It’s not just Cornwall. The Pagan Federation has just been allowed to join the Religious Education Council, which aims to foster religious education in schools. A spokesman said, smugly, that diversity was its strength. In response, the Catholic Education Service is considering its membership.
Why shouldn’t children learn about paganism? There are two immediate problems. Just as French lessons and maths lessons do not merely teach about French and maths but train children to speak the language and add up, so religious education has its practical application.
The other problem is that if paganism is taught alongside the religion that children’s parents practise at home, it implies that paganism is a religion just as well-founded as Presbyterianism or Islam. It’s like teaching Esperanto alongside French.
In Cornwall, the Rev Stephen Wild, a Methodist defender of the syllabus that includes paganism, said: “This area has preserved much of its ancient culture, and if a school is within sight of some standing stones it is helpful if children understand what they represent.”
But nobody knows what standing stones represent. The astronomical, social, ritual, pacific or bloody uses they might have had are lost in prehistory. They might have been linked with spring flowers or with human sacrifice. No one knows.
What we do know is that there is no continuity between pre-Christian religions in Britain and the various branches of modern paganism. An underground survival of paganism was claimed by the Egyptologist and folklorist Margaret Murray in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921). It was she who donated to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford a small glass bottle, the accession label to which says: “This is reputed to contain a witch, and the late owner, an old lady living in a village near Hove, Sussex, remarked, ‘They do say there be a witch in it, and if you let un out there’ll be a peck o’trouble.’”
“No British folklorist can remember Dr Margaret Murray without embarrassment,” Prof Jacqueline Simpson wrote in the journal Folklore in 1994. “Her theory that witches were members of a huge secret society preserving a prehistoric fertility cult through the centuries is now seen to be based on deeply flawed methods and illogical arguments.”
But it was too late. The belief became a cornerstone of the religion of Wicca, which was elaborated by Gerald Gardner in the Forties. It was no more an ancient religion than Jedi, to which 404,179 people claimed affiliation at the 2001 census. In the Fifties, Gardner and his initiate Doreen Valiente invented a series of Wiccan rituals. On Valiente’s death in 1999 her books and magical artefacts went to the Centre for Pagan Studies. They might come in handy for GCSE Paganism.