Why Calling Out Bad History Matters

I’m not just interested in teaching history; I am also interested in debunking bad history. It’s something I’ve been conscious of for a long time.. and not because I’m simply petty or confrontational or a know-it-all; it’s because bad history matters.

History is powerful. It’s one of those things on which people base their outlooks, ethics, beliefs and general understandings of the world. It influences choices. It sways people in debates. So when you start throwing around bad information, there are consequences.

There’s also the simple fact that bad history makes people look ignorant at best and outright fraudulent at worst.

History and Religion

When bad history crosses with religion (or other ideology), things get increasingly ugly. People get defensive because an opponent is challenging personal beliefs rather than impersonal facts. And, to be clear, I’m not describing differences in belief as bad history.  When I say bad history, I’m talking about claimed facts that are provably wrong.

Every time I try to debunk the myth of a pagan Christmas, including the fallacy that the story of Jesus mirrors the stories of Mithras or Horus, or insist there is nothing to suggest that rabbits and eggs are associated with the ancient goddess Eostre, I get blowback, sometimes in epic proportions, because I’m challenging the notion that Christianity is one gigantic fraud, which has become a foundational belief in the minds of many such people.  That doesn’t change the fact that Horus didn’t have 12 disciples, Christmas trees are not mentioned in the Bible, and we know almost nothing of Eostre.

Importance of Words

There’s plenty of less dramatic yet still influential errors. Many years ago, I came across a Wicca site (I have no recollection which one) that, at the time, I found quite solid overall. However, it claimed witchcraft was a Celtic term meaning “wise, good people”. There are several versions of this oft-used claim, but I had never seen any evidence of its truth. I hoped this person might be able to explain it to me, so I emailed her. She answered as follows:

my information is correct. im not dumb and if you dont like my information i dont know what to tell you. ive researched everything ive put on that site and if i knew or felt it was the wrong information, i would not put it up. wicca is my religion and i take it very seriously. i would never put false information on a website that teaches who we are.

Well, that’s a wee bit defensive isn’t it? I wrote her back trying to re-explain my situation, that I was simply seeking information, not intending to offer a challenge.   She didn’t reply. She never answered my question either.

Considering the grammar of her response, I’m guessing her website was  actually stitched together from other sources. In a recent attempt to find the site in question, I googled “”witchcraft” was a Celtic term meaning “wise, good people”.” What I immediately got, besides my own page on this matter, was a half dozen carbon copies of the same info, including the sentence:

As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary “Witchcraft” is a Celtic (pronounced Kell-tick) word meaning the wise, good people.

Unfortunately, the online Oxford Dictionary doesn’t give etymologies, and I don’t own an OED for reference, but I highly doubt it says such a thing because witchcraft is of Anglo-Saxon origin, not Celtic.

And, yet, this statement is pasted all over the internet by people who have never looked the word up in any dictionary.

Why am I being picky, besides the simple “it’s wrong” argument?

Because there are implications to saying the word witch was once a compliment. When you’re talking among people who identify as witches, this concept of the word helps shift their entire perception of their own history. It encourages the notion of the ancient witch-cult, which brings with it even more misinformative baggage.

Words matter.

How to Evaluate a Claim

Consider facts before passing them on. It’s so easy today to copy and paste, and even easier to retweet or Facebook share. It certainly isn’t always easy to identify erroneous claims.For starters, you have to be suspicious enough to start researching it. That’s easier for me than for most because I know more of the context surrounding these claims. However, here are some points to consider:

  • Is the fact being offered to support a specific position, particularly a negative one? If the fact is framed in something like “Christianity is a sham because…”, that raises my suspicions. The more judgmental the statement, the more wary you should be. If it’s calling the opposing point stupid, that’s not a mature argument, and immature arguments generally gather info in immature ways.
  • What are the specifics? Every time someone tells me the Christian trinity is based on “the pagan trinity,” I ask which pagan culture they mean, because there is no single “pagan religion.” Rarely do I even get an answer. If I do, it most often references the Egyptian family of Horus, Isis and Osiris, at which point I have to say that’s not a trinity, merely a group of three deities with family ties.
  • Where is the information coming from? Talk is cheap. Are you getting this information from a professor, a book, or the internet? If the internet, which site? There’s plenty of good and respected sites out there, but there’s also lots of nonsense. If a book, which one? Who’s the author? Is he an academic? Does your source have footnotes? Does it state how we know the claim is true?
  • Does it make sense? Sometimes I read something and it just doesn’t sound right. That doesn’t mean every fact I am suspicious of is wrong. It does mean I go out and look for more info before passing it along to someone else.

13 Comments to "Why Calling Out Bad History Matters"

  1. June 24, 2014 - 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Very well said! Seeing the copy/paste quick spread of misinformation, and seeing it used as a basis to faulty claims and perpetrated truths is one of the things that contributes to the supposed ‘flakiness’ of Wicca.

  2. June 25, 2014 - 9:25 am | Permalink

    One thing I find very interesting to observe about your postings is that you’re very much a defender of Christianity. And I’m uncertain why that religion gets so much face-time on a site dedicated to Wicca. I get the impression that you’re trying to send a message to Christians of, “Hey Wiccans aren’t all haters of your religion. See I defended you here.” It’s just…kinda weird and something I’ve noticed. Christians have their own champions and on a site dedicated to Wicca, I just find championing their beliefs out of place if not jarring. Mind you there is lots of good Wiccan information here too.

  3. July 23, 2014 - 6:36 pm | Permalink

    I understand your points but your talking about people who really Do not know what they are speaking of and even less educated in Etymology, Philosophy, Theology, etc. that would be necessary to have any consistence and reliable means by which to respond. As far as the “Hostilities” between so called Pagans and Christians” you have the authors of all those poorly researched garbage books from distributors like llewellyn publications, and extremist feminist misandrist authors that only a 10th of what they have written is even on subject and the rest is just hate men this, male centric religion that, blah blah blah. Second on the reverse side of this, much of the concepts of Wicca and Paganism is drawn directly from Christian sources, like St. Bebe for the whole Eostre claim. He is the only source of that drivel. We all with the academic background an many many years of study know far too many base their concepts on “one source” and run with it.

    Example? Warlock. Doreen Valiente is the only source of those claims and frankly has NO support whatsoever to justify anything that her work was added to the OED, and regurgitated through Arcadia press without confirmation to the accuracy or inaccuracy of any of it. And frankly the EOD etymology from which most others simply copy and past is awful. Look up the word Law for example. it gives it as Laga, and Lagu and Old Swedish Loga. That’s factual. its confirmed by the fact that Utlog (oot lawg) means Out Law. But then type Loga specifically you get redirected to the false claim from the Valiente claim. Problem? Obviously.

    But then break down Wor-Loga and its alternatives Vorlaga, Verloga, and Orloga meaning both Our Laws and Primal Laws from the same sources as German, Swedish, etc. Warlock itself is a composite also of Ward +Lock before that modern form and likewise has variations, Wardlok meaning everything from Guardian Watcher, to Protector of Bonds, to Protection Singer, to Keeper of Knowledge, and Guardian of Luck depending on the Language. NONE have negative associations. But because of lousy books, garbage authors and the whole “They stole our Holidays” crap, that’s the source of the problem especially when pitched to largely uninformed and undereducated and ill equipped teens, mostly young girls, especially in the early 90’s with the whole re-surge of NEW AGE movements that root back in the 20’s and 30’s.

    As far as the so called “Pagan Trinity” which I really do not care how you measure it since the “Cultures” in question never called Themselves Pagans which any real researcher knows factually, is in fact connected with the Pythagorean concept of the Aion which creates of itself a dual incarnation of Kronus the Father, Rhea the Mother and both as the Aion’s right and left hands so to speak come together to produce the Iesous = Zeus that then creates the “World” and subsequently the Hera of that system so that with union of the third person of the Aion mates with the creation so it can incarnate as the World Soul moving then into a more Pantheistic context.

  4. Lannah's Gravatar Lannah
    August 10, 2014 - 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Totally agree. My cousin is a bit like that, saying Christians stole this and that. Me, I have a sort of careless attitude (in the sense that I’m sort of impartial) because I’m not just Wiccan, but Catholic. I can’t see myself give us all those Catholic beliefs and hating Christians for no reason just because it’s what most Wiccans do (mind you, I haven’t seen Wiccans bashing Christians on websites – not that I went looking for it, so I could be wrong).

  5. Morrigane Feu's Gravatar Morrigane Feu
    September 22, 2014 - 8:06 am | Permalink

    Hi! I would like permission to translate this article in French and post it on the FB page I administer. I will give all due credits and link back here.
    Thank you.

  6. Kalanagini's Gravatar Kalanagini
    September 22, 2014 - 10:00 am | Permalink

    Actually the X-tians didn’t “steal” Yule or any other pagan holiday so much as they ‘co-opted’ them for their own purposes. Much easier to “co-opt” than to start a whole new tradition. F’r instance, every bit of hard data available indicates that Jesus was actually born in October (census and taxation took place in October, after the harvest was in), but the Church probably didn’t want their Deity associated with mere ‘harvest’ rites and death and dying of the God ; they wanted to connect him with the SUN, hence they chose the Sun-rebirth festival as the festival associated with their Deity. What matter that the historical Jesus’s birthday was actually a couple of months earlier? If we are going to talk “bad history” , I assure you: X-tianity is RIFE with “bad history”- and not by ‘accident” either!

  7. Thexalon's Gravatar Thexalon
    September 22, 2014 - 10:08 pm | Permalink

    One more potential issue here: How many sources are backing up the claim, and what sort of quality are they?

    For example, I once was looking into a claim that part of the Orpheus myth was him receiving a golden lyre on Mt Parnassus. That certainly seemed plausible, until I noticed that every single website that had the identical sentence, and all sourced exactly the same modern mythology guide which itself had no sourcing at all.

    I did hunt for any ancient sources that would back up the claim, but came up empty. While I don’t denounce anyone who makes it, I’m certainly not going to repeat it as proven truth.

    And in general, I evaluate as extremely dubious any derogatory claims about other religions. Listen to the way Christians and atheists talk about Islam, for example, and compare that with how Muslims talk about Islam.

  8. Avery's Gravatar Avery
    September 28, 2014 - 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I know that this is an old post but I have access to the OED via school so here’s the actual etymology – “Old English: wiccecræft , < wicca, wicce witch n.1, witch n.2 + cræft craft n." "Witch" and "Craft" are both firmly rooted in the Germanic branch of IE (meaning they show up all over other Germanic languages in various forms), not the Celtic branch, thank you very much… I hate it when people appropriate or down right lie about the Celts and their culture to make their own religion seem more mystical.

    • Morgana Krinsley's Gravatar Morgana Krinsley
      March 27, 2016 - 3:36 pm | Permalink

      Witch comes from “wicce” (pronounced ‘weeTCHeh’), “wicca” (weeTCHah) meaning male witch, both Anglo-Saxon, according to the OED. The pronunciation is from my cursory study of that language. As far as I have been able to find, Gardener came across “wicca” in the OED some time in the 1960s, because that was when he started to use it.

  9. September 29, 2015 - 2:28 am | Permalink

    This is very good for beginners, I mean your article. A lot of people in the pagan community are taught not to critically think. But it’s important and something college requires when you start going there. (When you do papers and stuff.) I don’t think disagreeing with someone is necessarily attacking them. Something many pagans haven’t learned.

    Oh, and Zeitgeist really didn’t help on the Horus, Jesus, Mithas thing.

  10. Zephyrine's Gravatar Zephyrine
    January 26, 2016 - 9:58 pm | Permalink

    I think this Wiccan fundamentalist is extremely similar to Christian fundamentalism: believing in the myths of the religion despite tremendous historical and scientific evidence to the contrary.

    There are a lot of Christian historical myths, not just within the Bible, but since the death of Christ, like how Christians were viciously persecuted by the Roman Empire, ignoring how other groups including the Cult of Cybele (or any group that ran afoul of the Romans) were also persecuted. The Crusades, the conversion of Constantine: these are all Christian myths. Stories that were told to help prop up the religion, but that aren’t really what they seem.

    Pagans have their own laundry list of myths: how Christians stole everything from them, matriarchal prehistory, the genocide of the Burning Times, the 8 sabbats (the Celts only celebrated 4). I even had a Pagan friend who said that Christians invented the concept of black magic, ignoring how that concept exists in cultures throughout the world, and existed in pre-Christian times.

    The thing is that there is a lot of very, very bad history being sold by Pagan authors. Ronald Hutton is an obvious exception. Christianity has had the advantage of having good historians who have debunked its bad history.

    Wicca should be a strong enough tradition that it can stand apart from its bad history. When I see extremely well educated Pagans spouting unhistorical nonsense, it makes me despair of the future on the religion.

  11. Morgana Krinsley's Gravatar Morgana Krinsley
    March 27, 2016 - 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Ronald Hutton has his problems, too. See “Trials of the Moon: Reopening the Case for Historical Witchcraft. A critique of Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft”, by Ben Whitmore

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