In case you didn't know, Gerald Gardner created the religion of Wicca based on other world religions, his travels in the East, Victorian ceremonial magic, the scholarship and pseudo-scholarship of others, and the knowledge of English witches. I'm sorry to burst your bubble if you think Wicca is an unbroken lineage from ancient times until now.
In the Gardnerian tradition, and in many other traditions, the scourge is number 7 in the list of the Eightfold Path that leads one in the ways of worship and magic. In his books "Witchcraft Today" and "Meaning of Witchcraft", Gardner mentions using a scourge in ritual, primarily in initiations as an ordeal and for purification and energy raising. In "The Gardnerian Book of Shadows" he discusses scourging a magical partner to bind a spell and using scourging for maintain coven discipline. He also goes on in great detail about using number magic and scourging as a way of giving an offering to the Goddess. According to Gardner, "It is not meet to make offerings [scourgings] of less than two score to the Goddess, for here be a mystery." 3, 2, 5, 7, 9, and 21 are also acceptable numbers and number multiples to use in a scourging ritual.
Since Gardner created Wicca, why would the use of a scourge be included in ritual? From what we know, Gardner possessed a vast knowledge of myth, so we can assume that he knew about the Greeks and Romans using the scourge in their various rites. He would have also known about various Hindu sects using scourging and other methods of pain to cause enlightenment from his time in India (the tradition of sky clad and indeed the term itself was something that Gardner borrowed from the Hindus). Gardner was also a product of his times. He was most likely influenced by different Victorian flagellant clubs as well as different scourging rituals that occult societies like Crowley's OTO practiced. Gardner also borrowed heavily from, and sometimes outright plagiarized, Charles Leland's books about Strega and Italian witchcraft. It is also believed that the Traditional British Coven that Gardner studied with used the scourge as a way to maintain discipline and secrecy, although there are some sources that dispute this. The most compelling reason why Gardner included scourging as a tradition in Wicca is that people went along with his addition of the practice. If his original coven had balked at the practice, it would have fallen by the wayside, as we'll see later.
|Alex Sanders and scourging during an initiation|
As time went on, Gerald Gardner taught others about Wicca and the "secrets" of the faith. These other folks went on to start their own covens, and in some cases Pagan traditions. One such person was Alex Sanders, who started Alexandrian Wicca. Although he eventually broke from Gardner and claimed to come from a family tradition, a good many of his practices mirror Gardnerian Wicca, including the use of the scourge in initiations and other rituals and magic. Raymond Buckland, another student of Gardner's, discusses initiatory bondage (another Gardnerian practice), sensory deprivation, and scourging in his "Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft." Doreen Valiente and Janet and Stewart Farrar all discuss the ritual use of scourging in their writings. Of course, Valiente had direct dealings with Gardner and the Farrars were students of Alex Sanders.
So when did the scourge fall out of favor? The easy answer is "when folks started to object". More seriously, however, I suspect it started to happen when Wicca came to America. Americans have always been into eclectic modes of worship, and the practice of Wicca by Americans has been no different. The further Wicca got away from the strict rules of Gardnerian Wicca and its offshoots, the less you see "unpleasant" things like scourges and secrecy. If you look at the books published by American authors, most of them don't mention the use of the scourge, even in initiations. In fact, in most "beginner" books, you're lucky if the scourge is even mentioned as a ritual tool. Gavin and Yvonne Frost, well known for their views on sex magic, don't even mention the scourge in their writings.
Another reason why scourging is no longer widely practiced in Wicca is Starhawk and the feminist/Dianic Pagan movement. If you're advocating for women's rights and women's mysteries, chances are you are not going to take the time to reconcile a religious practice that could be perceived by the outside world as physical abuse and patriarchy with your political views. From the 1970's onward there is a marked decline in the use and mention of the scourge. Many groups today either don't own a scourge, or have one that is only used as a witch prop.
Part 4 will be a survey of current groups and their use of the scourge.