A Very Brief History of Witchcraft by Isaac Bonewits

Women Dancing

Women DancingI am unusually hesitant in posting this essay, for I have some ten thousand pages or so of notes, xeroxes, earlier essays, etc. on this topic, only a fraction of which I’ve been able to scan in and merge over the last few weeks. But the sudden upsurge of visitors to my website last Halloween made it clear that I need to have something, however incomplete, here for people to read. So consider this a “beta version,” if you will, and forgive me for not making it as “perfect” as my obsessive-compulsive habits usually dictate. This essay will be updated continuously over the next few years. Please note that many of the books referenced in this essay are out of print and hard to find, though Amazon.com will search for them for you and many such books are available in online auctions or from your local bookseller.

What Does the Word “Witch” Mean?

This is one of those seemingly easy questions that requires a very complex answer, for hardly anyone seems to be able to agree with anyone else on a proper definition. Even those people who call themselves “witches” today, or who point to others as being such, differ widely as to their interpretations of the term.

Is a “witch” anyone who does magic, or who reads fortunes? Is a “witch” someone who worships the Christian Devil? Is a “Witch” (capital letter this time) a member of a specific Pagan faith called “Wicca?” Is a “witch” someone who practices Voodoo, or Macumba, or Candomble? Are the anthropologists correct, when they define a “witch” as anyone outside of an approved social structure who is suspected of doing evil magic and/or of being a monster who can curse people with the “evil eye?”

All these definitions have been claimed as accurate in the past and are used to this day by both friends and foes of (whatever they consider) witchcraft. Most people discussing the topic seem to have their own pet definition and are outraged at those with differing concepts.

Is there a way out of this quagmire? Is it actually possible to distinguish between “real” and “fake” witches? Much of the evidence that would enable us to give positive answers to the relevant questions has been deliberately suppressed or destroyed, centuries ago, by those with religious, economic and/or political axes to grind. However some aspects of the problem can be cleared up with the help of a little linguistic and historical investigation.

I know that many people are bugged by etymology, but sometimes the best clues to understanding old folk beliefs and customs are to be found in the pages of etymological dictionaries.

Those clues must be treated very cautiously, since words are slippery, slithery things. Many times the same word will be used for different concepts (not always closely connected), and of course most languages have concepts that are referred to by several different words. depending upon the emphasis desired. Even within a single tongue, the meanings of words change drastically with time. New words are invented and old ones forqotten; war and trade bring in “slang” and “loan words” which frequently replace venerable and respected terms. Whenever possible, of course, one must consider the social and cultural environment in which a given word was used — a difficult task when most of the relevant data has been lost.

Tiptoeing through the Dictionaries

With those warnings firmly in mind, let’s make a start at clearing up the linguistic chaos. As some people may already know, the word “witch” in Modern English comes, via the Middle English wycche, from the Old English wicce (feminine) and wicca (masculine). The plural form was wiccan (now used as an adjective for followers of Neopagan Witchcraft, see below). All these terms referred to agents or performers of wiccian, defined in most etymological dictionaries as meaning “to practice sorcery or magic.”

Old English, Old Norse, Old Irish, Old Dutch, Latin and a few other tongues, are all members of the Western branch of the Indo-European languages. These in turn are all outgrowths of an original mother tongue, called by linguists, “Proto-Indo-European” (or “PIE” for short). By comparing variations of a word not just within a given language, but among and between its sister tonques as well, it is often possible to trace back its linguistic development from an original PIE root.

It appears that the absolute, rock bottom root of “witch” in early PIE was *wy-, “to bend, twist” (an asterisk is used by linguists to indicate reconstructed words or word fragments). Within PIE, this root developed in at least two directions having to do with trees: *wyg-, meaning “elm” and *wyt, meaning “willow.” In both cases the words seem to have referred not only to the culturally and economically important trees themselves, but to the withies and shoots of the trees, artifacts woven or twisted out of them (cords, ropes, mats, thatched roofs, etc.), and the very concepts of weaving, twisting, binding and bending.

As the centuries rolled by and the original PIE speaking community split up and began migrating, these simple roots began to grow and mutate. Their pronunciations were changed several times, the denotations (items pointed to) of elm and willow were switched back and forth (and occasionally blended), but the connotations (ideas pointed to) of bending and weaving, etc., were maintained and elaborated.

The development of primary interest for the origin of “witch” was that of the Anglo-Saxon wic-, meaning “to turn, twist or bend.” This root also later grew into “weak,” “wicker” and “wicked,” all based on the idea of something bendable or twisted. In Old English wicca/wicce this concept was extended in a specifically magical direction. (I am indebted to Paul Friedrich’s Proto-Indo-European Trees for most of this botanical/linguistic data.)

The sort of magic involved may be surmised from a comparison with simultaneous developments in the sister tongues. In Old Norse, the root vik- became the Icelandic/Norwegian vikja, meaning “to turn aside, conjure away, exorcise.” Proto-Germanic wik- became the Low German wikken, “to foretell,” and the Middle Dutch wicker, “a soothsayer.” Various other words referring to sorcery, divination, special knowledge, and so forth, developed out of the PIE *wyg- and *wyt-, via the roots wic-, wik-, wig-, wit-, etc.

The fact that several of the words referred to knowledge led some to claim a link between all of these roots and the PIE *wys-, meaning “wise.” They then declared that original meaning of wicce/wicce was therefore “wise one.”

This argument will not hold water for two major reasons. Firstly, Old English had a very well known word for the phrase “wise one,” wysard, or what became in Middle and Modern English, “wizard.” Although the word “wizard” was used as a masculine synonym for the usually feminine “witch” during the late Middle Ages, there is no evidence at all to indicate that centuries earlier the term wysard was used to refer to a wicca or a wicce, except an an occasional term of respect.

Secondly, although PIE *wys– does seem to be the source of the Modern German wissen, “to know,” and this is used as a synonym to the above mentioned wikken, (as in the phrase “I know I’m going to get into trouble with such opinions”), there is no proof that these words were used as synonyms 1,200 years ago, and so one cannot make the equation that “*wic- = *wys-” and therefore that “wicca = wysard = wise one.”

One interesting sideline that needs to be persued, however, involves the connections (pointed out by Osborn & Longland in Rune Games) between Old High German/Anglo Saxon/Old Norse Wurt/Wurd/Wyrd (“Destiny, what has been chosen or willed”), Old English weorthan (“to become, to turn into”), and the Modern English/German word/Wurt and will/Will. All these terms apparently trace back to PIE *war-, with three meanings: “to choose or to will,” “to speak,” and “to wind or torn.” That last meaning, of course, may tie *war- in with *wy-.

This could be a direct tie, or an indirect one via some of the other PIE roots for elms and willows, such as *Vlmo-, *sVlik, or *wrb-. In any event, there appears to be clear etymological evidence that the Indo-European cultures associated words, intention and the performance of magic, and at least some of the time expressed these ideas in terms of bending, twisting and weaving. Those are extremely common concepts worldwide for of magic and divination (see Real Magic) The references to weaving also tie in with hints from other sources that the Western Indo-Europeans may have had their own version of what later developed into the Hindu and Buddhist magical traditions known as tantra (based on Sanscrit tan-, “to weave”).

Now then, by a very conservative etymological extension of wic- to wicce(a), I feel we can safely state that the original meaning of the word that later became witch (via the Middle English wycche) was one who bent things to his or her will, one who could turn aside evil or good; concepts often used to refer to people performing magic and divination.

At this point, I’d like to look at the words that were routinely used to translate wicce, wicca, and wiccacraeft (“witchcraft”) into other European languages.

The Ancient Greeks used the term pharmakos based on the word pharmakon, meaning “drug, poison, spell” (this is the source of that infamous Billy Graham quote that “the word witchcraft comes from the same word as drug and I think that proves something.” It certainly would, if the Ancient AngloSaxons had spoken Greek). Later the Greeks used the term magissa, the feminine of mago (“magician,” from the Persian priesthood called the Magi). The Latin language used saga, from sagire, “to perceive keenly,” praesagire, “to presage, or fortell,” as well as striga, “a vampiric nightowl,” maga, “a female magician,” and venefica, “a female poisoner or magician,” etc. The Italians used strega, and the Roumanians used striga, both obvious derivations from the Latin. The Italians also used maliarda, “an evil charmer” and fattuchiera, from the Latin fatum or “fate.” The French used magicienne/magicien for “a female/male magician” and sorciere/sorcier for “a female/male sorcerer.” The latter comes from Latin sortilegus meaning one who does divination or magic by casting of lots (see also Gaelic crannehur, “stick placing”). The German, Danish and other languages use words that translate literally as “magician,” “wonderworker” “spell singer,” “diviner,” or “knowledgeble one,” all usually female.

What can be tentatively concluded from all this? It would appear that a strong tradition of folk magic, divination and, herbalism survived among the European peoples well into the Middle Ages, that the practitioners of these arts were generally mistrusted by at least the literati (all of whom were Church trained), and that as time went by, the terms used became regularly feminine and almost exclusively negative (as distinct from their earlier neutral-to-negative meanings before). Another possible conclusion (though it is a long shot) is that “women’s magic” was the central concept shared by all these diverse cultures, thus lending credence to the Universal Goddess Cult theories (though that does not plausibly explain how a wicca — a male witch — could be performing that magic).

One piece of research that still needs to be done would be to investigate every scrap of written materials from the early and middle Middle Ages that mentions the subject, to see which specific terms were used in what times and places, the literal meanings and origins of those terms, and how the word usage changed with time.

We do know that, even at the height of the witch-hunting hysteria in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, the terms used to refer to the victims (such as bacularia, fascinatrix, herbaria, Hexen, Wettermacherinnen, etc.) all meant people (usually women) with real or seeming herbal, weather, magical and prophetic knowledge or powers, who could control people, raise storms, and kill or cure humans and animals.

Notice that there is little or nothing in the etymology of witchcraft and related terms to indicate any sort of religious role for witches except as unchristian scapegoats during the witch hunts. This basic lack of a religious flavor to the word “witchcraft” is in complete contrast to the almost exclusively religious flavor of the word “priestcraft.” We know a bit about the Pagan priests and priestesses in pre-Christian Europe, but their exact relation to local witches is quite fuzzy. A certain hint can be gleaned from the fact that the Celtic priests called “Druids” were called that because of the root dru-, which refers to “oak tree,” “firm,” “strong.” There is no doubt that the Druids were involved in tree worship (which was indeed common throughout Europe) and that oaks were the favorite trees in northern climes for this worship; it could be that the Druids were called such because they represented the “firm” and “strong” principles of their faith (they were in fact the highest religious authorities among the Celts). The willow-like “bending” and “chaos” of wiccecraeft and the oak-like “firmness” and “order” of druidecht (“druidry”) may point to an ancient distinction between the social functions played by each. I suspect that “witches” were usually considered part of the “Outsiders” class in Indo-European Paleopagan Europe.

Now almost all tribes have full or part time healers, who use both herbs and magic. Frequently they will also have seers and weather predicters/controllers. Midwives, almost always female, are also common, and there is frequently a priest and or priestess working at least part time. What causes confusion, especially when dealing with extinct cultures, is that many tribes combine these various offices into different people. Sometimes the healers will be the midwives, sometimes the healers won’t be midwives but will be seers, etc.

Classic Witches and Wizards

What tribal functions did the people I call “Classic Witches” originally perform? We know their later functions, after the Christian conquest, to have included healing (with drugs made from herbs and magic), midwifing, producing abortions, providing love potions and poisons, predicting and/or controlling the weather, blessing and cursing, etc. These all seem to break down into herbology, divination and simple magic. But what did they do when there were still Pagan priests and priestesses around? Remembering that almost everyone in a Paleopagan culture will do simple folk magic for him- or herself, did they exist sidebyside with the priests, handling simple matters while the clergy handled complicated ones? Did the witches merge with the Pagan clergy after the Christian conquest, or replace them entirely? Did the witches only begin to exist after the clergy had been overthrown, because the witches were the remnants of that clergy and their descendants? Nobody really knows, though lots of people have theories.

There do seem to have been religious communities of both genders in Celtic territories, patterned perhaps in a similar way to the ones in India formed by retired householders from many castes. The ones for women have been described as being situated on islands surrounded by willow trees. There were also individual mystics living solitary lives in the woods, perhaps similar to the arhats (“saints”) of India. Priestesses of Freya, for example, lived as solitary mystics in Scandinavia, minding small temples and riding from villiage to village with statues of Freya for rituals at various times of the year. Could the witches have been descended from such communities or individuals?

And where do the “wizards” fit in? The term of “wise one” could have been a mere compliment, applied to anyone showing extraordinary wisdom about any topic. Contrary to the fond beliefs of many occultists and theologians, such a category is not now and never has been limited strictly to people involved in magic and religion. The major folkloric figure of the wizard is as late a development as is our knowledge of witchcraft in the early Middle Ages, yet it too may point to an earlier truth. The Classic Wizard, such as Merlin or Gandalf, is usually described as a loner, a stranger who wanders about performing wonderous deeds with little equipment save a staff or a sword. In fact, the description is very similar to that of Odinn as He walks about the earth, testing humans. Odinn is a magical/religious figure, greatly associated with magicians and priests. Could it be that the term “wizard” became attached to various Pagan priests who had gone into hiding, and who traveled from village to village, providing some of the old priestly services to people now no longer able to get them? We shall probably never know.

What we do know is the functions served by the Classic Witches for many centuries after the Christian conquest of Europe (which was, remember, a gradual process, taking almost a thousand years to complete). So, for our purposes here, we shall define a Classic Witch as follows: a person (usually an older female) who is adept in the uses of herbs, roots, barks, etc. for the purposes of both healing and hurting (including midwifing, poisoning, producing aphrodisiacs, producing hallucinogens, etc.) and who is familiar with the basic principles of both passive and active magical talents, and can therefore use them for good or ill, as she chooses. A typical Classic Witch, being an old peasant, would probably also be a font of country wisdom and old superstitions, as well as a shrewd judge of character. Such a person would be of great value to local peasants, but would also be somewhat frightening and resented.

Classic Witchcraft itself was not a crime during the first ten centuries of the Christian era. Only if a witch caused actual physical damages could he or she be prosecuted, and then for causing harm, not for practicing witchcraft. Indeed, it was official Church policy that all the magic produced by non-Christians was illusionary or demonic, and that belief in the ability of anyone to fly through the air, cast spells, etc., was a Pagan, and “therefore” heretical belief. The official Church document on this was the Canon Episcopi, purporting to be from the fourth century, but actually forged around 906 c.e., which read in part:

“It is also not to be admitted that certain abandoned women perverted by Satan, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and openly profess that, in the dead of night, they ride upon certain beasts with the pagan goddess Diana, with a countless horde of women, and in the silence of the dead of night fly over vast tracts of country, and obey her commands as their mistress, while they are summoned to her service on other nights.

“But it were well if they alone perished in their infidelity and did not draw so many others along with them into the pit of their faithlessness. For an innumerable multitude, deceived by this false opinion, believe this to be true and, so believing, wander from the right faith and that relapse into pagan errors when they think that there be any divinity or power except the one God.

“…It is therefore to be publicly proclaimed to all, that whoever believes such things or similar things loses the faith…”

This typical Churchly arrogance was the official party line for several centuries and caused no end of theological trouble later when the Inquisition wanted to persecute people for actually doing what Church doctrine had earlier said was impossible. This evidence, coming as late as 906 c.e., that the Church was aware of Pagan survivals in its heartland of Italy (assuming that they meant the ancient Roman Diana, and not another goddess of similar nature) has been taken as proof by some of the Margaret Murray theory of witchcraft, although it would seem to prove nothing except that there were at least a few Pagan survivals connected with women’s religion in Christendom — something we know from a lot of other sources as well.

At the very same time as this dogma was being stated, there were still undomesticated Pagans in northern and eastern Europe building temples, carving statues of their gods, giving sacrifices to trees and streams, etc. There may well have been similar survivals throughout Western Europe, for an AngloSaxon law of about the same time condemns “witches” who are worshipping wells, trees, stones, etc. This would seem to indicate that for several centuries after the Christian conquest witches remained Pagans, or were only mildly Christianized. Again there is no evidence of an organized cult of witches in this law, nor are the worship activities mentioned part of the usual theories of how a postulated cult of witches worshipped.

Gothic Witches or Satanists

By the 11th century, however, these holdovers had pretty much died out or gone very far underground. Most of the Pagan cultures of Western and Central Europe had been destroyed and pacification programs had been instituted against any who objected. Having slain all the competition they could find outside of the Church, the Christians proceeded to slay each other. The Inquisition was founded and “Crusades” mounted against heretics (these were much more successful than the Crusades mounted against the Moslems, who kept winning). Heretic roasting became a lucrative source of wealth, power and sexual satisfaction for the Inquisitors and their civilian helpers. By the middle of the 14th century, though, they began to run out of heretics to kill. This was disastrous, since many Inquisitors and nobles had built their entire fortunes on confiscated property taken from convicted heretics. A few hopeful sadists had been suggesting to the Popes for quite some time that sorcery and witchcraft should be declared heretical. This was slowly done over a period of two centuries and in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII officially sanctioned the arrest and trial (that is to say, the torture, conviction and execution) of all persons accused of witchcraft.

The theological excuses were extremely easy to manufacture and are being defended in official Church literature to this very day (see The Inquisition, by Fernand Hayward, published by the Society of St. Paul and with a full Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat — official Church approval — in 1965). Since there was only “one God, one Faith and one Church,” anyone disagreeing with the Roman Catholic Church (or the later Protestant Churches) was automatically a heretic. Similarly, by monotheistic reasoning (actually dualistic, as far as Christianity is concerned) anyone using a system of magic or religion in competition to Christianity was obviously of another religion — to wit, worshipping the Christian Devil, who was the only other god allowed to exist in Christianity.

The early heresies (hundreds of them) had threatened to disrupt the theological and political power of the Bishop of Rome. The Popes were especially sensitive on this matter, since the Pope himself was considered a heretic by all non-Roman Bishops in early Christianity, a heretic who had unlawfully usurped the powers of the Council of Bishops. Having crushed all opposition and declared their opponents to be the heretics, the Bishops of Rome built an empire of their own out of the ashes of the Roman Empire. Wherever the Roman Catholic Church went, it would first wipe out the native Pagan culture, then wait a few centuries and start executing heretics. There was a vital psychological and theological need to keep the attention of Christendom focused against real or imagined enemies, in exactly the same way that Christian leaders of many denominations focused the attention of American Christians on the “communist peril” in the 1950’s.

So through a series of astonishing theological gymnastics, the leaders of the Inquisition managed to declare that the Canon Episcopi was in essence, irrelevant (they couldn’t say “wrong” because it was Church Law) or referred to another cult of the same description. Now it became heresy not to believe in witches who flew through the air, and had powerful magical powers given by the false deity they worshipped — only now that deity was said to be Satan rather than Diana. This shift of belief was accomplished by the old quote that “all heathen gods are the Devil in disguise.” And so the Church created, out of whole cloth, a brandnew kind of “witchcraft,” never before seen on earth, which I term “Gothic Witchcraft” (note that I coined this term twenty years ago, before the rise of the Goth subculture of vampire fans).

Gothic Witchcraft was essentially the same thing as “Satanism,” or “devil worship.” Accusations of this sort had been made against Pagans, Gypsies, Jews and heretics for many centuries. Now the accusations were dressed up and made detailed, following the “Big Lie” technique used by Adolph Hitler, many centuries later. The details of Gothic Witchcraft were easy to invent. Since Roman Catholicism was “the only true religion,” and since Satan was “the opposite of God,” therefore Satanism was the exact reverse of Roman Catholicism (other Christian sects accused the Gothic Witches of reversing their particular One True Right and Only Way of worship). This is where the whole concept of the “Witches’ Sabat,” “Black Masses,” and the like came from. The Ancient Roman urban legend about the Christians (that they profaned sacred things, ate little babies, held wild orgies, etc) having been used against the Jews for centuries, were dusted off and laid at the feet of Gothic Witches. All of these lies kept being repeated, over and over again, and “evidence” was manufactured to support them. Nonetheless, it took several decades before the average peasant took them seriously enough to support the activities of the witchhunters.

The First Burning Times

I really should not go into the details of the persecutions against suspected (and therefore “guilty”) Gothic Witches, since most readers may not have strong stomachs. Somewhere between 50,000 and a quartermillion women, children, and men were hideously killed in ways that make the atrocities of Nazi stormtroopers and death squads look like childs play. Human beings were torn limb from limb by wild horses, flayed alive, covered with boiling pitch (the equivalent of napalm), had redhot irons locked around their bodies, had toenails and fingernails ripped off, toes, fingers and testicles crushed; women had their hair burnt off and nipples torn off and jagged irons shoved up their genitals, or if they were girl children, were raped to death by teams of Inquisitors and/or horses.

This, mind you, was what was done during questioning, before “guilt” had even been “proven” and sentence passed. The actual executions were swift and merciful by contrast; hanging, burning alive, drowning, etc.

The whole psuedolegal point of the torture was to ask the accused people long involved questions, and to force them to answer “yes or no.” The torture continued until the accused “confessed” all he or she was told to. Then they would take the person out of the torture room and ask the same questions, threatening to return them for further torture if they did not reaffirm their confessions. Then the Inquisitors could state in the records that “the accused confessed without torture,” and send the victim (usually a woman or girl) back into the torture room for the men to do with as they chose.

The depravity and evil of these “men of God” is impossible to believe for anyone who did not go through World War II in a Nazi concentration camp. There is no pervert more dangerous and twisted than a selfrighteous one, doing what he thinks is good and holy, no matter how many people he torments and kills to do it.

After a few decades, many of the Inquisitors themselves began to believe the Big Lie. They put more and more pressure on the civil authorities to torture and execute witches and other heretics, threatening to have them executed as heretics if they did not comply. Thus, in direct opposition to Christian defenses to this very day, it was the Inquisitors who egged the civil courts on, not the other way around. But, once the civilians realized that they too could share in the political, economic and sexual benefits of witch-hunting, they too became zealous. The new Protestant leaders all agreed that “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” was true for Protestant and Catholic alike, and proceeded to roast witches, heretics, Catholics and each other.

What, beside the greed and sexual depravity of the Christian clergy, turned the witch-hunts into a socially accepted activity? Part of the answer lies in the general scariness of psychic phenomena to ignorant people. Thus, even the Classic Witches had always inspired fear as well as respect. With ten centuries of propaganda drumming it into their heads that all magic came from either Jesus Christ or Satan, more fear of magic workers developed. The Black Plague wiped out a third of Europe’s population almost overnight, and demagogues were quick to suggest that this was punishment from the Christian God for laxity in Christendom. Jews, Gypsies, strangers and anyone unusual were turned into scapegoats on a massive scale never before reached. This soon included itinerant magical workers such as the Classic Witches.

Another major factor was the innate paranoia of Christian mythology. There was said to be a gigantic fight going on between Good and Evil, one that could go either way. Anyone, therefore, who was not a good Christian was committing, spiritual treason by helping the enemies of Christendom. This was a far worse crime than mere political treason (which was more of a past-time than a crime in those days). The power of Satan was gradually increased in Christian mythology, until it was declared that he had an entire “anti-church” of his own. The congregation of this anti-church consisted of heretics in general, and Gothic Witches in particular. For more details on this whole, sick mess, Consult Rossell Hope Robbins’ book, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. Even though he is a total cynic on the subject of magic, his book is one of the standards on the subject of Gothic Witchcraft and the Inquisition. Jeffrey B. Russell’s A History of Witchcraft : Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans is also useful here.

Witches as Pagan “Cultists”

Was there any actual underground movement to act as a peg upon which the Pope could hang his branding irons? Could the Classic Witches have actually been the leaders of a European-wide Pagan revival (as Margaret Murray and others later claimed), one that the Church merely distorted into a Satanic cult?

Since the Classic Witches would usually be among the eldest members of any village social structure (it takes a long time to become adept at healing, herbology and divination) they could have been at the forefront of the sporadic efforts to preserve Pagan traditions. They may have helped to organize the dances, parades and other folk customs with which tiny remnents of the old religions were kept alive. This, however, is a far cry from the theories of a well organized cult spanning the entire continent.

Murray took the “confessions” extorted under torture during the “Burning Time” (a Neopagan term for the persecutions from 1450-1750) and compared their artificially constructed similarities (caused by the Inquisitors’ use of torture manuals such as the Mallus Maleficarum) with collections of folk beliefs and customs from England, Brittany and Italy. The major conclusions she came to in her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, were somewhat astonishing (the kindest comments made by her academic colleagues were that she was “speculative and unscholarly.” Most just said she was a crank). She argued that perhaps there had been a gigantic, anti-Christian cult in medieval Europe, only it had been Pagan instead of Satanic. Furthermore, the leaders of this cult might have been been the witches, as the descendants of the priestesses of “The Old Religion.” This religion, she speculated, was a belief system based on the worship of Diana, and was so well organized that every witch in Europe had essentially the same theology, ethics, cosmology and rituals, so that a witch could travel from Denmark to Italy, from England to Poland and be accepted into the local services. This, she said was why the persecutions happened — there really was a gigantic threat to Christianity, run by witches.

This is an important theory that needs to be discussed, for many “Neopagan Witches” and “Feminist Witches” (see below for definitions) accept it as proven and it has been published as absolute truth in many books. To begin with, I’ll refer the reader to the discussions elsewhere on this site on pre-Christian European religions. As you will recall, the evidence in favor of a universal cult of any sort is scanty, while contrary evidence is plentiful. However, for the sake of the argument, let us assume that there really was a unified cult throughout Europe, concerning “the” Goddess and her Consort “the” Horned God, which survived intact into the Christian era. Could the traditions and beliefs of such a cult survive 500 to 1500 years of oppression?

There are certain well known laws concerning the requirements for the safe transmittal of a tradition from generation to generation. It must either be written down, and thereby altered by the requirements of the literary form (rewritten to fit a poetic rhyme-forms for example) or else it must become part of an oral literature supported by public approval of the bards, minstrels, storytellers, etc. Are either of these two requirements met?

Unfortunately, there are no equivalents that have been discovered yet to the Eddas or the Mabinogion (collected tales of Norse and Welsh mythology, respectively) which present the entire mythology of the “Universal Witch-Cult” as practiced by our hypothetical ancestors. Granted, a large number of people have claimed that the above mentioned texts are just chock full of references to “The Old Religion” and are “really” about the Witch-Cult. The fact remains, however, that the sacred scriptures of the postulated Witch-Cult’s beliefs and traditions (with the exception of quotes from old poems and folk songs) were never found in written form until the last hundred years.

Christianity of course did not provide much in the way of support for competing religions. The Church accepted some local planting and herding customs and holidays, turned the local gods and nature spirits into saints and demons, and went merrily on its way subverting and co-opting the faiths of the conquered tribes. Now, it could be argued that as an underground movement, the Witch-Cult provided a subculture that might have given public support to an oral literature of religious witchcraft. But Europe of the Middle Ages was not the England or America of today, where subcultures are somewhat tolerated, even if despised. A subculture has to be pretty big to provide the necessary amount of support. Long before it could have reached that size, it would have been subverted or destroyed by the Church.

The Odds Against Survivals

I think it’s useful here to take a glance at the Moranos, the secret underground Jews of Catholic Spain. In 1492, the King of Spain ordered all Jews living there to leave Spain, convert to Catholicism, or be executed. Many left, many died, but many others chose to convert, at least some of them under false pretenses. These latter Jews decided to go underground and practice their faith in secrecy while pretending in public to be good Catholics. When caught, they were referred to as “Moranos,” a Spanish word meaning “pigs” used because it was especially insulting to Jews, who considered pigs unclean animals.

Over four hundred years passed by before some of the Moranos decided to go public with their religious identities. Unfortunately, they chose to do so at a very bad time, just before World War II, and were imprisoned or murdered by Hitler’s Spanish ally, Franco. The remaining Moranos decided to stay hidden for a while longer. A few years ago, however, many of them went public, demanding to be allowed to immigrate to Israel under the “Law of Return,” that says Jews anywhere in the world have a right to move to Israel and become citizens. As the government of that nation has taken to doing, they sent a team of linguists, anthropologists and rabbis to Spain to interview the Moranos.

What they discovered was that the Moranos knew they were supposed to study “the Old Testament” and ignore the “New,” to light candles and say special prayers on Friday nights and Saturdays, and to use muzuzehs and other Jewish talismans hidden away. That, except for a handful of Hebrew words, was about all the Moranos knew about being Jews (for details, read The Mezuzeh in the Madonna’s Foot). Why do I mention this story? Because a group of highly literate people, with a rich and deep tradition of organized religious beliefs and practices, lost 99% of it after only 500 years of being underground. Just how likely is it that illiterate members of a Paleopagan belief system would have been able to keep their religion alive for nearly twice that long, let alone for three times that long as believed by some Neopagans?

Sure the medieval peasants went out into the woods and held orgies, sure they built need-fires at certain times of the year, sure they followed the agricultural customs of their ancestors — anyone who’s read Frazer’s Golden Bough knows that. None of this activity necessarily proves that they had any idea, magically or religiously, of what they were doing. This is why outside observers must always be making stupid remarks like “the peasants really did this because…” or “they didn’t know it, but they were actually worshipping an old Pagan god named Irving, who was…”

You do not need a religious or magical reason to perform customary or enjoyable acts. The mere fact that “this is the way my Grandfather did it” or that, “actually, I’ve always rather enjoyed orgies,” is more than sufficient to assure that some form or other of that act will be perpetuated in the future. After all, in magic and religion, as in many other fields, one does not always have to consciously understand what one is doing in order to get results (though it helps). Just because a group of peasants is performing a ritual of possible magical efficacy, does not mean that they have had someone train them in the art of magic, or that they have the slightest idea of what they are doing.

To the average Medieval peasant, the Church provided (deliberately, and with malice aforethought) nearly every religious comfort that the old belief systems did, except for one area: sex. Sexual customs were more likely to be clung to (!) than nonsexual ones, and were the ones most likely to occur outside of a Christian context. Granted, there were peasants who went out into the woods to hold orgies. But it is entirely possible that they only wanted to get laid, not enlightened.

So, while there is plenty of evidence of ancient Pagan traditions surviving under thin Christian veneers in isolated parts of Christendom, there is almost nothing logical to suggest that the people leading these traditions were in touch with each other or shared more than the vaguest common beliefs. Therefore, the theories of both the Inquisition and Margaret Murray have got to be dismissed as unlikely to be true.

Family Traditions of Witchcraft?

Could there have been a link among underground Pagans, who weren’t peasants? It has been suggested, based on the well-known historical principle that rich people don’t get persecuted as much as poor people do, that throughout Europe and the British Isles it would have been possible for wealthy families and minor nobility to quietly continue Pagan practices as “private family business.” Of course, this ignores the fact that many Inquisitors chose rich, or at least well-off, victims precisely because they had wealth that would go to the Church and local secular authorities.

Considering that these local leaders (of the “Squire” sort) living in small cities and outside of large towns, are notoriously conservative about family customs, it is entirely possible that survivors of the witch-hunts did prosper and keep their family secrets. Whether such families thought of themselves as being “witches” of any sort (say, Classic, as being most likely) or as “Pagans” or as just plain “family,” cannot now be determined. I have run across people who claim to be descended from such families, and they usually call themselves “witches” now. To my everlasting regret, I coined the term “Family Tradition Witches” or “Fam-Trads” to describe such persons, though one could also consider some of them merely present-day Classic witches.

Remember though that such families of petty nobility (unlike the wealthier and more traveled major nobility) are usually highly suspicious of outsiders from their own country, let alone from others. This hardly strikes one as a promising syndrome for setting up a complex communication network for Pagans from scores of European cultures.

So while it’s possible that Fam-Trads exist, and have been practicing traditions some of them now describe as “witchcraft” for centuries, there is as yet no proof that the influence of any given family could have spread more than a hundred miles or so, until the 20th century. There is also no proof that the traditions handed down by these families are either (a) uncontaminated by later traditions and/or (b) in agreement with the beliefs of some Neopagan and Feminist Witches concerning the “Witch-Cult.” On the contrary, there is a great deal of evidence against both of these possibilities, especially the former.

Real Satanism Arises

The persecutions went on for over three hundred years, finally petering out in the 1700’s, first in western Europe, then in central and southern Europe. In all that time, with all those murders, not one shred of proof that would stand up in a modern court was ever produced to show the existence of an organized Pagan or Satanic cult among the peasantry (except the Benandanti in Italy, discussed in Carlo Ginzburg’s Night Battles, which was a Pagan-rooted anti-witch cult) . One truly ironic note however, was that the creation of Gothic Witchcraft by the Church did manage to produce actual Satanic groups — not among the peasantry, but at the Court of Louis XIV, King of France. The highest nobility in the land apparently engaged in hideous crimes and asinine theatrics, trying to relieve their boredom by holding “Black Masses” and slaughtering infants, just as they had been told by the Church was the accepted fashion. In 1662 this all came out and many of the middlemen and women in the case were punished (though few of the nobles were). In that same year, by a curious coincidence, Louis issued an Edict that, in effect, restrained witchcraft trials throughout France.

To this very day, there are “Neogothic Witches,” or modern Satanists, trying their very best to be everything the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches said they should be, though only a few go so far as to perform human sacrifice like they are “supposed” to. Representing only a tiny percentage of the people now calling themselves “witches”, these Neogothic types invariably grab all the publicity they can get, in order to present themselves as more important than they really are. Naturally, there are conservative Christian groups who are delighted to have the Neogothic Witches around to support their idea that “all witches worship the Devil.” Some former Neogothic Witches are now making lucrative livings as traveling evangelists, denouncing their former ways.

Neogothic Witches publish books purporting to be about magic and the occult, but actually being warmed over techniques for psychological manipulation, seduction, extortion and right-wing demogogery. The average Satanist has far more in common with Richard Nixon or Jerry Falwell, than with the mainstream of occultism and witchcraft in America.

Immigrant Traditions of Witchcraft

After the First Burning Times ended, no one seemed to be very interested in witches of any sort anymore. c was dawning, and the powers of the churches dwindling, at least among the intellectuals of the day (see the 1768 Encyclopedia Britannica definition of Witchcraft). Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy and Spiritualism swept over Europe and America, along with mechanistic theories of Science, the new god. All these currents of thought had drastic effects upon both rich and poor alike.

Millions of peasants immigrated to America (North and South), most of them the descendants of farmers and serfs. Others came as indentured servants or as convicted criminals, working for wealthy land owners. In some cases, those rich people could have been members of Fam-Trads, sent off to America to earn their fortune, or to establish new holdings, or to escape quasilegal persecution at home. During the 300 years of settlement, scores of Pagan and semi-Pagan groups — both peasant and purported Fam-Trad — immigrated here and continued their ways out in the boondocks (this was especially true of groups from the wilder parts of Europe and the British Isles). These varied groups, who soon started to intermingle their beliefs and magical practices with those of Native American and African peoples, I have refered to as “Immigrant Traditions” or “Imm-Trads” (not a felicitious abbreviation, that latter).

A second major change to European peasant cultures was brought about by the scientific revolution. As was mentioned by Aidan Kelley (in an article published in Gnostica when I was editor there), when the average peasant found out that eclipses were not caused by creatures eating the sun, that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice-versa, that most diseases were not caused by demons or fairies, his or her faith in old Pagan deities began to fail. Since what was considered to be the basis of all his or he magic was all “false,” he or she abandoned even more of his or her vestigal Paganism and became almost exclusively Christian.

The Classic Witches seem to have dwindled in prestige during this time, but the people who might have been Fam-Trad witches would not have been so badly affected. Being more intellectual and better educated, they would have had a sophisticated enough set of metaphysics (and a better understanding of magic and psychic powers) so that they could easily handle the traumatic information. However, since Scientism was rapidly becoming the supreme religion in the West, most members of Fam-Trads would have made efforts to conceal their “superstitious” beliefs and Pagan magical systems, perhaps by getting involved in Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism in the 18th century, Spiritualism and Theosophy in the 19th All of these movements were considered more respectable than witchcraft, and would still have allowed the Fam-Trads to practice occult arts.

Wealthier nobles and intellectuals had practiced ceremonial magic (mostly based on Christian Cabala and Greek and Latin magical texts) throughout the Middle Ages, and most escaped persecution because of their wealth and power. But during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries the ceremonial magicians and alchemists began to join these various movements just mentioned.

So as the years went by, members of the postulated Fam-Trads would have absorbed more and more from non-Pagan magical sources, and handed their new information down to each generation, perhaps carelessly letting the descendents think that a Rosicrucian spell or alchemical meditation was a legitimate part of their Pagan heritage. So by today we would have “Fam-Trad Witches” who would be closer to being Theosophists or Spiritualists than to being Classic or Neoclassic Witches.

As modern medicine and pharmacology developed, fewer and fewer people resorted to the remaining Classic Witches for aid. Except in isolated villages, witchcraft in western and southern Europe slowly died out. Not enough is known about what happened to similar people in central and northern Europe; however, I believe that the dying out process was much slower for two reasons:(a) material technology did not spread as fast there and (b) they had been Christianized at later dates, and hence had more of their Pagan tradition left at the time of the collapse of religious authority in the face of scientific authority.

The Early Anthropologists Step into the Debate

From 1860 to 1880, a scholar named J. J. Bachofen conjectured, from predominately (speculative) philological evidence, a matriarchial age in early human civilization. His thinking was based on Hegelian logic and the “Social Darwinism” movement, and was quickly picked up by an obscure writer named Karl Marx. This theory of a matriarchal age eventually became an integral part of Marxist Social Evolution Theory (though few talk about it anymore among Marxists except for Marxist feminist theoreticians) and became an extremely popular idea among the intellectuals of the day.

From 1880 to 1900, much important work was done in the archeology of the Mediterrean and in comparative mythology and folklore (i.e., the study of other people’s religious beliefs). Sir James Frazer published the first volume of his monumental Golden Bough in 1890, proposing his theories about the presence of the “Divine King” and goddess worship in most European cultures. In 1887, Karl Pearson published a speech he had given six years earlier, entitled “Woman as Witch” (it appeared as one of the essays in The Chances of Death and Other Studies). Pearson investigated European folklore and the medieval witchhunts and came to the conclusion that medieval witches were holdovers from Bachoven’s “Age of Mother Right,” in which, women were, not supreme, but far more powerful than they were in the Christian age. Unfortunately, most people read him sloppily, and thought he was going further than he really did. Bachofen and Pearson provided a theoretical framework used by major figures (to be discussed below) in the “Neopagan Witchcraft” revival, such as Murray, Leland, Graves and Gardner.

In 1899, a book was published by the previously respected folklorist Charles Leland, entitled Aradia: Or the Gospel of the Witches of Tuscany. The book was a folklore study of the beliefs of members of a peasant culture in Italy concerning what they called “The Old Religion.” Despite Leland’s high reputation as a scholar, the book was so greatly ignored as to have been almost suppressed. The book contains stories, legends, rites and traditions concerning a goddess named “Aradia,” who was the messianic Queen of the Witches, having inherited her powers from her mother, Diana, and her father Lucifer! The work shows a heavily Christian influence that was probably so much a part of the peasants’ beliefs that they didn’t know it was there, and the traditions contained do not seem to go directly back further than the 17th century or so. But Aradia does show that at least some peasants had retained a self-image as Pagans, despite all the persecution. Leland’s source for most of the material, his mistress Maddalena, was apparently a Classic Witch of peasant stock who obtained the written manuscript for Leland after much urging. It has been suggested (and hotly debated) that she may have written it herself in order to please Leland; but Leland thought it reasonably authentic, in that it repeated at greater length things she had told him verbally before.

If the document was true, it is amusing that a stone’s throw away from Rome, there was still in 1899 an active Pagan cult of Diana worship. Could this have been a direct survival of those “abandoned women” who believed that they flew through the night to a place where they worshipped Diana? Perhaps. But during the Renaissance, there had been enough of an obsession with Greek and Roman mythology on the part of artists and scholars, that any Pagan belief system (if it had died out entirely) could have been resurrected in mutated form by the gradual sifting down of data on Roman and Etruscan Paganism to the peasants. They hated the Church anyway, and may have started worshipping Diana just to spite the Christian clergy. Centuries later, they would claim that they had always worshipped Her, with no break. This of course is pure speculation. It is entirely possible that among the wild hills of Tuscany (and elsewhere in Italy and Sicily) genuine Pagan traditions might have survived, including a cult of Diana.

But again, we have the same problems we had with Classic Witches in other parts of Europe. Was Maddalena a strega (“witch”) who just happened to also be familiar with the Aradia cult; or was she a strega because she belonged to the cult? Were all the witches in Italy priestesses of the Aradia cult? What happened to all the other Roman and Etruscan gods and goddesses? After all, the “Old Religion” in Italy had a lot of deities in it.

Witchcraft in the Early 20th Century c.e.

From 1900 to 1920 the fields of comparative religions, mythology, folklore, anthropology, archeology, sociology and psychology really began to develop as sciences in Europe and America. A tremendous hodgepodge of conflicting data and theory was erected that would be mined for decades. Tons of books were published dealing with the beliefs (native or ascribed) of Pagan cultures, folk societies and nonliterate tribes around the world. Broad, sweeping generalizations were the order of the day, as everyone looked for the theory that would explain all religion. Naturally, nobody succeeded.

At the same time, psychical research became better known to the public and the superiority of tribal magical systems began to make itself evident to these researchers (though many, for racist, creedist, and ethnocentric reasons preferred not to admit it). Spiritualism and Theosophy were extremely popular, ceremonial magic was being revived in England and Europe, and the whole world was intellectually aquiver.

World War I put an end to the isolation of many villages in Europe, forcebly bringing the survivors into the 20th century. A lot of peasant cultures, with whatever Pagan customs they might have had, were irrevocably disrupted.

In 1921, Margaret Alice Murray published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, the theories of which I have already mentioned briefly. Somewhere between 1920 and 1925 in England some folklorists appear to have gotten together with some Golden Dawn Rosicrucians and a few supposed Fam-Trads to produce the first modern covens in England; grabbing eclectically from any source they could find in order to try and reconstruct the shards of their Pagan past.

Murray’s The God of the Witches, came out in 1933. By this time archeologists and anthropologists had completely disproven the Bachofen theory of a universal matriarchal age (though even today neither Marxists nor some Feminists will admit it); folklorists and other scholars had torn Murray’s first book’s theories to shreds; and all the social scientists had begun to show the enormous variation of Pagan and folk beliefs throughout Europe. Nonetheless, Murray went even further out on her limb, claiming that witches throughout the continent had worshipped the same Goddess and Horned God, following Frazer’s theories exactly, setting up a political as well as a religious underground.

Enter Gerald Gardner

In the year 1939, a man named Gerald Gardner (he later claimed) ran into a Theosophical theater group that was actually a front for a Fam-Trad coven, all of whose members were very old and who claimed to be the last of their tradition. Gardner supposedly was initiated into this coven that same year and, having decided that their traditions were fragmented and incomplete, he began to research and write new rituals and traditions in a highly eclectic fashion. Throughout the war he worked, taking material from any source that didn’t run fast enough to get away. He apparently was friends with Aliester Crowley, who gave him a charter — never used — to found a branch of Crowley’s magical organization, the O.T.O.

Crowley gave him permission to use some of his poetry and ritual materials, leading to claims years later by critics that Gardner had paid Crowley to write rituals for him (as several folks have said, “Rediculous! The poetry would have been much better!”). Lance Sieveking, in his autobiography, The Eye of the Beholder, claims that Montague Summers (author of several credulous books on werewolves, vampires and the Inquisition) told him in 1922 that Crowley and he were “both honorary members of several of the best covens” and had attended “many a sabbat” together. Of course, there was also a rumour in British occult circles for many years that Crowley had been “kicked out of” covens for refusing to obey priestesses, but this rumour started at a time when some people were trying to “prove” the existence of pre-Gardnerian priestess-led covens and inventing evidence right and left Handed.

There is little doubt that Gardner was sincerely trying to reconstruct a Pagan tradition of witchcraft, for he sent typewritten copies of his first drafts of rituals for the holidays, poems and theological meditations, etc., to his initiates, asking for corrections and advice on whether or not the material “felt right.” I have copies of these materials, by the way, and they have affected my views on several matters.

Some of Gardner’s friends may have been, as claimed, members of a surviving coven of what I call a “FamTrad” of witchcraft, or they may have been a motley assortment of British occultists who had decided to create a new religion out of whole-cloth based on the books of Murray, James Frazer, Charles Leland, and other folklorists. There appear to have been several groups of British occultists, with overlapping memberships (England is a small island), attempting to create a religion of Witchcraft at the time.

Whether or not he had the “authority” to do so, from this coven that may or may not have existed, Gerald Gardner founded his own coven during World War II and went merrily on his way. The war had a devastating effect on Paganism and occultism in Europe. Large numbers of peasants were wrenched from their land and forced into the armies. Many of them were forced into the Mesopaganism created by Hitler. At least half the Gypsies in Europe were exterminated, along with many astrologers, psychics, Rosicrucians, theosophists, spiritualists and occultists. This period is sometimes referred to as the “Second Burning.” Of any Fam-Trads who might have been left in Europe by 1940, probably few would have survived, precisely because they had been masquerading as all those other kinds of occultist, and were thus known targets.


In 1948, Gerald Gardner published his first novel, A Goddess Returns, Rachel Levy published The Gates of Horn, and Robert Graves published The White Goddess. This last book had a great effect upon the theology of the Neopagan Witchcraft movement, most especially in his promotion of the idea that all goddesses are either Maidens, Mothers, or Crones. Up to this point, Fam-Trads and other Reconstructionists had mostly been following the works of Leland, Frazer, and Murray, all of whom were folklorists and anthropologists. Now Graves, writer of historical novels and prolific poet, jumped into the act.

The purpose of The White Goddess was to prove that the Universal Goddess Worship theories were correct. To do this he jumped back and forth from the Medditerrean to the British Isles. After admitting that he spoke no Celtic language, he appointed himself an authority on Welsh language and customs. He used obsolete and inaccurate translations of Celtic poetry (when there were perfectly good ones around in 1948), perhaps because the then current accurate translations wouldn’t have supported his theories as well. In the book, Graves constantly asked his readers to accept a “slight” bit of illogic and error, then built these up into gigantic megaliths of theory. Everytime I read The White Goddess I become infuriated by the sloppiness of his logic, the inferior quality of his sources (he builds a great deal of theory on the “Battle of the Trees” from Iolo Morganwyg’s forged Barddas book, for example), and his general dishonesty with his readers. Graves put together a lovely myth system but it had little to do with historic fact. It was, instead, almost entirely the product of his poetic inspiration — which is fine, it’s a very pretty system, but he claimed it to be factual, as do many of his fans today.

In 1949, Gardner published High Magic’s Aid, under the pen name of “Scire.” He was at this time apparently a member of Crowley’s O.T.O., since the note “4 = 7” appears under his name. This would indicate that he had reached the level of “Philosophus,” which was halfway up through the system. Then as now, it was rare for anyone to actually work through the middle grades of the system (nepotism and graft being a much faster way to rise), so Gardner must have had some solid backgroound in the Golden-Dawn and tantric based O.T.O. system of occult theory and practice.

In 1951, the Witchcraft Law of England was repealed and a variety of witches surfaced. The most famous of these was Sybil Leek, who claimed to be what I have called a Fam-Trad Witch. It appears her mother was a member of a British occult group, the “Pentagram Club,” that competed with Gardner and his friends in the Witchcraft inventing process.

In 1950 or ’51, Gerald Gardner managed to scrape some money together and moved out to the Isle of Man, settling into a building known as the “Witches Mill.” Two years later he started a “coven” while running Cecil Wilkerson’s “Witchcraft Museum” there, the first in the world (the contents of which were later owned by Ripleys). Among the many well known priestesses he ordained we must include Doreen Valiente (who dramatically rewrote most of his early ritual materials, and probably the other fiction as well, before starting her many excellent books, including An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present, Witchcraft for Tomorrow, and Witchcraft: a Tradition Renewed), Patricia Crowther (also author of several books, including Lid off the Cauldron, Witches Were for Hanging and the forthcoming autobiography, High Priestess), Monica Wilson, Eleonore Ray Bone, Rosemary Buckland and others.

In 1954, Murray published The Divine King in England, in which she essentially claimed that every king of England had died ritually, as in Frazer’s Golden Bough. By this time there were few scholars in the world who would believe her arguments, based as they were on obsolete evidence and sloppy logic. But there were plenty of would-be witches happy to accept it all.

Witchcraft and the Straight Counterculture

From the late 1950’s on, new covens split off from Gerald’s original one, both legitimately (through the process known as “hiving off”) and illegitimately (through the process known as “stealing a copy of the Book of Shadows”). The latter groups generally claimed to belong to “traditions” of Witchcraft that predated Gardner, as did the members of other competing Witchcraft religions in England, yet somehow almost all of them wound up using rituals that were obviously derived from early versions of Gardner’s. The first and most famous of these thieves, Alex Sanders, was the one who started referring to Gardner’s new religion as “the Gardnerian Tradition” or “Gardnerianism.” Gardner himself called it simply “the Art” until 1958, when he started calling it “the Craft” or “the Old Order” or “Wica” (with a single “c”). Later thieves and imitators settled on the last term, eventually restoring the missing second “c.”

According to a letter seen by Aidan Kelley, Alex Sanders (who was later to make a career for himself as the King of the Witches) was initiated in 1963 by Patricia (Pickering) Crowther, one of Gardner’s priestesses. Later, Jessie Wicker Bell or “Lady Sheba,” author of Lady Sheba’s Book of Shadows (which was a plaigerism of parts of Gardner’s Book of Shadows), was initiated, probably to the Second Degree only, by Alex or one of his coven, possibly by mail! She attempted in the 1970’s to get herself declared “Queen of the Witches” of America. Ray and Rosemary Buckland were initiated into Gardner’s coven, probably by the Wilsons, to all three Degrees in one weekend (not really unusual by Masonic custom, by the way).

Almost all of the significant core materials in the original BOS have been published at one time or another, either by Gardner himself, his followers and spiritual descendants, or various plagiarists trying to cash in on his work. It has not been difficult to learn the basic polytheology and rituals of the Craft, especially since most of it was borrowed from well-known occult authors, and I have violated no oaths in my retelling of the tales. Many sincere people, perhaps inspired by the Goddess and unable to contact a working coven of any tradition, have simply created their own traditions of Neopagan Witchcraft from the available published materials.

Traditions of Wicca can be ranged on a spectrum of orthodoxy-to-heterodoxy thusly: the Gardnerians, Alexandrians, and other groups that call themselves “British Traditionalists” are the oldest and the most conservative. The New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn (“NROOGD”), the gay/bisexual/straight groups who call themselves “Elvish” or “Fairy Traditions” (including that of Starhawk’s, author of The Spiral Dance), and the various feminist groups, are all on the liberal or heterodox side of the spectrum. Most other Wiccan groups fall somewhere in between.

Many on the orthodox side like to make a dichotomy (sometimes a dualism) between themselves as “Traditionalists” and all the others as “Eclectics.” Some Wiccan groups cheerfully call themselves “Eclectic,” but the word is often used by the conservatives to imply that the liberals don’t have The Real Truth and have to make things up as they go along. Similarly, the word “traditional” is often used by the liberals to mean “stuffy.” The vast majority of Wiccans are religiously neither conservative nor liberal (on this particular spectrum), but somewhere in the middle, so they are usually accused by members of each extreme of belonging to the “enemy” camp.

In point of fact, beyond all the arrogance and egotism of these arguments, the primary difference between the eclecticism practiced by both the orthodox and the heterodox Wiccans, going all the way back to Gardner himself, is not the amount of material borrowed from other sources, but rather the speed at which new material is accepted as a permanent part of each tradition/denomination.

I cannot in this short study give an adequate history of how Gardner’s followers carried the faith to America and elsewhere. Suffice it to say, that by the middle 60’s, there were a handful of Gardnarian “covens” operating in the United States and Canada, and other parts of the English speaking world (Aidan Kelley’s Crafting the Art of Magic (though severely flawed by cheap shots at Gardner’s sexuality) and Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon cover this material well). But the next step in the evolution of the word “witch” occured in the late 60’s with the dawning of the “counterculture.”

Whenever drugs with strong mind-altering tendencies become common in a culture or subculture (I’m speaking of hallucinogens here) one of the usual reactions is a renewed interest in matters magical and mystical. Drugs are frequently used in tribal cultures to help train young magicians and priests/priestesses, because they give a direct appreciation of the magical Law of Infinite Universes and the related concept of “multiple levels of reality.” Drugs are an integral part of magical systems around the world and an interest in either topic (drugs or magic) sometimes leads to an interest in the other.

So the hippies became interested in magic, mysticism, psychic phenomena and new religious experiences. Several individuals started up religious groups of the sort that have since become known by their members as “Neopagan,” because they attempt to recreate or invent new religions using the old (or “Paleopagan”) polytheistic faiths as guides. Naturally, Gardnerian Witchcraft, with its Goddess, Horned God and unspecified other deities fit very nicely into this mold, although at the time it was still fairly Mesopagan, and the followers of Gardner received an unexpected population explosion. The handful of Gardnerian covens (real and imitators) became a dozen, then a score, then a hundred…

But during this period of the late 60’s and early 70’s (known as the “occult boom”) members of these various Neopagan groups were communicating with each other through the pages of such periodicals as Green Egg, the Waxing Moon, the Crystal Well and others, Soon it became clear to everyone that the Gardnerians were Neopagans (or could be with a little work), and they and their offshoots (Alexandrians, Algards, Shebites, etc.) became increasingly termed “Neopagan Witches,” by the Neopagan community.

The First Neopagan Heretic

These Neopagan Witches began to hold conventions and other meetings, at one of which a major bombshell exploded, flung by yours truly. At a “Witchmeet” held in Minneapolis on September 20-23, 1973 c.e., I gave a speech entitled “The Witch-Cult — Fact or Fancy?” This was based upon an earlier article by myself in Tournaments Illuminated, under the title “Where Hast Thou Been Sister?” and dealt with most of the materials mentioned in this study.

The result was that I became the first universally recognized heretic in the Neopagan movements (for by that time I had been a priest in the Reformed Druids of North America for several years, and I considered them such). Stunned silence, then angry shouting greeted my speech. This turned into a positive roar of anger and hostility after the speech was published (sans the Bibliography, alas!) in Gnostica News, Llewellyn’s in-house magazine which I was later to edit for two years.

Rebuttals were written and published in Gnostica News, angry letters poured in to the Neopagan media from all over the country, then slowly, one by one, various Neopagan Witchcraft leaders began to publish letters and articles saying, in essence, “that so-and-so Bonewits is right,” though hardly any of them mentioned my name. Instead they began to talk about the need for honesty in relating the past of Neopagan Witchcraft, about the joys of creating whole new religions, about how their movement could be redefined as a reconstruction from scattered fragments of how the Old Religions (plural now) might have been, and so forth. Today, almost every major leader of a Neopagan Witchcraft sect admits (at least in private) that I was right and some of them have become friends.

I have mentioned all of this for reasons other than those of personal pride. Future historians should know the exact date and action that caused a major change in the faith known as Neopagan Witchcraft. Twenty-seven years later, only a handful still believe the dogma that their sects are literally descended in an unbroken line from the imaginary Universal Goddess Cult. However, there is one rather sizable exception.

Feminist Witchcraft

For there were other things going on in America in the early 70’s. Perhaps the most important phenomenon was the rise of the feminist movements. Many feminists were members of groups seeking new spiritual directions, away from the male-dominated “great religions.” This “women’s spirituality movement” became a strong part of feminist consciousness for many women, some of whom (perhaps inevitably) ran into some Neopagan Witches. Morning Glory Zell, spouse and priestess to the founder of the Neopagan Church of All Worlds, the artist formerly known as Tim or Otter Zell, claims to have been the first Neopagan to attend a major feminist event and to speak about “the Goddess” to the participants.

The discovery of a religion in the 20th century that worshipped a Goddess was quite a delightful shock. Many women suddenly felt “at home,” and in ever-increasing numbers many of them had spiritual experiences with this Goddess. There were already several of the Neopagan Witchcraft leaders (of both genders) who considered themselves feminists, so an alliance or merging of the two movements was a natural outgrowth of their meeting.

There had already been several of the Neopagan sects (Wiccan and non-Wiccan) which had downplayed the Horned God part of the theology almost to the point of removing Him from the religion entirely. Perhaps these were the ones which had the highest population of strong women to begin with. When politically active feminists (especially the lesbians and the feminist separatists) entered “the Craft” and spun off to start their own all-women covens, they decided that they could do perfectly well without the Horned God at all.

The result was the creation of a new form of Witchcraft: “Feminist Witchcraft,” a faith originally based on the Gardnerian systems but which became increasingly different as various women decided to form new covens (often with no real knowledge of or contact with the Neopagan ones) in which a great deal of experimentation and creativity took place.

There are a number of dogmas that were soon believed in by most Feminist Witches, the majority of which match those of the Neopagan Witches prior to my speech of 1973. These are, as a general rule, even more extreme in their statements (i.e., the Universal Goddess Cult covered the entire world, not just Europe; it goes back 100,000 years, not just 10,000; and so forth), and their scholarly research is even more sloppy. Any historical, semi-historical or psuedo-historical theory by any writer (qualified or not) which bolsters their dogmas in a desired fashion is seized upon and expanded. Statements or theories which do not support them are ignored as being the products of male or male-dominated minds, and therefore irrelevant.

The Feminist covens grew (and are still growing) at a spectacular rate and members of these groups may very well outnumber those of the Neopagan sects they are a spinoff from. The number of groups of women who have formed covens completely independently is impossible to surmise and their thealogies are no doubt quite mixed, but feminist revisionist “herstory” is probably common to all of them.

So while the Neopagan Witches were slowly ceasing to claim literal truth for their religious theories of history during the middle 70’s, the Feminist Witches continued those same fantasies, and in fact made them more spectacular and archetypically rich. It has only been in the last decade or so, that some Feminist Witches have begun to doubt these dogmas. Perhaps it is finally becoming known that dozens of committed feminist historians, anthropologists and archeologists of both genders have been unable to find a shred of evidence to support the ideas about matriarchies having ever existed, or about there ever having been an organized religion of Witchcraft in Europe, or about the likelihood of the intact transmission of a complex pre-Christian tradition.

I suspect that the feminist movement will continue like every other political movement in history, to produce sloppily researched tomes to support its ideals. There is, after all, no such thing as completely unbiased scholarship and feminists should be allowed to exercise their historical creativity as much as any other political group. But I have been noticing increasing communication between Neopagan and Feminist priestesses and a gradual transmission of accurate data about the history of what both groups call “the Craft.” Within another decade or two Feminist Witchcraft groups may well be admitting that their various sects are not ancient relics, but rather brilliant and beautiful creations of modern religious geniuses.

Let me stress here that the relative youth of Neopagan and Feminist Witchcraft, compared to other religions, is utterly irrelevant to any judgments of spiritual power and worth. The deities whom Neopagan and Feminist Witches worship are ancient, no matter how new our religions might be. A large part of the maturing of the Neopagan community over the past ten years has been precisely the realization that we don’t have to tell fibs about an unbroken line of succession going back to the Stone Age in order to have a worthwhile faith

Classifying Witchcrafts

Mind you, this entire discussion of Witchcraft in the 20th Century has been limited to those individuals and movements which speak English or American as their mother tongue. There are thousands of people using various systems of magic and religion in their own ethnic neighborhoods, who are called “witches” by many English speakers. In their own languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, etc.) they are called various names which translate out as “priest or priestess,” “healer,” “magician,” “sorcerer or sorceress,” and so forth. These often bear a minor or major simularity to those I have termed “Classic” or “Gothic” Witches, but in order to keep them clearly distinguished from our European ancestors, I prefer to call them “Ethnic Witches,” if one has call them any sort of witch at all.

At this point it would probably be best to close this study with a review of the classification system I have presented herein, which I sincerely believe to be one that will enable the historian, anthropologist, sociologist or theologian to distinguish the various European and American sorts of “witches” from one another. As with the words “artist,” “doctor,” or “priest,” the word “witch” is almost meaningless without some sort of qualifying adjective in front of it.

I have used the following terms in this classification system: Classic and Neoclassic, Gothic and Neogothic, Family Tradition or Fam-Trad, Immigrant Tradition or Imm-Trad, Neopagan, Feminist, Ethnic, and Anthropological Witchcraft.

A “Classic Witch” was someone using herbal remedies and poisons, magic and divination, and practicing midwifery and other forms of healing on animals and humans. His or her religion may well have been irrelevant to his or her techniques. Some became Christians (or Moslems in Spain and Portugal), others may have retained a certain amount of pre-Christian religious tradition. Classic Witches have continued to exist to this very day, in ever dwindling numbers. “Neoclassic Witches” refers to all those people today who call themselves “witches” because they are studying herbology, ESP, Tarot, etc., and who are trying to be modern equivalents of Classic Witches.

“Gothic Witchcraft” or “Satanism” was the invention of Medieval Christianity, and was said to consist of people who worshipped the Christian Devil in exchange for magical powers that they used to harm people with. Gothic Witchcraft is what most Christians have in mind when they talk about “witches,” and this concept is also responsible for the Disney stereotype.

“Neogothic Witches” are modern Satanists who try to follow what the Christians say witches should do. Some of them perform “Black Masses,” commit blasphemy and sacrilege, hold (or at least long to hold) orgies, etc. They are almost always “losers” as far as their psychology is concerned, but some are genuinely sick.

“Family Traditions” or “Fam-Trads” (also called “Hereditary Witches”) are supposedly families that have been underground Pagans and occultists for generations, getting away with it by a combination of wealth, power and camouflage. None of them could have a pure tradition by now, though some who call themselves by this term claim they do. 99.9% of all the people I have ever met who claimed to be Fam-trad Witches were lying, or had been lied to by their teachers.

“Immigrant Traditions” or “Imm-Trads” refer to both supposed Fam-Trads and Classic Witches and peasants who moved to America and tried to keep their faith alive. Many of these mingled their beliefs with those of the Native Americans and the African slaves, helping to produce the dozens of kinds of Voodoo or Voudoun, as well as Pennsylvania “hex” magic and Appalachian magical lore.

“Neopagan Witchcraft” is primarily the invention of Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente. It started out Mesopagan, and only after arriving in America did it become Neopagan. It is a duotheistic religion whose members may call themselves “Wiccans,” “followers of Wicca.” “members of the Old Religion,” “Crafters” and/or “members of the Craft.” They worship a Goddess who is a combination of Greco-Roman and Celtic goddesses of the Moon, the Earth and the Sea, and who is usually described as having three “aspects” or archetypal images: “the Mother, the Maiden and the Crone.” Most but not all Neopagan Witches also worship a Horned God who is a combination of Greco-Roman and Celtic fertility, hunting and sun gods. Where both the Goddess and the Horned God are worshipped, the former is almost always superior in power and importance.

“Feminist Witchcraft” is partially an outgrowth of Neopagan Witchcraft (with the Horned God unceremoniously booted out of the religion entirely) and partially a conglomeration of independent and eclectic do-it-yourself covens of spiritually inclined feminists. It is still very much in the process of formation and like most new religions is insecure about its history, so its members tell and believe a number of unlikely tales about ancient religions and their supposed survival to this day.

“Ethnic Witchcraft” is a catch-all term for those various practitioners of non-English religious and magical systems, such as Candomble, Santeria, Huna, Voodoo, etc. Anglos call them “witches,” so eventually some of them started using the term themselves,

“Anthropological Witches” are people that English-speaking anthropologists call “witches,” usually meaning anyone in a culture or subculture who is doing magic (usually suspected of being evil) outside of the accepted social structures, and/or is a monster in disguise who can curse people with the “evil eye.” This, in fact, is fairly close to Paleopagan attitudes towards “bad” Classic Witches, so their use of the term is entirely logical.

I would like to stress again, now that I have come to the end of this long story, that this is an incomplete “beta version” of what will eventually become a full length book. Comments are welcome, though I may not be able to respond directly, and legitimate scholarly feedback will be incorporated in future editions.


Copyright © 1971, 2000 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net, provided that no editing is done, the version number is listed, and this notice is included. If you would like to be on the author’s personal mailing list for upcoming publications, lectures, song albums, and appearances, send your snailmail and/or your email address to him at PO Box 372, Warwick, NY, USA 10990-0372 or via email to ibonewits@neopagan.net.

Isaac Bonewits Homepage

Leave a Reply