ZSD23 (sophia_dione) wrote,

Which Witch? The Historical Backdrop of Witchcraft and Paganism

Like other religions, Wiccans and Pagans have legends about how their traditions came to be. Like adherents of some of those other religions, such as . . . hmm . . . fundamentalist Christianity, many Wiccans and Pagans believe that their legends are historical facts. These concepts continue to be widely promoted and repeated (and in the age of the Internet) copied and pasted despite contrary evidence.

A curiosity to me in relation to Paganism (capitalized here to denote post-modern paganism and not pre-Christian-era culture) is the use of the term “witch.” Many Pagans and Western occultists/esotericists—including myself—blithely self-identify as witches. I thought thinking myself one was “cool’ when my grandfather, after learning that I dabbled in palm and card reading, announced that I was following in the footsteps of his mother. He proudly announced that she was a strega—a witch.

Now, I knew that my maternal great grandmother, who hailed from Bari, Italy, was a wise woman. Like many other people’s provincial Old World great grandmothers, she divined and cast spells and was a living lexicon of folklore, folk healing, and superstition. Her philosophy was that of other Italian cunning folk: maintain a positive mindset and not speak of disease or death lest doing so attract negative influences.

Although not transmitted overtly or at all formally (and presumably lost to all of her progeny except perhaps me), certain affectations were passed down. When I moved into my grandfather’s house after his death, I found it chock-full of talismans that were groupings of Christian paraphernalia and evil-averting objects. They took the form of rosaries, blessed palm and/or devotional scapulars bound up with cornos (“Italian horns”) and similar charms, glass eyes, or horseshoes. Curiously, I found many of these curios dangling from giant, rusted nails driven into the walls in the backs of closets or concrete pillars in the cellar. A bull’s horn affixed with glass amber eyes hung over the main entrance and today still guards the entrance of my present living space.

But my great grandmother was not a strega exactly. Perhaps she was a maga (a lady mage) or  a donna di fiori (an outsider), a fattuchieria (a fixer) or a myriad other regional names that people gave to local healers, diviners, charmers, and “unbewitchers.” No one in their right mind called him- or herself a witch anywhere in Europe until the latter half of the 19th century when a romantic pseudo-history about Paganism and the whole Western Occultist scene began to develop.

Connect the Dots

-A group of Scottish masons establish a lodge at the tail end of the 16th century, which grows in scope especially when it migrates to England and becomes known as Freemasonry. The organization starts out as a fraternal community of craftsmen interested in the sacred geometry of the ancients. It grows into a bureaucracy of hierarchies, ceremonial rites, esoteric secrecy, and makes claims of ancient origins. The word Craft and the term “so mote it be,” co-opted by Wiccans and Pagans, originate here with the early Scottish masons and not in a supposed Old World demimonde of witches.

-A few Freemasons and others interested in newly defined esoterica form the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at the very end of the 19th century. In addition to Christian mysticism, they draw on an eclectic mix of Gnosticism, Christian Cabala, Renaissance-era (i.e., mid-Modern Era, circa 16th -17th centuries) Hermeticism and ceremonial magic, regional folk tradition, and ancient Egyptian and other pagan esoterica and magianism. They effectively are a lodge of ceremonial magicians whose aim is enlightenment. Despite this, interpersonal conflicts cause split-offs of this group.

-A prodigious member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947), breaks out and forms a few other lodges and manages to become head of an esoteric offshoot order of Freemasonry, the Ordo Templis Orientis. He totally overhauls it into a front for his new religion Thelema. His ministry draws on his personal revelation; Hermetic ceremonial magic; and his interpretation of ancient Egyptian and Babylonian magic and mysticism, sex magic, and Eastern mysticism.

-Coincident with this occult revival, 19th Century Romanticist poets and self-styled ethnographers, historians, and adventurers reinvent—or seemingly invent—Paganism against the backdrop of disenchantment with the Industrial Revolution.  The vision of the Romanticists is of an idyllic country life full of magic and mystery in which people live naturally, worship nature spirits, and especially revere the minor Greek deity Pan and Mother Nature. Rural folk magic is romantically equated with witchcraft even though most folk magic was practiced to protect against witches when it wasn’t being used to cast love spells or find treasure.

People begin to form small occult enclaves and covens, with some claiming initiatic hereditary know-how, but who were probably simply exposed to the habits of cunning-folk relatives. In tandem with this, the Naturalist movement develops, which encourages sympathy with folk, Native, and earth-based spirituality and stewardship.

Enter Gerald  Brousseau Gardner (1884-1964), who had ties with Freemasonry, Co-Masonry, the Ordo Templis Orientis, a local occult circle called the Rosicrucian Order of Crotona Fellowship, an esoteric Christian order called the Ancient British Church, the Ancient Druidic Order,  nudist and naturalist organizations, and a myriad other groups. He founds Wicca in about 1954, when he also is ordained as a Christian bishop in the Ancient British Church. The rites and rationale of Wicca draw heavily and conspicuously from Freemasonry, Thelema, the book The Gospel of Aradia by folklorist Charles Leland (1824-1903), and the now academically disparaged but once highly accepted work on witch historicity by the anthropologist Margaret A. Murray (1863-1963).

About a decade earlier, Gardner writes up a charter naming himself head of the then virtually defunct British chapter of the Ordo Templis Orientis. According to Tau Allen Greenfield, Gardner pays Aleister Crowley about $1500 to validate the charter. Crowley’s seal and signature are authentic, asserts Greenfield, who now owns the document. Historian Ronald Hutton, however, reports that the entire document is a forgery. This and other evidence leads to the theory that Wicca was intended to be an offshoot of Thelema for the common folk who didn’t have the temperament for high magick.

Circle casting, an affectation of ceremonial magic, becomes central to Wiccan rites as does ritual nudity, the reverence for a goddess associated with the moon and a horned nature god, ecstatic dance, and symbolic or actual hieros gamos (sexual intercourse enacted as a sacrament)—all features that Gardner and colleagues imagined were part of rural pagan culture or a witchcraft demimonde.  A grouping of major and minor British, Welsh, Celtic, and Druidic festival days related to the solstices and equinoxes are consolidated into the Wheel of the Year around which Wiccan and Pagan life is suggested to revolve.

-Other people come forward to establish their own versions of Wicca or hereditary witchcraft, leading to increasingly eclectic expressions of Wicca until, by the early 21st century, traditional Wiccans are distinguished from other practitioners, who increasingly identify simply as Pagans or as non-Wiccan witches. Many also embrace reconstructionist forms of regional pre-Christian religion, such as Druidism, Heathenism/Odinism (Norse religion, e.g., Asatru and Vanatru) and Celtic, Hellenist, or Kemetic (Egyptian) religious customs and spirituality. Distinguished from all these, are large, loose-knit groups of persons who convene for drumming/dance circles and similar expressive events to celebrate community, earth stewardship, moon phase and/or seasonal changes, and interfaith group spirituality. Although some persons in these groups may identify as Pagans, the groups, as a whole, do not identify as such and often take directives from Native and New Age spiritual trends.

In brief, modern Paganism and witchcraft are new forms of spiritual expression that are nevertheless inspired by ancient and long-standing forms. In the context of 21st century culture, they constitute a new and still evolving paradigm for spiritual expression and the search for meaning.

So What Is a Witch?

In contrast to witch history presented by most high-profile Wiccan and Pagan writers of the recently crossed-over 20th century, we now know that most of the people who were torched, drowned, etc. were Christian folk who ran afoul of a disgruntled or paranoid husband or neighbor or whose reputation as a healer or witch-doctor cast suspicion on them. Indeed, most people who practiced magic in medieval and Renaissance-era Europe were Christians. Christian clergy practiced high magic, which with its strong focus on theurgy and angelology, ironically included the conjuration of demons. Ordinary provincials who operated as cunning folk engaged in healing through both folk medicinal and shamanic or purely superstitious and pseudo-scientific means, divination (often to find lost or stolen objects or identify a thief, enemy, or bewitcher), casting love and binding spells (particularly in Mediterranean countries), and lifting curses and “unbewitching,” which involved identifying and neutralizing a witch. Their spellcasting—like that of my great grandmother—generally drew on folk superstition, natural magic, and folk expression of Christianity. They often kept spell books and sometimes bequeathed their knowledge and effects to another person, such as a family member, before passing on.

The popular notion that this represents crypto-paganism has largely been debunked by contemporary researchers. It is perhaps better interpreted as simply provincial spiritual expression. Variations are seen across cultures, time, and space and are in contrast to doctrinal religion as well as the spirituality of the intellectual or mystic, which sometimes incorporate aspects of high magic, rather than low (provincial) magic.

Although regional remnants of Old Ways, including reverence of a goddess, totems, and nature spirits, may have existed in medieval and Renaissance Europe, they did not operate as a witchcraft demimonde. These encapsulated pagan clans may have expressed shamanic practices but also had taboos about keeping supernatural negative influences (personified as witches and demons) away.

Although witchcraft covens may have sprung up in relation to the 19th century occult revival and although marginal diabolist enclaves may have existed as a backlash against Christian imposition on culture, cunning folk and practitioners of sorcery (stregonaria/sortilegio), generally speaking, did not organize or fraternize in a supposed demimonde or secret society. They often were persons who lived isolated from their community or lived in one community but were consulted for service by persons in another.

           Again, practitioners were labeled or self-identified as  healers, magicians, and unbewitchers. Although words such as wicce (“twisted”) in British lands or strega (“screech owl”) in Italian lands were in use, they did not necessarily refer to cunning folk but to someone whose agenda was questionable.

Witches generally were thought to be malignant creatures that caused disease and ruin. They were supernatural, bogey-men, but they could be real people as well. Calling or identifying someone as a witch was referred to as “scolding.” Scolding could lead to accusations and then legal action and violence against the accused. Those accused were generally scapegoats for disease or some other calamity or inconvenience that affected another member of the community. The scolded or accused might be a shrewish wife, an eccentric or difficult neighbor, a beautiful woman that a man couldn’t stop obsessing over, a poor old lady who was a drain on community resources, a skeptic, or the wise woman or man (that is, the healer, midwife, or unbewitcher) who scored low on a proverbial client-satisfaction survey.

Although legend goes that the Catholic Church was at the helm of the Inquisition and was the primary perpetrator during the so-called Burning Times (during the 16th century), the large majority of witch prosecutions took place in Protestant Swiss and Germanic lands and often were either presided over by local governments or mob rule. In fact, the Church’s early stance on the matter was that it was sinful, superstitious, and “heathenish” to believe that witches and the diabolical witches’ Sabbath were real and not paranoid legends. The Church was more concerned with heretics. Depending on who was the presiding pope at the time, more or less persons were tried for heresy in relation to accusations of witchcraft.

The major problem was that people truly believed that calamity was caused by the diabolical malevolence of witches. They looked for scapegoats to resolve problems such as plague, crop failure, and according to one research team who examined writings of a leading 16th century French jurist Jean Bodin (1530-1596), birth control efforts in an era of population decline (wherein midwives especially became targets of witchcraft accusations).

Qui scit sanare scit damnare

It is known that witch confessions were obtained through intense torture in which the accused were fed statements and repeatedly abused until they agreed to the accusation. For a taste of what an accused person could be expected to endure, play Professor Pavlac’s interactive narrative of witch persecution in early 17th century Germany at http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/witch/hunt/index.html. In short, whatever was said, a person was damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.

The reasons for the rise and fall of witchcraft accusations and persecutions in Europe are complex and varied. Although late Modern-era interpreters of the data strongly believed that the European witch hysteria shadowed an alternative culture that competed with the Christian one, the witch hysteria was just that: hysteria in which some persons—who often nevertheless were “true believers”—profited through exploitation and opportunism and others fell in line to save their own skins.

It is the historical equivalent of modern-day waves of Satanic- abuse and alien-abduction scares whose perpetrators generally are fundamentalist clergy, psychologists, and hypnotists who self-aggrandize and foment through book publishing and talk show circuits.  Their impact is generally mild, morbidly amusing, and fleeting in First-World societies. In Third World societies, such as those in tribal Africa, the impact remains significant; clans converted to fundamentalist Christianity are apparently solving their unwanted-child problem by accusing children of witchcraft and maiming and ultimately killing them while inquisitors profit and tyrannize.

The terms “witchcraft” and “paganism” in ages past meant something quite different than what they mean today (outside of fundamentalist Christian circles at least). Today these words are increasingly being used as self-identifiers and terms of inclusion; in the past, they were terms of exclusion. Today, they identify those persons who are in sympathy with certain aspects of Old World provincial culture (not “religion”).

This culture included natural and sympathetic magic, folk medicine, and metaphorical as well as animistic sensitivities to the cycles of nature in agrarian milieus.  It reflected a continuum that assimilated overriding cultural trends, such as Christianity. This cultural continuum is seen as a hijacking and conspiracy instead of mere change over time by some modern-day witches and Pagans. These persons find solace in persecution complexes, pitting their supposed ancestry against the Christian culture. A new sense of perspective is needed. Besides the facts already presented here about folk practitioners and the historicity of witchcraft and Paganism, it should be understood that practitioners of magic and of non-conventional or non-sanctioned religion in both Christian-era and pre-Christian era milieus came under fire. They were held under great suspicion because, as the subhead above states, “One who knows how to heal knows how to curse.”

Magic has always been an integral part of religion and folk culture although euphemisms are used to differentiate between sanctioned and unsanctioned rites and practices that, technically, are magical. This was so in the pre-Christian era in which persons from other cultures regarded their own practices as religion or custom and those of rival cultures as suspect and smacking of diabolical magic. Indeed, not only did the members of the dominant culture of antiquity persecute  early Christians in much the same way that Christians, in turn, persecuted people they believed were “pagan” or involved in heretical or antisocial supernatural endeavors, the members of the dominant culture referred to early Christians as pagans (outsiders, country folk, hillbillies, the dregs of society).

The members of the dominant culture defamed those belonging to the new Christian cult, believing that they engaged in secret and depraved rites having to do with death magic and cannibalism. Because leaders within the dominant culture thought that these diabolical, cannibalistic Christians were a threat, they rounded them up and tortured and killed them. Centuries later, the Roman world became Christianized and a distinct role-reversal ensued. Non-Christians or nonconformists were called pagans, were thought to be quaint and superstitious if not perceived as diabolical threats, and had to be assimilated or gotten rid of. What can be said about this: What goes around comes around or that, human nature being as it is, perpetrates the same nasty, paranoid habits over and again but finds new justifications for them?

Implications for Contemporary Pagans

New conventions in spirituality and thought do not arise in a vacuum but reflect an ever-evolving continuum. Why is it necessary to invent a past to validate new paradigms? Most spiritual movements that become cultural trends develop organically in reaction to or as a reinterpretation (not reassertion) of established structures. Indeed, their true origins are not self-conscious but can only be traced through retrospective analysis. This can be seen, for example, in the examination of spiritual movements within and around Hinduism over time and in the development and evolution of Christianity, Gnosticism, and, now, post-modern paganism. All have a unique signature yet all are diverse to the point of being “umbrella terms.” Complex influences feed their origins and expressions, and all have changed—and continue to change, sometimes quite radically—over time.

I used to disparage eclectism and free-form spirituality, believing that a person had to apply herself to an established tradition and to some sort of expertise and authority. I don’t feel this way anymore. My feelings have changed, in part, because I’ve discovered how specious “tradition” and concepts about “lineage” often are. Hopefully as Paganism continues to evolve, and as information on Paganism based on hard science and legitimate methodology comes into the public domain, people will appreciate its newness and find humor in the relativism of spiritual trends and the labels applied to them.

From my own forays into Western occultism, Paganism, and Earth-based spirituality, I see—and hope for—a trend away from the Pagan revivalism set in motion in the early 20th century, with its fabrications about witchcraft and pagan history and mystery rites. In its place, I expect to see a greater move toward organic, non-doctrinal, community-based and earth-based spiritual expression that only needs the human spirit itself for validation and credibility.


Selected References

-Bailey, Michael D. Magic and Superstition in Europe A Concise History From Antiquity to the Present. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2007

-de Blecourt, Willem. The Witch, her Victim, the Unwitcher, and the Researcher: The Continued Existence of Traditional Witchcraft. In: Ankarloo, Bengt; Clark, Stuart, eds. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. The Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

-Gibbons, Jenny. Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch Hunt


-Gijwijt-Hofstra, Marijke. Witchcraft after the Witch Trials. In: Ankarloo, Bengt; Clark, Stuart, eds. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

-Greenfield, Tau Allen. The Secret History of Modern Witchcraft in: Richard Metzger ed. Book of Lies The Disinformation Guide to Magick and the Occult. St. Paul: The Disinformation Company. 2003

-Greer, John Michael. The New Encyclopedia of the Occult. St Paul: Llewellyn Publications. 2005.

- Heinsohn, Gunnar ; Steiger, Otto. Birth Control: The Political-Economic Rationale behind Jean Bodin's Demonomanie.  History of Political Economy 1999;31(3): 423-448.

-Hutton, Ronald. Modern Pagan Witchcraft. In: Ankarloo, Bengt;  Clark, Stuart, eds. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. The Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

-La Fontaine, Jean. Satanism and Satanic Mythology. In: Bengt Ankarloo, Stuart Clark, eds. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. The Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

-Levak, Brian P. The Decline and End of Witchcraft Prosecutions. In: Ankarloo, Bengt; Clark, Stuart, eds. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

-Magliocco, Sabina. Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy. The Pomegranate: The Journal of Pagan Studies. 2000.

-Magliocco, Sabina. Who Was Aradia? The History and Development of a Legend.

The Pomegranate: The Journal of Pagan Studies. Issue 18, Feb. 2002.

-Noble Beyer, Catherine. The Burning Times or the More Persecuted than Thou Syndrome


-Pavlac, Brian A. Ten Common Errors and Myths about the Witch Hunts, Corrected and Commented, Prof. Pavlac's Women's History Resource Site. (June 6, 2006). http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/witcherrors.html.

-Porter, Roy. Witchcraft and Magic in Enlightenment, Romantic and Liberal Thought. In: Ankarloo, Bengt; Clark, Stuart, eds. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

-Saving Africa’s Witch Children. http://www.strimoo.com/video/15806468/Saving-Africa-s-Witch-Children-Veoh.html.

-Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London: Robert Hale, 1989.

Tags: gardner, paganism, strega, western occultism, wicca, witchcraft
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