The Mystic Gryphon
Lesson 1, The History of Witchcraft
This is a chapter on the history of the religion of Witchcraft. I feel it necessary to make the distinction between what is commonly mistaken as witchcraft, and the actual religion of Witchcraft itself. Even though noted scholars such as Sir J.G. Frazer, Robert Graves, and Dr. Margaret Murray have written great works on the subject of pre-Christian goddess religions since the turn of the century, some modern historians and theologians refuse to acknowledge their existence. In the Perennial Dictionary of World Religions, published in 1981, excerpts under the heading of Witchcraft read as follows: "...The performance of Magic for evil ends... Whatever the particular source of their power, witches are thought to be in league with the cosmic forces of evil..." It goes on to describe Witchcraft in psychological and political terms, seeing it simply as the practice of black magick with little or no religious basis. As we look into the history of the religion of Witchcraft, we shall see how inaccurate this definition is.
To know where we are, and be aware of the potentials of where we are headed, we should examine our history. What I am providing here is a brief overview; I would advise the student to read books limited to the subject of the history of the religion alone, and at the end of the chapter I will suggest several available volumes.
I will say this many times: Witchcraft is a naturally evolving, global religion, whose evidence can be found in lands quite distant from one another. A modern development of Witchcraft commonly known as Wicca borrows heavily from Celtic traditions. It acknowledges the existence of tree spirits and honors both a horned God of the Hunt and all Wild Things, and a moon Goddess associated with vegetation and fertility. They performed elaborate burial rituals which indicate a belief in life after death. When you compare this with what is known about the religion of the Indus Valley civilization, what you will find is astonishing.
Little information is available about the civilization that arose sometime around 2500 B.C. in the area that is now known as Pakistan. Most of the religious data has been gathered from seals and figurines. On many of these seals, tree spirits are prominent, On others, a male deity is depicted in several different scenes. In two scenes, he is shown wearing a buffalo headdress and in another, he is surrounded by animals. Of the figurines found, many are believed to be votive representations of a fertility goddess. Along with these religious discoveries, it was also found that the people of the Indus Valley practiced a ritual burial of their dead, complete with food and personal belongings. These are only two of several possible cultural/religious similarities that can be found the world over.
How is it possible for civilizations with no communication between one another to have almost
identical systems of belief? I think that it is because Witchcraft is a religion that is a product of a naturally evolving mind and people,
It is my opinion that the religion of Witchcraft is as old as wo/man's belief in animism and life after death coupled with the practice of sympathetic magick, It is the belief in animism that gave form to the deities we recognize today. When humankind was primitive, it had no understanding of what controlled Nature's forces. The belief came to be that every part of Nature, and everything that happened in it was inhabited or governed by a Spirit. These Spirits were eventually assigned rank and order as wo/man tried to find their place in the scheme of things, and at the top of the rank rested a God and Goddess. They were usually recognized as the Sun and the Moon, but in some cultures the Goddess was also, or alternatively, viewed as the Earth Mother.
The belief in God and Goddess did not originally occur because people thought it took two to create - it stems from the belief that deities are usually viewed in the image of the collective group that pays homage to them. Many practitioners and historians of Witchcraft believe that the religion was originally a cult of the Goddess, because woman could "magickally" create another human being. Woman was creator of life to primitive man, but food sustains life - being first hunters and gatherers, the hunt was seen as sustainer of this life. Man hunted. Man was important as a provider of sustainment for human life; sustenance that is acquired through a process of death. Goddess creates - God reaps and sustains. In this is contained the balance.
Originally, the Horned God was seen as consort of the Goddess, as a son, brother or lover. This was because man's role in procreation was not fully understood until around 3000 B.C. The God was given equal status at that point, while still retaining his previous qualities. Some modern forms of the religion exclude the God altogether, but I believe balance is essential for reasons I will discuss later.
In many mythologies, such as the Sumerian and Egyptian, man was instructed or divinely guided in the arts of agriculture. As mankind began to cultivate, they started to put down roots of their own. Civilization was beginning. Several things began to happen at this time. Agrarian society flourished, and the hunt became less important as people ate crops that were more easily available. The image of the Horned God began to change from the Hunter and Lord of All Wild Things to a God of Death and Transformation. Also, as community grew, more responsibilities had to be taken by everyone to keep things together. The rites of religious devotion and magickal techniques both required long hours of study and contemplation, so these responsibilities were delegated to a select few. This was the creation of priesthood.
With the creation of civilization and the evolution of wo/man, rules were needed to maintain societal structure. To make rules, one must have a concept of good and evil. It is at this point, I believe, that the one original religion began to diversify into the different religions that we have today.
Zoroastrianism is the best historical example of early absolute good/evil concepts placed into a religious system. Up until this point, Deity was seen as being very human - good and bad existing within each deity, but with Zoroaster's Ahura Mazda of all Light and others like him, there were created the deities of alienating perfection, viewed in terms of absolutes. This trend placed the illusion of power and preferred status onto the priesthood. It came to the point where
people believed that you had to be Chosen to communicate with God(s). [In this case, I am referring to religions with a good/evil absolute concept; the earth religions of Witchcraft remained fairly constant in their view of equality with Deity.]
The development of a dualistic good/evil theology required a new way of thinking - everything had to be either black or white. Pagan religions came under the serious scrutiny, for their philosophies allowed for several shades of gray. The Horned God of the Witches was cast by these dualistic religions into the role of their Devil, opponent or adversary. I think one of the reasons this occurred is because people at this point began to view death in a different way. They became farther removed from it and started to see it more as a form of punishment and less as a process of Nature. This may have been partly due to their after-death concept of the possibility of eternal damnation. The Horned God was quickly fixed into his death aspect by a people who viewed death as evil, thereby making him the personification of all negativity.
The old religion of Witchcraft went underground for several hundred years, and most of the information available from this time is biased against Witches. I think there are many reasons why the persecutions began and continued for as long as they did - I feel these reasons are political rather than spiritual. When there is organization in religion, politics are created. We see examples of this reaching as far back as ancient Egypt when we look at the religio-political strife between the followers of Aton and the followers of Amen. At the time of the Witch persecutions, royalty had converted to Christianity (sometimes superficially) to maintain peace between nations but the majority of the people maintained their Pagan beliefs. As I have said before, Witchcraft teaches that wo/man can commune with Deity without mediation. This belief takes power away from organized priesthood and since organization requires money, lower attendance means less funding.
Another major financial contributor to the churches was the upper class - lesser nobility, rich merchants, physicians, etc. Some of the arts of the religion of Witchcraft are herbalism, midwiving and other healing techniques. Villagers preferred these more traditional methods and payment was easier, usually being a barter of goods or services. This also indirectly effected organized religions financially. It was eventually decided that something must be done to stop the practices of these "evil" pagan religions, so under the guise of religion, the persecutions began.
At this point, I would like to explain a few things. I chose not to explore the subject of the persecutions very deeply, partially because I think it has already been covered thoroughly and often. I also skimmed over the topic because I do not feel that we are the only religion that has been wrongly oppressed. Every religion, every belief, every people on this planet have at one time been persecuted. I think we should be aware of our history and accept a sort of responsibility for it, but I also feel that it is not something we should dwell upon.
After the persecution ceased, the laws still remained in the books. The last laws against Witchcraft in Britain were not repealed until 1951. No one thought the religion existed anymore until a man named Gerald Gardner came forward and said he was a Witch and had studied under true Witch descendants. He authored several books on the subject that said that his way was the true way that had been practiced for hundreds of years. That was almost fifty years ago now, and a lot more literature has been unearthed and/or published and made available for study. What I have gathered is that Witchcraft is a global religion with little or no organization and a basic universal dogma. There are different denominations within the religion but the differences lie in their cultural influences. Deities are global but known by different names, divinations are employed but through various mediums; patients are treated with herbs of different names but with the same curative properties. Witchcraft is everywhere - it always will be as long as Nature exists.
It is at this point that I would like to touch upon the subject of Ceremonial Magick. Ceremonial Magick is more a type of magickal practice than a religious system. It borrows from Christian and Hebrew theologies (or deific hierarchies, if you will) and is primarily patriarchal. This type of magick has elaborate rituals which require days of preparation, strong spells of protection and must be followed to the letter. There is little or no ethical system - Ceremonial Magicians use magick for good or harm, depending on their needs. Often, the goal of a Ceremonial Magician is that of personal power or material gains.
Necromancy often falls under the heading of Ceremonial Magick. This is the practice of summoning a departed soul back to the location of its corpse, usually for the purpose of obtaining the whereabouts of hidden treasures. I felt it important to discuss these things because Ceremonial Magick grew in prominence around the same time that the religion of Witchcraft was forced underground. Ceremonial Magick was not as subject to persecution due to its Judeo-Christian overtones, and was also easily hidden among the arts of alchemy. Many of these techniques were written down in books that became known as grimoires. Versions of these are still in print today for those practitioners who are fearless of heart and strong of stomach, but THIS IS NOT WITCHCRAFT.
Many are the occasions that I have met an "authority" on Witchcraft who immediately began lecturing to me about strictly Ceremonial rituals. I can't condemn these individuals for their ignorance - much of the information that is chosen to be made available to the public (by libraries, book stores, etc.,.) about Witchcraft is actually about practices like Ceremonial Magick and Satanism, these being far more exciting to read about. Witchcraft is none of these things. The religion and magick of Witchcraft will give you personal power, but only over yourself, not others.
As a practitioner of the Craft of the Wise, a Witch must possess the knowledge and skills of a multitude of subjects. Although we know a lot about many things, we tend to specialize in the practice of only a few. This is because each speciality is usually hundreds or thousands of years old and can take a lifetime to master. As it is one of my specializations, I have chosen to focus on the Tarot. Over the years that I have taught, I've tried several different ways of thoroughly covering the Tarot, and so far none have been to my liking. This time, at the beginning or end of each lesson I will discuss one card of the major arcana. The minor arcana will be covered in the lessons on divination later in the book. I feel that this will allow the student more time to fully digest the symbolism of each card. The origins of the Tarot are lost to history, but its usefulness is not. A Tarot spread shows us our Life Path potential - this is a potential that we can realize or change, depending on how we see fit. A divination with the use of runes can show us the same thing, but I prefer the cosmic ambiguity of the Tarot over the concrete mental depth of the Nordic runes. Different Tarot decks carry the same essential meanings, but the artwork varies depending on its creator. I consider this to be a boon for the reader because each mind is individual in its symbolic tastes, Choose a deck with artwork that works with you; don't get a particular deck just because everyone else uses it, get one because the images speak to your Inner Voice.
The first 22 cards are the most influential of the deck (there are a total of 78 cards) and are known as the major arcana. Many Tarot manuals suggest that the student work only with these, but I think it is up to the preference of the individual. These cards are said to represent higher forces at work, and it is for this reason that I prefer to use the entire deck when doing a reading. The minor arcana cards are but lower vibrations of those in the major arcana; when using both in a reading, I am able to tell which factors are self-created by the querent and which ones are the stronger, Ultimate Life Influences.
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon, 1979.
Written by the granddaughter of a renowned psychiatrist, this work provides a contemporary look at the religion of Witchcraft and explores the various denominations in existence today.
Cavendish, Richard, ed.. Man, Myth and Magic, 1970.
Slightly dated, but fascinating. This encyclopedia is out of print and hard to find, but it is well worth the search. There are 24 volumes, covering subjects from atavism to Druids, herbs to palmistry - ritual to virgin births. I would recommend this set to any collector.
Frazer, J.G.. The Golden Bough, 1911.
This work was originally published in a 13 volume set; it is now available only in a highly condensed form. Either version is invaluable to students of the metaphysical, because it explores the rites and customs of cultures around the world.
Glass, Justine. Witchcraft, the Sixth Sense, 1965.
This is a very good book because of the time in which it was written. Published in 1965, it is not as dry as a scholarly dissertation, nor is it reeking of the "New Agedness" that is often biased against Christianity - it is an informative study of the history of European (mainly British) Witchcraft. I think it provides a good look at the foundation of what is modern day Wicca.
Martello, Leo. Witchcraft: the Old Religion, (no date).
This book is written by a Sicilian Witch, or "Strega", which provides an interesting angle in itself. Martello profiles Charles Godfrey Leyland, Gerald Gardner and other modern pioneers of Wiccan theology.
Summers, Montague, ed. The Malleus Maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, 1928
(originally published in 1486).
This document (whose approval for publication was forged by its authors) gives a distorted but much believed description of the Old Religion. It was so widely accepted that it was the standard by which people were tried and convicted during the time of the persecutions.
Graves, Robert. The White Goddess
Leyland, Charles Godfrey. Aradia: Gospel of the Witches
Murray, Margaret. The Witch Cult in Western Europe and God of the Witches.
Cited in almost every bibliography, I am sorry to say that I have not made the opportunity to examine these great works, From the turn of the century up until the 1950's, these scholars (along with Frazer) provided us with some of the only reputable information available on the Goddess religions of old.
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