The Creation of Modern
- 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 -
- English language used since the 1500
- Greek language used between 700 - 300
- 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
- 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
- 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 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- The "Malleus Maleficarum"
(The Witches Hammer) served as a guidebook for Inquisitors during the
Inquisition, and was designed to aid them in the identification,
prosecution, and dispatching of Witches. It defined the characteristics
of a witch, most of which are misconceptions and still believed today.
It included definitions and descriptions to help Christians identify
potential witches. Once discovered, the Malleus Maleficarum provided
questions and accusations that could be directed at the accused to
acquire a confession. Though the book itself is widely forgotten in
most cultures, it's lingering affects are still present in our modern
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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