Recently, while reorganizing my licensed fiction collection, I happened upon a certain Indiana Jones novel. Written by Martin Caidin, Indiana Jones and the White Witch is an interesting entry in the Indy canon; the novels by and large deal in conspiracy theories and world myths (Hollow Earth, unicorns, the location of Noah’s Ark) made plausible by application of Science and Manly Skepticism, but The White Witch features the very real religion of Wicca.
Caidin’s use of Wicca in his book seems odd, not to say unnecessary; the sword Excalibur makes an appearance, and while plenty of writers have sought to connect the tale of King Arthur to ancient “pagan” Britons, there’s no real reason to place Wicca in this particular story, which is also full of wild zeppelin rides, international crime syndicates, and Civil War legends (other than, perhaps, to give the whole business a whiff of authenticity). Using the name of a specific, extant religion is a quicker way to verisimilitude than a broader, vague community of magic users. However, considering what is now accepted as fact about Wicca’s history, it also dates the book severely.
The White Witch was published in 1994, a fringe member of the pop-witchcraft vanguard that would soon include Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Craft. Silver Ravenwolf and Edain McCoy were populating the shelves of B. Daltons everywhere and I would overhear two of my middle-school classmates on the bus discussing whether they could find “Wiccan spellbooks” at the library. The armchair version of Wiccan magic used by the Halliwells and Willow Rosenberg bears little resemblance to the religion in practice, the origins purported by its founder Gerald Gardner, or even the religio-magical lifestyle shown in The White Witch. From the former viewers saw a hodgepodge mixture of pentagrams, pillar candles, circles painted on floors, chants to mysterious goddesses, and fancy ritual knives.
The White Witch is an oddity: one of the least popular of the Indiana Jones novels, it barely registered in general American culture. Yet it was written by someone who not only was friends with the infamous Sybil Leek in the 1980s, but also claimed to have various psychic abilities.
Of course the author is dead (in this case literally, Caidin having passed in 1997), but the novel’s use of Wicca suggests an interest in normalizing or debunking its pop tropes, and general faith that Wicca’s origins are as Gardner specified–particularly given the book’s endnote, which talks of Caidin’s trips to the New Forest, his interactions with Romany groups, and the supposed legacy of witchcraft in the region. All told, The White Witch’s use of Wicca is more akin to that of pagan-speculative novels such as The Mists of Avalon or Sign of the Labrys. Regardless of one’s position on Marion Zimmer Bradley (Ed. note–GARBAGE) (Other Ed.’s note–HUSH, YOU) and Margaret St. Clair, these novels are foundational texts, having shaped the public view of European pagan religions both ancient and modern, which are usually lumped under the catchall name of “Wicca.”
Wicca – as established in the late 1940s by Gardner – stipulates a system of degreed initiation, a dualistic god/goddess deity system, and a melding of traditional folkways or “cunning craft” found in the United Kingdom with ceremonial magic and magical tools of the type used by occult groups such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Gardner’s claims to have received ancient traditions from a historical coven in southern England are now considered fabricated (or at least prettily embroidered), and his belief in the practice of British witchcraft as a fertility religion does not have a firm historical basis. Gardner’s set of traditions is referred to as Gardnerian Wicca or British Traditional Wicca, the latter term also encompassing Alexandrian Wicca–named for Alex Sanders–and what is considered to be the first American branch of the religion, Central Valley Wicca.
What modern American audiences generally consider “Wicca” is more often Neo-Wicca, a conglomeration of paths including Dianic Wicca, Celtic Wicca, and Faery Wicca which do not stem from an established, closed lineage, such as that of Gardner’s coven and its offshoots; groups like Reclaiming have Neo-Wiccan roots. Neo-Wicca also accepts self-initiated members, and many covens or solitary devotees derive the framework of their religion from published works such as Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft and Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner, with other unspecified ritual material (often called “inner-court”) remaining within closed Wiccan covens. Even more broadly, eclectic Wicca offers the opportunity to practice a Wicca-based religion to believers without the resources or inclination to form or belong to a coven, as well as the prerogative to dispense with portions of Neo-Wicca one may not believe in or agree with. As with most religions, Wicca continues to evolve, to the point where it may be said to have denominations.
Like the books of Zimmer Bradley, St. Clair, and Gardner himself, The White Witch attempts to fit a modern movement into historical and corresponding technological contexts. At one point Indy uses the science of Möbius strips to explain how a road leading to St. Brendan Glen, the home of the Wicca in the New Forest, can seemingly disappear; on another occasion Gale Parker, Indy’s current Girl Friday, gives a spiel about the nuts and bolts of Wicca which boils down to New Age 101 (the phrase “the truth of life” is used), Caitlin St. Brendan mentions “worldwide covens” and “ancient languages” in use by these covens, and a crusty academic refers to Caitlin and Gale as being part of “the sacred sisterhood.”
Much is made of the healing powers of the Wicca, chiefly using native plants and arcane techniques, which is typical of media utilizing Wicca as a backdrop or window dressing. However, some likely components are left conspicuously out: Gale’s statement that followers of Wicca believe in an unnamed Supreme Deity may be reference to Gardner’s phrase “the Prime Mover,” but it’s notable that Gale mentions neither the Triple Goddess nor the Horned God, figures integral to most permutations of Wicca, and to some of its predecessor movements, such as the Victorian and Edwardian revivals of neoclassical rituals, which often featured the forest god Pan.
Efforts are made to tie the magic of the Wicca–the word “Wiccan” is never used–to historical technology such as chemical batteries and energy fields and the “magic is just very advanced science” trope, rather than any use of the “high” magic of Gardnerian Wicca. Interestingly, Caidin does make a distinction which is often now made by writers on the subject, but which was not part of Gardner’s Wicca: that witchcraft was not historically a religion.
Gardner, at least initially, subscribed to Margaret Murray’s concept of a pan-European witch-cult, whose members were persecuted during the famed witch trials of the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. Hoary assumptions about magic also feature, as when Gale snaps that “black magic” is not a term to be applied to the St. Brendan Glen community. The novel’s title, of course, reifies this familiar division between “white” and “black” magic. Other popular conceptions relating to the appeal of pagan religions abound: the “great hall” of St. Brendan Glen is a nod to Viking tradition, indicating the settlement’s great age and its admixture with the historical layers of British civilization; the “little people,” fairies, pixies, or elves, flit through the New Forest, cooking supper, of all things, for Gale and Indy; and names like Sybil and Athena are used–not what one might expect from a truly insular group in the south of England, but exactly what might be seen in modern pagan groups who use a renaming tradition.
Perhaps most significantly, the Wicca of St. Brendan Glen are hereditary practitioners. Gale refers to her mother as as one “of the early Wicca.” Gardner’s religion, historically and currently, is initiatory, though its history is littered with hereditary-witchcraft claimants, including Caidin’s friend Sybil Leek and the woman supposed to have initiated Gardner, Dorothy Clutterbuck; during and after Gardner’s lifetime, many other claimants to ancient witch lineages appeared–Robert Cochrane and Raven Grimassi are but a few–stoking a number of inner-ring tussles. Neither Gale nor Caitlin indicates that their Wicca has any system of formal initiation, even when accepting outsiders such as Indy.
Despite Gardner’s claims about the New Forest and the historical provenance of Wicca being debunked by at least the 1980s, their vast popular appeal remains, and is entangled with most perceptions of the religion in both fiction and nonfiction circles. The Mists of Avalon most obviously makes blatant use of Murray and Gardner’s ideas about historic British pagan religion; many of the nonfiction Goddess religion books of the late 1980s and early 1990s presented material that jibed with the theory of goddess-worshiping cultures spread across Britain and continental Europe, originating in prehistoric times.
Even in 2013, quotes from books like The Great Cosmic Mother circulate Tumblr and hip a whole new generation of votive-happy readers to misconceptions about moon priestesses, historical virginity, and the Burning Times. Amid all the continuing signal-to-noise sits Indiana Jones and the White Witch, a one-off, Official Piece of Fanfic forgotten or never recognized by most audiences, but still part of the pop-Wicca puzzle. Caidin’s intentions with the book are unknown, perhaps not even relevant, and readers interested in obscure witchy fiction are left with a solemn treatment of a titillating religion–no ritual sex, no flogging, an oddly thoughtful, if misguided, attempt at the truth of Wicca.
Margaret St. Clair, Sign of the Labrys (Amazon)
[Image via Indiana Jones Wiki]