Saturday, August 14, 2010

Once Upon A Time There Lived A Witch

There has been a long tradition in modern witchcraft to spin the origins of that religion, to make it seem antique and ancient. When I became a witch many years ago, we called it the Old Religion because it was believed to be traceable all the way back to paleolithic times. Witchcraft was the supposed religion of our prehistoric ancestors, or so we thought. Most of the books published on witchcraft back in the those days had this historical perspective, and we all bought into it, believing that it was an obvious truth. Yet over time this whole perspective changed dramatically. This was due to the intrusion of real academics and historians who scrutinized our historical claims and beliefs, attempting to determine if there were any real historical antecedents to modern witchcraft. They found nothing to indicate that modern witchcraft was the rebirth of humanity’s oldest religion. We were guilty of unwittingly perpetuating an urban myth. Modern witchcraft was not the Old Religion after all.

Not everyone in the various craft communities have taken the opinions of the historians to heart. There are still many individuals who believe that witchcraft, as an alternative pagan religion long suppressed, existed since the beginning of humanity. They believe that it survived through the dark ages and the reformation until the present times. What the historians have actually found out is much more complex and a lot less romantic. Modern witchcraft is a modern religious invention, while ancient witchcraft was a system of performing magic that incorporated many cultural and religious sources.

I am referring to specific pagan religious beliefs and practices when I use the word “modern witchcraft.” It would consist of various religious practices and beliefs, such as the worship of a Goddess, God, cult initiations, communal religious practices mixed with various occult beliefs and magickal practices. I believe that this melange of beliefs and practices is obviously modern, perhaps no older than the turn of the twentieth century. Certain phenomena had to occur before individuals or small groups could consider building their own religion based on researched, presumed or even fantasy based information. It took an affluent and moderately educated middle class to produce the phenomenon of modern witchcraft. These are my opinions, of course, but let me attempt to quickly pull together some interesting facts to support this theory.

Archaic witchcraft had little or nothing to do with any kind of religion or the worship of the old pagan gods; it was exclusively a system of magick, plain and simple. Those who practiced it were called cunning folk, both men and women, and these folk, for a small fee, helped their impoverished neighbors cope with the harsh realities of life in the country. Cunning folk were almost always good Christians who went to church just like everyone else. It would have been considered quite bad not to be a Christian and work apparent miracles, since popular opinion would define that as diabolical, something a cunning man or woman would assiduously avoid. To be called a witch in those days was to be labeled a malefic practitioner of wonders, all of which would be considered works of the devil. If cunning men or women were called witches and they were not able to quell such gossip, then they were not long for this world either, since their neighbors would not tolerate someone working ill in their midst. Justice would be swift, final and quite lethal.

This is because witchcraft was considered evil magic, and witches were those who perpetrated such crimes against their neighbors. There are many folk tales and stories about witches, but few if any of them could be used to propose that witchcraft and witches worshiped the old pagan gods.  In fact, popular belief from those times held that witches were inherently evil, since they never profited anyone, but cursed and caused malicious mischief to nearly everyone. They were the enemies of all that was good, just and positive. Cunning folk were often hired to nullify the spells and bad luck caused by witches. Yet it was more likely that such individuals existed only in the minds of the ignorant peasantry, since they functioned as society’s scapegoats and bugaboos. If something bad happened, it was because of the evil magic performed by witches.

We have examples of that kind of archaic thinking in our language today. The term “stirring up trouble” comes from the metaphor of a witch stirring her cauldron to cast evil spells on unsuspecting simple folk. So witches, up until modern times, were considered supernatural beings. They could be caught and killed, but often eluded capture and identification. They could fly in the air and were the cause of catastrophe and disasters, great and small. When unfortunate individuals were captured and tried as witches, they were more often cunning folk or innocent victims who had been turned on by their neighbors. In that time of Christian dominance, there were only two theological possibilities, being a good Christian or being in league with the Devil. No one considered reintegrating antique pagan beliefs into one’s religion except the various savants of the renaissance, such as Ficino or Bruno, who wrote their scholarly opinions in the Latin language.

So for many centuries, witchcraft was synonymous with diabolism and malefic magic. That didn’t change until the middle of the 18th century, when the age of enlightenment began to pervade the thinking of the less educated and less affluent masses. At first there was a movement to classify witches and witchcraft as a form of superstition and ignorance, and to contrast that against a world that was rational, humanistic and ruled by immutable physical laws. Then those who continued to proclaim that they had supernatural powers (or were persecuted by those who did have those powers) were considered not just ignorant, but delusional and even afflicted with madness. After many years of this relentless campaign against superstition, belief in witches all but evaporated. Governments that had previously persecuted witches and executed hundreds of poor victims now repudiated what been practiced in the not so distant past as the product of mass hysteria. Finally, witches were only to be found in fairy tales, costume parties and childrens' make believe fantasies.

So how did witchcraft go from being considered a superstition to becoming a modern religion? I believe that it had to do with changing attitudes, an intellectual curiosity about the older pagan religions and a powerful dissatisfaction with Christianity, whether of Protestantism or Catholicism. This could not have happened until certain events had already occurred in Europe and the United States, and these events were:

  • A stable literate middle class (with some time for leisure),
  • Availability of higher education, all written and taught in the local vernacular,
  • Exposure to foreign religions and beliefs,
  • Disenchantment with the religion of the status quo,
  • Availability of books on antique religious beliefs,
  • Popularity of folk religions and a nostalgia for the past.

If you look at the above list, you will notice that these factors could not have existed either in the U.S. or Europe until at least the 20th century. It’s not surprising that historians can’t find any evidence of there being any kind of manifestation of a religious based form of witchcraft until the advent of the 20th century. Until the above factors were present in a culture, then it could not be expected to formulate any kind of new religion such as modern witchcraft.

If a society doesn’t have an educated middle class, then the status quo religion will dominate and prevail, since the lower class folk will be too busy trying to stay alive than engage in idle religious speculation. The powerful impact caused by a literate middle class has to be weighed as a significant factor, since books written about foreign people and their exotic religions have become available to the masses only in the last 150 years. These books, and later on, actual exposure to foreign lands and peoples, would have stimulated thoughts and speculations of a religious nature. When all of these factors are present, then alternative religions have the possibility of either being created or appropriated from other cultures.

This model has its limitations, of course, since it couldn’t be used to predict such religions as Haitian Voudoun, Carribean Santeria or Brazilian Macumba. In these cases, individuals were ripped from their indigenous cultures and forced to adopt European colonial values and social practices. The resulting melange of African and European cultural beliefs was allowed to coexist due to the economic segregation, racism and material impoverishment that was forced on these people. However, these religions are not a seamless continuation of older or antique beliefs, but represent a new religious syncretism forged in the crucible of oppression. In some ways this model is represented by the inverse of the one presented above, yet it still produced a new religion.

Another exception is found in Italy, where the perpetuation of beliefs and practices from pagan times could have survived the complete immersion of Catholic Christianity. These beliefs and practices would have involved the veneration of the lares, penates and the genius, which were spirits of the ancestors, family and the home. Italy was also place where modern people lived tooth and jowl next to the ruins of pagan Rome, representing a constant reminder of the past. These beliefs and practices, although frowned on by Christian authorities, could have endured in some of the older and traditional families and homes. In most situations minor household deities would have been replaced by Saints, who would have functioned in the same manner.

Roman Catholicism could also be considered a religion that was steeped in the pagan past of antiquity, making the Protestant claims of it being a form of paganism mixed with Christianity quite valid and correct. Roman Catholicism was a religious system that was deeply rooted in Italy, being a direct offshoot of older pagan cults. It should not be surprising that the reformation failed to have any impact on the peoples of Italy or how they practiced Christianity.

While there is plenty of evidence of the practice of magic as a form of witchcraft or cunning craft in Italy, and the possibility of the survival of older beliefs and practices, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that a religion of witchcraft existed prior to the 20th century. This is evident despite the discovery by Leland in the late 19th century of a “Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches” or the “Vangelo,” as it was called. Historians have found no corroborating evidence that the Vangelo existed prior to it being “discovered” by Maddalena, one of Leland’s indigenous informants and researchers.  It would seem, therefore, that the advent of Stregheria, or Italian religious witchcraft, would not have occurred until the above cultural factors had been met. Such factors, though, would have had to combat the powerful hold of Roman Catholicism on the people, which would have been embraced by the populous as a continuation of the older pagan belief systems.  

All of these different religions that we have talked about are new and represent the seemingly never ending process of human spiritual creativity. Do these new religious systems use anything from the older religious systems? Of course, they are actually a combination of old and new, of old rites and beliefs packaged or used in a different manner, or sometimes they represent something truly revolutionary. Often, these religions change and mutate rapidly until they become stable, which sometimes can take many decades or even a century or two.

Does the stigma of a religion being new invalidate it or make it somehow less authentic or legitimate? Not at all! In fact, I believe a new religion has many advantages over an older one. For those who are engaged in a new religion, old patterns can be broken and new methods and techniques can be attempted. I believe that modern witchcraft is just such a new religion. It may borrow and take things from many sources, some of them quite archaic, but it is new and still being formulated. I consider that an exciting and rewarding perspective. We are still in the stage of discovery and experimentation, so new liturgies can be created and new methodologies can be discovered. It is my hope that this time of religious co-creation will continue until an entirely new way of perceiving spirituality is finally determined.

To some, these revelations about witchcraft may be old news, but others may also find it hard to accept. I have expressed my opinions on this subject, but I am sure that some will passionately disagree with me. However, the historians have spoken, and continue to speak in many volumes of academic papers and books. I can’t refute their words, so I have instead co-opted them. But in doing so, I am allowing my religion to be flexible, so it can change and evolve. Perhaps ultimately it will be the final answer to humanity’s spiritual quest in the universe at large, but I doubt that as well. Religion is a human creative endeavor, and every age forges its own religious perspective and practices.

Frater Barrabas


  1. One of the problems with rejecting the idea that witchcraft was a religion in ancient times, is the appearance of literary references that mention a goddess in connection with witchcraft. The concept certainly exists.

    One example is the depiction of the witch Medea, who is portrayed as a priestess of Hecate (a religious conotation).

    Scholar Jacob Rabinowitz, in his book The Rotting Goddess, recounts Lucan's ancient tale of a group of witches, written in the first century BCE. In Lucan's work (LUC. B.C. 6:700-01) the witches make the following comment: "Persephone, who is the third and lowest aspect of our goddess Hecate..." This of course portrays the concept of witches having a triformis or three-fold goddess, and the notion appears almost two thousand years prior to Gerald Gardner's time.

    In Ovid's tale (Met. 7:94-95) Jason swears an oath to the witch Medea, saying he would "be true by the sacred rites of the three-fold goddess." Such writings clearly demonstrate that, contrary to scholarly opinion, the basic concept of a triformis goddess venerated in witchcraft is not a modern construction, and pre-exists the Romantic era and the work of Gerald Gardner and his cohorts. Horace writes of Diana as a goddess upon whom witches call, and Catullus wrote of the goddess Diana as a "threefold" goddess. Diana is identified with Hecate by a number of ancient sources.

    The Roman poet Horace mentions Diana in connection with witchcraft in his first century BCE writings. Horace lists Diana as one of three goddesses that witches call upon in the night, and the other two goddesses are Hecate and Proserpina. As historian Jeffrey Russell (A History of Witchcraft) points out, Diana was also identified with the goddess Hecate, who was originally one of the Titans. The ancient writings of Varro bear this out, as he states that Diana is the "Trivian Titan" and is also called Trivia, of the three crossroads. Aeschylus equates Hecate with Artemis, and associates her with watching over the child-bed, which is reflective of the Roman beliefs connected to the cult of Diana at Nemi.

    Scholar Sarah I. Johnson (Hekate Soteira, Scholars Press, 1990) remarks that Hecate became linked to the moon in the late classical and Hellenistic times. Virgil (1st century BCE) in his work titled the Aeneid, equates Diana and Hecate: "...triple Hekate, the three faces of the maiden Diana." In the book The Rotting Goddess, by Jacob Rabinowitz, we find an excerpt from the ancient Papyri Graecae Magicae, which equates Hecate with Artemis, Persephone, and Selene. This incantation to Hecate reads, in part: "Dart-shooter, Artemis, Persephone, Shooter of deer, night-shining,/triple-sounding, triple-voiced, triple-headed, Selene, triple-pointed, triple-faced, triple necked, and goddess of the triple ways...and you who oft frequent the triple way and rule the triple decades with three forms..." Here we have Hecate identified with Selene the moon goddess, Artemis a woodland goddess, and Persephone an Underworld goddess. This triple image suggests one goddess associated with the sky, earth, and the Underworld.

  2. Thank you for your post.

    However, literary examples and other so-called facts as you have listed above do not indicate that witchcraft as practices in antiquity is the same as modern witchcraft. There may even be some borrowing of antique concepts as well as some appropriation of myths and ancient beliefs in modern witchcraft that you could point to, but these do not prove that there was a seamless tradition of witchcraft going back to ancient times. It does show that modern witches have been well read and have taken various ideas from various sources and used them to build a tradition that had not existed previously.

    Ancient witchcraft may have had religious aspects to it, just as the cunning folk had been known to incorporate Christian prayers, angels and the use of the Psalms into their magick. Yet, I don't believe that there is any real hard evidence that would indicate a separate and unique "religion" of witchcraft in antiquity. Witchcraft, as a distinct and unique religion, is a modern invention. Whereas antique witchcraft was a system of working magic and spells.

    Just my two cents, of course.

  3. @ anonymous

    No reputable scholar has questioned that there were triformed goddesses in antiquity. What they point out is that those goddesses did not manifest as Maiden and Mother and Crone, as does the modern Triple Goddess.

    I particularly find amusing people classing Hecate as "Crone", when she is explicitly referred to as "nymphe" and "kore", the Greek words meaning "maiden". [The Orphic Hymn to Hecate]

  4. Hecate has been mentioned as a triple [triformis] goddess, thus Hekate Triformis.

  5. @ Josephus

    Yes,Hecate is historically triform. And *all* *three* of those forms looked like a "kore" or "nymphe", that is, as a young woman. None of them were "crone", that is, as an old woman.

    Please note, I am not advocating against working with a triple goddess. Personally, I work with a fourfold lunar goddess model, as Maiden, Mother, Crone, and Queen of Witches. What I'm arguing for is being honest that both the triple goddess and my fourfold goddess are twentieth century innovations.