A Modern Perspective On Traditional Witchcraft
One thing I’ve noticed in the pagan community over the past few years is the increase of people identifying themselves as “traditional witches”. Most of the time, they fail to claim membership in any specific tradition but are quick to point out that what they practice is good, old-fashioned “traditional witchcraft” and not some watered down pap like Wicca. As someone possessing a lifelong interest in witchcraft, these assertions piqued my curiosity. Just what could this dark stream of magic swirling through the shadows be?
After witnessing the deconstruction of Wicca by scholars, accredited and pseudo, I found the prospect of some genuinely old traditions of witchcraft free from the idiosyncrasies of retired British civil servants intriguing.
Although the clichéd granny stories that have circulated for years promise a glimpse into hereditary forms of witchcraft, they rarely, if ever, deliver. Most of the time, the witchcraft purportedly passed down from one’s elder family members turns out to be some eclectic form of Wicca. A romantic childhood memory aside, just because one’s grandmother was superstitious, had a penchant for burning candles, and was handy with the folk remedies hardly qualifies her as a witch. Considering that the grandmother in question is invariably unavailable and no one else in the family is around to substantiate these tales, most accounts of hereditary witchcraft tend to fall apart like cheap furniture. Alex Sanders, holder of arguably the best grandmother story of all time, later recanted as have others so it seems reasonable to indulge in a bit of healthy skepticism when confronted with an account of family witchcraft.
As so many non-Wiccan witches describe themselves as practicing traditional witchcraft, defining the term seemed a logical place to begin my investigation. Witchcraft is a notoriously slippery word. Categorizing witches is like filling a box with those little Styrofoam packing peanuts. You can get most of them in but there’s always a couple that wind up on the carpet.
Isaac Bonewits did a fair job sorting out various types of witches and witchcraft years ago but I found his categorizations a bit too broad to be of much use. The historical accounts of witchcraft I read usually portrayed witches as disaffected loners working malfeasant magic against a society that feared and rejected them. In stark contrast to the glamorous and powerful sorceress of mythology, the historical witch- overwhelmingly female- was an unfortunate wretch depending on charity and likely to seek vengeance when refused.
Others, the so-called “white witches”, acted as healers and midwives, using their skills to the benefit of others. Armed with a comprehensive knowledge of herbalism, divination, and healing methods as well as a keen insight into human behavior, their abilities were prized as truly magical. These cunning folk, however, were careful to refer to themselves by culturally specific terms like pellar, power doctor, root worker, or cuandero in order to avoid being confused with the witch, their diabolical counterpart. Often times, these practitioners were employed to reverse the effects of witchcraft leveled by their more evilly disposed brethren. In some cases, if paid enough, the more mercenary cunning folk would level curses themselves.
The people who caught my attention claiming traditional status were ostensibly of European descent so I narrowed the scope of my search and focused on the British Isles with its rich history of witchcraft. In my research, I discovered some uncanny similarities between the witchcraft of Europe and that described by the Scotch-Irish settlers in the Appalachian region so it made sense to turn my attention across the Atlantic. Having picked up the trail in Albion, I began to explore the long history of sorcery there. Another task was to explore the term “traditional” and how it relates to witchcraft.
Were I to ask random passerby what they traditionally associate with witches, I’m reasonably certain the response would include such things as pointy hats and black cats, bubbling cauldrons, and broomsticks, the classic Halloween stereotype modern witches simultaneously rail against and embrace. While this image of the witch owes its popularity more to The Wizard of Oz than historical precedent, it has its origins somewhere. The witchcraft popularized by Gardner is vastly different in its trappings and suggests a different source. To follow the spoor of traditional witchcraft, it was necessary to look past these 20th century influences.
When I first became interested in witchcraft, the party line was that it represented a link back to the halcyon days of pre-Christian Europe where matriarchal tribes sang paeans to their gods under ancient oaks. That pleasant myth has long been discredited but modern pagans cling to vestiges of it by refusing to abandon the idea of pre-Christian fertility and ecstasy cults entirely. The theories of Margaret Murray may have fallen by the wayside but more modern scholars such as Carlo Ginzburg, Ronald Hutton, Claude Lecouteux, Emma Wilby, Eva Pocs, and Owen Davies have since picked up the academic mantle for today’s witches to use as standards of scholarly respectability.
In addition to their work, superstitions, rural customs, folktales, legends, and songs get trotted out as evidence for traditions of witchcraft predating Gerald Gardner’s controversial claims. In an ironic twist, the hodge-podge of evidence used by Gardner’s detractors actually bolsters his position. Various elements present in Wicca can be demonstrated as having their origins in places other than the New Forest but there is also much to suggest the wily old goat was privy to things other than ceremonial magic and Margaret Murray. That witchcraft existed prior to Gardner there can be no doubt. But was it the same as what modern “traditional witches” make it out to be?
I’m no history major but I do know that the British Isles have been subject to the influences of outside influences since Roman times. The Romans themselves may have brought their gods with them when they invaded Britain but classical deities play a very minor role in traditional witchcraft. Indigenous Celtic deities have their place in traditional witchcraft but the pantheon championed by a good number of self-described traditional witches, the one exerting, the greatest influence arrived later with Saxons. These Nordic god forms took root in British soil and were imbued with Saxon influences, names, and influences. Gods such as Odhinn the All-Father and Dame Holda wield a profound influence on what some consider traditional witchcraft. Legends like that of the Wild Hunt, shamanic practices similar to those found in other Germanic lands, magical use of runes, and a shared cosmology are evidence that much of what is called traditional witchcraft has origins in the pagan cultures of northern Europe.
Yet, in keeping with witchcraft’s evasive nature, another crowd of traditional witches eschews the Teutonic for the Biblical. These practitioners hew more to an altogether different worldview and populate their craft with fallen angels as well as pagan nature deities. These fallen ones, Lucifer and the Watchers being chief among them, are regarded as Promethean figures and the original teachers of mankind. Rather than a source of suffering, they are thought to bring illumination, spilling their light into the dark recesses of ignorance. It is from these divine teachers that mankind first received knowledge of agriculture, metal craft, medicine, art and science. Quite often, Cain, the first murderer, is described as the primal source of “witch-blood”, the spiritual thread linking practitioners together through the ages.
Dragging the waters for more evidence of traditional witchcraft kicked up even more mud. As I peered back into pre-Gardnerian, post-Saxon England, I chanced upon an even more curious influence: Christianity.
England, Ireland, and the other regions of the British Isles have been Christianized for centuries. The Christianity in some regions serves as a thin veneer for indigenous forms of Paganism but, over centuries, the two have become so intertwined that there is no easy separation. Wicca is clearly Pagan in origin but Judeo-Christian symbolism has crept in around the edges. The same can be said for traditional witchcraft. Just about every charm spell I read pre-Gardnerian 19th century tracts call upon the power of one saint or another as well as that of Jesus Christ himself. The more-Pagan-than-thou among us, seeking to divorce themselves from Judeo-Christian influences in their magical practice, face an uphill battle because the whole of western occultism is shot through with it.
Many of those claiming to practice traditional witchcraft are influenced, directly or indirectly, by the work of such notables as Robert Cochrane, Nigel Jackson, and Andrew Chumbley. Cochrane and Chumbley, both deceased, claimed hereditary status, that their witchcraft had been passed down through previous generations. However, both of these gentlemen appeared in Gardner’s wake and their work contains elements found in Gardnerian Wicca leading to a chicken and egg dilemma.
In the case of Robert Cochrane, it has been demonstrated that much of what he had to say about himself was less than truthful and that he was himself either a Gardnerian initiate or, at the very least, had a mole in a Gardnerian coven. Chumbley, on the other hand, was in possession of genuinely old material and his works show clear influences of pre-Gardnerian cunning craft as well as post-Gardnerian constructs such as chaos magic. Chumbley’s pre-Gardnerian influences fall more along the lines of Biblically influenced rather than Pagan witchcraft and suggests ties to the cunning folk of the 18th and 19th centuries. Both men can be considered brilliant in their own right but, as with Gardner, other influences can be discerned in their work.
The explosion of Wicca’s popularity during the 1990s unfortunately led to a spate of substandard works being published in order to capitalize on the fad. As with all such cultural phenomena, there was the inevitable backlash. Disenchanted by the glittery marketing of purportedly Wiccan materials and linked together by the Internet, another witchcraft community formed. Taking its cue from historical imagery and sources, it formed its own conventions and aesthetics to link disparate sources together in a tenuous but somewhat cohesive form.
Initially, the most solidarity I’ve observed among self-described traditional witches came from a dismissive attitude towards Wicca and eclecticism. Yet as one digs deeper into both traditional Wicca and witchcraft, those hard and fast lines start to blur it becomes apparent and I began to see that, minus Gardner’s idiosyncrasies, Wicca is simply a regional form of witchcraft, similar to but distinct from that found in other areas of the British Isles.
What Gardner did was give the surviving fragments of witchcraft found in the New Forest a more defined structure by borrowing liberally from other sources. Had he settled in another area of England and made contact with witches there, contemporary Wicca might have taken a radically different form or may never have come into being at all. Indeed, it is a salient fact that Garner spoke only of witchcraft and witches he called the ‘Wica’. What has been spread across popular culture in recent years is simply not the same thing.
Some have taken exception to my conclusions but so far I’ve seen precious little evidence to convince me that I’m on the wrong track. The history of witchcraft is just that, history. It informs the practice of all modern witches, no matter what their identification. To claim one form of witchcraft as purer in substance as many are wont to do is a waste of time and effort and ultimately denotes insecurity rather than confidence. With witchcraft, tradition is a much poorer measure of validity than effectiveness.
All the intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure of arguing this subject with