Return to the main gate

 





 

 



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 or context.
 
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 AD
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
Wicca
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.
 
Witchcraft
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.

Pagan
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
Neopagan
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 Gardner.
 
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 later on.
 
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 Shamans.
 
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 Ireland.
 
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 revival.
 
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 Templi Orientis.
 
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" (1900).
 
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 time.
 
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 in America.
 
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 magik talents.
 
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
 What Is Witchcraft?   
 Is Witchcraft A Religion?
 The Creation of Modern Witchcraft
 An Evolution of WitchCraft (Timeline)
 Which Witch is Which? - Labels & Titles
.


Source: 1, s2, s3, m11, m13, m18, m21, m23, m28, o17, o22, o33, o32, c1, c7, c11, c13, n6
Created:  04.08.1999         Updated: 11.16.2008