WITCHCRAFT



Since the Middle Ages, witchcraft, the "Old Religion," or Wicca, the "ancient craft of the wise," all of which are different names for the same nature-based religion, has been unjustly, and for the most part purposely, interwoven with Satanism until, in popular thought, the two comprise a tapestry of confusion and misidentification. Wicca, in its contemporary expression, has evolved into what its followers term "neo-paganism," a concept reviewed in another section. The Old Religion, that which in the Middle Ages came to be known as witchcraft, is thought to have had its genesis in the later Paleolithic period, a time when early humans faced the elements and their environment with little more than their hands and a few crude tools of bone and stone to aid them in the struggle to survive. Like the other creatures around them, Stone Age humans had to adapt themselves constantly to changes in the weather, climate, and food supply. Having greater powers of perception, humankind's responses to these changes involved more than an instinctual change of habits or location. The human species could also wonder about the whys and wherefores of these things, and because of the remarkable facility of human imagination, these early men and women could ponder how these things might change for the better or worse in the future. As consciousness of humans increased, their world became more wonderful and more terrifying.

Primitive humans were primarily hunters. They needed the meat obtained from their prey, and they needed the animal skins for clothing. From the teeth and bones of the slaughtered animals, they fashioned simple tools and weapons. When the hunting was bad, they knew that their own existence was threatened. Why was the hunt successful at times and not at others? Perhaps there was a spirit who decided these things. If so, perhaps that spirit could be persuaded to control the hunt in favor of the human hunter.

In his classic work The Golden Bough (1890), Sir James George Frazer points out two factors influencing the nature of primitive religion:

  1. the older concept of a "view of nature as a series of events occurring in an invariable order without the intervention of personal agency"; and
  2. the later development that the "world is to a great extent worked by supernatural agents, that is, by personal beings acting on impulses and motives."

From the first concept arose the earliest rites of primitive religion consisting of sympathetic magic, which is based on the belief that something that resembles something else is able to become or attract that which it resembles, or a given cause always produces a certain effect. An example of such rites is the shaman's lighting of the ceremonial fire each morning to ensure the sun's rising. If the shaman lights his fire each morning, then the god who lights the great fire in the heavens must see and follow suit.

By a similar process Stone Age humans sought to ensure the success of the hunt. In Witchcraft from the Inside (1997), Raymond Buckland writes:

One man would represent the God and supervise the magick. As a God of Hunting, he was represented as being the animal being hunted. His representative, or priest, would therefore dress in an animal skin and wear a headdress of horns.

This God of the Hunt, then, is the Horned God pictured on the wall of the Caverne des Trois in southern France. At Le Tuc d'Audoubert, near the Caverne des Trois, archeologists found the clay figure of a bison. The figure shows a number of marks where spears were thrust into it during a ritual of sympathetic magic performed to ensure a successful hunt. According to Buckland: "A model of the animal to be hunted was made . . . and under the priest's direction, was attacked by the men of the tribe. Successful in 'killing' the clay animal, the men could thus go about after the real thing confident that the hunt would go exactly as acted before the God."

It is interesting to note the association of horns with divinity, a condition that finds expression in numerous strange and seemingly unassociated places. It is not difficult to associate the horned headdresses worn by the shamans of various tribal societies with the concept of a God of the Hunt. The headpieces of many ancient rulers, including the pharaohs of Egypt, include horns either of realistic or stylized design. Although the religion of the biblical Israelites was represented as distinctly antipagan, their sacrifices were offered on horned altars. The two bronze altars in Solomon's (10th century B.C.E.) temple were equipped with horns, as was the altar at the shrine of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem before Solomon. Most curious of all, however, is Michaelangelo's (1475–1564) famous statue of Moses (14th–13th century B.C.E.), which depicts him with horns, thereby causing his head and face to bear a remarkable resemblance to Cerrnunos, as the Celts named the Horned God.

Because of the importance of human and animal fertility, the Horned God was soon joined by a goddess, whose purpose it was to ensure the success of all reproductive activities. She was also the goddess who oversaw the birth of human and animal progeny. At a later date, when primitive religious thought had evolved to the point of belief in some form of continuation after death, the goddess oversaw human and animal death as well.


With the advent of agriculture, the goddess was called upon to extend her powers to ensure fertility of the crops. From this point on, the figure of the goddess began to overshadow that of the Horned God. A population that did not have to keep on the move increased rapidly, and soon a portion of the human tribes began to move out of the Tigris-Euphrates valley, the so-called cradle of civilization, and spread northward to what is now Europe and Asia. To the west, the fertile valley of the Nile proved an attractive site to agricultural peoples. And as humankind moved, their gods moved with them.

The population of medieval Europe had descended from the central Asian plateau. Centuries ago, they had strained against the barriers that the Roman legions had set against them until they had finally broken through and flooded the continent. Christianity and "civilized" ways were unknown to them at first, and they brought their own gods, customs, and rituals into the land. At the dissolution of the Roman Empire, the civilizing force in Europe became the Roman Catholic Church, and even though the ecclesiastical institution made great inroads into the pagan culture, it could not completely wash away the old rituals and nature worship.

Surviving the Roman Empire socially in the Middle Ages was the oppressive feudal system. Once-proud warriors were reduced to the role of serf farmers, and although they resented such a docile status, they were forced by necessity to accept it. Partially because of the frustrations of the common people and partially because of the tenacity of long-conditioned customs, the celebration of nature worship and various adaptations of the ancient mystery religions came to be practiced in secret. On those occasions when such seasonal nature celebrations were witnessed by members of the Christian clergy, the gatherings were condemned as expressions of witchcraft and were named "black sabbats," to distinguish the ceremonies as the complete opposite of the true and holy Sabbath days. The Horned God was deemed to be Satan, and the goddess believed to be Diana, goddess of the moon and the hunt.

For the serfs, the observance of the old nature worship was an expression of their conscious or unconscious yen to throw off the yoke of feudalism. The rulers had imposed the Christian God and the Christian ethic. The nobility and high church officials realized that such celebrations could only lead eventually to a rebellious and uncontrollable populace. The popularity of the pagan celebrations rose to its greatest height in the period of 1200 to the Renaissance. During this period, Europe was devastated and depopulated by famines, the ill-fated Crusades, and the black death.

Raymond Buckland feels that it is the naturalness and simplicity of the Old Religion that continues to hold great appeal for the individual who has become alienated by the pomp and ceremony and exclusivity of orthodox religion, as well as the small size of the "congregation." A coven of witches consists of no more than 12 members, the high priest or high priestess bringing the number up to the traditional 13.

"Witchcraft is very much a religion of participation," Buckland said. "Rather than being a spectator sitting in a pew at the back of a church, you are right there in the middle of things, participating."

It was in their enjoyment of the excitement and vigor of the Old Religion that the peasants could allow themselves the luxury of experiencing pleasure without the interference of the church, which sought to control and repress even human emotions. But it was that same expression of seeing the divine in all of the creator's works that brought the wrath of the church down upon the witches in the terrible form of the Inquisition.


DELVING DEEPER

Buckland, Raymond. Witchcraft from the Inside. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1995.

Frazer, Sir James George. The New Golden Bough. Edited by Theodor H. Gaster. New York: Criteri on Books, 1959.

Grimassi, Raven. Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2000.

Michelet, Jules. Satanism and Witchcraft. New York: Citadel Press, 1960.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.


DELVING DEEPER

Grimassi, Raven. Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2000.

Michelet, Jules. Satanism and Witchcraft. New York: Citadel Press, 1960.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Walker, Barbara G. The Woman's Dictionary of Sym bols and Sacred Objects. Edison, N.J.: Castle Books, 1988.


DELVING DEEPER

Adler, Margot. "A Time for Truth: Wiccans Struggle with Information that Revises Their History." beliefnet. [Online] http://www.beliefnet.com/story/40/story_4007.html.

Gibbons, Jenny. "A New Look at the Great European Witch Hunt" (excerpted from "The Great European Witch Hunt," published in the Autumn 1999 issue of PanGaia). beliefnet [Online] http://www.beliefnet.com/story/17/story_1744_1.html.

Lea, Henry Charles. The Inquisition of the Middle Ages. New York: Citadel Press, 1963.

Netanyahu, B. The Origins of the Inquisition. New York: Random House, 1995.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.


DELVING DEEPER

Buckland, Raymond. Witchcraft from the Inside. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1995.

Grimassi, Raven. Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2000.

Michelet, Jules. Satanism and Witchcraft. New York: Citadel Press, 1960.

Murray, Margaret. The God of the Witches. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.

Seligmann, Kurt. The History of Magic. New York: Pantheon Books, 1948.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. The European Witch-Craze. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.



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