When I was a young witch, this belief was common. Understandably so, really, because that was essentially what Gerald Gardner, the Father of Modern Witchcraft, had told people. Witches passed this on to their trainees as fact.
Nowadays, there is considerable historical evidence available that shows it is unlikely to be true. Isaac Bonewits, an American neopagan writer, was among the first people in America to say so publicly.
I have just finished reading a recent edition of his classic book, Bonewits' Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca: Rituals, Beliefs and Origins.
The title is slightly misleading. It sounds as though it should contain all the rituals, spells and lore that are vital to a witch. Instead, it is a succinct, well-written account of the history of Wicca and witchcraft, etymology of the names and titles and historiography of the major written works about the craft and paganism in general.
Bonewits starts by breaking down pagans into three different categories: paleopagans (original tribal faiths), mesopagans (attempts to recreate what people believed were traditional paleopagans ways, and neopagans (modern religions that try to blend earlier paganism with “Aquarian Age” ideals). He then defines different types of witches within those categories, including cunning folk, shamans, diabolic witches perceived by the Christian church, pagan cultists and ethnic witches.
Looking at the historiography of writings about witchcraft, Bonewits looks at what the Church wrote about witches when it was trying to root out old beliefs, what folklorists, historians and archaeologists have written about it, and what occultists and modern pagans such has Gardner have said about the subject.
According to Bonewits, the myth of Wiccan unbroken lineage back to the ancient priestesses of a pre-Christian universal goddess cult really only lead back as far as 1921 and Margaret Murray’s book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology. Even at the time, the theory of a prehistoric universal goddess cult was discredited by academics, but the book had popular appeal.
When Gardner founded a coven in the New Forest in the mid 20th century, and created what we now call Wicca, he may or may not have believed that some members of his coven could really trace their ancestry back to such a prehistoric cult. However, Bonewits, having analysed Gardner’s writings and the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, shows there is little evidence in modern Wiccan rituals of genuinely ancient goddess cult material. It is a similar conclusion to that of British historian Ronald Hutton in his book The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft.
While the title Bonewits' Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca: Rituals, Beliefs and Origins might be a bit misleading if you are looking for a book to teach you how to be a witch, I would say it should be essential reading for anyone who is already a witch. It is important to know the truth about the history of one’s religion.
And it really doesn’t matter that Wicca is not a continuation of an ancient religion, but a new form of reverence for the divinity within nature and the old gods of this world. As Bonewits says:
“We who worship old deities should be willing to consider that the Gods and Goddesses want to be worshipped and therefore may have inspired countless small sects of people to revive what they thought the Old Religions (plural) were all about.”Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca was published by Citadel Press, part of Kensington Books, in 2006.
Bonewits' Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca: Rituals, Beliefs and Origins