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The Rosicrucian Roots of Modern Witchcraft Cults

For the past forty or so years the fastest growing religious movement in the Western World has

been Wicca, or Witchcraft. Recent census results in Australia had almost 9000 people declaring

themselves to be Pagans or Witches with evidence indicating that there are many more that, for

one reason or another, chose not to declare their beliefs in the census yet who actively practice

some sort of witchcraft. In other parts of the Western World the figures indicate the same thing

and Wicca must now be considered as one of the major religions of the world with hundreds of

thousands of adherents, Yet even as short a time as sixty years ago witchcraft as a religion was

unknown, the name Wicca had yet to be coined, and pagans were the ancient Romans with their

pantheon of gods and goddesses. Where then did Wicca and Neo-Paganism come from? What

are the origins of this major modern spiritual movement?

To examine the roots of Wicca we must go back to the occult revival at the end of the 19th

Century. The origins of this surge of interest in occultism were in the Freemasons and so

ultimately derive from Rosicrucianism which heavily influenced it from its beginnings. In 1867

Robert Wentworth Little found some documents in the Freemasons Hall in London that

purportedly gave instructions for the structure of a Hermetic Rosicrucian initiatory order.

Together with Kenneth MacKenzie he founded the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia and broke

away from the Freemasons thus beginning a new line of orders and fraternities that have endured

to this day. At this same time William Robert Woodman was admitted to the SRIA as a 7º=4Δ

Exempt Adept and soon afterwards Wynn Westcott introduced the study of Qabalah to the

curriculum of the order. By 1888 it would seem that the SRIA needed new material as Woodman
fortuitously found the famous Cipher Manuscripts with which he, along with Westcott and

Samuel Lidell MacGregor-Mathers, used to found the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In

1891 Woodman died and Westcott took over the SRIA with MacGregor –Mathers in charge of

the Isis-Urania Temple of the Golden Dawn.

With these developments the foundation of modern occultism was in place. The Golden Dawn

was perhaps the most famous occult society in history and numbered a parade of luminaries

amongst its members. Most important of these to the development of occultism was certainly

Aleister Crowley who in 1904 received the Book of the Law as dictation from a “praeter-

human” intelligence named Aiwass. This event inspired Crowley to develop his school of

magick and to publish its papers in a periodical volume called The Equinox. The Equinox has,

since its first publication, become the standard reference work of modern occultism and from its

pages the founder of modern witchcraft, Gerald B. Gardner began to collect material with which

he hoped to create a Neo-Pagan working group in England just before the Second World War.

Gardner, like many of his generation, was much impressed by the works of Margret Murray that

have since been much maligned for their accuracy and scholarship, but they inspired him to

compose a book of ritual practices and to organize a group of witches. Gardner’s first “Book of

Shadows” was compiled from the working ceremonies of a proto-pagan group that Gardner was

involved with outside of London, Gardner’s own poems and with material gleaned from

Crowley’s writings in the Equinox.

The final component for the founding of modern witchcraft came in 1946 when Gardner was

introduced to Crowley by Arnold Crowther at the Beast’s final residence at Netherwoods in


Hastings. The pair only met on a few occasions but Crowley had long been interested in

establishing a new “nature religion” and he seemed genuinely enthusiastic about Gardner, giving,

or selling, him a charter to establish an OTO Lodge in England at their first meeting. It was after

this that Gardner composed his first “Book of Shadows” which is now in the possession of Allen

Greenfield, past head of the OTO in the US. According to his essay A True History of Witchcraft

this handwritten manuscript, in the hand of Gardner (and not Crowley as many have claimed) is

composed of a collection of Gardner’s poems, traditional magickal ceremonies well known from

old grimiors, and Crowley’s writings, most notably quotes from the Book of the Law. Gardner’s

Book of Shadows went through two more major revisions, mostly to replace Crowley’s work

after Gardner’s coven was connected with the Wickedest Man in the World in the press following

Crowley’s death in 1947. Throughout the 50s Gardner’s witch cult continued to grow and

develop until, sometime around 1963, another sect of witches emerged after Alex Saunders, with

copies of Gardner’s original Book of Shadows (the edition with the greatest amount of

Crowley’s material still included) established his own sect of witches and the cult was split into

Gardnerian and Alexandrian witches.

Due in a large part to the 60s counter culture movement, modern witchcraft was exported from

England where it had originated, to every part of the globe, most especially to the USA and

Australia where the new cult quickly gained a following. In America Gardner/Saunders’ cult

evolved at a rapid rate, developing much of the language of Wicca that is used today, including

the name of the cult itself. Since the 70s Wicca has become a well known, popularized, spiritual

practice that has generally maintained its traditions that were established by its founders. Along

with Θελημα, Wicca remains the only religion to have been started in England, long held to be
the Land of Magic. A recent period of popularization of Wicca, with several celebrity witches

gaining a sizeable public profile, and the introduction of witchcraft and Wicca into mainstream

fictional TV dramas has seen a broadening of the cult with an attendant departure from tradition

and discipline, yet the two main schools of Wicca continue to thrive and evolve, attracting more

adherents every year.

The old accounts that have been given of the origins of the Golden Dawn and of Wicca were

most certainly tainted by a perceived need to connect the new movement to well established

historical sources in an effort to acquire credibility amongst their potential followers.

Woodman’s tale of finding the Golden Dawn Cipher Manuscripts in a bookstore in London and

the subsequent correspondence with Frau Sprengle seems at this distance to be mostly

fabrication. Similarly, when Gardner first established his witch cult he went to great pains to

make a connection to an older tradition of witches. There is no evidence that there were any

active, organized covens of witches prior to Gardner, perhaps there were some others sharing his

interest in pagan rites experimenting with witchcraft, but to all intents the tradition of Wicca

begins with Gardner himself.

Once having gotten past this need to invoke a traditional connection for our modern occult sects

it becomes obvious that the genuine roots of both Θελημα and Wicca lie in Rosicrucianism and

Freemasonry. Crowley was well aware of this fact and was an active Mason, seeing the Hermetic

Schools as an evolution of their lodge system. Freemasonry, in turn, derives from

Rosicrucianism and so it was that when Little and MacKenzie wanted to form a new Masonic

Order they derived their material from Rosicrucian sources, again calling on a long established
tradition to give their new movement credibility. This is the genuine lineage of Θελημα and

Wicca; they are both parallel developments of Rosicrucianism. This makes both of them a

continuation of a previous spiritual practice rather than a new movement, an evolution not a

genesis of religious thought. It confers a long traditional history onto both practices as

Rosicrucianism can be traced back to the 12th Century in basically its modern form.