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A History of Witchcraft
an article by Blackhawk

Witchcraft is almost as old as Man. It stems from the days - long before the magicians of Egypt or Mesopotamia - when science and religion were one complete whole, rather than the two opposing camps we see today.

In those early days knowledge was not a luxury, but a necessity. Knowledge of Nature, of Healing, and of the appeasement of gods was commonplace. The use of flora and fauna would have been learned at an early age in compact, tribal units.

However, not all knowledge was within the grasp of the common man. The initial limitations were those of intelligence and social position. Those with less of a capacity for learning [certain subject matter at least] than others would struggle, or would rely on those with greater intellectual strengths. Some would find that their position in the tribal structure would limit the time available for the study of knowledge they would rarely apply to their lives : a hunter may learn all about the hunt, the kill and the dismemberment of a variety of creatures, and even learn about edible plantlife that the group may come across  while hunting, but such a lifestyle could quite often mean that knowledge concerning tribal life away from the hunt would pass them by. Vice versa, those who would gather plants, cook and heal, would have little time or inclination to learn of the ways of the hunt. Specialisation requires time and dedication to be effective, and so for most people it was less preferable to be a jack of all trades than to be a master of one.

In such situations, also, spiritual life would be entwined with day-to-day living. The traditional division of labour, with each facet associated with a deity or similar form, would lead to a selection of religious sub-groups within the tribe. Depending on location and situation, the main tribal deity/ies could be local creatures [Nile Crocodiles], geographical features [mountains / volcanoes, the sea] or stellar features [the Moon, Sun and / or stars]. These deities would be given attributes which would reflect the hopes, aspirations or fears of the tribe, and would be assigned personalities and powers [creative, loving, destructive, vengeful, power over lightning, volcanoes, the earth, sky or the heavens]. The personal make-up of these deities, seen from a human perspective, would include human attributes and features. Woman / Goddess, bearer of life, creatress, mysterious to man, shedder of blood. Man / God, fierce destroyer, protector, warmaker, hunter.

Beneath these major figures in the tribal pantheon would be the gods or spirits of animals, plants and geological structures. These spirits would develop personalities and mythologies which would reflect the relevance of the animal / plant / structure. A river god could be a kind, benevolent deity, offering himself / herself generously throughout the year, save for the time when the violent, unstoppable god of the glacier would fall upon the river god and the two would fight hard enough to shake the very ground. The valley in which they fought would be filled with blood [water] which would destroy everything it touched. When the fight was over, the river god would be the victor - and life would spring from the blood which had been shed - but only until s/he faced the same enemy a year later. The story would be told within the tribe, and possibly beyond, and all those who entered the valley would know when the fight was to take place, and could withdraw to a safe location to watch the battle unfold.

An animal spirit could be approached, a liaison arranged by those who knew him / her best, to request blessings or favour in the hunt for this creature.

A plant spirit may be known to be a beautiful maiden with a kiss which would kill any man who fell for her [if the plant were pleasing to the eye, but poisonous to eat].

The division of labour, of knowledge, and of deities ensured that much knowledge was passed on within social dividing lines [although much was shared by the tribe as a whole, including the celebration / worship / fear of the main deities].

As time progressed, and the tribe became the society, and in turn the civilisation, knowledge continued to be passed on within more narrow social divides. Apprentices were chosen from certain social groups or castes, and knowledge became more specialised and hidden from view of the majority. Blacksmiths were at times credited with magical powers, or associations with spirits both good and bad, as they alone in a village knew the secrets of metal and fire. Druids, shaman and priests would mediate between god/s and Man. The ancient knowledge of Nature, and the stories which had helped lead Man to survive long enough to form societies and nations, was passed on down family lines, or apprentices, but - as Man’s view of himself and his place within the universe changed - much of this old knowledge was seen as irrelevant to those who now lived in towns and cities.

The spread of Christianity [* in other parts of the world, Islam] as a political / religious power destroyed many of the lines of knowledge which had been passed down through countless generations. Many of the old stories and rituals / ceremonies contained ideas which Christians considered laughable, heretical or even evil. The spirits of Nature; of woodlands and rivers were demonised, and their connection to Man largely severed. Any remnants of Goddess & God worship, or celebrations of festivals which stemmed from pre-christian times were either destroyed [architecture was destroyed, events banned and ‘heretics’ tortured and killed] or ‘adopted’ [Yule becoming christmas, Ostara becoming easter, Samhain turned to halloween] in a bid to rid all Christian areas of Pagan influence.

Propaganda and disinformation was used to create the legend of ‘The Witch & The Devil’, in which groups dedicated to evil [the Old Ways] would carry out abominable acts in the name of the Devil [a Christian construct based on pre-christian imagery], and could be accused of perpetrating malicious acts against their fellow villagers / townsfolk / citizens. The ‘scapegoat’ approach worked very well, as life was hard for many people, and having a target to attack to dispel feelings of anger, hurt or impotence  was welcomed. A whole mythology was created. From being individuals and groups within society, those using ancient knowledge or paying homage to pre-christian ways were turned into caricatures of evil - cackling witches flying on broomsticks to attend sabbats [gatherings of evildoers intent on orgies, human sacrifice and other malevolent acts] with the Devil.

This approach, however, was eventually halted - possibly because it could not be controlled, as the numbers of accusations of witchery increased drastically in times of hardship or strife [i.e. quite often].

Politics, ignorance and deceit helped destroy much of the pre-christian ways, but knowledge continued to be passed down. Some knowledge was diluted, other ideas skewed by the changing nature of Man’s existence, but the underlying essence - our connection with Mother Earth / Gaia / The Horned God / Pan / the spirits of Nature and creation - remained.

As Science split from Religion, and the Industrial Age dragged Mankind further from Nature, most traces of hidden knowledge were buried, much of it forever. The Witch was rarely persecuted to the point of torture or death [though harrassment continued] but was seen instead as an almost mythical creature. The Witch became a bogeyman, used to scare children. The use of herbs to improve the quality of life and to heal became potions and concoctions composed of toads, frogs, eyes of newt. The Witch became predominently female, ugly, cunning and evil. Her ‘familiar’ was the Devil in animal form. The cauldron and broomstick became symbols of individuals who had been granted almost demonic status. Festivals were lost beneath layers of Christian deceit. Natural healing fell to chemistry and the mass-produced pill. The Old Ways had been crushed under the wheels of Progress,  and were no longer a threat to Christian dominance. Fear turned to laughter and ridicule, and the law which prohibited the spreading and use of ancient knowledge and ways was repealed.

But, even as the laws which prohibited ‘Witchcraft’ were being overturned, there were some who still hung on to delicate strands of knowledge, eager to preserve and nurture knowledge and belief. Several works were written documenting the existence of practitioners of ancient rites and ceremonies and, by the middle of the twentieth century, Wicca was born.

Wicca can be seen as the child of the Old Craft. Weaving numerous strands of belief and knowledge together into a new whole, with a pattern reminiscent of - though probably not identical to - the true ways of our ancestors. It is, in effect, man-made, and seeks to establish - to some degree - the old within the new. Wicca is a popular belief system, positive in outlook, offers gender equality and respect for the environment, but its most positive attribute is that it has made discussion of, and research into, the ancient knowledge which our ancestors tried so hard to pass down to us possible and respectable.

Today there are hundreds of thousands of individuals working to bring back to Mankind the knowledge, practices and beliefs which allowed us to thrive as a species in the cold days before the dawn of history. We will never discover everything, and much may no longer be relevant, but the search itself is much more than could have been hoped for even a hundred years ago. The God & Goddess have been reborn, the spirits of woodland and stream are frolicking once more, festivals are celebrated and understood, witches have been rescued from hateful caricature and - at last - we have hope.


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