Witchcraft – Chapter Six – Witchcraft in Isolated Societies


Chapter six – Witchcraft in Isolated Societies

by Ilil Arbel, Ph.D.

In many isolated societies, the belief in Witchcraft has never died. The witches don’t hide their activities, and live as important members of the society. This happens in the Maori societies of New Zealand, the Barotse of Africa, and the Quiche of Guatemala. Among the people of the Marquesas Islands, witches are respected, but feared as well.

All of these societies believe that magic is neutral. The witches can heal or curse, depending on their character. Necromancy is widely spread, and the witches operate mostly at night.

Spells and incantations have particular power when the witch uses parts of the patient’s (or victim’s) body. Nail parings and hair are the best. If not available, the witch can use clothes that have been worn by the person. The strongest magical potions are produced from extremely unpleasant ingredients. The witch cooks the brains of dead babies, menstrual blood, bits of human bones, pieces of gravestones, powdered frogs and toads, and bats’ blood.

Obviously, all that is a low form of the Old Religion, corrupted over the long centuries. It’s not even particularly interesting, unless one is a student of anthropology. But some societies maintained a fascinating relationship to the Old Religion. Two forms are of particular interest. The first includes witches who lived surrounded by the modern world, but maintained the old ways. The second are the truly isolated groups.

An ancient group that has survived in Europe, almost intact, are the Basque witches. They live in the area between Northern Spain and Southern France. Those witches have maintained a system similar to the old covens; they have been relatively tolerated by the Catholic Church for centuries; and they observe a strict code when initiating new converts. Their order is headed by “La Señora,” an immortal woman who lives in a cave in the Pyrenees. This is clearly a description of the Mother Goddess in one of her many guises.

The Gypsies in England, at least those involved in Witchcraft, also have a woman as their leader, but she does not have to be immortal. When the leader dies, they “adopt” a new leader. Sybil Leek, the great English witch, was their leader for many years. Obviously, they worship a representation of the Great Goddess, a priestess, rather than the Goddess herself.

Voodoo has its stronghold in Haiti and the West Indies. It is a mixture of African religions and Catholicism, and embraces many gods. In Haiti the principal god is a Great Serpent. Others are Papa Legba, the guardian of death, and Ogoun Badagris, the “Bloody Warrior.”   However, Jesus and the Virgin Mary are just as important. They put the Christian Cross in every shrine, together with symbols of the pagan gods.

Much magic is performed. Necromancy and animal sacrifices play a part of the ritual. There is also a lot of spirit channeling and healing.

The zombies, or living dead, are controlled by a spirit called Baron Samedi. During rituals, he is represented by a plain wooden cross, preferably taken from a cemetery. The cross is dressed in a tailcoat and a tall hat.

When necromancy is performed, the Baron Samedi is invoked in a cemetery. Three people must be present. They dress the cross on the grave with Baron Samedi’s traditional clothes, and burn incense and herbs. Then they request his help. They know the Baron has arrived when the clothes on the cross flap as if disturbed by wind. Some actually claim to see him – a tall black man with white beard and eyeless sockets in his head, though he can see very well.

The participants ask the corpse various questions. If it answers them, the corpse is rewarded by a limited time as a zombie. The zombie acts as the servant of the people who raised him, and performs tasks for them.

An interesting cult exists in Brazil. It is  based on spirit possession, and the followers are mostly Afro-Brazilians. The gods had been brought from Africa, originally, but they adapted completely to Brazilian life.

To attend the ceremony, you don’t have to be a believer. With the usual Brazilian hospitality, anyone is warmly welcomed. The ceremony takes place in an open pavilion, with the sacred area inside a railing. Many chairs and benches are arranged for the comfort of the spectators. There are drums ready, and an altar with images of the gods and of Catholic saints. Under the altar there are various bowls containing wine, beer, palm wine, and some food. Stones are arranged there for the visiting spirits, who will sit on them and eat and drink the offerings before possessing the mediums.

The whole idea is the possession. With dance, song, drumming and the shaking of some gourd-like musical instruments, the spirits, called encantados, are invited to enter the bodies of the mediums.  Excited by the heat, the dance and the music, the mediums go into a trance. One by one, they are possessed by the spirits. The trance goes on almost all night.

Most followers of this system are poor and have extremely hard lives. They believe that the supernatural world helps them survive the difficulties of this world. The encantados enjoy entering the bodies of living beings, so becoming a medium is thus a responsibility of each person toward a specific spirit. They do not deny the Christian God – on the contrary, they believe he is the greatest power in the universe. They love Jesus and the Virgin Mary. But the little spirits of their old religion are much closer. They take an interest in the people’s lives, and should be given the pleasure of entering the bodies of the worshipers in return. It is a kind, warmhearted system, and like Witchcraft, interested in achieving results.

But the most important connection is the relationship to nature. Everything in nature is supposed to belong to the encantados – bodies of water, forests, animals and birds. In a charming modern addition, vacant buildings also belong to them, because they claim the land on which the vacant house was built. While the house is occupied, the encantados graciously allow the humans to use it.

It’s better not to make them angry. Like all spirits, if not treated properly, they resent it and may do some mischief. But they never kill or torment anyone. At worst, they hide your possessions, slam doors, scare you by whispering among themselves, or appear like phantoms. Generally, it is easy to enlist their help, and there is no need for official witches and sorcerers. Anyone can join.

Brazil has another form of worship, found mostly around the fishing and sailing areas. It centers around the goddess Iemanja. She is a powerful entity, original to Africa, but greatly transformed. Iemanja is the Queen of the Sea, protector of sailors and fishermen. All who die at sea go to her luxurious underwater palace, so the sailors prefer that to dying in bed. But she never drowns anyone herself. She is a kind, magnificently beautiful goddess, occasionally rising from the sea to greet the sailors. They sing songs in her honor at night, when the trail of moonlight shines on the water. The storytellers say this is Iemanja’s hair, floating on the waves. Obviously, Iemanja is a manifestation of the Great Goddess in one of her many forms.

The second form of isolated Witchcraft includes Shamanism n Siberia, the Eskimos, the aborigines of Australia and many Native American tribes.

The Shamans work like the traditional, Stone Age witches. They move between this world and the world of the spirits. The people rely on the Shamans to enter the dangerous supernatural world and act on their behalf.

The reindeer herders and the fishermen of Northern Asia live around the western shore of the Bering Sea. Most are nomads who live in felt tents. Imagine living such a hard life, surviving long, harsh and threatening winters. When the day’s work is over, there is nothing to do but huddle in a warm, dark tent. Watching the Shaman summon spirits, or have a contest with a disease-producing demon, is good fun. He is also responsible for retrieving your soul if you happened to have lost it through sickness, or if a demon has enticed it into the lower regions of nature. You can always trust the Shaman to get it back.

Shamans in this area have two guardian spirits. One is a kind, understanding spirit of a long-dead Shaman. The other is in the shape of an animal. He can be dangerous and tricky, but very useful.

The Shamans dress beautifully, the clothes made of skins and embroidered with the symbols of the trade. They usually carry a tambourine drum, ready to be beaten when summoning spirits.

At night, the Shaman puts out all the lights in the house or tent. He begins to sing and beat the tambourine. The songs start softly, and then, slowly, grow in intensity. The Shaman goes into a trance. Suddenly, the audience hears other voices, made by various spirits. The audience joins in the singing and drum beating, and starts imitating the sounds of the spirits. The Shaman then is possessed by the spirits, and under their influence gives their messages to the people. Eventually the spirits bid the people farewell. When the lights are on again, the Shaman will be found exhausted, perhaps even fainting, lying on the floor.

When going into the spirit world, the Shaman does it during the day. He is accomplishing this difficult adventure by being in two places at once. The body performs dances in this world, showing the audience what his soul is doing in the other world. The dance may show fights, discussions, or anything else that is happening to the soul. Once the purpose is accomplished, the soul of the Shaman returns to the body.

There are as many female Shamans as males, and there is a complete equality between the sexes. This is because a shaman is considered sexless, and even the males wear female symbols on their decorated clothes.

Anthropologists have often noted that many people do not wish to be shamans. It takes a certain character, and in many ways the personality resembles that of the witch. The Shaman is a loner who likes to spend much time in meditation, and usually has vivid dreams since childhood. Invariably, he or she is quite intelligent.

The similarities among Shamans defy geography. The native diviners of South Africa are recognized early, or may enter the life because of an illness or spirit possession. The same is done by Native Americans. The Woyo woman of West Africa must be possessed by a god, while still young, and chosen for the profession of a diviner. She cannot enter training without it.

The aborigines in Australia are strongly connected with magic and sorcery. Much of it follows the familiar lines, but one practice is of particular interest – death caused by sorcery. If a person committed a particularly horrible crime, the sorcerer places a curse to make him “half dead.”  The community withdraws from the person, and rites are performed, showing that he is no longer part of the living, but is now a member of the society of the dead. In almost all cases the person actually dies, probably from shock or the lack of desire to live under such circumstances. Add to that the deep-seated fear of sorcery, and a person has no chance to survive at all. Some researchers believe that this was exactly the way Stone Age people punished their criminals.

By observing those isolated societies, and comparing them to Stone Age Witchcraft, much can be learned about the development of the Old Religion. Obviously, the supernatural world plays an important part in many lives, then as well as now. The current follower of the Old Religion is still quite comfortable with this unseen world and its powers.

But the witch has never ignored this world. It’s impossible to separate the Old Religion from the living, breathing planet. The next chapter deals with Witchcraft’s immensely important relationship with the plants and animals. The love of nature is the core of the witches’ being – which is why they see themselves as the Guardians of the Earth.


Encyclopedia MYTHICA

Shaman, Priest, Priestess, Pastor, or Candlestick-Maker

Shaman, Priest, Priestess, Pastor, or Candlestick-Maker

Author:   Alfred Willowhawk, DMsc, RMT, CTM, Shaman   

Humans are always reaching for understanding. Whatever their religious, spiritual, or non-spiritual philosophy, we are always seeking to understand the world around us. In our pre-industrialized world, we sought these answers from individuals who seemed to have a better connection than the general population with unseen realms. They were sometimes called shamans, druids, priestesses or priests. Our post-industrialized world calls these individuals, pastors, priests, and guides. Many individuals of western religious frameworks may disagree with this contention. This article will demonstrate that the term used is really immaterial; after all, “a rose by any other name will smell as sweet”, thanks to Shakespeare.

What is a Shaman and why is the term so popular today? We acknowledge that the term “shaman” is not of Celtic or Western European origin. It is actually Siberian in origin but has come to be applied to any Otherworld “journeyer” who functions as a guide for his culture and people. It has also become associated with First Nations, indigenous peoples, and Native Americans. We are not attempting to appropriate the term as used by First Nations or Native Americans.

The term ‘’Otherworld is a uniquely Celtic word, which has similarities to the Underworld of Wiccan and other neo-pagan places. It is a real place, not made up in the head of a person, where the deities and personkind interact. It also overlaps the mundane or physical world. Today, most individuals of Celtic descent and practice call this the Faery Realm. This realm is the depository of all the archetypes of being. Interaction with individuals within this realm can bring forth the entire spectrum of emotional, spiritual, and physical responses. Whether one feels fear, joy, excitement, or any other emotion – the journey to the otherworld is always revealing.

As an individual spends time there, many aspects of oneself become apparent. Deceit is not tolerated there and is easily perceived. The oldest known story of the Celtic Otherworld is the Immram Curaig Maelduin Inso or the Voyage of Malduin’s Boat. It was first transcribed in the eighth or ninth century in its entirety. It visits the thirty-three islands of the Celtic Otherworld and serves as a lesson for any visitor.

In our 21st century time, most individuals seem blind to this world. The Shamanic practitioner, or shaman, as we define it above, serves as the medium through which individuals can receive messages, and assistance from the deities. In our course, The Shamanic Soul: Path to the Sacred Self”, we assist the individual to begin and foster the connection with the Otherworld and their deities. It is not actually necessary to use a shamanic practitioner to feel, see, and touch the Otherworld. Recognizing and interpreting what is seen there is best done with a knowledgeable individual who has studied the signs, portents, and events that are recorded in the “songs” of the pan Celtic world to facilitate the actual intent of these messages.

Among the Celts were members of their culture who journeyed to the Otherworld. They were the Mystics. They were one of four classes including Bards, Healers, and Warriors. The Mystics’ primary function was that of mediator between this world and the Otherworld – as such they meet the widely accepted definition of ‘Shaman’. The Celtic Mystic utilizes the gifts of the Bard and the Healer but acts primarily as a conduit for messages from the deities, spirit entities and ancestors.

The Celtic Mystic or Shamanic tradition was systematically wiped out by the encroachment of the Romans, and later the Christians. The tradition was further impacted by the Celtic Diaspora, which scattered Celts to Brittany, Gaul, Spain, and Asia Minor. The Celts were spread over much of what is now Europe and into Asia.

The term “mystic” has the unfortunate definition of “one who practices or believes in mysticism or a given form of mysticism” (from the Free On Line Dictionary) . “Mysticism” is further defined as “1. a. immediate consciousness of the transcendent or ultimate reality or God; b. The experience of such communion as described by mystics; 2. A belief in the existence of realities beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension that are central to being and directly accessible by subjective experience.3. Vague, groundless speculation.” I think you can see our problem… Because the term “mystic” has an even less precise definition than the term “shaman”, we choose to use the term “shaman” because it is more commonly descriptive of what we do.

Therefore, like other Shamanic Traditions, because it is what Shamans do, we journey to the invisible spirit world as a medium or mediator for the purposes of healing, divination and to discern the needs of the Earth (see Gaea) and return to this world to guide our people. The imagery, deities and myths we employ in our practice is Celtic/Indo-European.

The definition of Shaman is both simple and complex. A shaman is “one who knows”. We expand this definition as follows: The Shaman is one who knows the world on multiple levels in which he/she lives. The Shaman knows his mind, his soul, his spirit, and his guide. The Shaman knows her culture, her people, her Goddess, her God. The Shaman knows his enemy and his friends; her protection is in knowing.

According to Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, Emma Wilby, 2006, Sussex Academic Press, “The shaman’s first encounter with his helping spirit is either deliberately cultivated or spontaneous. In tribal societies the deliberately cultivated initial encounter is based upon the rationale that an individual can only become a shaman if he obtains one or more spirit-helpers, and that therefore an aspirant shaman needs to work at magical techniques believed to encourage the appearance of such spirits. A survey of anthropological sources suggests that in tribal societies far more emphasis is place don the deliberately cultivated initial encounter than was the case in early modern Britain, although how far this difference is rooted in culture as opposed to the divergent circumstances under which information about these magical traditions has been gathered, is hard to determine.”

While we are eclectic in our approach to our shamanic practices, we are using our own ancestral and cultural history (Western European Celtic and Greco-Roman) . We do not practice any form of cultural appropriation or “plastic shaman ism”. We are NOT practicing some post-colonial cultural appropriation of First Nations shamanism. Any reference we make here or in our practice to First Nations culture, practices, spirits, shamans, guides, or deities is for historical and informational reference only and not an attempt to associate ourselves with First Nations Shamans. We welcome any criticism of our practice. We are always assessing and re-assessing our understanding of our calling.

It is our contention that shaman ism is “of the blood” — that is, one is born to a shamanic tradition and some crisis brings out the ability or burden or urgent need to practice shamanic journeying. This crisis can be in the form of an illness, disorder, mental or physical trauma. This vertiginous experience brings about the call of the Wounded Healer, which the shaman may have been experiencing for years, to the fore.

It is true that every individual has many woundings and our course The Warrior Within is designed to assist each individual to reach out and heal themselves, yet if one is called to be the Wounded Healer, then this serves as the point of recognition that he or she must accept and act upon his or her shamanic calling to heal him/herself and utilize these gifts to assist others in their healing or he/she will continue on in the illness, disorder, mental or physical trauma. These woundings, as stated above, usually take on a particular flavor and as Ms. Wilby states, “…he is usually alone at the time of his first meeting, and undergoing a period of intense physical and/or psychological stress. Often it is the naturally-occurring pressure of life which generate these stresses…’some great misfortune, dangerous or protracted illness, [or] sudden loss of family or property’ can bring an individual into contact with the spirits. As in early modern Britain, bereavement is often a powerful trigger.” (Pg 132)

The shaman utilizes the gifts and tools that they have developed in their own healing process to assist others in healing themselves. Therefore, for our purposes they are facilitators of self-healing and have the desire to assist others. As shamans we have the ability and/or responsibility to:

*Understand the roles that spirits play in the lives of our people.
* Cooperate with or control the spirits for the benefit of our people.
* Understand the spirits intentions as either good or evil or neutral.
* Use trance-inducing techniques such as singing, chanting, dancing, meditating, or drumming. (1.)
* Recognize and communicate with animals and animal spirits in their roles as messengers of the Otherworld.
* Enter the Otherworld on our own behalf or the behalf of our people.
* Deliver the messages from the Otherworld to our people.
* Guide our people in treating illness or sickness – be that in self-healing techniques, laying on of hands, or advising an individual to seek the consultation of a licensed medical practitioner. We do not claim or attempt to be the sole conduit of healing for our people and as such always insist that illnesses be treated by licensed medical practitioners.
* As Healers and Spiritual Guides, we DO NO HARM to our people.

The shaman then, serves as the conduit whereby individuals can, if they choose, access the other realms of beingness, or utilize the services of the shaman to go there for them. This is similar to the way that other western religious practitioners, priests, rabbis, pastors, seek guidance through meditation and prayer as well as intervention with the Christian god. A pastor will pray for intervention in their parishioners’ lives, and truly believe that the prayers are effective. The shaman does the same thing and has the same expectation.

The spiritual realms are much bigger and more open than we as mere mortals can understand. There is no exclusivity in access to God, Goddess, nature, higher power, etc. Every path is the same. Reach for the heavens and your highest best connection with all creatures of this and every other world. Do not allow your own view to become the One View – it doesn’t exist; a good thing too, as I for one would not like to live in a world that was restricted to my perceptions and understandings of the universe – it is SO much bigger than me.

Blessed Be and enjoy the journey!


1. We do not advocate, but accept the taking of mind-altering drugs to achieve trance-state.

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