Chapter two – The Dawn of Witchcraft
by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.
Good hunting and fishing determined the survival of the Stone Age tribe. A little later, the number of domestic animals and the success of crops meant life or death. The tribe also needed many children. They had to replace those who died in infancy and early childhood, and few people lived beyond their thirties.
A division of labor existed from the earliest societies. Men hunted and fished. Women gathered food and cared for the children. Men had a male god, who controlled the hunt. The god wore horns or antlers, representing his power over the prey. Women worshiped a great mother goddess. She insured fertility and controlled the magical and medicinal powers of plants. Later, when agriculture was developed, both god and goddess protected the domestic animals and the crops. A priestess and a priest worked together as the representatives of the gods. They had ceremonies to influence the gods to help the people.
Slowly, the ideas of an afterlife and reincarnation began to emerge. The horned male god took on the additional feature of the god of death. The female goddess added the moon and its cycles to her domain. They were united in a sacred marriage, and shared fertility rites.
Their myth, still alive today, is simple. The goddess represents life. The god represents death. Life and death are a continuous cycle. The cycle contains three great truths – loving, dying, and reincarnating to live again. Magic controls all of them. To fulfil love, one must be born, unite with the loved one, die, and reincarnate. The cycle may repeat as many times as necessary.
During the Stone Age the people believed that reincarnation occurred in groups. You found yourself, life after life, with the same people. Witches no longer believe in group reincarnation, but it is easy to understand why the Stone Age people did. They lived in closely knit tribes and were afraid to be reincarnated among “strangers.” Reincarnation itself, however, is still an important part of the Old Religion.
All gods and demons emerge from humanity’s relationship with nature. To understand the minds of the prehistoric cave painters, one must look at isolated societies that still live in a similar way. Many anthropologists call these people “primitive.” This word gives the incorrect impression of inferiority. These people are not inferior in any meaningful way. They are just not living in our mechanized, Westernized society. Their way of life is just as complex and rich; their minds are just as alert as ours. Furthermore, they maintain a connection with nature that we have lost.
The Tasaday of Mindanao, Orochon of Siberia, Gilyaks of the Amur valley, and the Australian aborigines work in surprisingly similar ways. Their cultures present evidence about how the prehistoric mind worked.
The lives of these people are balanced with nature. The word is significant, because as you will see in an upcoming chapter, the balanced life is one of the principles of Witchcraft. Witches seek exactly what these people had maintained naturally for thousands of years – a balance that was lost with the development of civilization.
The prehistoric people saw themselves as part of their surrounding, neither more nor less important than the animals, the plants, the stones and the rivers. They believed that inanimate objects had lives of their own. Judging by the behavior of the isolated societies mentioned above, the Stone Age people often spoke with the fire, the stones, the water. If you ask the Orochon or Tasaday about it, they will tell you that the inanimate object understands and answers them.
The reasoning power of such people is different from ours. They see little difference between the real and the unreal. They will rarely ask why something happens. Things happen, and they will deal with the results. They use no written language and therefore have a powerful memory.
Interestingly, even today, a witch keeps as few written records as possible. She must burn all her papers when she realizes that she is near death, unless there is a very reliable witch who will inherit the notes and include them in her own work.
Researchers always assumed that this habit existed because of the danger during the Witch Trials. Every Medieval witch memorized as much as possible. When the inquisition marched into her home to look for evidence, it was best not to have the grimoires, as spell books are called, around the house. However, the truth about the memorizing habit may be deeper. Perhaps the witch is still following the prehistorical tradition of magic without written language.
We generally look for rational explanations for illnesses, sudden death, or accidents. The Stone Age people thought differently. Spirits and invisible forces filled their world. Magic caused distressing events. Someone conjured the malevolent spirits; perhaps the spirits themselves were angry and wanted revenge. If a wild beast or a force of nature caused death, then the supernatural force behind them actually made them do it. One had to appease or control the force. The shaman, priest, or witch could achieve that by establishing a relationship with the objects or the forces. In other words – he or she had to use magic.
The entire physical world was alive, swirling with energy waves, for the shaman and the witch. They established relationships with storms, water, and the seasons themselves. In a deep enough trance, they entered into a two-way conversation with the elements. They released their powerful souls from their bodies and let the souls kill the enemies or the beasts, heal the sick, or direct the animals toward the hunters.
The people were, above and beyond anything else, hunters and gatherers. They depended upon two factors. First, the availability of animals and plants; second, their ability to escape extremely dangerous predators. Fortunately, their witches knew herbal medicine and the setting of bones, and the hard life had some compensations. The tight communal life encouraged an incredible level of nonverbal communication. To us, they would seem telepathic, so well they understood each other without words. They were like flocks of birds or schools of fish that react to a situation as one large creature. In addition, they had supernatural endurance. This talent still exists in many isolated societies. For instance, look at the “runners” in Tibet. These are men who can run distances that are considered literally impossible by modern athletes. They do it in a trance, without much effort, and arrive in good shape. It’s all mind power.
The Stone Age magic-making was simple. They had dances that imitated the hunt and controlled the hunted animals. The dancers wore antlers or bird masks, whirled, chanted, and went into trances. These ceremonies, the beginning of Witchcraft, are painted over and over on cave walls.
The image of the horned god may have started during these dances. Imagine a dancer, wearing antlers to impersonate a reindeer or a stag. He is whirling in a trance, moving with the rhythm of the chant and drums in the warm cave. The fire behind him throws a strong shadow on the cave’s wall. The shadow is strange and threatening, and it attracts the attention of the tribe’s artist, always sensitive to new images. He picks a bit of charcoal from the fire, and quickly draws around the shadow. The drawing looks like a man/beast. As the months go by, the artist draws him again and again, developing a new image, adding the image into the magic.
It joined a wall already full of beautifully, accurately drawn pictures of animals and birds. The artists of the Stone Age were hunters who killed many animals. As they cut the animals for food, they learned much about anatomy. From necessity, they were also good observers of the animals during their daily lives. The art, however, was neither artistic expression nor a celebration of yesterday’s successful hunt. It was, just like the dance, an act of magic. By drawing an animal you controlled it. A picture of a successful hunt today would produce one tomorrow. A picture of an animal giving birth would insure fertility and good future hunts. Drawing dangerous animals falling into pits would make sure they would not kill you, but die themselves first. This was Witchcraft.
There were the dreams, too. To the Stone Age mind, dreams had a reality as definite as the waking world. The spirit, released from the body, walked the dream world; it spoke with other dreaming spirits or with the spirits of the dead. The dreams revealed the future, and were important to the well-being of the entire tribe. It is entirely possible that Out-of-Body-Experience (OBE) started like that. People who have experienced OBE claim a part of their consciousness, or their soul, leaves their body and explores the world on its own. Ancient cultures in all parts of the world described OBE. It is practiced today by people of various religions and nationalities. Parapsychologists argue whether OBE exists, or if it is a powerful dream form. Witches claim they just do it. At this stage of modern research, there is still no proof either way.
As the climate changed and lost some of its harshness, people began to live longer, create settlements, and develop agriculture. The witch’s importance did not diminish. The prosperity of crops and domestic animals, fertility of the land, and the continuous development of herbal medicine remained the witch’s domain.
Religion became more organized, but the job of the witches remained the same – influencing the supernatural powers. It didn’t matter if the people called them shamans, shape-changers, wizards, druids, priestesses or witches. It didn’t matter if they worked in the woods, the meadows, or at the altar of the simple, beautiful new temples. They helped humanity survive, worshiped the nature gods, served the earth.
And so it went on for generations. It continues today. The similarity between Witchcraft in the various ancient cultures is so strong, and the relationship to today’s Witchcraft is so amazing, there is no possible way to assume it happened by chance. Let’s look at a few cultures. They are not in any order – it’s more like a bit of time travel to places of interest.
In Denmark, archaeologists found the grave of a powerful Bronze Age witch. The grave contained obvious evidence of wealth – gold, jewelry, costly swords. It also had various items of Witchcraft, neatly arranged in a large bronze bowl. Identical Witchcraft ingredients are still used in folk medicine, and similar tools are used by today’s witch. Here is a list of the items.
- A lynx’s claw.
- A weasel’s bones.
- Snakes’ vertebrae.
- Iron pirate pieces. If struck over the body of a sick person, the striking of the pirate will clear both physical and mental diseases and the effect of the evil eye.
- Charcoal of an aspen tree. In today’s folk medicine, the charcoal is useful if the tree was hit by lightning. It is possible that the aspen in the grave was burned in the same way.
- Horses’ teeth.
- Twigs of a rowan tree.
- An iron knife.
- A sword.
The old Scandinavian Sagas describe activities of witches which are still part of today’s ceremonies. They also tell the usual stories – shape changing, riding on poles, or sending the soul out of the bodies.
Another interesting ancient connection exists in Mexico. A witch cult there was centered around a goddess, or a “Witch Queen.” She always carried or rode a broom. The broom, to the Mexicans, symbolized purity and cleanliness. This is particularly important because the Medieval European witch considered cleanliness and order essential. Her contemporaries rarely bathed, and kept food debris on their straw-covered floors for weeks. The witches in Mexico, just like the European ones, always wore big necklaces. Men wore the same kind of leather apron as the Irish male witches.They worked in small rooms to confine the power – much like the circles of power of the European witches.
There is no explanation to the similarity. Some historical researchers believe that perhaps people traveled across the Atlantic before Columbus, and introduced the Old Religion to Mexico. Or perhaps the needs of Witchcraft created similar evolution wherever and whenever it was practiced.
Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome treated magic as if it was science. Not that they were particularly concerned with pure science; they were more interested in practical results. However, they had to know the medicinal and poisonous properties of hundreds of plants; they knew how to use hypnosis; they understood human consciousness. The magicians combined their practice with incantations and prayers, which is why today’s scientists do not take them seriously. But they were not much different. When achieving an identical result, today’s scientist credits it to reasoning or experimentation. The sorcerer assumed they were given by a supernatural power.
Some great scholars in Greece worked as sorcerers. Pythagoras, the mathematician, openly practiced philosophy, science and magic. He had a strong influence on Plato, not himself a sorcerer, but clearly a believer. One can see that in his Dialogues Aristotle suggested the influence of the magical theory in his History of Animals. Neither he nor Plato feared the magicians, though many other people did. Obviously, they understood, with their better education and sharp minds, what the sorcerers were doing.
Finding the roots of Ancient Greek Witchcraft and Hellenistic Witchcraft is easy. One has simply to look at their great holidays. Take, for example, the Eleuisian holiday which attracted thousands of people. Much like the May holiday participants in the British Isles, the Greeks had games, theater, wine, food, dancing and music. Everyone was at least half drunk and ready for religious ecstasy. Mystical rites included the purging of the fear of death, the procession in honor of the dead, and the wild, whirling dancing. People fell into trance-like states, many acting as if they were in direct communication with the gods. It was similar to Voodoo possession – or to the ancient shaman/witch union with the unseen forces. Naturally, some people were better at it than others, and some became priests and priestesses.
The best known priestesses were those who worked at the Oracle of Delphi. They dedicated their lives to the gods and practiced prophecy and divination. The priestess sat over a cleft in the rocks, from which fumes of various drugs rose to envelop her body. The drugs brought on a trance state, and under it she told the future. Another priestess or priest had to explain the messages, because often they were hard to understand. Many of the prophecies came true, and the practice lasted thousands of years. It is silly to dismiss the whole thing as a lie, as the Catholic church later tried. Ancient Greece was a culture of sophistication, intellect and learning. Could a handful of priests really trick these people for so long?
The god Pan is another connection with witchcraft. In the Dianic tradition of Witchcraft, one of the schools still active today, the horned god is still named Pan. Is it the same deity? There are some differences. But this happens to every ancient religion. Take the Judeo-Christian tradition. The current merciful God is very different from the angry desert deity that took the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan, destroying entire nations in His path. And yet any Priest, Minister or Rabbi would be horrified if you dared suggest that it was another God – Jehovah is Jehovah! Well, Pan is Pan. Then and now, he is a nature god, a part of every living animal and plant. And he is still with his goddess and with those who call themselves the Guardians of the Earth.
Shape changing was common in Greece, too, as seen by both mythology and literature. Zeus’ love affairs are famous for it. He changed into a swan, a bull, or even a shower of golden rain, as the occasion demanded. Also, the famous book The Golden Ass, by Apuleius of Madaura tells of such a change. It is a story of Greek man who, with the help of an untrained witch’s apprentice, turns himself accidentally into a donkey. After many misadventures, the goddess Isis restores him from the animal shape and he becomes her priest.
There are several great Greek witches. Medea is probably the most famous witch of antiquity. She is strong, possibly insane, and murderous. Hecate is first a moon goddess, then a witch goddess who rules the nights and all its frightening creatures. Circe is a sorceress who turns her lovers into swine when she tires of them. All the Greek stories of the great, power wielding, magnificent witches view them as evil. This is because they were, originally, priestesses of the Old Religion, worshipers of the mother goddess. The “new” Greek religion saw them as competition and turned them into evil hags, as most cultures do. For further proof, the texts often stress the witches’ knowledge of herbal medicine and magic – the obvious traits of the followers of Wicca, then as now.
The Romans used much magic in their daily lives. They employed magical astrology, and used amulets, incantations, healing and cursing formulas.
The Romans had an interesting device, very similar to today’s Ouija board. It was a metal disk, supported by a wooden tripod. On its rim, the letters of the alphabet were inscribed. The person performing the ritual suspended a ring on a thread, right above the disk. Some incantation was said, and the ring began to swing like a pendulum, forming words and answering questions.
The Aeneid describes magic extensively. Dido, the tragic heroin, is a powerful sorceress whose magic eventually turns against herself, much like Medea’s in Greece. Horace’s plays describe evil Witchcraft, including some horrifying ritual murder of children. Other Roman poets describe necromancy and divination. Obviously, witches in Rome had a bad reputation.
Romans, as a nation, enjoyed cruelty. One has only to look at their arena games and war atrocities to see that. The stories about the witches reflect that taste. Unquestionably, some Roman witches turned to the dark side. The records show that their help was often used for poisoning, necromancy, and even attempts at raising of the dead and the creation of zombies. It was a sad period for true followers of the Old Religion.
In Egypt, magic was entirely scientific. It was mixed with religion, but nevertheless practiced as a precise and organized activity. From the mythologies and magic books it is clear that they had a system of the Occult based on subjects. There are separate texts on astrology, alchemy, formulas for magic in daily use, etc. The practitioners were specialists. The ordinary people, in addition to consulting the experts, could also purchase amulets and herbs for self protection and do-it-yourself magic.
Repeating the magic formula in exactly the same way, even down to the tone of voice, was called “right speaking.” The Book of the Dead stated that the gates to the other world would not open to a person who did not know his secret name or who uttered it incorrectly. The name of each gate in the other world also required correct reading and pronunciation.
The Egyptians had many books containing formulas and incantations, spells and charms for daily use. Amulets were important. They were worn by the living and put on the dead. Amulets could be made of any material and sometimes carved with magic formulas. Some shapes were particularly popular, such as the scarab and the heart. The Egyptians even had amulets to protect each part of the body. The books often mention dreams and shape changing. For example, there are spells in the Book of the Dead teaching the newly deceased how to change into birds, crocodiles, or serpents.
The positive image of the witch lasted for generations. Eventually, however, patriarchal monotheism took over in the West, first by Judaism and later by Christianity. With it, the position of the witch deteriorated. The Bible often refers to witches in a negative manner. They are always fiercely persecuted by the priests of Jehovah. Most notable is the Witch of Endor, who is consulted secretly by King Saul. The story is interesting because Saul killed many witches on the demand of the Prophet Samuel. She is one of the few survivors.
Earlier, Moses and Aaron practiced Egyptian magic, described in detail in Exodus. They turned a stick into a snake, for instance, during a competition with the Egyptian magicians. The plagues visited on the Egyptians, including such things as pestilence and darkness in the middle of the day, sound like malevolent Witchcraft. Naturally, the Bible describes the plagues as punishment by God.
King Solomon, David’s son, was supposed to be the wisest man of his generation, perhaps the wisest ever to live on Earth. He was a magician as well. The book The Wisdom of Solomon was written many years after his death, but much of it is probably based on his words. In it he said that God gave him power and knowledge, and that his studies included not only science but the Occult. In the original text, this included power over demons. The sentence was mistakenly translated as power over the winds, because the two words are similar in the original Hebrew. He also claimed knowledge of exorcism.
Nevertheless, the Bible is determined that no witch should be permitted to live. The reason is simple. A witch is not only a worshiper of a competing religion, but a symbol of a matriarchal society. A society ruled by women is offensive to the male-dominated Jews and Christians. So the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan is the point in time in which the power of the Old Religion began its slow decline. It has taken many centuries and a fierce struggle, but a gentle nature religion is no match to the powerful, military, new religion. Starting from Mount Sinai, a fiery volcano in the desert, the Judeo-Christian creed swept everything in its violent path and conquered the Western world.