There was an interesting post on the Pagan Newswire Daily's roundup recently, a bit on Gardner and the origins of Wicca
, that took a perspective I hadn't thought of previously but which makes sense.
First, we all know that Gardner's origin myth of Wicca is only a myth, not historical fact - this is not a direct survival of the pre-Christian religion of the lower classes of the British Isles, and it probably doesn't resemble that Saxon or Celtic religion much, if indeed at all. It might vaguely resemble a set of countercultural religious practices that may have occurred post-Christianization, but if those even existed, the resemblance is tenuous at best. So what we have might be a reconstruction of a reconstruction, with a whole damn lot of Making It Up As You Go involved at both stages. Or, it might be mostly made up by Gardner out of while cloth, with those countercultural heresies merely being made-up bogeymen imagined by the Church.
However, there were clearly magickal traditions practiced before the current neoPagan and ceremonialist occult revivals. And many of them were recorded in the "pop culture" of the time. We know, for instance, that there were ceremonial mages practicing in a variety of traditions through the High Middle Ages and Renaissance, and in some cases we have copies of their grimoires; the depictions of wizards in Renaissance plays call on this, with big books of magic spells and ceremonial circles. The article points out that the other magickal tradition recorded in those plays is a low-magick witchcraft tradition, involving potions and dancing around in circles. The author's claim is that Gardner seems to have melded these two disparate traditions - adopting the ceremonialist's casing of a ceremonial circle and the use of various altar tools, but using it as a container for the round dance and energy raising of the witchcraft tradition. (He also allows for the possibility that Gardner was in fact passing along a tradition invented by the New Forest coven before Gardner joined, which would push back that melding by one generation.) He then labels this melding a "mutation," although without the usual pejorative implications of the term.
I like the idea, myself. It's clear to anyone who has paid attention to the history of the movement that something
new happened in the Gardnerian/Alexandrian/Cochranian period, and the few remaining descriptions of Cochrainian covens don't really have the ceremonialist strain that the Gardnerian and Alexandrian covens did and do. The combination of the Apollonian ceremonial circle and the Dionysian dancing, chanting, and other energy-raising works
for a non-trivial percentage of the population; whether it replicates something that existed previously, and I'm more than willing to agree that it's not an unbroken survival of anything, it's functional and powerful.
But I think "mutation" isn't quite the right word. What the article seems to be arguing happened is more along the lines of two different species of plants from the same family that happen to have the same number of chromosomes interbreeding. Most of the time, when this happens, the resulting plant is sterile because the different chromosome pairs from the two parents don't match up. But occasionally, the plants goof up in meiosis and the germ cells end up with a full complement of chromosomes, or they get a half set but that half set gets duplicated. Then the daughter plant has a full set of the chromosomes of each of the parent plants, and expresses all of them correctly - and if they don't clash, you get a plant with the best attributes of both parents. This happened in the Triticum genus, about ten thousand years ago, when a wild grass now called einkorn swapped genes with a jointed goatgrass in the closely-related Aegilops family and produced emmer wheat. A few thousand years later, emmer did the wild thing with another goatgrass and the result was the ancestor of the bread wheats, something very close to spelt. These aren't mutations; they're hybridizations.
Wicca, or at least the standard wiccaform ritual structure, is by this theory a polyploid hybrid. And it seems to have benefited from the standard hybrid vigor, judging by how fast it's spread in the sixty-odd years since being released into the wild. And for all that I'm an Authenticity Cop in a lot of respects - I prefer not mixing pantheons in a single ritual, I like offering different gods the things their home cultures say they like, I'm in favor of permanent sanctuaries, temples, and votive statuary - that's just fine with me. If nothing else, it's one more thing with poly- in front of the name to add to the mix of faiths I call mine.