Fringe Dwellers in the Archives: Wiccans, Pagans, and Astrologers, oh my!
Alternative Women and Their Histories
Written by Angela L. Todd, Guest Author
An old Wiccan saying says, “What is remembered, lives.” And I preface that with what is saved, is remembered.
If you’re here, you’re likely drawn to the fringes of culture, not mainstream ideas and lifestyles. These all have important places in world history. “Different” paths such as Wiccans, Pagans, astrologers, alternative spiritualities, and other fringe dwellers aren’t often included in our collective histories.
Historical documents and original materials saved in historical societies and archives are the raw materials for those histories. But who is doing the saving? Historically, those who have been inspired and empowered to save their histories have been those with the freedom, finances, and cultural importance to do so. In a word, the mainstream.
Earth lovers, fringe dwellers, and alternative lifestyles are largely absent from these archives, which are focused on mainstream humans, naturally. Wicca, Paganism, and astrology are just a few areas where women can easily get written out of history. They are and will continue to be absent if they don’t show up in archives, where the papers, diaries, books, and photos – the raw materials of history – are collected.
Where Does Your History Come From?
Let’s look at Wicca as one example. I’m an archivist and cultural historian, not a Wicca expert – but I know that there are LOTS of different paths that fall under Wicca. Wicca and witchery aren’t totally absent from history, but what does get saved by mainstream collections is often the high drama and incredibly partial, negative documentation. I’m going to do a quick survey of where the history of witches shows up in archives, with links to those collections if you’re interested in exploring. But my point is that these collections do not accurately tell the story, and saving your own history will help do just that.
You can see governmental evidence of witch trials and run-ins with the law in several collections, including Trial evidence for witchcraft held at The National Archive, UK. Your search term dictates your results as the terminology changed over the centuries. So in the US National Archives and Records Administration there is a collection based on the Salem Witch trials. The only item that comes up there for Wicca is this transcript of jokes during a press release announcing that the army recognizes Wicca and will provide Wiccan chaplains.
By contrast, mainstream religions are really GOOD at saving their own history and building enormous archives. And what they do save gets digitized, then the data is purchased by genealogy platforms to help flesh out family histories (one way of solidifying and codifying their impact, especially in the genealogy world).
Additionally, there are also Christian groups keeping a rather different history of Wicca. For example, Christian Apologetics and Research Ministries offers articles for parents on counseling a child interested in Wicca, the pain of serving as a witness to a Wiccan, and so on. Christianity Today worries about the rise of paganism and wiccans, and ponders if those folks are hiding out with the Quakers. 🤷
A similar tone appears in the documents held in the collections of higher education, such as the Rare Books and Manuscripts department at Cornell University, Cardiff University in Wales, UK, and University of Illinois. The University of Virginia also holds documents related to the Salem Witch Trials. The documentation around a Pagan Wiccan Collective student group at Mount Holyoke around 1997 is not kept up, and is at risk of being inaccessible.
Researching for this article, I was surprised to see some of the latest news in this arena dominated by men. Wicca shows up in higher education communities, such as University of Alberta’s first Wiccan chaplain…a dude. Valdosta State holds the collection of New Age Movements, Occultism, and Spiritualism Research Library (NAMOSRL)… founded by two dudes. One fan site puts forward Gerald Gardner as the “father of Wicca”…a name he didn’t actually use for the religion… with little to no mention of the equally important founding women of the practice we have come to know as Wicca such as Patricia Crowther, Lois Bourne, or Doreen Valiente. 🤷
Men may certainly be welcome in your practices, but I do worry that we are in a position where women’s contributions will be overshadowed, or even erased completely, if women don’t save their own records. Women’s own papers belong in archives, but not only did they rarely generate public documents to save, but they also rarely saved their own personal materials, such as letters, scrapbooks, and diaries, to save in an archive.
What You Can Do To Preserve Your History
If your spiritual practice came from an ancestor, and you have any of their documentation, save them. Documentation of your history and your alternative lifestyle will keep you from becoming invisible (and the likelihood increases with each passing generation.)
A final note about saving alternative history by gathering your archive: if you don’t do it, someone else will, as we’ve seen. “Difference” is often discounted as not worth saving. The generative, healing work that women do has always been the glue that held societies, communities, and families together. Let’s not allow our erasure from this divine history.
To get started, you can get your simple guide for what to save (and what not to) HERE.
Angela L. Todd – Archivist, Historian, Activist
All opinions expressed in this article are the sole perception/experience of the writer, and may not necessarily be shared by Michelle Lewis – The Blessings Butterfly. All Rights Reserved.
I say it, and I believe it: every woman has a story worth saving. I’m on a mission to capture women’s stories. I am working to save stories usually relegated to the sidelines of history — especially those of women, but also workers, activists, community groups, or salons. I spent 18 years as “archivist and senior research scholar” in a science archive at a top research university: curating 30,000 portraits from daguerrotype to digital and ferreting out women to add to the biographical files. I gave up on dead people and now I help living women make history. That means you.
Want to read more inspiring articles from Angela? Check out Goddess In The Family
You must be logged in to post a comment.