A True History of Witchcraft

"The fact is that the instincts of ignorant people invariably find expression in some form of witchcraft. It matters little what the metaphysician or the moralist may inculcate; the animal sticks to his subconscious ideas."
— Aleister Crowley The Confessions

"As attunement to psychic (occult) reality has grown in America, one often misunderstood and secretive branch of it has begun to flourish also — magickal religion."
— J. Gordon Melton Institute for the Study of American Religion, Green Egg, 1975

"Curse them! Curse them! Curse them!
With my Hawk's head I peck at the eyes of
Jesus as he hangs upon the cross
I flap my wings in the face of Mohammed &
blind him
With my claws I tear out the flesh of the
Indian and the Buddhist, Mongol and
Din."

Liber Al Vel Legis 3:50-53

"Previously I never thought of doubting that there were many witches in the world; now, however, when I examine the public record, I find myself believing that there are hardly any."
— Father Friedrich von Spee, S.J., Cautio Criminalis, 1631

I use the word 'mythology' in this context in its aboriginal meaning, and with considerable respect. History is more metaphor than factual accounting at best, and there are myths by which we live and others by which we die. Myths are the dreams and visions which parallel objective history. This entire work is, in fact, an attempt to approximate history.

To arrive at some perspective on what the modern mythos called, variously, "Wicca", the "Old Religion", "Witchcraft" and "Neopaganism" is, we must firstly make a firm distinction; "witchcraft" in the popular informally defined sense may have little to do with the modern religion that goes by the same name. It has been argued by defenders of and formal apologists for modern Wicca that it is a direct lineal descendent of an ancient, indeed, prehistoric worldwide folk religion.

Some proponents hedge their claims, calling Wicca a "revival" rather than a continuation of an ancient cult. Oddly enough, there may never have been any such cult! The first time I met someone who thought she was a "witch," she started going on about being a "blue of the cloak." I should've been warned right then and there. In fact, as time has passed and the religion has spread, the claims of lineal continuity have tended to be hedged more and more. Thus, we find Dr. Gardner himself, in 1954, stating unambiguously that some witches are descendants "of a line of priests and priestesses of an old and probably Stone Age religion, who have been initiated in a certain way (received into the circle) and become the recipients of certain ancient learning." (Gardner, Witchcraft Today, pp 33-34.)

Stated in its most extreme form, Wicca may be defined as an ancient pagan religious system of beliefs and practices, with a form of apostolic succession (that is, with knowledge and ordination handed on lineally from generation to generation), a more or less consistent set of rites and myths, and even a secret holy book of considerable antiquity (The Book of Shadows).

More recent writers, as we have noted, have hedged a good deal on these claims, particularly the latter. Thus we find Stewart Farrar in 1971 musing on the purported ancient text thusly: "Whether, therefore, the whole of the Book of Shadows is post 1897 is anyone's guess. Mine is that, like the Bible, it is a patchwork of periods and sources, and that since it is copied and re-copied by hand, it includes amendments, additions, and stylistic alterations according to the taste of a succession of copiers. Parts of it I sense to be genuinely old; other parts suggest modern interpolation." (Farrar, What Witches Do, pp 34-35.) As we shall discover presently, there appear to be no genuinely old copies of the Book of Shadows.

Still, as to the mythos, Farrar informs us that the "two personifications of witchcraft are the Horned God and the Mother Goddess." (ibid, p 29) and that the "Horned God is not the Devil, and never has been. If today 'Satanist' covens do exist, they are not witches but a sick fringe, delayed-reaction victims of a centuries-old Church propaganda in which even intelligent Christians no longer believe." (ibid, p 32).

One could protest: "Very well, some case might be made for the Horned God being mistaken for the Christian Devil (or should that be the other way around?), but what record, prior to the advent 50 years ago of modern Wicca via Gerald Gardner, do we have of the survival of a mother goddess image from ancient times?"

Wiccan apologists frequently refer to the (apparently isolated) tenth century church document which states that "some wicked women, perverted by the Devil, seduced by the illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and profess themselves in the hours of the night to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of pagans, or with Herodias, and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the dead of night to traverse great spaces of earth, and to obey her commands as of their mistress, and to be summoned to her service on certain nights." (Quoted in Valiente, Witchcraft for Tomorrow, Hale, 1978, p. 32.) I do not doubt that bits of pagan folklore survived on the Continent through the first millennium — Northern Europe remained overtly pagan until the High Middle Ages. But what has this to do with Wicca?

Farrar, for his part, explains the lack of references to a goddess in the testimony at the infamous witch trials by asserting that "the judges ignored the Goddess, being preoccupied with the Satan-image of the God." (What Witches Do, p. 33). But it is the evidence of that reign of terror which lasted from roughly 1484 to 1692 which brings the whole idea of a surviving religious cult into question. It is now the conventional wisdom on the witch burning mania which swept like a plague over much of Europe during the transition from medieval world to modern that it was just that; a mania, a delusion in the minds of Christian clergymen and state authorities; that is, there were no witches, only the innocent victims of the witch hunt.

Further, this humanist argument goes, the 'witchcraft' of Satanic worship, broomstick riding, of Sabbats and Devil-marks, was a rather late invention, borrowing but little from remaining memories of actual pre-Christian paganism. We have seen a resurrection of this mania in the 1980s flurry over 'Satanic sacrificial' cults, with as little evidence.

"The concept of the heresy of witchcraft was frankly regarded as a new invention, both by the theologians and by the public," writes Dr. Rossell Hope Robbins in The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft & Demonology, (Crown, 1959, p. 9)"Having to hurdle an early church law, the Canon Episcopi, which said in effect that belief in witchcraft was superstitious and heretical, the inquisitors caviled by arguing that the witchcraft of the Canon Episcopi and the witchcraft of the Inquisition were different."

The evidence extracted under the most gruesome and repeated tortures resemble the Wiccan religion of today in only the most cursory fashion. Though Wicca may have been framed with the "confessions" extracted by victims of the inquisitors in mind, those "confessions" — which are more than suspect, to begin with, bespeak a cult of devil worshipers dedicated to evil.

One need only read a few of the accounts of the time to realize that, had there been at the time a religion of the Goddess and God, of seasonal circles and The Book of Shadows, such would likely have been blurted out by the victims, and more than once. The agonies of the accused were, almost literally, beyond the imagination of those of us who have been fortunate enough to escape them.

The witch mania went perhaps unequaled in the annals of crimes against humanity en masse until the Hitlerian brutality of our own century. But, no such confessions were forthcoming, though the wretches accused, before the torture was done, would also be compelled to condemn their own parents, spouses, loved ones, even children. They confessed, and to anything the inquisitors wished, anything to stop or reduce the pain.

A Priest, probably at risk to his own life, recorded testimony in the 1600s that reflected the reality underlying the forced "confessions" of "witches". Rev. Michael Stapirius records, for example, this comment from one "confessed witch": "I never dreamed that by means of the torture a person could be brought to the point of telling such lies as I have told. I am not a witch, and I have never seen the devil, and still I had to plead guilty myself and denounce others." All but one copy of Father Stapirius' book were destroyed, and little wonder.

A letter smuggled from a German burgomaster, Johannes Junius, to his daughter in 1628, is as telling as it is painful even to read. His hands had been virtually destroyed in the torture, and he wrote only with great agony and no hope. "When at last the executioner led me back to the cell, he said to me, 'Sir, I beg you, for God's sake, confess something, whether it be true or not. Invent something, for you cannot endure the torture which you will be put to; and, even if you bear it all, yet you will not escape, not even if you were an earl, but one torture will follow another until you say you are a witch. Not before that,' he said, 'will they let you go, as you may see by all their trials, for one is just like another.' " (ibid, p. 12-13)

For the graspers at straws, we may find an occasional line in a "confession" which is intriguing, as in the notations on the "confession" of one woman from Germany dated in late 1637. After days of unspeakable torment, wherein the woman confesses under pain, recants when the pain is removed, only to be moved by more pain to confess again, she is asked: "How did she influence the weather? She does not know what to say and can only whisper, Oh, Heavenly Queen, protect me!"

Was the victim calling upon "the goddess"? Or, as seems more likely, upon that aforementioned transfiguration of all ancient goddesses in Christian mythology, the Virgin Mary. One more quote from Dr. Robbins, and I will cease to parade late medieval history before you.

It comes from yet another priest, Father Cornelius Loos, who observed, in 1592 that "Wretched creatures are compelled by the severity of the torture to confess things they have never done, and so by cruel butchery innocent lives are taken." (ibid, p. 16). The "evidence" of the witch trials indicates, on the whole, neither the Satanism the church and state would have us believe, nor the pagan survivals now claimed by modern Wicca; rather, they suggest only fear, greed, human brutality carried out to bizarre extremes that have few parallels in all of history. But, the brutality is not that of 'witches' nor even of 'Satanists' but rather that of the Christian Church, and the government.

What, then, are we to make of modern Wicca? It must, of course, be observed as an aside that in a sense witchcraft or "wisecraft" has, indeed, been with us from the dawn of time, not as a coherent religion or set of practices and beliefs, but as the folk magic and medicine that stretches back to early, possibly Paleolithic tribal shamans on to modern China's so-called "barefoot doctors".

In another sense, we can also say that ceremonial magick, as I have previously noted, has had a place in history for a very long time, and both these ancient systems of belief and practice have intermingled in the lore of modern Wicca, as apologists are quick to claim.

But, to an extent, this misses the point and skirts an essential question anyone has the right to ask about modern Wicca — namely, did Wicca exist as a coherent creed, a distinct form of spiritual expression, prior to the 1940s; that is, prior to the meeting of minds between the old magus and venerable prophet of the occult world Aleister Crowley, and the first popularizer, if not outright inventor of modern Wicca, Gerald Brosseau Gardner?

There is certainly no doubt that bits and pieces of ancient paganism survived into modern times in folklore and, for that matter, in the very practices and beliefs of Christianity.

Further, there appears to be some evidence that 'Old George' Pickingill and others were practicing some form of folk magick as early as the latter part of the last century, though even this has recently been brought into question. Wiccan writers have made much of this in the past, but just what 'Old George' was into is subject to much debate.

Doreen Valiente, an astute Wiccan writer and one-time intimate of the late Dr. Gardner (and, in fact, the author of some rituals now thought by others to be of "ancient origin"), says of Pickingill that so "fierce was 'Old George's dislike of Christianity that he would even collaborate with avowed Satanists." (Tomorrow, p. 20). What George Pickingill was doing is simply not clear.

He is said to have had some interaction with a host of figures in the occult revival of the late nineteenth century, including perhaps even Crowley and his friend Bennett. It seems possible that Gardner, about the time of meeting Crowley, had some involvement with groups stemming from Pickingill's earlier activities, but it is only after Crowley and Gardner meet that we begin to see anything resembling the modern spiritual communion that has become known as Wicca.

"Witches," wrote Gardner in 1954, "are consummate leg-pullers; they are taught it as part of their stock-in-trade." (Witchcraft Today, p. 27) Modern apologists both for Aleister Crowley and Gerald Gardner have taken on such serious tones as well as pretensions that they may be missing places where tongues are firmly jutting against cheeks.

Both men were believers in fleshly fulfillment, not only as an end in itself but, as in the Tantric Yoga of the East, as a means of spiritual attainment. A certain prudishness has crept into the practices of post Gardnarian Wiccans, especially in America since the 1960s, along with a certain feminist revisionism. This has succeeded to a considerable extent in converting a libertine sex cult into a rather staid neo-puritanism.

The original Gardnarian current is still well enough known and widely enough in vogue (in Britain and Ireland especially) that one can venture to assert that what Gardnerian Wicca is all about is the same thing Crowley was attempting with a more narrow, more intellectual constituency in the magickal orders under his direct influence.

These Orders had flourished for some time, but by the time Crowley 'officially' met Gardner in the 1940s, much of the former's lifelong efforts had, if not totally disintegrated, at least were then operating at a diminished and diminishing level.

Through his long and fascinating career as magus and organizer, there is some reason to believe that Crowley periodically may have wished for, or even attempted to create a more populist expression of magickal religion. The Gnostic Mass, which Crowley wrote fairly early-on, had come since his death to somewhat fill this function through the OTO-connected Gnostic Catholic Church (EGC).

As we shall see momentarily, one of Crowley's key followers was publishing manifestos forecasting the revival of witchcraft at the same time Gardner was being chartered by Crowley to organize an OTO encampment. The OTO itself, since Crowley's time, has taken on a more popular image, and is more targeted towards international organizational efforts, thanks largely to the work under the Caliphate of the late Grady McMurtry. This contrasts sharply with the very internalized OTO that barely survived during the McCarthy Era, when the late Karl Germer was in charge, and the OTO turned inward for two decades.

The famous Ancient and Mystic Order of the Rose Cross (AMORC), the highly successful mail-order spiritual fellowship, was an OTO offspring in Crowley's time. It has been claimed that Kenneth Grant and Aleister Crowley were discussing relatively radical changes in the Ordo Templi Orientis at approximately the same time that Gardner and Crowley were interactive.

Though Wiccan writers give some lip service (and, no doubt, some sincere credence) to the notion that the validity of Wiccan ideas depends not upon its lineage, but rather upon its workability, the suggestion that Wicca is — or, at least, started out to be, essentially a late attempt at popularizing the secrets of ritual and sexual magick Crowley promulgated through the OTO and his writings, seems to evoke nervousness, if not hostility.

We hear from Wiccan writer and leader Raymond Buckland that one "of the suggestions made is that Aleister Crowley wrote the rituals, but no convincing evidence has been presented to back this assertion and, to my mind, it seems extremely unlikely." (Gardner, ibid, introduction) The Wiccan rituals I have seen DO have much of Crowley in them. Yet, as we shall observe presently, the explanation that 'Crowley wrote the rituals for Gardner' turns out to be somewhat in error. But it is on the right track.

Doreen Valiente attempts to invoke Crowley's alleged infirmity at the time of his acquaintance with Gardner:
"It has been stated by Francis King in his Ritual Magic in England that Aleister Crowley was paid by Gerald Gardner to write the rituals of Gardner's new witch cult. Now, Gerald Gardner never met Aleister Crowley until the very last years of the latter's life, when he was a feeble old man living at a private hotel in Hastings, being kept alive by injections of drugs. If, therefore, Crowley really invented these rituals in their entirety, they must be about the last thing he ever wrote. Was this enfeebled and practically dying man really capable of such a tour de force?"

The answer, as Dr. Israel Regardie's introduction to the posthumous collection of Crowley's late letters, Magick without Tears, implies, would seem to be yes. Crowley continued to produce extraordinary material almost to the end of his life, and much of what I have seen of the "Wiccan Crowley" is, in any case, of earlier origin.

Gerald Gardner is himself not altogether silent on the subject. In Witchcraft Today (p. 47), Gardner asks himself, with what degree of irony one can only guess at, who, in modern times, could have invented the Wiccan rituals. "The only man I can think of who could have invented the rites," he offers, "was the late Aleister Crowley, possibly he borrowed things from the cult writings, or more likely someone may have borrowed expressions from him." A few legs may be being pulled here, and perhaps more than a few.

As a prophet ahead of his time, as a poet and dreamer, Crowley is one of the outstanding figures of the twentieth (or any) century. As an organizer, he was almost as much of a disaster as he was at managing his own finances and personal life. As I understand the libratory nature of the magickal path, one would do well to see the difference between Crowley the prophet of Thelema and Crowley the insolvent and inept administrator.

Crowley very much lacked the common touch; Gardner was above all things a popularizer. Both men have been reviled as lecherous "dirty old men" — Crowley, as a seducer of women and a homosexual, a drug addict and 'satanist' rolled together.

Gardner was, they would have it, a voyeur, exhibitionist and bondage freak with a 'penchant for ritual' to borrow a line from The Story of O. Both were, in reality, spiritual libertines, ceremonial magicians who did not shy away from the awesome force of human sexuality and its potential for spiritual transformation as well as physical gratification.

I will not say with finality at this point whether Wicca is an outright invention of these two divine con-men. If so, more power to them, and to those who truly follow in their path. I do know that, around 1945, Crowley chartered Gardner, an initiate of the Ordo Templi Orientis, giving him license to organize an OTO encampment.

Shortly thereafter, the public face of Wicca came into view, and that is what I know of the matter: I presently have in my possession Gardner's certificate of license to organize said OTO camp, signed and sealed by Aleister Crowley. The certificate and its import are examined in connection with my personal search for the original Book of Shadows in the next section of this narrative.

For now, though, let us note in the years since Crowley licensed Gardner to organize a magical encampment, Wicca has both grown in popularity and become, to my mind, something far less real than either Gardner or Crowley could have wanted or foreseen. Wherever they came from, the rites and practices which came from or through Gerald Gardner were strong, and tapped into that archetypal reality, that level of consciousness beneath the mask of polite society and conventional wisdom which is the function of True Magick.

At a popular level, this was the Tantric sex magick of the West. Whether this primordial access has been lost to us will depend on the awareness, the awakening or lack thereof among practitioners of the near to middle-near future. Carried to its end Gardnerian practices, like Crowley's magick, are not merely exotic; they are, in the truest sense, subversive.

Practices that work are of value, whether they are two years old or two thousand. Practices, myths, institutions and obligations which, on the other hand, may be infinitely ancient are of no value at all unless they work.

The Devil, you say —

Before we move on, though, in light of the furor over real and imagined "Satanism" that has overtaken parts of the popular press in recent years, I would feel a bit remiss in this account if I did not take momentary note of that other strain of left-handed occult mythology, Satanism. Wiccans are correct when they say that modern Wicca is not Satanic, that Satanism is "reverse Christianity" whereas Wicca is a separate, non-Christian religion.

Still, it should be noted, so much of our society has been grounded in the repressiveness and authoritarian moralism of Christianity that a liberal dose of "counter Christianity" is to be expected. The Pat Robertsons of the world make possible the Anton LeVays. In the long history of repressive religion, a certain fable of Satanism has arisen. It constitutes a mythos of its own. No doubt, misguided 'copycat' fanatics have sometimes misused this mythos, in much the same way that Charles Manson misused the music and culture of the 1960s.

True occult initiates have always regarded the Ultimate Reality as beyond all names and description. Named 'deities' are, therefore, largely symbols. "Isis" is a symbol of the long-denied female component of deity to some occultists. "Pan" or "The Horned God" or "Set" or even "Satan" are symbols of unconscious, repressed sexuality. To the occultist, there is no Devil, no "god of evil." There is, ultimately, only the Ain Sof Aur of the Cabbalah; the limitless light of which we are but a frozen spark. Evil, in this system, is the mere absence of light. All else is illusion.

The goal of the occult path of initiation is balance. In Freemasonry and High Magick, the symbols of the White Pillar and Black Pillar represent this balance between conscious and unconscious forces.

In Gardnarian Wicca, the Goddess and Horned God — and the Priestess and Priest, represent that balance. There is nothing, nothing of pacts with the "Devil" or the worship of evil in any of this; that belongs to misguided ex-Christians who have been given the absurd fundamentalist Sunday school notion that one must choose the Christian version of God, or choose the Devil. Islam, Judaism and even Catholicism have at one time or another been thought "satanic," and occultists have merely played on this bigoted symbolism, not subscribed to it.

As we have seen, Wicca since Gardner's time has been watered down in many of its expressions into a kind of mushy white-light 'new age' religion, with far less of the strong sexuality characteristic of Gardnerianism, though, also, sometimes with less pretense as well.

In any event, Satanism has popped up now and again through much of the history of the Christian Church. The medieval witches were not likely to have been Satanists, as the Church would have it, but, as we have seen, neither were they likely to have been "witches" in the Wiccan sense, either.

The Hellfire Clubs of the eighteenth century were Satanic, and groups like the Process Church of the Final Judgment do, indeed, have Satanic elements in their (one should remember) essentially Christian theology.

Aleister Crowley, ever theatrical, was prone to use Satanic symbolism in much the same way, tongue jutting in cheek, as he was given to saying that he "sacrificed millions of children each year, " that is, that he masturbated. Crowley once called a press conference at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, where he announced that he was burning his British Passport to protest Britain's involvement in World War One. He tossed an empty envelope into the water. He was dead serious, though, about the "Satanism" of Miltonian eternal rebellion, and the "Satanism" of fundamentalism's dark fear of sexuality. The Devil, however; the Satanic "god of evil" was an absurdity to him, as to all thinking people, and he freely said so.

The most popular form of "counter Christianity" to emerge in modern times, though, was Anton Szandor LaVey's San Francisco-based Church of Satan, founded April 30, 1966. LaVey's Church enjoyed an initial burst of press interest, grew to a substantial size, and appeared to maintain itself during the cultural drought of the 1970s. But LaVey's books, The Satanic Bible and The Satanic Rituals, have remained in print for many years, and his ideas seem to be enjoying a renewal of interest, especially among younger people, punks and heavy metal fans with a death-wish mostly, beginning in the middle years of the 1980s. By that time the Church of Satan had been largely succeeded by the Temple of Set. This is pure theater; more in the nature of psychotherapy than religion.

It is interesting to note Francis King's observation that before the Church of Satan began LaVey was involved in an occult group which included, among others, underground film maker Kenneth Anger, a person well known in Crowlean circles. Of the rites of the Church of Satan, King states that "most of its teachings and magical techniques were somewhat vulgarized versions of those of Aleister Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis." (Man Myth and Magic, p. 3204.) To which we might add that, as with the OTO, the rites of the Church of Satan are manifestly potent, but hardly criminal or murderous.

LaVey, like Gardner and unlike Crowley, appears to have "the common touch" — perhaps rather more so than Gardner.

I determined to trace the Wiccan rumor to its source. As we shall see, in the very year I "fell" into being a gnostic bishop, I also fell into the original charters, rituals and paraphernalia of Wicca.

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