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Borrowed Time

by on August 28, 2014

                                                            Borrowed Time

                                                           by Marco M. Pardi


Shortly into the Spring semester of 1971 I was dutifully putting in office hours when, in my upper peripheral vision, my office doorway darkened.

“Hi. I’m a witch,” she said.

“Hi. I’m an anthropologist. Have a seat.”

And so began, with this young woman clad head to toe in black accented by various amulets, a two hour discussion of Wicca, the so-called “Old Religion”.  True, it was a pleasant interlude from the caravan of coeds coming into the office, sometimes in two’s, to arrange a Tit for Tat transaction, Tat being a good grade.  Unable to conclude they had all shopped for their clothes – such as they were – at the same strippers’ Snap-N-Drop store, I was impressed by their Now I’m Dressed – Now I’m Not dexterity (doesn’t anyone wear underwear anymore?), and by the menu of offerings they brought. My practiced response was, “I’ve not put by any tats for such an occasion. Try studying.”  After all, moral questions aside, where is The Joy of Sex with someone whose I.Q. comes second to a blow-up doll?

That initial discussion of Wicca ended with an invitation to attend and observe a meeting of the coven for which this young woman served as assistant High Priestess.  Her knowledge of Wicca seemed to have come from selective reading of the many paperbacks on the market.  And so I went with the expectation of spending an evening among social orphans and others ignored for the Prom.  It was no small surprise to walk into a home populated with airline flight attendants, business people, and even an Episcopal priest from a Bay Area city.  The High Priestess herself, perhaps aptly titled, was a staple feature in the most popular supermarket tabloid.

Being uninitiated, I was prohibited from the sanctum during the climactic moments, the “Drawing down of power”.  I availed myself of the company of the HP’s husband, who indulged his wife’s behavior so long as she did not set the house afire.

Though he and I detected no entry of power into the home, even with the lights already off, we were pleased when the group emerged seemingly charged with enthusiasm of purportedly occult origin.  The coven – yes, thirteen, gathered in the living room and exchanged testimonies of their numinous experience.  And, perhaps in the exuberance of the successful ceremony, I was approached by individuals who were also members of other covens and invited to attend those.  Like diet books, you can’t have just one.

And so began a two year odyssey, skipping from the Gulf Coast to the Atlantic (by conventional transportation), observing coven meetings and duly signaling Anthropological understanding.  Again, serious scholarship was nowhere to be found, but then who would miss it when such other liberations were so commonly at hand?  The majority of the covens seemed to use Wicca as the veneer over a drug or sex, or drug and sex meeting.  Rituals were hasty as the hookahs were warming and the fornicarium was waiting.

Without exception the meme recited by these groups was “the Old Religion.”  Really?  The title implies a monolithic entity with a formalized dogma and, perhaps, catechism.  Where were they getting this?  Among the plethora of mass market paperbacks the two stand-out British authors were: Gerald Grosseau Gardner (1884-1964) and Margaret Alice Murray (1863-1963).  Murray had already distinguished herself as an Egyptologist and was a highly visible member of the early Feminist movement in the U.K. when Gardner, found her “Witch-Cult” theory in print.  Heavily influenced by it, as were many others, Gardner took it a step further to develop his own “Gardnerian Wicca”, complete with long tracts supported by imagination, fantasy, wishful thinking, and perhaps more than a bit of social alienation, borrowing completely spurious antiquity.  Murray’s claims to a witch cult long pre-dating Christianity in Europe were quickly and thoroughly discredited academically, but the shit was out of the bull and there was no putting it back. Ironically helpful was the very strong scholarship being directed at the previously inviolate Christian texts. Discoveries and linguistic breakthroughs in the Near and Middle East were devastating the coherence, authorship, originality, and even the supposed purpose of the “Bible”. John Darby, a self anointed evangelist who, while confined to bed and reading his Bible in feverish states “discovered the hidden message of the Rapture”, found no support among the educated English and moved to America where he was warmly received by the semi-literate farmers who made the bulk of the population. Nonetheless, his legacy left an embarrassing impression in Britain.  And, of course, analyses of source documents were beginning to clearly show that Christianity, as it is known in the West, is almost entirely a Greek invention.

Murray and Gardner went on to become the icons of Wicca – “The Old Religion” down to this day.  “The” is never questioned although it implies a monolithic entity; how “Old” is never specified; and “Religion” is never authenticated beyond the circular loop of “we want it so” or, in their words, “so mote it be.”

An interesting turn in language developed in the wake of the publication of the Qumran scrolls, often known as the Dead Sea scrolls.  Some 981 texts have been recovered, starting in 1946.  They were held secret for fifty years until a law suit finally wrested them from Church hands.  As their translations went public it became clear to many that these writers, in Aramaic, Hebrew and Nabatean, viewed Paul (nee Saul) as a false prophet, especially as he had never laid eyes on Jesus and was writing for a Greek audience.  I am unaware of any lexico-statistical glottochronology attempts to establish first usage of “Judeo-Christian”, but it is abundantly clear that the usage dramatically increased, if not originated subsequent to the revelations in the scrolls.  Simply, Christianity had to scramble to lay claim to antiquity and adding the much older Jewish tradition to the family tree was the easy way to go.  Needless to say, Jews are not impressed.  Again, the borrowing is selective; few Christians adhere to the prescriptions in Leviticus calling for the stoning of just about everyone.  The term “cafeteria Catholic” originated to describe especially the American pick and choose approach to dogma and canonical law, but it applies as well to Judeo-Christians who pine for Israel but for only their interpretation and selection of its ways.

This tactic appears in the political sphere as well.  America rings with the Second Amendment “right to bear arms” conveniently omitting the phrase “as part of a well regulated militia”.  Shooting ranges in Texas allow children as young as six.  Shades of the Children’s Crusade.

One of the more precise avenues to exploring and understanding a culture is the search for what I call culturally induced cognitive dissonance.  The strong theme of pining for the “good old days” while basking in the electric glow of our computers, IPads, IPhones, Bluetooth earpieces, in ever changing iterations, and insisting upon the latest wizardry in everything from televisions to cars to cooking devices is a good starting point.  The evangelists thrumming out their messages in archaic King James English in mega churches wired with the latest in jumbotron media displays.  The Catholics who miss the Latin Mass though Jesus never spoke a word of Latin. The good old days. When a damp corn cob was your toilet paper, in the little house out back. The corporate slogan “Progress is our most important product” is directly contrary to the value that antiquity confers authenticity.

In his book Future Shock Alvin Toffler described the syndrome of being unable to cope with the speed of technological and cultural change.  Among other symptoms, people in such straits reinvent the past, often appending this historical revisionism to their cultural narrative as a means of asserting authority through antiquity.  And so the individual finds himself with the feeling of “living in the wrong time”, living a covert idealized persona while presenting a “with it” social identity. Torn between an identity that never was and an identity he cannot understand and cannot internally value. 

Partly with this syndrome in mind I asked a couple of Catholic clergy acquaintances questions:  If it could be shown without a doubt that the sanctified historicity of Christianity is largely if not entirely false, if it were admitted that it was all concocted by some long ago Pope and his advisors, would Christianity have within it value which would withstand such a realization?  For example, Buddhism at its core is a realization of self in relation to the world and, as such, stands on its own merits regardless of historicity.  Could Christianity do the same?  The answers did admit to the likelihood that many believers would despair, but, in fairness, it was left as a conjectural question evoking only opinion and not certainty.  Fair enough.  Yet, I wonder.    

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  1. Two days ago, I followed a van through the school pick-up line which sported a “Blessed Be” sticker on its bumper. I wondered for a moment if they were truly Wiccan, or if they just liked the saying. I have friends who claim to follow Wicca, but they are “independent practitioners” for the most part; their words, not mine. From what they have taught me about the beliefs of this particular “religion”, I can certainly understand the attraction, but I simply cannot “do” organized religion, even of this sort.

    I joke that my own belief system is half Baptist, half Buddhist; but these have just been a jumping off point for a lifetime of seeking what feels like truth to me. Christianity 101 was learned at the Baptist church on the corner, and I have since been exposed to many forms of traditional beliefs. Dogma and ritual are not my friends. Not unlike the Taoists, I believe each one of us has their own path, and should be free to follow where it leads.

    While stationed in Germany, the Jehovah Witnesses would come to my door; being the curious type, I let them in for conversation. I asked questions, they tried to answer them, and we would argue the truth and value of their answers. Sometimes we would compare Bibles; and they were not the same. They, too, were seeking the truth; the difference being that they believed they had found it.

    I’ll never forget when, upon learning that I was going to live in Italy for a couple of years, the local Baptist minister told me I should use the opportunity to “teach the truth to the heathens there”. To quote Bugs Bunny, “What a maroon!”. I’ve never done a formal study of any one religion, never took a class in comparative religion, but it is my not-so-humble opinion that the truth is out there somewhere, and it’s our job (should we choose to accept it) to seek it out and apply it to our lives. Happy hunting, Rose


    • Thank you, Rose. I’m looking forward to more discussion from you on your experiences in various cultures and with religions. One of my first anthropological field researches was with recently arrived Cuban refugees, examining what, if any differences they perceived between Cuban Catholicisim and the American form. Once the overlying titles are put aside, the cultural values really shine through.


  2. Wicca… I am hearing (as in reading 🙂 ) this word more and more often and am surprised to see it here too ! But actually by now I should not be surprised that your knowledge and experience goes so far !
    But I must say, I didn`t see this one coming lol !
    Well, in spite of being called the `witch` of the family (in my family), I don`t know much about Wicca (and am certainly not the orgy type, not even the party type for that), but always had a kind of fancy to want to know more.
    After reading this, i guess I`ll stay put 🙂


    • Thanks, FOAL. The Wicca pheonomenon is a good example of how people reinvent reality for themselves, especially through claiming that an old and unified practice existed when it didn’t. The principle, however, should cause us to look at other social institutions and ask if they are simply borrowing invented authenticity or whether they can stand on their own self-evident merits.

      I don’t know about the accuracy of calling you a witch, but your insights and writing can sure transport me to a place beyond time and the confines of everyday thinking.


  3. Jason W permalink


    This is a skillful juxtaposition of two superficially different historical situations and it gave me some nourishing food for thought. The truest differences between the religions as you’ve presented are not historical but structural and authoritarian. I won’t bother with describing how this is so, as the struggle between the dominant religion and the revival religion is a tired story and someone else can tell it better. Your account of your experience with the wiccans provoked a conflicted reaction in me. I detected (or projected) a smugness that I’ve often felt when interacting with people who claim to be wiccans, or of some other Neopagan bent. My sympathy was foiled by a counter feeling for the atypical pagan who demonstrates a more complete awareness of what they’re participating in and what they are believing in. As I thought more on how I might contribute to the commentary, I realized that although the common ostentatious young Gardnarian may seem to muddy the pool with their naiveté, it’s merely a reflection of the relative youth of the revival and of the enthusiasm and ignorance that is common to practitioners of all religions (and just about everything else for that matter).

    Authenticity is for children. When we look for historical authenticity in the practice of any belief system we generally find that there is no such thing, and must eventually conclude that the needy question, “Is it authentic?” will always lead to a disappointing nowhere in particular. Certainly, the looking is important for finding this truth out, but mature practitioners of various “faiths” have confronted authenticity and come out on the other side with very sophisticated and functional perspectives on what these systems mean, what they do, and where they might really come from. Those formerly known as faithful may still be attached aesthetically to the religion as a vehicle for wisdom and–regardless of any claim to objective authenticity–they maintain its internal functional validity themselves. I’ve found these types are just as prevalent per capita in Neopagan circles as Christian. They’ve moved beyond faith and into something else. In this sense, both Christianity and Neopagan movements (by virtue of being built around a mythology) demonstrate that neither needs authenticity to thrive. Mature people with a use for them go on putting religion to good use.

    And so, it’s actually the institutional authority, and not the religious form, that requires historical authenticity to continue. It’s through that claim to authenticity that the religious institution first truly caters to the needy; that is, to those children who need the true religion rather than the truth. It’s also how religion appears to put people to good use.


    • Thank you, Jason. This is a terrific contribution to understanding. I wish I had you with me on this adventure. You have certainly hit on a key element – the fear of historical authenticity being spurious. Marco


      • Jason W permalink

        Would that I could time travel and be a part of that study. It sounds pretty sexy.


      • Dana permalink

        I have long suspected not only this fear, but also a determination to “live the lie” for various reasons in a couple of religious fundamentalists. Marco, you may know who I mean.

        Interestingly enough, this involves a sharp decrease in their outspoken fervor. Perhaps they are simply weary of hearing their own absurd, broken record over several decades.

        Jason, thanks for the analysis.


        • Yes, Dana. People who begin to realize the fragility of their narrative do tend to narrow it and ascertain the a priori agreement of any possible listeners. Good observation.


  4. Petr permalink

    Having been a subject, object and reject of the Christian protestant


    • Both you guys would have been great, and would probably have developed quite a following of your own.


      • Petr permalink

        Looks like my comment got cut extremely short. Wonder what happened. I will look into it.


      • Petr permalink

        Ghost particles. The answer to all elusive problems. Looks like that one got lost in the ether. I may have to let that one go lest I start a holy war.


  5. Dana permalink

    I have encountered a number of non-theistic parents who purportedly agree to raise their children as such (or at least as critical thinkers). Yet the same parents perpetuate beliefs in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, and the Easter bunny.

    How can anyone justify this? Similar to the fear instilled in children raised in so many religious homes, seasonal beliefs include threats and other fear tactics to force children into “good” behavior. The latter is also abusive and perhaps damaging in ways we may never know.

    I have suggested creating similar traditions devoid of the lies to other parents (without success). It worked extremely well with my own children, and also left me feeling confident I had made the best decision.


    • Dana, your children were fortunate in being born to you. I remember a book by a psychoanalyst written about the covert damage children’s stories do to them. It was from the late 1960’s, and I doubt I still have it but will look.

      I think we would love to see your re-write of these stories, or what you were able to develop for your children. Probably a good book or two in there.


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