Archive for March, 2015

A Short History of Witchcraft  

Monday, March 30th, 2015

 

In order to discuss the history of witchcraft one must understand what witchcraft is. Paganism and Wicca have often been used interchangeably with the word witchcraft but this is an incorrect use of the word. The online dictionary at Dictionary.com[1] states the definition of Witchcraft as listed below:

Witch-craft – noun

  1. the art or practices of a witch; sorcery; magic
  2. magical influence; witchery

The American Heritage Dictionary[2]y defines like this:

Witch-craft – noun

  1. magic; sorcery
  2. Wicca
  3. A magical or irresistible influence, attraction, or charm

The Merriam Webster’s Dictionary Online[3] states:

Witch-craft

Date: before 12th century

  1. a: the use of sorcery or magic,

b: communication with the devil or with a familiar

  1. an irresistible influence or fascination
  2. WICCA

I would like to first point out some discrepancies between what Wiccans practice and these definitions.

  • Sorcery is viewed as a negative and evil use of magic and thus for Wiccans would be in direct conflict with our belief that we should harm none.
  • Communication with the devil is rather a moot point since the devil is a creation of the Christian church and is not a belief that is held by Wiccans.  Though there may be some people who practice witchcraft who communicate with the devil this is not an aspect of it that is generally participated in by Wiccans.
  • Probably most notably in the Webster’s dictionary definition it lists the date of this words origin and used. Wicca did not exist before the 12th century
  • Not all Wiccans use magic or witchcraft in their religions

This being said witchcraft is something that many but not all Wiccans practice. It is not Wicca. Witchcraft covers a broad range of thoughts, ideas, and activities to be narrowly defined to what these three definitions have stated that it means. Wiccans do work magic, through the use of rituals, charms, and spells to name a few of the methods that they use but they are not generally used in the malevolent terms that as is inferred by these definitions.

Perhaps a more practical use of the term witchcraft would be to view witchcraft as some of the online “Wiccan” dictionaries define it.  They define it loosely as a religion that is influenced by pre-Christian beliefs and practices which acknowledge and use the existence of magic as well as the deities and the natural cycles of life. Witchcraft uses this knowledge and these skills to bring about change.

Often referred to as the oldest religion, witchcraft predates Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. Called the Old Religion, witchcrafts looked to the sun, moon, stars and all of nature in order to gain wisdom and direction. This included the plants and animals and the cycles of life found in the seasons             and the cycle of life and death.  The people of that practiced this early form of witchcraft used what we now call “sympathetic magick.” Sympathetic magic is using symbolism to represent what it is that is needed or wanted. This symbolism was believed to show the deities what was needed or wanted and thus bringing it into existence. One good example would be a tribal dance that told the story of a great and successful hunt. These symbolic actions became the precursor to the rituals that we use in modern day witchcraft. These forms of magick were considered positive and helpful to the tribes and cultures and were a nature extension of their religions.

The controversy over the nature of witchcraft really only started with the advent of the Christian Church. The ancient Greeks and Romans had clearly defined what was “good” and “bad” magick and only when magick was harmful to others was a person punished for it under the law. At first this also seemed to be the case with the Christians, but this did not last for long. Originally the Christian priests actually worked with the priest of the Old Religion and performed the seasonal rights that they both shared as holy days.  However once the Christian religion began to spread the Christians began to bring difficulty to the pagans. It was during this time that witchcraft became synonymous with the worship of Satan and fear and hatred began to spread across Europe and eventually into the Americas.

The Christian Church began teaching that Witchcraft was heresy shortly after the death of Christ. With this teaching the Church started its crusade to rid the world of all heresy. Early in the 1000 CE the punishment for heresy became death. This was usually accomplished by burning or hanging. As time marched on more and more people were found to be guilty of heresy.

In 1230 the Inquisition began. It was a Roman Catholic tribunal that was determined to uncover and heavily punish heresy. The people that they question were often tortured and had no rights what so ever.  People were to convert to the Christian beliefs or be punished by death for their beliefs.  Eventually all of the Christian Churches and the secular courts were on the hunt for witches.   This however simply sent the pagan religions underground and forced the pagan people to live as if they believed the Christian ways.

In 1324 an Irish coven lead by Dame Alice Kytler was tried by the Bishop Ossuary for their worship of a non-Christian God. The entire coven with the exception of Dame Alice was burned for heresy. It was because of Dame Alice Kytler’s socio-economic status she was not punished along with her coven. Once the 1400’s rolled around anyone who rejected God and makes a pact with the devil would be found guilty of witchcraft. These were usually women who were found to be practicing the craft and thus were seen to be tools of the devil who were “hell bent” on destroying the Christian Church and the good followers of Jesus Christ. Even with this continual attempt to rid the land of witchcraft and heresy was not very successful it simply submerged it.

In 1431 Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as a heretic because it was believed that she, as a woman could not have led France’s armies to victory without the help of witchcraft. Her visions and “voices” were considered to be communications with the “evil one” and thus acts of witchcraft. The irony is that she was later canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church – the very church that charged her with heresy and killed her. Their belief was changed over the course of history and it became a common belief that her visions and voices were in actuality messages from God and not the work of a witch or sorceress or messages from Satan himself. Other people viewed as witches included the legendary Robin Hood, Merlin, Gilles de Rais and Baba Yaga.

Later that century the Malleus Malleficarnum or The Witches Hammer was published by Kramer and Sparnger of the Dominican. This was the first guide for the “Witch Hunters.” They worked for Pope Innocent and determined that all witchcraft stemmed from lust and in the case of women was an insatiable lust. This was an interesting definition that allowed anyone and everyone to be accused of witchcraft even the innocent children. Their laws allowed for torture and murder based on a definition of witchcraft that was solely created and by the church.  It targeted anyone that the Church fathers felt were a danger or threat to the Christian Church and beliefs. This did not have to be based on any reality but on the perceive threat by suspicious and self righteous clergy or even an embittered neighbour who felt you had wronged them in some way. There were no limits on this accusations or any real proof needed to prove them. Their methods of torture often got them the confessions that they “needed” to prove their claims.

The Papal Bull of Pope Innocent VIII was a piece of literature that strengthened and legitimized the persecution of the pagans. It claimed to be fighting against the evil wiles of the Devil and saving men from his evil designs but it simply brought about a time of torment all across Europe which lasted right into the 18th century. During this time the church did not change and there continued to be no rights for the accused. The so called witches were charged with horrendous crimes like human sacrifice and devil worship. Whether or not this was actually true in some cases or not is debatable but the rumours and stories were enough to cause terror to those who were members of the church. The Witch Hunts continued through the early 1600’s and many were tortured into false confessions and then sent to prison, banished or killed.  An entire paper could be written on the stories of unfairly treated suspects and coerced confessions.

The persecution of the “witch” eventually drove most if not all of the members of the Craft into hiding and thus the church, having no one to contradict them continued to distribute false and inflammatory information about witchcraft. However with the coming of James VI, of Scotland (who became James I of England and Scotland) brought about the beginning of change for those that practiced the Craft. While they still remained in hiding His views on “Demonology” helped Him to get parliament to pass a new act changing the focus of the “Witches Hammer” from “Malleficamum” to “a pact with the Devil.” Then in 1736 George II stated that there was no such thing as witchcraft and that anyone pretended to have occult powers was committing fraud. This lead to the calming of the Witchcraft hunts in Europe and the last of the executions was believed to have happened in 1685.  This however paved the way for the witch hysteria that came to New England in the late 1600’s.

The most well known of the American Witch trials took place in Salem Massachusetts. In 1692 the General Council ratified the 1604 Bill, which gave the rules and guidelines of the witchcraft laws which continued to be in effect until 1695. The society in New England was primed for the hysteria that surrounded witchcraft. The economic climate, the ongoing frontier war, a strict religious structure, dissentions in the church and disagreements between neighbours set the seen for the suspicion and accusations that followed. As well their religious beliefs led to the belief that the “devil” was responsible for much of the misery in the world and was an easy patsy for those who refused to acknowledge their own actions.

In 1692 Salem a small group of girls became fascinated with the occult. One of these girls was the daughter of Rev. Samuel Parris. The girls began meeting with Tituba, who was a West Indian slave.  It was during these meetings that the girls received divination messages and other psychic phenomena. Most likely due to their feelings of guilt about their occult activities and the nature of hysteria the girls started taking fits. They began to have behaviours and symptoms that seemed to mimic what we know as epilepsy, asthma, and various forms of psychosis including hallucinations. At the time there was no medical evidence to prove any physical problems and there is also the question of ergot poisoning. Ergot was mould that grows on grains that causes a wide range of physical complaints including hallucinations. This all could have been blamed on the group mentality and hysteria as well. In addition to this well known story, Dr .Margaret Jones was murdered because her patients became sick and died. It is believed that they did not take the medicines that she prescribed to them. She was accused of using witchcraft to cause the illness and even the demise of some of her patients.

The punishment for confessing to these crimes of witchcraft was imprisonment.  However if you failed to confess to the crimes then you were executed. Of the approximately 1711 people that we accused of the crimes of witchcraft only 55 were actually convicted and they were eventually released from prison. The Common Wealth of Massachusetts eventually realized their errors and in 1957 they reversed the remaining convictions. Fortunately the punishments for witchcraft in the New World were not as ruthless and severe as those of England’s burning times.

As we can see from the historical stories of the witch hunts in England and in Massachusetts Witchcraft as a religion was forced underground and appeared to have been routed. However the faith and practices of witchcraft has simply been driven underground to avoid the possibility of persecution and punishment. It wasn’t until Margaret Murray published “Witch Cult in Western Europe” in 1921 that people began to see that the “religion” of witchcraft was still thriving in various forms though hidden underground. There were many who argued against her opinions but it was a catalyst in bringing witchcraft out of hiding and back into the mainstream. Her book and the following one “God of the Witches” were a means of getting people talking and starting a dialog about witchcraft, and the implications of what had happened.  In addition, when England finally abolished the last of the witchcraft laws in 1951 it opened the door for a wave of authors to have the freedom to write on witchcraft, and other pagan religions which for too long had been hidden and denied.

Other authors followed with their works and the library of witchcraft related books has blossomed especially since Gerald Gardner’s creation of  “Wicca” and the books and traditions that have come about because of his writing, teachings and the different views that have come from those who stated their own traditions and practices. As the years pass and people continue to practice witchcraft – whether that be under the umbrella of Wicca, or paganism or just plain old witchcraft it is now out of the proverbial “broom closet.” The understanding, practice and use of witchcraft will continue to grow and be used for the good of the earth and her people.

[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/witchcraft

[2] http://www.bartleby.com/61/1/W0190100.html

[3] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Witchcraft

A Short History of Paganism

Saturday, March 28th, 2015

Paganism is a nature based religion. Pagans see the divine in all things be they an animal, plant, stone or person. They understand the duality of life – the dark and the light, life and death, the magickal and the mundane, the male, and the female. They believe in the cycle of life and though they might celebrate it differently they acknowledge it and revere it. Paganism has developed over thousands of years. Cultures have come and gone bringing  changes in traditions and practices, but the roots have maintained their integrity. Paganism celebrates life in all its forms.

       

According to written history, Paganism’s roots began in the Paleolithic age approximately  10,000 BCE (before the current era.) The people of this age were itinerant and primitive. Their concerns in life were survival; which consisted of hunting for sustenance. Hunting and fishing were the primary sources of food and it was likely this continual focus on the hunt that brought about the appearance of the “God of the Hunt.”  The God of the Hunt was portrayed as the horned god, a stag. It was this God of the Hunt – the Stag God that these early people called upon to give the guidance for the hunts and strength to kill their prey. The men being physically stronger and more inclined to the hunt  worshiped the sun, the horned god and also paid special reverence to the animals that they hunted.

 

During this time, women were the caretakers of the tribes. They prepared the food, cared for the children, elderly, wounded and sick. Women were understood to have a different power about them. They dealt with a different magick. Whereas the men dealt with the sun and the horned God the women, due to their own natural cycles, were very aware of the lunar phases and the numerous aspects of the Goddess. In the tribes, it was the women who were given the responsibility of preparing and leading rituals and worship.

 

As the cultures progressed agriculture became a viable means of sustaining the food stores of the tribes. The people found that they could grow food and hunting became a way of supplementing their food stores. This gave them a wider variety of food, keeping them healthier and engaging them in different activities. The focus at this time became the cycle of life and the mysteries of fertility. This new focus brought into consideration that the assumption that Goddess had been responsible for the birth and continuation of life was not entirely correct. An acceptance and understanding of the need for and role of the male and female was developed.

 

The change from solely hunting to agriculture brought change to the people. They were finally able to make permanent settlements as they were no long required to follow the herds and the animals that they hunted. Hunting was still a vital part of their culture, but they were able to sustain themselves easier and with less travelling. Thus, the people became “country dwellers” which is the definition of pagan.  This change in their mobility and the no longer transitory nature of the people allowed them to begin exploring and studying the mysteries of the cycle of life – death – and rebirth.

 

Thought there was a definite change in the mobility of the tribes migration still occurred.  Many tribes and peoples migrated and settled in areas such as Rome. It was in these places that the diversity of the beliefs of the different tribes began to appear. The Romans worshiped different Gods and Goddesses than the Greeks though they had similarities.  The Etruscans migrated from Asia Minor and they focused on divinatory arts and magick. The Celts brought their own set of beliefs and deities. There were groups of people coming from all over that changed the landscape of pagan beliefs.

 

It was at this time that a new group of Celtic origin, predominately men migrated. These were the druids. The Druids came with a great deal of knowledge and wisdom and were eventually chosen to watch over the rights and concerns of the pagan people.  Through this time (6500-4500 BCE) the solar and lunar religions/cults continued to exist and focused on learning the mysteries and magick of animals, herb lore, and the solar and lunar mysteries but they gradually intermingled with the pagan communities. These people were sometimes referred to as the “wice” and known to be the keepers of mysteries. Of this group, it was largely the woman that developed understandings of the mysteries of the cycle of life and Earth.  It was during this time that it again began to be popular to move about – this enabled the sharing of wisdom and traditions.

 

The world began to change drastically starting  around 0 AC. The death of Jesus Christ was the precursor to the advancement of the Christian religion. Starting in the Middles East Christianity began to move across the continents and of course to the center of civilization at the time – Rome. With that Christianization of Rome, the ruling class made it difficult for the commoner and pagans to continue to practice their faith. Pagan temples and places of worship were destroyed and replaced by Christian Churches. Knowing that survival was often dependent on the whim and generosity of the ruling class.

 

The Christians forced the pagans off of their sacred lands and replaced not only their buildings and temples but their holidays and celebrations with Christianize versions that have continued on to this day. With the change in the dominating religion, the pagans were now forced into hiding.

 

This change was the precursor of the Dark Ages which began about 1100 AC. This was particularly difficult time for pagans as a lot of their writings were replaced or destroyed by the Christians and the “holy wars” followed quickly. It was during this time that Christian leaders began the inquisitions based on the premise that the pagans were devil worshipers.

 

Shortly after the “burning times” began. Prompted by a text called the Malleus Malleficarnum (the Witches Hammer) written in 1494 by two Dominican monks, the persecution of pagans and non-Christian believers began. It is estimated that during this time  over nine million people were held prisoner and tortured in order to obtain confessions of their participation in witchcraft. When these people were tortured into confession they were brutally killed often by burning at the stake. The laws that were writing during this time continued to be in effect for many years and the last accused witch to be executed was in 1747.

 

It is not surprising that after so much persecution that most of the pagans who still continued to practice did so as solitaries or in hiding. This practice of hiding pagan beliefs continued until the witchcraft laws were repealed in England in 1951. With this change in the laws came an opportunity for pagans to start to practice their beliefs openly. However the was still a great deal of secrecy knowing what people had endured in the past and the fear that it could happen again.

 

After the change in the witchcraft laws, one of the foundational characters in bring paganism out into the open was Gerald Gardner. In the early to mid 1959s. His books High Magick’s Aid and Witchcraft Today ushered in a time of freedom for pagans. The result of this new freedom was the development of what is know commonly as Wicca and the availability of mystical and pagan literature. Gardner’s books also made way for a greater number of people to read, learn, and explore faith other than traditional branches of Christianity.

 

Conclusion

Paganism is not a new faith structure. It has been around for thousands of years and encompassed numerous different belief systems and ways of practicing ones faith.  Many of the modern day Christian celebrations have their origins in the pagan celebrations that they tried to subvert. We only need to look deep enough to find that many of the Christian traditions have pagan roots that have been twisted to conform to Christian dogma and theology.

 

One of the greatest losses due to Christianization was the loss of connection to the natural world. We have lost touch with or awareness of the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. We have lost our wonder at the beauty in the world. We have lost our sense of responsibility for our natural world and humanity. This connection with the natural world was the common thread between all the different aspects of pagan tradition throughout history. It is something that only now are we reconnecting with and restoring to its proper place in our lives and our consciousness. Modern pagans are now rediscovering the melodies of our pagan history and are slowly learning to twine that into a symphony of peace, recovery, and celebration.