Witchcraft: History and Theoretics

Introduction

This essay concerns paganism, the Western mystery traditions, and Witches. I make no claims regarding orthodoxy or truth here. I'm only telling a story that I have learned which is meaningful to those as skeptical and imaginative as myself.

There are certainly more fantastic accounts regarding these social traditions which I enjoy, yet for me they do not hold the same level of credibility. These tend to be more mythical and meaningful to the subconscious mind, and are therefore of perhaps more value than a story of the type you are about to read.

The Western mystery traditions, comprised of their mystical and occult threads, are impossible to define in any concrete fashion. Several people have of course attempted to do this, yet in each case their bias and short-sightedness hindered a complete description.

Besides this, the traditions themselves form a complex, arising as they do from numerous sources, locations and time periods. To isolate one tradition within this complex and attempt to understand its origin and character is not only difficult, it is a mistake.

In writing about paganism and witches here I therefore do you a disservice. I can only provide a small glimpse, a micro-view of the entirety. It is the equivalent of attempting to understand your nose. Without you and some understanding of the rest of you, my attempts will be minimal and perhaps futile.

Given all of this, I will nonetheless proceed.

A Rough Historical Basis of Paganism

In the ancient world there were two major types of society: the nomadic or wandering tribes and the stable homesteading tribes. Families tended to hold together in clans, at times joining and separating based upon need or individual difference, respectively.

These tribes developed their own forms of language, government, religion and philosophy. Their lifestyle contributed greatly toward their societal constructs. For this reason the most popular ideas and practices (those which have been preserved in their art and tools) included such themes as tool-making, hunting, and the Mysteries of birth, sex, power and death.

The stories and mythical artwork of ancient times portray someone immersed in a world of great powers. Sun, Moon, Clouds and Night often rivaled or combined with influential plants and animals as religious foci. Some of these became associated with individuals as symbols of personal identity and power.

There is little known regarding the actual practices of ancient peoples. What is commonly referred to as 'Paganism' in today's society is really a fabrication of fantasy, dreams and theory — useful for those who wish to create their own path, yet difficult to substantiate in anthropological terms.

The Developing World

Out of these family clans two major societal traditions developed in line with the types of tribes mentioned above. These were the non-mobile communities that settled in rich, comfortable environments near sources of water and food, and the pioneering explorers who roamed freely through sometimes quite inhospitable regions.

Without getting into too much detail, let us say that most of the ancient civilizations took root in what we today refer to as the 'East' or 'Middle East'. Those in China, India and Egypt/Mesopotamia are quite possibly the oldest large communities known.

The pioneers scattered in clans throughout the world, crossing the ice-bridge into the North Americas, and spread throughout Africa and the rest of the world. Some parts of these peoples are known as the 'Indo-Europeans', and the common heritage of both the Indus Valley Civilization (India) and the nomads of Europe (Celts, Teutons, etc.) is sometimes overlooked.

The religious practices were comprised of the same elements as in ancient times with variation based on lifestyle. Those who were nomadic tended to focus more on courage, stability and the figure of the Hero/ine.

Those who were stationary tended to focus upon bounty, life, and the figure of the Mother or Father (depending on region and time).

Again, while more is known about these civilizations and pioneers, ideas concerning their lifestyle is speculation and projection, assembled from pottery, statuettes, tools, buried cities and mass graves.

A Rough Historical Overview of the Western Mystery Traditions

With greater and greater numbers of people vying for use and control of resources, and given the nature of humans, warring became inevitable.

Tribes focused the advantage of group power toward their own ends, often at the expense of individuals and/or smaller communities.

This group identity and force concertized many times in the course of time and, in the area of Europe and the Mediterranean, reached its height in the form of the Roman Empire.

Founded upon pagan fertility rites and martial Mystery schools, the Romans sought to bring unity, through force, to the decentralized tribes of Europe, driving the last rebellious factions into the British Isles (chiefly Ireland and Scotland) and northerly reaches (Scandinavia, Finland, etc.).

During the rule of the Romans a wave of religious fervor spread from the Middle East. It was a martyrdom cult, given life by the Mystery traditions of Osiris and other heroic figures, and centering on the concepts of indwelling authority, the resistance to oppression and the sacrifice of one's life in the cause of freedom.

When first attempts to stamp this out only inflamed its growth, the Romans took the only reasonable action in response, taking its mantle and co-opting the movement through deception. This was the Roman response to the threat of 'Christianity' and the beginning of the 'Holy Roman Empire'.

Centuries rolled by, during which the social factions of the country farmer, the warrior, the creative artisan/merchant and the lawyer, or priestly, clerical (scribe) castes developed along an age-old system of Indo-European, tribal stratification.

In each of these social classes there arose a different type of religious practice, given substance by a common ancient heritage, yet formed within the values and lifestyles of those who created them.

The clerical caste, often sharing political and social power with the warriors, developed a form of Christianity focused on literature and the skills of language, sometimes becoming dogmatism.

The warrior and merchant classes pursued a mixture of the ancient Mystery schools (which the warrior class would perpetually retain), Christian symbology (much of which originated from within the Mystery schools in any case), and a type of social and personal alchemy, inspired by the work of the pyramids in Egypt and other created world wonders of the time. This developed into a fraternal artisan guild structure known as Masonry.

The peasants and farmers pursued variations of older, regional practices, largely agricultural and fertility rites. It was the variation both in literacy and in economic status which would stigmatize the lower classes as 'primitive' in the eyes of 'scholars' for many years.

The Current Western Mystery Traditions

Human civilization is an ever-renewing flower, a recurrently-erupting volcano of art, politics, religion and philosophy. We might compare the development of the human brain with the development of 'civilization' (society). The deeper, more central and less obvious elements of the brain are its oldest parts, and this is true also for Western society and its religious traditions.

Today's purely Western sects include the complex which is called Christianity, the ripe material objectivism which is called modern Science, the Masonic tradition, and what can reasonably be called neo-paganism or neo-shamanism.

Christianity is largely the result of enforced conformity, and its doctrines and practices, while retaining an essentially (as from the essences, 'those who are') valuable teaching, are now geared more toward the simple of mind or extremely intelligent than to anyone between the two.

Modern Science is a renegade sect of philosophers and engineers, often disconnected from their roots in Christian and Masonic traditions. Much of it has become for the West what Christianity once was: an orthodoxy of intellectual stagnation, producing specialists and elitists. They now wield authority in the field of 'objective knowledge', supplanting Church doctrine.

Masonic traditions are, at their worst, social indoctrination schemes that effectively disempowered the individual and diffuse rebellion. At their best they are mechanisms of preserving important pscho-social symbols and concepts. The form and meaning of these symbols may have a profoundly transformative effect upon those who use them as a foci of meditation.

Setting the Stage: The fragmentation of paganism

It ought be said that none of the aforementioned social, religious developments took place in a vacuum. Just as there is an incredible mixture among economic classes by virtue of a shared society, so has there been a weaving of religious traditions in the West.

Ancient roots of unknown form gave way, through civilization, to an agrarian and fertility-based religious expression amidst peasantry, the farmers in much of Europe. This was dissipated by war, plague and the oppression of upper class fear (exemplified by the Inquisition).

Many, if not all, of the ancient rites have been forgotten or lost, only preserved in form by a co-opting 'Christian' social tradition (e.g. communion and the concept of the Dying Sun-King), or by those who have seized upon times of old as some sort of some of 'Golden Age', free from the pressures and trials of civilized, citified life.

Whether or not any remnants of an agrarian, fertility-religion somehow managed to be preserved by such a non-literary, ravaged culture as was peasant Europe, it did not likely retained the same form over hundreds of years, especially given the pressures from the upper classes to dissolve it.

It has been popular to assume that if indeed this did occur, then it would most likely have found shelter within places which withstood the onslaught of the Romans, British and other imperialists bent on unification through force.

With all this history behind it, and given inspiration by an orthodoxy which berated and condemned it, when tides of political and social restriction began to recede, it is no wonder that a renewal, a resurgence, began to develop. Much of this rejuvenation has taken place very recently.

A New Religion: Gerald Gardner and the Craft

Controversy has raged during the latter half of this century concerning the origin and history of neo-paganism. The term itself derives from a new version (neo) of the religion of the country-dweller (paganus). It is a similar descriptor to the 'heathen' or, 'one who dwells within the heaths', the shrubland.

Until 1951 many countries had laws against Masonry and Witchcraft, a holdover from earlier times. England was among them, and in that year it repealed restriction of Witchcraft.

In immediate response to this, a man by the name of Gerald Gardner published several books on the subject, claiming to have had dealings with an extant 'family tradition' of Witches in England. In so doing he revealed details of their lives and religious expression.

Much of the resultant history of Wicca, or Witchcraft, is available in written form by such notable authors as Margot Adler. I shall not repeat their words here except to say that there are important relationships between today's organized Witches and traditions outside the peasant class, notably Masonry.

Terms such as 'craft', ritual forms such as 'initiations', and social delineations like 'degrees' are indicators to me of the similarity of origin between modern Wicca and Masonry. For this reason and because I personally find its seemingly rigid structures distasteful, I consider the religion of Wicca to be different than the Way of the Witch. This is largely as a result my own experience and the prevalence of this attitude among many of those whose vision I respected greatly.

I would distinguish between a Wiccan, who is a member of an organized and tax-exempt tradition with many sects (such as Gardnerianism, Alexandrianism, Fairy, etc.), and a witch, who needs no social tradition yet may or may not engage society and group rite. A Wiccan may be a Witch, but a witch need not be a Wiccan.

My Meaning for the term 'Witch'

'Witch' appears to derive from the root 'wicce', which means 'to bend'. I like to play with the ambiguity of this definition. A witch bends like the reed in the wind. She also is one who bends or shapes her world.

Witches are healers. This varies, however, among those who engage the healing of individuals, those who work for the healing of all, and those who seek both, or see no essential difference between them. In this way witches may be identified as shamans.

Here my bias becomes blatant.

Witches tend to focus more heavily upon certain mythic images than on others. Usually this is the imagery which common society has shunned/repressed. For this reason I say that modern witches focus more on the wrathful, repulsive, and/or aged aspects of any deities which enter her practice — the Crone, the Old King, the Underworld Lord, the Demon Queen.

Witches are often ecologists and may apply the principles of ecology in their lives where they feel able. Many are engaged in political activities designed to awaken a sensitivity to issues surrounding plant and animal, the balance of nature, and one's place in nature.

Witches are individualists. Most are solitary workers. It is rare that I meet a witch who says she's a member of an organized religion. Those who do often work for social change, harmony, and a global consciousness without doctrinal or moral sectarianism.

I find that most witches are open-minded and focus on actions rather than words and ideas, many having studied other cultures and acquired a broader view of social issues, and are generally accepting of all those whom they meet.

I would say one more thing about witches. They have a sense of humor. They don't seize on details and ostracize, they don't require the seriousness of others, they often don't take themselves too seriously, understanding the Great Cosmic Joke in which they live.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would further note there is absolutely nothing which separates a witch from a Christian, a Buddhist, a Taoist, or even a Satanist.

One reason this is the case is that being a witch's life doesn't necessarily have anything to do with social religious tradition, though it may include it. Another is that there is a place where all paths converge and this 'place between' is where the witch spends the bulk of her time.

Afterward

My definitions and descriptions are by no means the last word on the subject of witches. I urge you to develop your own ideas if you have not done so already. There are no false paths in the amusement park of the imagination.

Create fabulous stories about your origin and the origin of groups to which you belong. Witches are more about fantasy than about fact, more about imagination than about knowledge, more about ambiguity than about clarity.

I hope you will take what I've said here and chew on it, mash it up, destroy it, then create your own stories with the combined mastications of all the stories you have found inspiring.

There is no truth but what we discover.

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