicle for a wider range of discontents. Almost 90 percent of the population was Catholic, but all had to pay tithes to the Protestant Church of Ireland; the right to collect tithes was commonly leased to private tithe collectors, many of whom exploited their positions shamelessly. Abusive landlords and extortionate rents for farmland provided additional motives for unrest. At a time when Irish Catholics had few legal rights, the Whiteboys offered the hope of redressing grievances. By the summer of 1762 Whiteboys could be found throughout most of the southern half of Ireland.

An initiation ritual, a simple hierarchy, and a rough code of justice formed the framework for the Whiteboys movement. The initiation was simply the taking an oath to be true and faithful to one another, to pull down any barriers raised around common land, to block attempts to repossess members’ farmland, and to refuse to deal with tithe collectors. Each group of Whiteboys elected a captain and pledged to obey him. Whiteboy justice was harsh; tithe collectors who ignored Whiteboy warnings might find themselves stripped, tossed into a grave lined with brambles, and buried up to the neck, while Whiteboys who betrayed their fellows to the authorities could expect a very short lifespan thereafter.

The authorities responded to the Whiteboy activities with punitive laws and repression, and the movement went underground. The early 1770s saw a revival, as economic trouble and a series of bad harvests put pressure on Irish peasants again. In 1775 a band of Whiteboys attacked the home of a wealthy Catholic landlord, Robert Butler, the brother of the Catholic archbishop of Cashel. This brought the wrath of the Catholic hierarchy down on the head of the Whiteboys, who responded by beginning to protest against the dues and fees exacted by Catholic clergy.

A final Whiteboy outbreak in 1785 placed the question of tithes and church dues at the center of the movement. Protesting against the exactions of Protestant and Catholic churches alike, the Whiteboys, in this last major rising, won the support of large sections of the middle and upper classes, and managed to force through substantial reforms. Some historians argue that the Whiteboys’ activities kept Irish landlords from engaging in the wholesale evictions that emptied huge tracts of the Scottish Highlands during the same period.

The spread of nationalist ideas from continental Europe to Ireland in the 1780s and 1790s, however, made the agrarian focus of the Whiteboys less relevant to a new generation of Irish radicals and prompted the emergence of new secret societies such as the Society of United Irishmen. The Whiteboy custom of assembling by night in white garments, however, spread to the American South by way of Irish immigrants, and was adopted after the Civil War by the Ku Klux Klan. See Ku Klux Klan; Society of United Irishmen.

Further reading: Williams 1973.


The largest and most popular of the current neo-pagan religions, Wicca first appeared in England in the late 1940s and established a public presence immediately after the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951. At that time, its principal spokesman, Gerald Gardner (1884–1964), claimed that it was descended from the witch cults of the Middle Ages and, through them, from pagan fertility cults going back to Neolithic times. His arguments for Wicca’s antiquity drew on the theories of his close friend Margaret Murray (1863–1963), who popularized the idea that the witchcraft persecutions of the late Middle Ages were intended by Christian churches to stamp out a surviving pagan religion among medieval peasants. See Murray hypothesis; witchcraft persecutions.

Wicca as presented by Gardner, and practiced by the more traditionalist wing of the Wiccan community up to the present, is a nature-centered duotheistic religion; that is, its members worship two deities, a horned god of nature and an earth goddess, whose names are secrets known only to members. Membership is by initiation, after a period of probation, and there are three degrees of initiation, each with its own ceremony and traditional teachings. Each initiate must make a handwritten copy of the Book of Shadows, the sacred text of the tradition, which includes rituals, magical practices, and the rules or “Ordains” governing the tradition. Ritual nudity has an important place in the initiations, and the Great Rite of ritual intercourse between high priestess and high priest, personifying the goddess and the god, is either literally or symbolically involved in some rites. See Book of Shadows.

While the ancient origins of Wicca have remained an article of faith among many (though not all) Wiccans, research since Gardner’s time has essentially disproved his claims. Murray’s own theories were discarded during the 1970s as more careful historians showed that she had blatantly manipulated her sources to make them fit her conclusions, and half a century of hard work by folklorists in Britain and elsewhere has failed to turn up any trace of the agrarian fertility cult Murray claimed to have detected and Gardner claimed to reveal to the world. The link between modern Wicca and medieval witchcraft should be considered simply another example of the common secret society practice of retrospective recruitment, meant to give a newly launched group the patina of age by claiming antecedents far back into the past. See retrospective recruitment.

Yet Wicca was not simply an invention of Gardner’s. In recent decades a wealth of information has surfaced about Gardner’s own participation in a variety of occult secret societies where the ideas and practices of modern Wicca already existed in various combinations. Gardner’s own account of his involvement with Wicca, for example, featured a theatrical performance group he called the First Rosicrucian Theatre Company in England, where, he claimed, he first met members of the witch cult. This group actually existed; it was a branch of the Rosicrucian Order of the Crotona Fellowship (ROCF), a secret society with close links to Co-Masonry, a branch of Freemasonry that admits women as well as men. Many of the elements of Wiccan initiation rituals can also be found in the ritual work practiced by Co-Masonry and the ROCF. See Co-Masonry; Freemasonry; Rosicrucian Order of the Crotona Fellowship (ROCF).

Three organizations Gardner did not mention in his books on Wicca also seem to have contributed substantially to its growth. During the mid-1940s Gardner was a student of ritual magician and self-proclaimed Antichrist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), and claimed later that ‘he received an Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) charter from Crowley. OTO publications from Crowley’s lifetime include copious references to a system of sexual magic with close similarities to Wiccan sexual rituals. See Crowley, Aleister; Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).

During these same years Gardner became an associate of Ross Nichols, one of the leading figures in the Druid movement of the time, and went on to become a member of the Druid Circle of the Universal Bond. The concept of a duotheistic fertility religion worshipping one god and one goddess had been a common theme in Druid literature for most of the century before Gardner’s time, and the influential Druid writer Owen Morgan had already identified duotheism, fertility religion, and ritual sexuality as the foundations of ancient British paganism in his 1887 book The Light in Britannia. See Druid Circle of the Universal Bond; Druid Revival; fertility religion.

Finally, Gardner had close connections to the English branch of Woodcraft, a youth movement founded around the beginning of the twentieth century by Canadian-American nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton (1860–1946). Starting in 1915, when Quaker groups opposed to the militarism of Lord Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts imported Woodcraft as an alternative, two Woodcraft organizations – the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry and the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift – had an active presence in the New Forest area where Gardner claimed to have worshipped with surviving witches’ covens. Similarities between Wicca and English Woodcraft are particularly striking; Woodcraft ceremonies from the 1920s even include references to the earth as a goddess and to a horned god of nature, and. Seton’s Woodcraft included an inner, initiatory branch for adults, the Red Lodge, with three degrees of initiation. See Woodcraft.

All the evidence suggests that Gardner could easily have created Wicca himself out of materials ready to hand in the traditions with which he was personally acquainted. Still, the possibility exists that he was telling the truth when he claimed that he had been introduced to the system by the elderly witches who initiated him, and only expanded and developed it. All the ingredients for the creation of Wicca had been in place in the British occult community for some 30 years before Gardner’s earliest publication on the subject, and it is entirely possible that someone else – perhaps members of the Rosicrucian Order of the Crotona Fellowship – first had the idea of reconstructing Murray’s hypothetical witch cult using material drawn from existing occult traditions.

Whatever its actual origins, once it was launched into the public eye by a series of shrewd publicity campaigns by Gardner, Wicca attracted a growing following in Britain, Europe, America, and Australasia. Almost immediately after Gardner’s first publications, though, other people began to surface, claiming that they too had been initiated into traditional witch cults; some of these were very similar to Gardner’s, while others diverged from it in various ways. The second half of the twentieth century saw an extraordinary burst of religious creativity as new pagan religions modeled on Wicca sprouted throughout the western world, and older traditions such as Druidry were rediscovered and often reinvented to fit contemporary needs and concerns. This process is still underway as of this writing and bids fair to reshape the religious landscape of the twenty-first century in many western countries.

Further reading: Gardner 1954, Gardner 1959, Hutton 2000.


Many human cultures have imposed legal penalties on people practicing unpopular ritual practices, and inevitably these have now and then been inflicted on innocent people. Trials for witchcraft occurred in traditional Native American and African societies, among many others, and news stories about the murder of accused witches by mobs in South Africa appear in papers even today. The immense witchcraft panics and persecutions that swept most of Europe between 1400 and 1800 unfolded from patterns common to many human societies. In their scope and brutality, though, the European witchcraft persecutions of the early modern period equal or exceed any similar example elsewhere in the world.

While organized witch-hunts in Europe did not begin until the early fifteenth century, their roots reach back centuries further into the past. The ancient Romans dreaded magic and passed laws banning most kinds of magical practice long before the Roman Empire converted to Christianity. The seizure of power by the Christian Church in the fourth century and the collapse of Roman power that followed did nothing to dispel these old fears, and Christianity added a new level of paranoia about magic. Most ancient magic either relied on invocations of the gods and spirits of the old pagan faiths, or borrowed heavily from Gnostic sects condemned as heretical by the established Church. The medieval attitude toward magic thus blended a fear of magical attack with hostility toward religious deviance.

All through the early Middle Ages, though, this attitude was held in check by a confident belief on the part of many Christians that the power of Christ could easily resist the ineffectual workings of pagan or heretical magic. A rich heritage of Christian magical ritual evolved during this time, fusing Christian liturgies and Bible texts with old pagan ritual practices. For many centuries, so long as a ritual invoked Jesus, the Virgin, or the saints, and had a generally positive goal, official church policy held that it was prayer rather than magic, to be encouraged rather than prohibited. See Magic.

It took the catastrophe of the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century, coming on the heels of half a century of crop failures and brutal warfare, to shatter this confidence and usher in an era of paranoia and mass murder. In the aftermath of the plague, which killed nearly a third of the population of Europe, rumors spread blaming various outcast groups – Jews, lepers, heretics – for causing the catastrophe. Over the next half century, the idea of a “plot against Christendom” reshaped itself into the belief that countless seemingly ordinary people were actually secret worshippers of Satan, meeting at night to sacrifice infants, violate every moral and sexual taboo, and pay homage to the powers of darkness. Convinced that the Christian world was under attack by Satan himself, civil and religious authorities alike weakened or abolished longstanding laws protecting the rights of the accused, authorized the use of torture to extract confessions from suspected witches, and thus plunged most of Europe into the 400-year ordeal that modern pagans call “the Burning Times.”

The death toll from the age of witchcraft persecutions was wildly exaggerated in the early years of the modern neo-pagan revival, and the old claim of nine million deaths still surfaces in popular literature. The actual number will never be known for certain, since many records have not survived, but most scholars today place the total number of judicial murders of accused witches at around 50,000, three-fourths of them women and most of them poor. The claim that most of the accused were healers, midwives, or women in other respected traditions, which is also still repeated in popular books on the witchcraft persecutions, has no basis in fact either; surviving evidence shows clearly that the only thing that victims of the witch-hunts consistently had in common is that someone had accused them of witchcraft. Some of the victims of the persecutions no doubt practiced some form of magic or had unpopular religious beliefs, but the vast majority were ordinarily devout Christians who went to their deaths with the name of Jesus on their lips.

Pagan spiritual traditions may nonetheless have had a role in launching the first great wave of persecutions. Careful study of trial records in the last few decades has turned up traces of a set of distinctive beliefs found across much of Europe. According to these beliefs, certain chosen people, usually but not always women, left their bodies and flew through the night in the company of a goddess. Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg has suggested plausibly that these beliefs, and local cults based on them, may have provided some of the details that were woven in the aftermath of the Black Death into the legend of the witches’ sabbath. These beliefs appear in the canon Episcopi, a text of church law dating from ninth-century France, and close equivalents can be found elsewhere in medieval records of heresy. See Benandanti; canon Episcopi.

The system used to investigate accusations of witchcraft and try accused witches in most of Europe guaranteed the maximum possible number of innocent victims. Legal systems in most of medieval Europe before the age of witchcraft persecutions actually prohibited torture and provided the accused with some of the same legal protections now part of common law, and making a false accusation was a serious crime. In the early stages of the witchcraft panic, though, writers on witchcraft argued that these rules had to be set aside in order to combat the terrible threat posed by witches to Christian society. These same arguments had been made by lawyers for King Philip IV of France in the early fourteenth century to justify the role of torture in the destruction of the Knights Templar, and drew on older precedents for torturing heretics. See Cathars; Knights Templar.

Once the new rules were accepted, people accused of witchcraft were caught in a trap few escaped alive. Accused witches were not allowed to learn who had accused them or even what charges had been filed. In many cases they could count on being tortured until they confessed, and the torturers were encouraged to use whatever means were necessary to extract confessions. Suspects were interrogated using lists of standard questions that presupposed the inquisitors’ beliefs in devil worship, and those who failed to provide the expected answers were tortured until they did. Once they had confessed, suspects were ordered to name other members of the alleged witch cult, and torture was again used to make sure that plenty of names were forthcoming. Once no more information could be extracted from them, those suspects who were not fortunate enough to die as a result of torture were handed over to the secular authorities. In most of Europe, convicted witches were burned alive, though English witches faced hanging and members of the nobility caught up in the witchcraft hysteria were usually beheaded.

The first witchcraft panics and persecutions began in Switzerland and southeastern France in the early 1400s, spread up the Rhine through western Germany, and extended east and west from there. Germany and France saw sporadic witch-hunts through the fifteenth century. From 1500 to 1550, witchcraft persecutions fell into abeyance, but broke out with renewed force after 1550 and raged through most of Europe for the next century and a half. England’s last legal execution for witchcraft was in 1682, but Scotland was still executing witches as late as 1722. France’s last witchcraft execution was in 1745, Germany’s in 1775, and Switzerland’s in 1782.

Between the end of witchcraft persecutions in Europe and the late nineteenth century, most people who discussed the witch-hunts of the past at all dismissed them as evidence of medieval superstition and barbarity. French historian of the Middle Ages Jules Michelet, however, proposed in his Satanism and Witchcraft (1862) that there had actually been a witch cult in the Middle Ages. His ideas were inspired and strongly influenced by the political secret societies of his own time, such as the Carbonari and the Philadelphes; Michelet’s witch cult was a movement of peasants opposed to the misbehavior of the aristocracy and clergy, who turned to Satan as the image of rebellion against a social order that claimed divine sanction. Michelet’s views found echoes in the writings of his contemporary, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who thought that the secret societies of nineteenth-century Europe were descended from pagan cults of the medieval peasantry. See Carbonari; Philadelphes; Satanism.

American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland built on Michelet’s work in his 1899 book Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches. According to Leland, while studying folklore in Italy he had contacted a surviving branch of the medieval witch cult and eventually had been entrusted with a copy of their book of secret lore, which he claimed to have translated. Like Michelet’s witch cult, Leland’s was a secret society of peasants who rejected Christianity as a tool of the ruling classes and embraced an alternative religion instead. Unlike Michelet’s, though, Leland’s witches were not Satanists, but worshippers of the goddess Diana, who believed their traditions had been revealed to them by Diana’s daughter Aradia. Later research has cast substantial doubts on the authenticity of Leland’s material, but at the time it found an eager audience.

The final stage in the redefinition of medieval witchcraft came in 1921, when Margaret Murray published The Witch Cult in Western Europe, the first of three books arguing that the witch cult had been an ancient pagan fertility religion that had been brutally suppressed by the church in the sixteenth century. See Murray hypothesis.

During the middle years of the twentieth century, despite severe problems with the evidence, Murray’s claims were generally accepted by historians, and this provided crucial backing for the new religion of Wicca that emerged during these same years. Wicca claimed to be the witch cult described by Murray, and duplicated most of the elements of medieval witchcraft as described in her books. It also drew very heavily from Leland’s Aradia, as well as the writings of Aleister Crowley. The fact that the first major promoter of Wicca, English author and civil servant Gerald Gardner, was a close friend of Murray’s and one of her strongest supporters in the Folklore Society, as well as a student of Crowley, raised few suspicions. See Wicca.

In the last decades of the twentieth century, though, scholars re-examined the evidence Murray cited and found that she had shamelessly manipulated the data to support her claims. The few traces of authentic pagan practices that could be found in witch-trial records proved to have nothing in common with Murray’s speculative reconstruction. Several historians also pointed out that whenever the legal system was not distorted to permit torture and anonymous accusations, witchcraft persecutions fizzled out. Even the Spanish Inquisition, which had few scruples and fewer legal limits on its activities, made a thorough investigation of the one Spanish witch panic, found no evidence of any organized witch cult, and thereafter dismissed witchcraft accusations as nonsense. Their judgment has been upheld by essentially all serious scholarship on the subject since the 1980s. Despite this, many Wiccan groups still claim to be descended from authentic medieval witch traditions. See retrospective recruitment.

Further reading: Cohn 1975, Ginzburg 1991, Kieckhefer 1976, Kieckhefer 1989.


See Yale secret societies.


A youth movement with significant pagan elements, Woodcraft was founded by Canadian-American nature writer Ernest Thompson Seton (1860–1946) in 1902, at his home in Cos Cob in suburban Connecticut. Concerned about the impact of industrialization and urban life on youth, Seton launched the movement as an attempt to bring young people into contact with nature and to teach values of self-discipline and cooperation. Seton was an early supporter of Native American rights, and drew on Native American traditions in launching his movement.

The movement started out as a single “tribe” of 42 boys in Cos Cob, but expanded dramatically over the following years, reaching a membership of 200,000 by 1910. After a brief and unsuccessful alliance with the Boy Scouts of America, Seton set up the Woodcraft League, an international organization, in 1915. Woodcraft tribes had groups for different age levels and a detailed program of activities and honors. A special inner circle for adults, the Red Lodge, had three degrees of initiation and a spiritual dimension focused on what Seton called the Red God, the spirit of wild nature and the “Buffalo Wind” that called too-civilized humanity back to its roots in living nature.

The Woodcraft League gained its first overseas members in the year of its founding, when a group of English Quakers, dissatisfied with the militaristic elements of Lord Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts, turned to Woodcraft instead and launched the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, the first British Woodcraft group. In 1919 there was another addition to Woodcraft ranks as John Hargrave, a charismatic Scout leader, broke with the Boy Scouts and founded a Woodcraft group called the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift (“kibbo kift” being an old Kentish dialect phrase for “proof of strength”). Another Woodcraft group, the Woodcraft Folk, broke away from Hargrave’s group in 1924. All three of the British Woodcraft groups set aside Seton’s Native-American symbolism in favor of a mixture of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon imagery more appropriate to British youth. In the process, they helped to lay the foundations of modern Wicca. See Wicca.

The Woodcraft movement reached the peak of its popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, with groups active in some 20 countries around the world. The Second World War and the period of massive industrialization and Cold War militarism that followed it, however, brought a steep decline in the movement. After Seton’s death in 1946 the Woodcraft League went out of existence, and the few surviving Woodcraft groups in the second half of the twentieth century continued in isolation. Woodcraft today remains an active but very small movement, with a variety of local groups linked mostly by the Internet. Whether it will survive or flicker out in the twenty-first century remains to be seen.

Further reading: Hargrave 1927, Seton 1920, Seton 1926.


The traditional title of the presiding officer of a lodge of Freemasons. The Worshipful Master of a Masonic lodge sits in a chair on the eastern end of the lodge room, presides over lodge meetings, and acts for the lodge when it is not meeting. In most jurisdictions he is elected for a one-year term. See Freemasonry; lodge.

The term “Worshipful Master” has been the subject of a great deal of speculation and innuendo in recent years. Religious opponents of Freemasonry have argued that it implies the master of the lodge is supposed to be worshipped by the other members, even though the word has this sense nowhere else in the English language. The word’s original sense, preserved in Freemasonry and several other traditional uses in Britain, is “worthy” or “respected,” and its modern sense, also appropriate in a Masonic context is “giving worship or reverence.” Ironically, the word “reverend” – used as a title by many of Masonry’s harshest critics – literally means “revered, worthy of reverence,” and could be subjected to the same arguments as “Worshipful Master” with ease. See Antimasonry.

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