The Craft: Reflections of an Obscured Path
The gossamer trail of mist-like light illuminates the cove as the elegant crescent rises to its throne in the heavens. Waves of cool, foamy water sweep over the shore, complacently destroying innocent patterns ingrained in the fine sand. Silence reigns in the depth of the night as if a loose drape has smothered all movement and sound. Then, a soft and gradual note begins, accompanied by the steadied pound of taut leather. Crimson flames dance and court the frantic veil of shadow, chased to distant horizons – cast out by the sudden burst of light and color.
“Darksome night and shining moon, East, then South, then West, then North; Hearken to the Witches Rune, Hear we come to call ye forth…” The sweet cascade of voices fills the hollow cove as a warm breeze sails eagerly by. The sinuous chorus dances vividly against the opaque darkness, painting a mural of gentle faith and eternal youth. Faster and faster their ancient words spill from their moist lips, wisps of euphoria melting into the resonating air. Their feet frolic against a whirlwind of floating dust and scarlet embers, unraveling the secret labyrinth buried deep within their hearts. Nostalgia courses along their heaving bloodlines, for they are weaving a web whose humble strands were birthed in the dawn of humanity. Witches have gathered and Magic is afoot.
Since time immemorial humanity has been awed in the presence of the spiritual. For the early nomadic tribes of the arduous Earth, hunting and gathering was a life pursuit. Over time the various tribes developed structure and cohesion from their observations of nature’s cycles, the behavior and movement of their prey and the distinct patterns woven into the very fabric of their physical being. Women became aware of their periodic bleeding which coincided with the moon’s changing face. The mystery of birth and the anticipation of new life grounded women in their evolving passages, accepting the burden of caring for children and thus partaking in the less strenuous labor of gathering seeds, vegetables, herbs and plants. Men, whose role in procreation became that of the virile warrior and Lord of the Dance, brandished their weapons of stone and flint, while stalking the fleeting herds of deer and bison. Theirs was the role of hunting and so the gradual growth in favor of flesh moved the tribes to follow the herds in hopes of fulfilling an un-sated craving. And yet each tribe grew accustomed to their unique environment, borders and the collective experience of those who had gone before them, their revered ancestors.
The mysteries of birth, death and the return of life flourished unchallenged, and various deities, spirits and beings expressed the raw emotive language carved into their history. Behind the myriad of names, faces and myths, an underlying evocation to the Mother Goddess of abundance, fertility and Earth and the Living and Dying God of strength, prevalence and potency moved the ocean of their unconscious. And as in all things, there were those who by oracle, synchronicity, intuition or prophecy came to life as the vessels of the spirits and who the tribes adorned with the marks of ochre and the skins of the hunted, for these were the sacred Priesthood, the advisors and the Shamans of the people. A charge to wisdom and the grace of the Gods ignited the flame of the consecrated and the sacred became the Witches.
Such is the story told by numerous NeoPagan authors today and despite the scrutiny with which various scholars and historians have regarded modern Witchcraft, there is a subtle and romantic truth behind the envisioned history of Witchcraft.
By conventional definition Witchcraft is the ability to harness seemingly “supernatural” forces and bend natural principles in order to achieve a goal, usually immoral and selfish. However this traditional interpretation has little to do with the truth as expressed by the practitioners of Witchcraft today. Witchcraft has been described as a skill, a philosophy, a way of life and a religion. However, in essence the most suitable definition of Witchcraft is as a way of life; that of attuning to the natural world and developing a relationship with the spiritual flow of life’s energy, and working with it to manifest desire. Nowadays Witchcraft is a spiritual pursuit that embodies various Pagan practices and customs that assist the individual in living a life of respect for Mother Earth, her creatures and the Self. However even that statement is dancing dangerously on the edge of unanimity, as Witchcraft is a decentralized and autonomous practice that, by its nature, evolves and changes in order to suit the diversity of personality.
The revival in interest of Witchcraft can be traced back to the early 1950s in England. In 1951 British parliament repealed the anti-Witchcraft legislation, which restricted the legal practice of mediumship and spiritualism, under pressure from Spiritualist organizations that desired to freely practice their craft. This auspicious event set off the beginnings of one of the most phenomenal movements in the Western world. In 1954 a British civil servant named Gerald Brosseau Gardner published Witchcraft Today – a non-fiction work describing Witchcraft as the ancient, Pagan religion of Western Europe, a theory that had previously been discussed by the Egyptologist, Margaret Murray. Murray’s hypothesis has long been discredited; however it must be made clear that Witchcraft is a spiritually valid system which has long been practiced by the people of this Earth under the guise of various local Shamanic and religious systems, or simply as a thread of the rich history of folk lore. Gardner claimed to have been initiated into a traditional Witches Coven in the New Forest in 1939 by a woman by the name of Dorothy Clutterbuck. Skeptics and scholars who frowned upon Gardner as a delusional charlatan questioned the existence of “Old Dorothy,” however research collated by the late Doreen Valiente (Witch and High Priestess of Gardner’s first Coven) has proven that Dorothy did indeed exist and that Gardner’s claims were not unfounded. What can be assessed is that Gardner created a working and accessible system which he called ‘Wica’ (now ‘Wicca’) by examining the commonalities in the religious experiences of the Neolithic peoples of Western Europe, Eastern ethics and spiritual disciplines (meditation), occult fraternities and organizations such as the New Golden Dawn and the Rosicrucians and the various medieval Gnostic groups. While he professed that Wica had direct links with an ancient past and probably sincerely believed this, the truth is that Wica comprises a multitude of cultural and spiritual systems that for lack of a better term have been equated with Witchcraft.
In truth Wicca, as it is spelt today, is a religious attitude that involves harnessing the Magical principles of Witchcraft to further attune the individual to both the sacred mysteries of Initiation and the keen diversity of the natural world. It is a religion of devotion, training, occult tenets and celebration of the Old Gods and their kingdom, the wilderness of Earth. For it is the understanding of Wiccans that Divinity resides in the present, in the physical manifestation of creation and that it pervades all things. Witchcraft in and of itself is not a religion, it is simply a way of life in which the Self is seen as the catalyst for change, growth and development. However, in this case the catalyst is consciously susceptible to the outcome and its effects.
Witchcraft, under the guise of ethics and spiritual values, has become the most popular form of the Craft today. The Western world has experienced this popularity of the “ancient” or rather naturalistic traditions as recorded by their statistical census reports, which in Australia alone have shown a 373.5% growth in people identifying as Witches from 1996 to 2001. This excludes Wiccans, Pagans and other nature-based spiritualities, which have all experienced similar influxes. As time goes on Witches, Wiccans and Pagans have become more willing to inform others about their practices and beliefs, and work actively to encourage accurate portrayals of Pagan culture in the media through pride festivals, charity associations, interfaith communities – the list goes on. Despite this, there is still discrimination against Witchcraft and its adherents and many Witches have been subject to horrendous mistreatment by fundamentalist Christian groups, local and federal governments and other ignorant individuals whose lack of sympathy and tolerance remains a thorn in the side of many Witches and Pagans today. But where did this all start? Why does society reject the truth in favor of sensationalist rumors and historical misconceptions? Where did this hatred of Witchcraft begin and who is responsible for spreading the myths of diabolism, devil-worship, infanticide and crazed orgiastic rites?
The word Witch is said to have its roots in the Indo-European word “Weik” which refers to religion and Magic and therefore the ceremonies that interlink them. Therefore historically, at least in the BC era, Witchcraft and those who practiced it were simply participating in a form of religious tradition which may have been celebrated through simplistic and festive fertility rites and more complicated forms of Ritual performed by talented individuals, i.e. Shamans. It was not until the birth of Christianity and its consequent acceptance as the “one true faith,” that Witches, or rather non-Christians, were perceived as irreligious, ignorant and idolaters. However, it cannot be assumed that the early Christians, whose numbers were few, actively preached against the evils of Pagan worship. Indeed there are various stories and legends, which convey a sense of peace and harmony between the first Christian settlers in Britain and the Druids, the Celtic priesthood. The belief in the innate opposition of good and evil and their tangible embodiments of Holy Spirit (God) and Satan respectively, has shaped the mode of Western thought and colored the belief that Witches’ immoral customs and roles served the Evil One, and thus this opinion was carried by the cancerous spread of rumors and religious indoctrination throughout Europe.
Patriarchy, war, government and propagandist institutions became favorable in the ancient Sumerian and later Babylonian civilizations and the once sacred and revered position of the temple priestess degenerated into petty acquaintances with oracles and soothsayers and the submissive service of the “sacred” prostitute. These societies whose roots were closely related to the development of Judaism influenced the popular view that Witches and their kin (mediums, oracles and diviners) were dark and suspicious characters who remained on the periphery of the community and dwelled in shadows to avoid assured persecution. The Old Testament decrees that, “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.” The passage goes on to address these acts as “abominations to the Lord” and warns that should anyone participate in any of the above they will be driven out by God. Even Roman and Greek writers described Witches as foul, unclean, haggish, unmerciful and predominantly women and officiated the approval of various Magical acts in hopes that this would encourage only regulated and “refined” Magical practice, rather than suffer the onslaught of curses and enraged spirits believed to be consorted with by the “common folk.” This was merely the beginning of a dark stereotype, an archetype that infused the warped unconscious of a hysterical continent into what has been termed the Women’s Holocaust.
As Christianity became the dominant ecclesiastical power in Europe and Paganism declined into the remnants of a deteriorating folk history, Witchcraft, which was intrinsically embedded in Pagan custom, attracted the attention of the Catholic Church. Through a period of crusades, publications (Malleus Maleficarum – Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer ) and papal declarations, Witchcraft fell to the tyranny of both the secular and religious powers, and a hysteria swept over Western Europe which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, of which a significant percentage were women. The numerous trials the Inquisition imposed resulted in a consistency of confessions that “revealed” the decadent and diabolic revelry that featured prominently in the Witch’s Sabbat. The proposed reason for the universality of answers which the Inquisitors and judges extracted from the convicted is said to owe to the wide use of published manuals on witch-hunting. Confession to these wild allegations was offered as divine redemption and if the individual did not accept responsibility for their actions immediately (if indeed any of them committed such acts) torture was instituted as a means to provoke the desired response.
Nowadays the world has inherited this legacy of brutality, discrimination and complete ignorance, and myths of Satanic worship, cannibalism, curses and naked journeys through the night sky are accepted as fact, superstitious nonsense, or rather left without evaluation. Witches and Pagans have worked through the decades to counteract these misconceptions and rectify society’s assumptions; in many cases this has allowed for fairer treatment and opened doors for a safer public awareness. Witches have never worshipped the Devil, never flown through the frigid air on pitchforks and broomsticks, never eaten children for the sake of an unholy pact and they have never been consumed by the whims of demons and evil. Nor are Witches the epitome of a kingdom of purity and white light, for Witches honor the sacred balance between light and dark, masculine and feminine, night and day. For Life is a journey amidst the colors of a dancing rainbow, and shadow is merely the reflection of an obstructed light, and you are that which stands between them both.