The Creation of Modern Witchcraft
- The Evolution of Labels
- Before we can discuss how Witchcraft came to be, we need
to come to a common perspective of the labels and titles used
in this article.
- This evolution in language is what etymology
is all about. Etymology is the study of or branch of linguistics
dealing with word origin and development. Where a word was created
or formed and it's development through history. Words evolve,
that's a given. Proof of this can be found in the twenty-volume
Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.), which is known by scholars
as the definitive resource for word origin and definition. A
word that had definition 1 in 1492 will still hold that meaning;
but it will also evolve into a new version or use of that meaning,
creating definition 2. Both meanings are correct and the application
of the definition of the word will depend on it's usage in conversation
- When it comes to using a word as a label, we have to think
about how the word was used when it originated and not just how
it's perceived today. Warlock is a good example of this. It's
origination was to define a liar, a traitor or "an oath
breaker". But today many non-pagans use it as the title
for a male witch. Which most witches don't care for.
- So let's first define a common understanding of some of the
labels used in the pagan community.
- Old Latin (OL)
- Low Latin (LL)
- Latin (L)
- Old English (OE)
- Middle English (ME)
- Modern English (E)
- Classical Greek (CG)
- The latin language used before 75 BC
- Nonclassical Latin, esp. in the medieval period 600 - 1500
- Modern Latin, used since 1500 AD
- Anglo-Saxon English used primarily between 400 - 1100 AD
- English language used between 1100 - 1500 AD
- English language used since the 1500 AD
- Greek language used between 700 - 300 BC
- From LL - the Saxon wicca/wicce
- 1. Old English: An old Saxon noun with a masculine ending,
pronounced "witch'-ah" (not "wick'-ah").
1a. The feminine form "wicce", pronounced "witch'-eh".
- 2. Modern English: A modern label for the pagan tradition
of Wicca, established by Gerald Gardner.
- From OE wiccecraeft, ME wicchecrafte
- 1. Old English: the power or practices of witches; black
magik. The craft of the wise.
- 2. Middle English: A neopagan religious practice that strives
to live in balance with nature and natural forces.
- From LL paganus, L pagus
- 1. A person who is not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew; (Any
Abrahamic origin belief system)
- 2. Heathen: formerly, sometimes applied specifically. to
a non-Christian by Christians
- From CG neos, L paganus
- 1. Any group of pagan religions that define their beliefs
as nature based.
- From the old world, using wicca/wicce and witch interchangeably
is incorrect. In our society today; the creation of Gerald Gardner's
Wiccan tradition clouds the use of these words. In common conversation,
when someone mentions Wicca they're rarely referring to witch;
and more often referring to the traditional practice of Gerald
- In the old world, Witchcraft was a practice, more often known
as the craft of magik. The word was used in this context during
1100-1200 AD. Today it is a label used to define a religious
practice specific to a set of neo-pagan beliefs. This is not
a new concept; it actually started during the 13th century and
is thanks to the early Christian Church. But we'll get into that
- Over time, the category of traditions (or denominations)
under Witchcraft has slowly returned to their own roots. In part
due to the neopagan revivals and increased acceptance. In addition,
there has become a clarifying divide between other pagan religions
and Witchcraft. For instance, Satanism isn't considered to be
part of Witchcraft. They stand on their own as a pagan religion,
merely because they do not follow the doctrine set forth by Abrahamic
religions. But this can also be said for Hindu, Buddhist and
other non-Abrahamic religions. By definition they too fall into
the category of pagan religions. Society however does not think
of these other religions as pagan.
- The Early Pagans
- This is a good place to start with our creation story. Paganism
has existed in varying forms since the times of the cave man.
We know from archeological evidence how these early humans lived
and honored the natural world around them. From cave drawings
to artifacts we have at least a general understanding of how
early man lived with nature and honored the forces of nature
as divine beings.
- As tribal societies evolved,
so did their religious practices. These early societies were
often Goddess societies. Figurines such as the 'Venus of Willendor'
are perfect examples of the early reverence for fertility of
a woman and her ability to give new life. This miracle of life
was seen just as that, a miracle given to a woman by a deity,
or the Goddess. Often celebrated through Great
Rite ceremonies. A woman who was extremely fertile was considered
to be favored by the Goddess and elevated within her tribal structure.
- When early man realized it took two to create life, the pendulum
slowly switched from focusing on the matriarch to the patriarch.
As long as a woman could bear children, she still held great
power within her tribe. When she grew older and less fertile,
she often chose her successor. But her singular power shifted
to that of a wise teacher or healer. The concepts of the Goddess
still existed, but the God was also a formidable figure through
his strength of a hunter/warrior. The
Great Horned God is a good example of this.
- Paganism thrives through the ages Before Christ (BC) around
the globe. From Egyptian, Roman and Greek philosophies; to Native
American, Hindu and Mayan cultures. In Greece, the Pythagorean
brotherhood (around 530 BC) helped to formalize and document
some of the early metaphysical beliefs that were prominent in
pagan beliefs. The brotherhood was actually a group of young
men who gathered around Pythagoras, hoping to learn from his
wisdom and inspired by his teachings. They were very spiritual
in nature and form, dedicated to reforming political, moral and
social life within society. The group became so widely known
and popular that it grew into a formidable political lobbyist
machine. Because of this political impact, the brotherhood was
disbanded and Pythagoras was forced to retire and leave home.
He went to Metapontum, a Greek city in southern Italy where he
died around 500 BC.
- The Great Greek Philosophers continued with the theories
of the Pythagorian Brotherhood. At first in secret, but later
challenging the political authority and bringing their metaphysical
thoughts and theories out in the open. From Plato, Socrates and
Aristotle we have some well documented views of physics and Metaphysical History.
- We can't discount the influence of these early thinkers on
our spiritual views today. But we also can't discount the influences
of the great civilizations of the time, as they expanded their
dominance. For instance, we know that the Romans battled in Ireland
for many decades, and it's thanks to them we have some writings
of the time about these early Celtic
Religions, both of the Druids and the early Celtic
- But we need to consider the early nomadic cultures who traveled
from one region to the next, conquering villages along their
way. There are many we can research for this kind of practice.
But the Norse might be the best example. As the Norse spread
out and migrated across Europe, they either replaced or merged
their beliefs with those of the cultures they conquered. Certainly
we can see many of their influences in the Celtic cultures of
- Middle Age Witchcraft
- During the early Middle Ages, the early Christian Church
didn't focus on witches or witchcraft. It wasn't until 785 when
the Council of Paderborn explicitly outlawed the belief in witches,
and Saint Boniface declared in the 8th century that a belief
in the existence of witches was unchristian altogether.
- The Emperor Charlemagne decreed that burning a witch was
actually a pagan custom, and anyone caught doing it would be
punished by death. In 820 the Bishop of Lyon and others declared
that witches could not fly or make brooms fly, could not make
bad weather, nor change their shape. The idea that people could
do these things, were deemed fanciful tales of mythology. The
decree was accepted into Church law. King Coloman of Hungary
declared that witches do not exist, and therefore witch-hunts
were not necessary. Many other rulers of his day followed suit
and the witch-hunts ceased for a while.
- These non-existent concepts lasted until the late 12th century.
And the first medieval trials against witches occurs in the 13th
century with the establishment of the Inquisition in Spain. The
Church was actually concentrating on the persecution of heresy.
But witchcraft, either real or just alleged, was treated as any
other sort of heresy.
- It's also at this time where we see the label Witchcraft
applied broadly to pagan beliefs and practices. No longer does
it become a label for a craft or practice, but as a title or
label for a set of spiritual beliefs. Witchcraft becomes the
title of a religion, with many varying practices. And it's here
where many today claim the label for their religious practice.
- Today, Witchcraft can be defined as:
- A neo-pagan religion that is further defined and put into
practice by it's many sects, such as Celtic Shamanism, Alexandrian,
Wicca, Strega, Pictish and others.
- The European witch-hunts reach their pinnacle around 1450.
No longer is it a theological campaign for the church, but a
phenomenon that resembles mass hysteria and fear. The classical
attributes of a witch, casting negative spells to control others,
flying on brooms, intercourse with the Devil, and meeting with
demons and other witches at sabbats, became descriptive fact
in Canon Law around 1400. Conspiracy theories begin to form;
stating that witches use their sabbat rituals and underground
movements as a means of plotting to overthrow Christianity. The
church and monarchies see this as a war upon their authority
and control to be weeded out and destroyed.
- The lands of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as Scotland and
Ireland were all affected by the trials. 29 editions of The "Malleus
Maleficarum" were reprinted between 1487 and 1669, even
though the book was condemned by the Catholic Church in 1490.
It was continually used by secular witch-hunting courts to condemn
and prosecute accused witches.
- Intellectuals spoke out against the trials from the late
16th century. Not even then elite society could keep themselves
or their family members out of the witch jails. Aristocrat Johannes
Kepler in 1615 had to use his prestige to keep his mother from
being burnt as a witch after she was accused and jailed. The
1692 Salem witch trials exploded even though the practice of
witch trials was declining in Europe.
- During the Early Modern Period the concern over witchcraft
reaches the boiling point. There are many thoughts as to why
the trials began. That they were more about the desire of the
Church and current Monarchies to gain or maintain control over
the citizenry. It's interesting to note that most of the witch
trials that ended in convictions took place in rural areas with
a 90% conviction rate.
- Another interesting statistic is how the highest concentration
of trials took place along the borders of France, Germany, and
Italy, in what is now modern day Switzerland. Some areas, such
as Britain (with the exception of some notable trials in Scotland)
saw fewer trials, but were still extensive. And some point to
Spain as holding the largest portion of trials and executions.
- There were early trials in the 15th and early 16th century,
but then the witch scare went into decline, before becoming a
big issue again and in the 17th century. The practiced declined
some say in part to other more weighty concerns placed before
the Church and Monarchies. Others say it declined out of fear
of reprisals. And still others claim it's a combination of these
reasons, and the increased practiced of Witchcraft sects to go
underground and hide their beliefs and practices.
- There are many traditions who make the claim that their early
practioners migrated away from these witch-hunt areas to escape
persecution and continue their beliefs and practices. While others
make claims of going underground into secret societies. Though
there is no unequivocal evidence of secret pagan societies or
migrations; we can learn from history how persecutions do indeed
force people to flee or live in secrecy.
- The Creation of Modern Witchcraft
- So let's jump a head a couple 100 years and see how this
applies to us today. Neopaganism begins with the 18th century
era of Romanticism. A surge of interest in Germanic pagan Shamanism,
with a Viking revival in Britain and Scandinavia begins to develop.
Neo-Druidism is established in Britain by Iolo Morganwg from
1792, and is considered by some to be the first real Neopagan
- By the 19th century, these revival projects heighten and
we find Germany's Völkisch movement. During this time renewed
interest in Western occultism rises in England and various other
European societies. These early views of Occultism attempts to
merge the early beliefs of the Celtic and German Shamans, Druids,
Greeks and Egyptians into a documented reconstructionalized system
of belief. It's here that we see the formation of the Hermetic
Order of the Golden Dawn and the Ordo
- Many prominent writers and artists become involved in these
new occult studies. Writers and artists such as Arthur Edward
Waite, William Butler Yeats, Maud Gonne, and Aleister Crowley
begin writing about their experiences publicly. Many returning
colonials and missionaries bring home to Britan and the Americas,
perspectives and practices of native traditions from developing
cultures. One of the best known works comes from anthropologist
Sir James George Frazer in his book "The Golden Bough"
- The Victorian Era is in full swing now and many in the elite
society were also increasing their interest in divination and
magik. Supernatural phenomena becomes the "in thing"
for this late 19th century and early 20th century culture. Madame Blavatsky is a pioneer
in this movement. Creating the Theosophical
Society in 1875 with Henry Steel Olcott and Col. Olcott,
William Q. Judge. Calling her message Theosophy, Blavatsky's
views and perspectives are the talk of New England and spread
quickly to other continents.
- Many family traditions see this resurgence of pagan beliefs
as a sign that society is ready to accept their religious practices
on their merits and not through the bigotry of old. In the 1880s
and 90s, many new covens, clans and groves begin to pop up out
of the wood work and meet in public gatherings. In the U.S. these
family traditions are often mixes of European paganism and Native
American beliefs. One of the most common mixes come from the
merging of Celts and Cherokee in the south east. But other meldings
of belief and culture can be found throughout the Americas with
Germanic imigrations merging with other Euorpean pagan practices.
- As a label, "Neo pagan" first appears in an essay
by F. Hugh O'Donnell an Irish Minister in the British House of
Commons. In 1904 O'Donnell writes a critique of the plays of
of W. B. Yeats and Maud Gonne. In his essay, he criticizes their
work as an attempt to "marry Madame Blavatsky with Cúchulainn".
Yeats and Gonne, he claimed, openly worked to create a reconstructionist
Celtic religion which incorporated Gaelic legend with magic.
- Cúchulainn from Irish Legend is the pre-eminent
hero and an undefeatable warrior. His mother was Deichtine, sister
of king Conchobar mac Nessa; his father was either the god Lugh
the Long Armed, or Deichtire's mortal husband Sualtam. This alone
made him a great legend in Irish lore.
- In the 1920s Margaret Murray writes that Witchcraft as a
religion existed underground and in secret, and had survived
through the religious persecutions and Inquisitions of the medieval
Church. Most historians reject Murray's theory, as it was partially
based on the similarities between the accounts given by those
accused of witchcraft. If we believe that family traditions exist
today; then there's no reason to think they didn't exist through
out the 18th to 20th centuries. Family traditions have a great
oral history that shares the beliefs, practices and implementations
of belief and magikal efforts.
- Murray's theories generated interest, which are recounted
in novels by prominent authors. Such as Naomi Mitchison's "The
Corn King and the Spring Queen" published in 1931. More
and more covens move out of the broom closet and let their existence
be known to the world.
- In the 1920s through 1940s, Gerald Gardner begins his research
and initiation into Witchcraft. In the early 1940s, Gardner becomes
initiated into a New Forest coven led by Lady Dafo. Many suggest
Dafo is actually Dorothy Clutterbuck. Gardner had already written
about Malay native customs and various other books about Witchcraft.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Gardner develops his own set
of teachings which is a culmination of his life long study. Gardnerian
Wicca is born and begins to spread through out America and Europe.
Some say this new public offering of neopaganism gives rise to
other Witchcraft traditions, such as Alexandrian and Dianic Wicca.
There is some debate about this time line however. But certainly
Gardner is not the only High Priest setting out on his own at
- The the 1960s and 70s a resurgence in Neo-druidism, Germanic
Neopaganism and Norse Ásatrú begin to take hold
in the US and Iceland. In 1975, Wicca/Witchcraft is added to
the US Army Chaplin's Handbook giving
official recognition to the beliefs and practices of Witchcraft
- The expansion of practices and belief extend into the 1980s.
Many of the general metaphysical principles practiced in Witchcraft
are slightly rewritten and help support the New Age movement.
The 1990s show an increase in the interest of pagan principles
and practices. CNN reports that Witchcraft is the largest growing
religion in the United States. More and more, Television and
Movies begin to show witches in a good light. Offerings such
as The Witches of Eastwick, Practical Magic and the movie remake
of Bewitched; bring in box office dollars and attempt to turn
the negative evil personification around. Even cartoons get into
the act with a Scooby Doo movie featuring the hero as a young
Wiccan girl. Additional TV shows pop up, staring young teens
as witches and wizards who are trying to learn to control their
- We've come a long way since the Burning Times of the middle
ages. And there are still battles to fight. But modern Witchcraft
is a religion with a long past, and an even brighter future.
- Additional Reading
Witchcraft A Religion?
Creation of Modern Witchcraft
- An Evolution
of WitchCraft (Timeline)
Witch is Which? - Labels & Titles
Source: 1, s2,
- Created: 04.08.1999