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 witchcraft Belief in witchcraft is universal, but there is

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witchcraft Belief in witchcraft is universal, but there is Empty
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witchcraft Belief in witchcraft is universal, but there is
no universal definition of it, for the term has different
meanings in different cultures and has had different
meanings at different times in history.
Witchcraft has both negative and positive connotations.
It is a form of sorcery, the magical manipulation
of supernormal forces through the casting of spells and
the conjuring or invoking of spirits, for either good or bad
purposes. Magic and sorcery have been used by mankind
since prehistoric times in an effort to control the environment
and enhance daily life. In most societies, however,
witchcraft has been considered harmful.
Anthropologists define witchcraft as an innate condition,
the use of malevolent power by psychic means without
need of ritual or charm. Witchcraft also involves the
use of supernormal powers, such as invisibility, shapeshifting,
flying, ability to kill at a distance, clairvoyancy
and astral projection. Most witchcraft is regarded with
fear and uncertainty, though it provides a necessary social
function by enabling others to seek redress of wrongs
and grievances and alleviation from stress and troubles.
During the Inquisition, witchcraft was viewed as evil
magic, heresy and Devil worship. The associations with
evil and the Devi l linger in modern Western culture.
Since the 1950s, Witchcraft (capital W) has been practiced
as an organized, Pagan religion that worships the
Goddess and Horned God and stresses the use of magic
only for benevolent purposes. Religious Witchcraft represents
but a small portion of the types of witchcraft still
practiced around the world.
The History of Western Witchcraft
Western concepts of witchcraft evolved from magical
beliefs and practices in ancient Egypt, the Middle East
and the classical and hellenistic worlds. Spell-casting and
interaction with intermediary spirits were part of daily
life. The Greeks and Romans made wide use of curses,
usually written on lead tablets, to gain advantage in love,
business and sport. The intermediary spirits were not
servants of evil, but a host of beings who mediated and
interfered in human affairs with a variety of agendas. The
Greek daimon, for example, could be good or bad.
Magic, the daimones and intermediary spirits of the
air became increasingly associated with the Devil in the
early centuries of Christianity, as the church sought to establish
itself as the only source of power and access to the
divine. Magicians, diviners and sorcerers who consulted
spirits were increasingly seen as traffickers in evil.
The Inquisition. The Christian Church’s determined campaign
to eradicate heretics was turned on witches by the
middle of the 15th century. For nearly 250 years, witches
were hunted down and executed as heretics, accused of
worshiping the Devil. Most of the witch hunts in Europe
were conducted by the church, both Catholic and Protestant.
In Britain, witchcraft was considered largely a civil
crime, and witches were prosecuted by the state.
The association of witchcraft with heresy occurred
slowly over a period of centuries. Prior to the Middle
Ages, witchcraft and sorcery were considered essentially
the same. Sorcery was a civil crime, and witches and
sorcerers were punished under civil law, which usually
called for fines, imprisonment and banishment. Heresy,
on the other hand, was punishable by death under civil
law as early as 430, even though such laws were not rigorously
enforced. Under Roman law, distinctions were
made between white witchcraft, or sorcery, and black
witchcraft. White witchcraft, which consisted largely of
magical healing and divination, was not considered a
crime, while black witchcraft, or harmful magic, was a
crime. White witchcraft was tolerated and usually considered
beneficial; it served a useful function in society
and was defended by the public. White witchcraft could
become black witchcraft, however, if a cure resulted in
the death of a patient. Under canon law, the distinctions
between white and black witchcraft began to disappear,
until both were punished as heresy.
From the eight century on, sorcery was increasingly
associated with harmful witchcraft, and witchcraft was
increasingly associated with heresy. Beginning in the
11th century, heretics were sentenced with increasing
frequency to death by burning. The church directed
its efforts against the religious sects of the Albigenses,
which flourished in eastern Europe and southern France;
the Cathars, which spread over much of Europe; and the
378    witch boxes
Waldenses (Vaudois), which appeared in the late 12th
century in southern France. These religious sects were
also accused of sorcery, sabbats and Devil-worship. In
1184, the church’s efforts became more formal with the
direction of Pope Lucius III to bishops to investigate
all deviations from church teachings. The Inquisition
was established between 1227 and 1233. In 1233, Pope
Gregory IX issued a bull that decreed that inquisitors
would be Dominicans and would be answerable only to
the pope.
During the same period, however, ecclesiastical belief
in witchcraft was at a low due to the Canon Episcopi,
which held that witchcraft was an illusion and belief
in it was heresy. This was reversed by a series of papal
bulls against sorcery and the influence of the writings
of demonologists and theologians who became increasingly
obsessed with witchcraft. One of the most influential
theologians was Thomas Aquinas, who in the 13th
century refuted the Canon Episcopi and endorsed beliefs
that witches copulated with demons, flew through the air,
shape-shifted, raised storms and performed other maleficia.
Aquinas believed such acts implied a pact with the
Devil. He also believed heretics should be burned.
The demonification of witchcraft received an additional
boost in the 13th and 14th centuries from the growing
favor of Aristotelian philosophy over Platonic philosophy.
Platonic philosophy provides for the existence of natural
magic that is neither black nor white, but morally neutral.
Under Aristotelian thought, no natural magic exists;
therefore magic must be either divine or demonic.
Bulls against sorcery and witchcraft were issued
through the mid-15th century, some of which instructed
inquisitors to distinguish between sorcery/witchcraft
and heresy. Sorcery was first linked to heresy by Sixtus
IV in bulls issued in 1473, 1478 and 1483. The bull that
turned the full force of the Inquisition against witches—
as heretical sorcerers—was that of innocent VIII in
1484. Two years later, the inquisitors Heinrich Kramer
and Jacob Sprenger published the Malleus Maleficarum,
which carried the bull as an introduction and set forth
rules for identifying, prosecuting and punishing witches.
The Malleus quickly spread throughout Europe and was
considered the primary witch-hunters’ reference as the
Inquisition gained force. By this time, the characteristics
of witchcraft had been established as a Devi l’s pac t, secret,
orgiastic sabbats, infanticide, cannibalism, renunciation
of Christianity and desecration of the cross and
In 1522, Martin Luther called sorcerers and witches
“the Devil’s whores” and criticized lawyers for wanting
too much proof to convict. In 1532, the Carolina,
the criminal code enacted under Charles V for the Holy
Roman Empire, distinguished between white and black
witchcraft, but provided punishment for both. Injurious
witchcraft was punishable by death by burning, as was
homosexuality and sex with animals. Witchcraft that did
not cause injury or damage was punished according to
the magnitude of the crime. Fortune-telling by sorcery or
other magical arts called for torture and imprisonment.
In 1572, a Saxon law code was enacted that called for the
death penalty for all forms of witchcraft.
Accusations of witchcraft usually started with simple
sorceries—spells perceived to harm others. The accused
usually had had an argument with a neighbor or had been
overheard muttering complaints or curses. They were often
tortured, sometimes in the most cruel and barbaric
manner, until they died or confessed to witchcraft and
worshiping the Devil. Inquisitors also forced them to
name accomplices. Whole villages were sometimes implicated,
and mass executions took place. The most common
form of execution in Europe was burning at the stake. If
the victim was lucky, he or she was strangled first. Many
were burned alive.
Many trials probably were motivated by the desire
of the inquisitors to seize the properties of the accused.
This was a factor in areas that suffered the most savage
persecutions, such as Germany. The majority of victims
were of the lower classes, poor and often beggars. Most
also were women: The Malleus Maleficarum had firmly
linked women to witchcraft. Many were social outcasts.
The activities of the Inquisition were strongest in Germany,
France and Switzerland in the 15th and 16th centuries,
spreading into Scandinavia in the 16th and 17th
centuries. Fewer inquisitional activities against witches
took place in Spain or Portugal. The circumstances that
touched off witch hunts in various areas cannot be generalized.
Political and social unrest were factors; trials increased
in Germany and elsewhere in Europe during the
Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648. Bad crops, plagues
and infectious diseases also contributed to searches for
In the 16th century, the witch hysteria was countered
by demonologists, such as Johann Weyer, who questioned
the validity of beliefs about witches and opposed
the tactics of witch hunters. The witch hysteria peaked
between 1560 and 1660, then tapered off during the next
90 years.
Witchcraft in Britain and the American Colonies. Witchhunting
in Britain bloomed later than in Europe. Throughout
the witch hysteria, witchcraft was treated largely as a
civil crime. The emphasis was not on a witch’s heresy by
virtue of a pact with the Devil, but upon her power to
bring misery to others with her spells and curses.
Prior to 1542, witchcraft was considered sorcery in
England, punishable by secular and ecclesiastical laws as
early as 668. Witches usually were tried by the church
and given moderate punishment by the state. If nobles
were involved in charges of sorcery or witchcraft, the
crime had the potential of becoming a charge of treason,
if sorcery had been used against the throne or to divine
the political future.
witchcraft 379
In 1542, Henry VIII passed the first witchcraft act,
which provided for witches to be tried and punished by
the state. The statute of 1542 made a felony of the conjuring
of spirits, divining and casting of false or malicious
spells and enchantments. Such offenses were punishable
by “death, loss and forfeiture of their lands, tenants, goods
and chattels.” Records exist of only one case brought to
trial under the law; the accused was pardoned. The law
was repealed in 1547 by Edward VI.
A second witchcraft act was passed in 1563 under Elizabeth
I. This act was the result of ecclesiastical pressure
to address rising public fears of witchcraft. It increased
penalties: death for murder by witchcraft; a year in jail
and the pillory for less serious witchcraft; and forfeiture
of property for second convictions of divination, attempted
murder and unlawful love spells.
A similar act was passed in Scotland the same year.
During the reign of James VI (1567–1602), brutal witch
hunts took place in Scotland, involving barbaric torture
and burning at the stake (see North Berwic k Witches).
Though James feared witches and permitted the witch
hunts, he did act to cool the hysteria when it threatened
to get out of hand. In 1603, he became James I of England
and ruled the united kingdoms of England and Scotland
until his death in 1625. In 1604, the Elizabethan Witchcraft
Act was repealed and a third and tougher act was
passed for England and Scotland. It called for death by
hanging for the first conviction of malefic witchcraft, regardless
of whether or not a victim had died. The penalty
for divining, destroying or damaging property and the
concoction of love philtres remained a year in jail plus
the pillory. The act also made it a felony to conjure, consult,
entertain, covenant with, employ, feed or reward any
evil spirit for any purpose, thus introducing Devil’s pacts
into the law.
The Act of 1604 remained in force until 1736. England’s
witch hysteria peaked under its force in the 1640s,
also a time of political and social strife caused by the
civil war. Witch-hunting was a profitable profession, and
witch finders such as Matthew Hopkins made good fees
by identifying witches by pricking them and discovering
Devi l’s marks. Convicted witches in England usually
were hung, not burned.
Most of the witch trials in England and Scotland concerned
witches accused of being in league with the Devil.
The “white witches”—the cunning men and cunning
women, wizards, diviners and healers—were seldom
prosecuted by the courts, despite the fact that their sorceries
were illegal. The church courts prosecuted them,
for their magical miracles were in direct competition with
the clergy, many of whom also practiced white witchcraft.
Punishments usually were light, a marked contrast from
The Malleus Maleficarum had little impact in England.
It was not translated into English until 1584, 98 years
after it had been written. England had its own 17th-
Protestant demonologists who wrote treatises on
identifying and punishing witches, including Willia m
Perkins, John Cotta, Thomas Potts, Richard Baldwin and
other learned men. These opinion-shapers held that white
witches were far more dangerous than black witches and
deserved to be prosecuted all the more.
Ireland remained free of much of the witch hysteria.
Only about eight trials are recorded between 1324 (see
Alic e Kyteler) and 1711 (See Island Magee Witches).
Except for the Kyteler trial, they all involved Protestants
against Protestants. A law against witchcraft was passed
in 1587 and was repealed in 1821.
Witch problems in the American colonies did not begin
until the 1640s, just as the hysteria was peaking in
England, and never reached the magnitude of the witch
hunts elsewhere. The first hanging of a convicted witch
occurred in 1647 in Connecticut. Increase Mather and
his son, Cotton Mather, ministers and leaders in Massachusetts,
were influenced by the demonologists of England—
Cotton Mather cited Perkins in his own treatises
on witchcraft—and believed that a conspiracy of witches
who were in league with Satan threatened the survival
of New England. The mass trials of Salem Witches in
1692, the most spectacular witch case in America, were
tried under the 1604 statute. Elsewhere in the colonies,
trials were scattered. Besides the Salem victims, there are
records of only a dozen or so executions of witches in
New England, plus a number of lighter punishments of
whippings and banishment. Pennsylvania law under William
Penn was tolerant, thus making it possible later for
the German immigrant powwowers (wizards or cunning
folk) to establish their culture (see powwowing).
In the 16th century, the Spanish Inquisition, which
had an office in Mexico City, prosecuted Native American
accused witches in the southwest territory of New
Mexico (see pope; Santa Fe Witches).
The end of the witch hysteria. Church and state persecutions
of witches came to a halt in Europe, Britain and
America by the 1730s, though cases in Germany continued
to be tried for several more decades. The last witch
trial occurred in 1711 in Ireland, resulting in sentences of
jail and the pillory. In England, Jane Clarke and her son
and daughter were the last to be indicted as witches in
1717. Despite the willingness of 25 people to testify against
them, the case was thrown out of court. In Scotland, Janet
Horne was the last to be tried and burned in 1727. In the
American colonies, Grace Sherwood of Virginia was accused
of witchcraft in 1706, and the swimming test was
employed, but the case evidently was dropped. In Jura, a
beggar woman was burned as a witch in 1731. Persecutions
lingered in France and Germany, where the greatest
witch-hunting had taken place during the height of the
Inquisition. In France, the last executions took place in
1745. In Bavaria, Anna Maria Schwagel was the last accused
witch to be executed in 1775 by beheading.
380 witchcraft
Political and social changes and backlash against the
persecutions made witch-hunting both undesirable and
unnecessary. In Germany, the threatened destruction of
entire populations necessitated a cooling of accusations
and trials. Throughout Europe, the evolution from feudalism
to capitalism during the 17th and 18th centuries
changed attitudes toward the instability created by
the threat of heresy and the subsequent confiscations of
property. In England, the Civil War drastically changed
society by establishing a republican commonwealth, paving
the way for a middle class and improving religious
toleration. In the American colonies, public disgust was
so great after Salem that leaders criticized the methods
of the court. Salem repented, and in 1711 the general
court restored the civil rights of 22 of those convicted in
1692 (the rights of the remaining victims were restored
in 1957).
The Industrial Revolution and age of science brought
shifts to urban population centers, changes in livelihood
and more education. Among learned men, the skepticism
of science took hold, and it became unfashionable to believe
in witchcraft and magic. One influential critic was
Francis Hutchinson, an English clergyman who wrote his
sharply critical Essay Concerning Witchcraft (1718), which
exposed the false accusations, evidence and political motivations
of many trials.
In 1736, under George II in England, the Witchcraft
Act of 1604 was repealed and replaced with a new statute
that removed penalties for witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment
and conjuration. However, the new law punished
those who pretended to use witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment
and conjuration in fraudulent fortune-telling and
divining. Punishment was a year in jail with quarterly
appearances in the pillory.
Witchcraft receded as heresy and returned to its former
state of sorcery and folk magic. The public still perceived
a witch as a malevolent person in league with the
Devil, but continued to rely heavily upon cunning folk,
powwowers, witch doctors, sorcerers, white witches and
the like for healing, fertility, luck, prosperity and divination.
The trade of white witchcraft flourished during the
18th century and most of the 19th century. Among rural,
uneducated populations, anti-witch sentiment continued.
In England, Europe and even America, there were outbreaks
of violence against suspected witches all through
the 19th century and into the early 20th century (see
John Blymire and Charles Walton). The violence sometimes
was turned on white witches whose magic failed
to work. Stories in the press were published periodically
about witches, magical charms and rumors of nocturnal
meetings in forests.
In the latter half of the 19th century, Spiritualism
spread quickly on both sides of the Atlantic. In England,
the Witchcraft Act of 1736 and the Vagrancy Act of 1824
were used to prosecute mediums on charges of conjuring
spirits and fraudulent fortune-telling. A campaign to
rescind the 1736 statute was mounted by Spiritualists in
1950, after the law had been used against a medium who
defrauded a widow. In 1951, the Witchcraft Act of 1736 and
a section of the Vagrancy Act of 1824 were replaced by the
Fraudulent Mediums Act. For the first time in more than
300 years in Britain, witchcraft was no longer a crime.
Witchcraft, women and misogyny. The witchcraft defined
and attacked by church and state during the witch craze
focused on women. Christianity holds women accountable
for sin, so it was naturally presumed that they were
predisposed to the evils of witchcraft and Devil-worship.
The Malleus Maleficarum is replete with misogyny. Authors
Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, Dominican
inquisitors, state that “all witchcraft comes from carnal
lust, which in women is insatiable.” They said that men
are protected from succumbing to witchcraft because Jesus
was a man.
Furthermore, they said that women are “chiefly addicted
to Evil Superstitions” because they are feeble-brained,
“intellectually like children,” weak in body, impressionable,
lustful, have weak memories and are by nature liars.
Much of the offensive behavior attributed to witches was
sex-related: uninhibited copulation with demons and fa -
milia rs, sexual attacks upon men in the form of succubi,
the causation of impotency and infertility and, incredibly,
the theft of male sexual organs.
Most of the women accused of witchcraft were social
outcasts, beyond the immediate control of men: they were
spinsters and widows. The patriarchal societies of Europe
and Britain were openly hostile to such women. The hostility
was only exacerbated by old age, poverty, handicaps
and ugliness.
Women had no rights of their own and no say in their
own destiny. Most went from being the property of a
father to the property of a husband. The majority were
stuck in lives of grinding poverty and misery. It is possible
that women were more likely to turn to sorcery in an
effort to improve their plights or redress their grievances,
which would make them more vulnerable to accusations
of witchcraft. The tales of imaginary flights to sabbats
seem more like desperate attempts to relieve boredom
and unhappiness than intentions to indulge in evil (see
Isobel Gowdie).
Non-European witchcraft. In non-European societies,
witchcraft is commonly, but not always, associated with
women. Most African tribes believe that witchcraft is inherited
and can be passed to either sex; the Tellensi of
northern Ghana believe that witchcraft is passed only by
the mother. The Navajo associate more men with witchcraft
than women, but women witches are invariably old
or childless, which corresponds to the European portrait
of spinsters and widows.
Ancient legends among the Ona and Yahgans of Tierra
del Fuego bear a chilling resemblance to the European
witch hunts. According to the Ona legend, witchcraft
witchcraft 381
and the magical arts were known only to women in the
old days of Ona-land. The women kept their own lodge,
which was closed to men. They had the power to cause
sickness and death, and the men lived in total fear of
them. Finally, the men decided they had had enough tyranny
and that a dead witch was better than a live witch.
They massacred all the women and adolescent girls. They
spared only the smallest girls who had not yet begun their
training in witchcraft so that the men eventually would
have wives again. To prevent the girls from banding together
and reasserting their power when they grew up,
the men formed a secret society and lodge that excluded
women. The lodge was protected by fierce demons. The
men kept their dominance over women from then on.
The Yahgans, neighbors of the Ona, also have a legend
of the ancient rule of men by women who used witchcraft
and cunning. The Yahgan men also deposed the women,
not through massacre but apparently by mutual consent.
Witchcraft, a Pagan religion. In the 1950s, Witchcraft was
re-created as a Pagan religion, centered on the worship
of the Goddess and her consort, the Horned God, and
the practice of benevolent magic. The father of this revival
was Gerald B. Gardner, an English civil servant
whose interest in the occult led, he said, to his initia tion
in 1939 into a coven of witches in England. It is difficult
to say whether Gardner intended to create a new religion
or whether it grew spontaneously from public interest in
his writings and activities.
Gardner said his coven was descended from a long
line of hereditary witches, who practiced both a magical
craft and a Pagan religion, “The Craft of the Wise” and
“The Old Religion.” Other covens scattered about England
have claimed the same; most remain rather secretive,
and it is unknown exactly how far back their lineages go
or exactly what has constituted religious Witchcraft over
the centuries.
In the latter part of the 19th century, American folklorist
Charles Godfrey Leland said he discovered a hereditary
heritage of witches in Tuscany, who worshiped
Aradia , daughter of Dia na. In the 1920s, British anthropologist
Margaret A. Murray advanced the idea that the
witches who were persecuted during the witch hysteria
were organized pagan religious cults who worshiped the
Horned God. Both Leland and Murray have been criticized
by historians, and the idea that witches maintained
a lineage of organized religion was discredited.
Isolated groups and cults did keep alive various pagan
rites and customs, especially those related to health
and fertility, such as seasonal festivals (see Wheel of the
Year). There is evidence of a flourishing cult of Diana in
western and central Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries,
which apparently survived to the Middle Ages. The
benandanti, an agrarian cult of nocturnal witch-fighters,
survived in northern Italy to the 16th and 17th centuries.
The strigoi of Romania, witches both living and dead,
possessed supernatural powers and fought each other at
night. Another Romanian cult, the Calusari, was a secret
society of cathartic dancers whose patronness was the
Queen of the Fairies, or Diana/Herodia/Aradia.
At the time of Gardner’s initiation, Murray’s theory
had not been put to rest. Gardner accepted her theory of
a European witch cult. He feared that Witchcraft was in
danger of dying out due to a lack of young members and
wanted to publicize it. He had been given a framework of
rituals, including initiations and a system of greater and
lesser Sabbats by his coven. He obtained additional ritual
material from Aleister Crowley, whom he met in 1946.
Because the Witchcraft Act of 1736 was still on the books,
his coven allegedly discouraged him from writing openly
about Witchcraft. Instead, he wrote a novel High Magic’s
Aid under the pseudonym “Scire,” published in 1949. The
book contained the rituals and beliefs Gardner had been
given by his coven.
After the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951, Gardner
broke away from the coven and formed his own coven.
To flesh out his rituals, he apparently borrowed from Leland,
the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), of which he was
a member, masonry, the Hermetic Order of the Golden
Dawn, Rosicrucianism, Eastern mysticism and magic
(Gardner had spent many years in the East), folklore and
mythology. In 1953, he initiated Doreen Valiente, with
whom he collaborated in writing and revising the rituals.
According to Valiente, Gardner’s material showed heavy
influence by the O.T.O. and Crowley, which she removed
and rewrote in simpler form. Gardner never acknowledged
Crowley’s exact role in his rituals. He maintained
that Crowley belonged to the “witch cult” and may have
had some hand in reconstructing the rituals, but had kept
his oaths of secrecy.
Gardner wrote two nonfiction books about Witchcraft,
Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft
(1959), which described the Craft as he saw it and
put forth the Murray theory. The books captured a public
382 witchcraft
Witch and wizard riding to sabbat (Ulrich Molitor, Hexen
Meysterey, 1545)
fancy and revived an interest in Witchcraft. In 1957, Valiente
“hived off” to form her own coven.
In revising Gardner’s ritual material, Valiente increased
the emphasis on the Goddess. She said the Goddess
was part of the Craft at the time she joined it. However,
witchcraft trial records emphasize the alleged worship
of the Devil, not the Goddess, and Gardner’s High Magic’s
Aid does not mention the Goddess. In following Murray,
Gardner at first emphasized the role of the Horned God.
The Goddess gradually assumed more importance, thus
elevating the role of the high priestess to leader of the
During the 1950s, Craft laws and ethics took shape.
The Wicca n Rede, “An’ it harm none, do what ye will,”
stipulates that Witches may use their magical powers
only for good, never to harm any living thing. The need
was seen for a set of written rules, and “Ned,” who left
Gardner’s coven with Valiente, is said to have drafted a
proposal that was not adopted. Gardner apparently revised
it in a false archaic English. The 161 “Ancient Craft
Laws” were said to date back to the 16th century, but
were of modern authorship. They cover conduct, secrecy,
coven meetings and territories and discipline. Valiente
never considered the document to be authentic. The laws
have been published in various versions.
A huge growth spurt of Witchcraft took place in the
1960s and 1970s, during a revival of interest in occultism.
Most early converts were women and came from
the ranks of the white middle class, followed by those
in creative arts, academia and professions. Gardner’s revival
of Witchcraft spread to other countries, including
the United States, Canada, Australia, France, Germany
and Japan.
In the initial boom, there were suddenly more wouldbe
Witches than covens to initiate them; initiation was required
in order to consider oneself a Witch. Many people
were attracted for the wrong reasons—a fad or manipulation
of others. Most of these eventually dropped out of the
movement; some splintered off in their own directions.
Gardner’s Witchcraft became known as Gardnerian, and
other “traditions” were created or came to light. Alex
Sanders, an Englishman who claimed to be a hereditary
Witch, founded the Alexandrian tradition, based heavily
on the rituals of Gardner.
Some traditions claimed ancient, hereditary lineages;
some of these claims were soon proved to be false. Numerous
traditions were born, lived brief lives and died, while
others grew, survived and evolved. Emphasis on the Goddess
appealed to many women in the feminist movement
and others who felt shortchanged and disenfranchised by
Christianity and other mainstream religions.
By the 1980s, most Witches no longer believed that
the Craft was an unbroken religious tradition since pagan
witchcraft 383
Devil seducing witch (Ulrich Molitor, Von Den
Unholden Oder Hexen, 1489)
Mass executions of Haarlemites as devil-worshipers, under
Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, duke of Alba, after conquest of
Haarlem, 1573 (Michael Aistinge r, De Leone Belgico )
times. Many felt ancient rites and beliefs have been reconstructed
to suit modern times; in this way, they preserve
an ancient heritage.
From England and the United States, Witchcraft
spread around the world, with dozens of traditions being
founded. The movement has not been unified or cohesive.
Autonomy, diversity and change are valued.
Witches still find themselves the victims of prejudice,
hate and fear. Many are secretive about their involvement
in the Craft, while others feel it is essential to seek publicity
in order to gain acceptance by society. Organizations
and networks have been formed to help educate the media
and public and fight for civil rights.
Some Witches use the term “Wicca” to distinguish
modern religious Witchcraft from folklore witchcraft.
Others feel it is important to use the word “Witchcraft”
and continue to educate the public that not all witches
are evil.
Modern Traditions of Witchcraft
Witchcraft is an autonomous religion constantly reinvented
by its practitioners to suit changing needs. There
are no central authority, clergy, dogma and liturgy. It is
oriented to small groups, members of whom are all priests
and priestesses, with authority centered in the group’s
high priestess/high priest.
Different traditions have their own rituals, philosophies
and beliefs. Witchcraft embraces diversity, including
gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people, some
of whom have founded their own traditions. Witchcraft
is eclectic, drawing on a variety of magical/mystical/religious
philosophies and practices. Though folk witchcraft
is not shamanic in nature, shamanistic elements of trance,
out-of-body journeying and healing have increased in rituals
and practice. Some traditions give emphasis to ceremonial
magic and to kabbalistic mysteries.
New rituals, songs, chants and poetry are continually
created. Witches view change and flexibility as positive,
a guarantee that their religion will never grow stale with
obsolete ideas.
All traditions share a deep respect for nature and all
living things. Most Witches are pantheists, believing the
divine force to be immanent in nature. Many are polytheists,
in the sense that they believe the divine force manifests
in multiple forms, recognized as Pagan deities. The
Goddess generally is given supremacy over the Horned
God. Rituals are colorful, creative and energizing. Witches
believe in enjoying sensual and sexual pleasures without
guilt. Magic, whether performed individually or in a
coven, should be directed toward a good purpose, not to
384 witchcraft
Devil carrying witch off to hell (Olaus Magnus, Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, 1555)
Within traditions, covens and groups are autonomous,
some fiercely so. Each customarily has a secret book of
shadows, which includes the tradition’s laws, ethics,
rituals, administrative rules and other material, including
personal material and material relating to the coven.
Most traditions have formal initiation procedures. It has
become increasingly acceptable to initiate oneself into the
Craft and practice alone as a solitary rather than as part
of a coven.
Many covens belong to organizations that lobby for
Pagan rights and provide forums for discussion, unity
and community.
Witchcraft features many traditions and, within them,
subtraditions. Practitioners across the spectrum see
Witchcraft as progressive and evolutionary, rather than
static and bound to past beliefs and practices. Janet Farrar
and Gavi n Bone have been instrumental in advancing
progressive concepts of the Craft that incorporate
ceremonial magic, old pagan practices, folk magic, shamanism,
ecstatic mysteries and Eastern mysticism and
Some of the major traditions are
Gardnerian. The revived Witchcraft named after Gerald
B. Gardner remains the dominant tradition worldwide,
but no longer holds a monopoly in the Craft. It has
been subject to much criticism and reinterpretation. It
is centered on worship of the Goddess and her consort,
the Horned God, represented in the coven by the high
priestess and high priest. It emphasizes polarity in all
things manifest in the universe, fertility and the cycles of
Nature is honored, and one accepts oneself and all
other living things as part of her. Eight seasonal Pagan
sabbats are observed. The Wicca n Rede of harming no
living thing is the guiding principle.
Formal initia tion into a coven by a high priest or
high priestess is stressed, though there are rituals for
self-initiation. One enters the Craft in “perfect love and
perfect trust,” which means complete trust of fellow coveners.
In initiation into a coven, a woman must be initiated
by a man and a man by a woman. Initiates trace
their lineage back to Gardner or Lady Olwen, his high
priestess. Many receive lineage papers.
The Gardnerian hierarchy has three degrees of advancement,
traditionally separated by a minimum of a
year and a day. Only a third-degree witch may become
a high priestess or high priest. The high priestess is the
titular head of the coven. Some covens emphasize the
Goddess more than the Horned God, while others put the
male and female aspects on a par. The deities are called
by a multitude of Pagan deity names, depending on the
coven and the rituals being performed. Rituals are performed
within a magic ci rcle. Witches work with a set
of tools: an athame or ritual knife, wand, sword, cords,
censer, pentacle and chalice.
One of the original hallmarks of the Gardnerian tradition
is worship in the nude, which Gardner called “skyclad.”
He enjoyed nudist camps in England and believed
that nudity was healthy. Gardnerians hold that worshiping
in the nude brings them closer to nature and keeps
all coveners equal. The nudity was sensationalized in the
media. Many Gardnerian covens have broken away from
this practice and worship robed.
Another original hallmark of the Gardnernian tradition
is ritual scourging, the light flogging of coveners with
cords as a means of purification and symbolic suffering
and raising psychic energy. This practice has declined in
American Gardnerian covens, replaced by other energyraising
techniques such as ecstatic dancing, drumming
and trance.
Gardner also espoused ritual sexual acts between high
priestess and high priest, called the Great Rite. The rite
can be performed symbolically with a chalice and blade.
Magic in the tradition is theurgic, that is, performed
with the aid of beneficient spirits.
The Gardnerian tradition was introduced to the United
States in the 1960s by Raymond Buckland and his wife,
Rosemary, natives of England who were initiated into the
craft in 1963 by Gardner’s high priestess, Lady Olwen
(Monique Wilson). The Bucklands moved to America
and established a coven and museum on Long Island.
Alexandrian. Named after its founder, Alex Sanders, the
British self-proclaimed “King of the Witches,” the Alexandrian
tradition was the second largest tradition to
come out of England. The tradition is based heavily upon
the Gardnerian tradition, with greater emphasis on cord
magic (see knots) and ceremonial magic. Sanders adopted
Gardner’s skyclad practice. The Alexandrian tradition
declined with Sanders’ retirement from the limelight in
the 1970s and death in 1988. Sanders’ wife, Maxine, remained
active on her own for more than a decade. The
Alexandrian tradition is practiced by covens around the
world, and elements of it have been absorbed into newer
traditions. (See Vivia n Crowley; Janet and Stewart
Dianic/Feminist. A broad tradition that includes covens
that are feminist and/or strongly matriarchal in orientation.
The name is taken from Diana, Greek goddess of
the moon and the hunt, and one of the principal names
for the Goddess aspect in Witchcraft. The Goddess is
worshiped exclusively or nearly so. The emphasis is on
rediscovering and reclaiming female power and divinity
and consciousness-raising. Some covens are all-female,
while others admit men. The Dianic tradition espouses
a feminist spirituality sisterhood that opposes an oppressive,
patriarchal society and works to bring about positive
social and political changes for all.
Dianic Witchcraft emerged from the feminist consciousness
movement and had its strongest origins in the
United States. One of the first Dianic covens was formed
witchcraft 385
in Dallas, Texas, by Morgan McFarland and Mark Roberts
in the late 1960s. Originally, McFarland had no name for
her coven; the name Dianic came to her later. Rituals revolved
around the phases of the Moon and were steeped
in ancient matriarchal myth and power. Some years later,
McFarland and Roberts split, but the Dianic tradition
was continued by other covens. Among the most notable
leaders who have shaped Dianic Witchcraft are Z Budapest
and Starhawk. Budapest, a founder of the Susan B.
Anthony coven in 1971, once said Dianic Witchcraft is a
“Wimmin’s Religion” not open to men. Starhawk, an initiate
of the Faery Tradition (see below), integrated men
into Dianic Witchcraft.
Rituals are eclectic; some are derived from the Gardnerian
and Faery traditions, while others have been created
new. Many feminist covens do not have a handeddown
book of shadows.
Many Dianic Witches are political activists for women’s
and civil rights, environmental issues and peace and
antinuclear issues.
Hereditary/Family. Witchcraft traditions that blend folk
magic, some of which has Christianized elements, and
ethnic traditions, often handed down through family
lineages. People who inherit the training often have innate
psychic and healing abilities. Examples are the powwowing
brauchers (healers) and hexenmeisters (witches)
of Germanic-Pennsylvania Dutch traditions and various
Italian traditions.
In the early days of Witchcraft, it was important to
claim a secret hereditary lineage. Some claims were exaggerated
or even made up in order to establish legitimacy.
Presently, traditions incorporating ethnic and family traditions
are flexible and fluid and may mix elements from
other traditions and pagan practices.
Faery/Faerie/Fairy Tradition. An ecstatic and magical
Craft religion founded and developed by Vic tor Anderson
and Gwydion Pendderwen. Initially small and secretive,
many of the fundamentals of the Tradition have
reached a wide audience through the writings of Starhawk,
a Faery Tradition initiate.
Like all Craft traditions, the Faery Tradition honors
nature and reveres the deities who personify the forces of
nature, life, fertility, death and rebirth. It is polytheistic
rather than dualistic, and while it recognizes the male-female
polarity and other polarities, it does not emphasize
polarities as much as the Gardnerian tradition. The Faery
Tradition emphasizes pragmatic magic, self-development
and theurgy.
There is no standard secret book of shadows, but
rather an eclectic approach to working the Craft and
living life. Some aspects remain secretive, while most
are taught openly. The Faery Tradition provides for a
passing of power upon initiation, which links the initiate
to the power of the group and those who have gone
The tradition identifies different currents of energy
within the universe, that are used in magic. “Faery power”
is an ecstatic energy of attunement that is beautiful
and sensual but goes beyond the senses: One fills the
senses with beauty to go beyond the senses. There is an
awareness of the unseen reality, a respect for the wisdom
of nature, and acceptance of oneself and others as part of
nature and a sensual mysticism that involves a celebratory
embracing of life and a love of beauty.
Metaphysical teachings and secret words and names
are handed down in the tradition. Two key teachings center
on the iron and pearl pentagrams, meditation tools
to bring oneself into balance with the universe and to
explore the self. The points of the iron pentagram represent
Sex, Self, Passion, Pride and Power. The points of the
pearl pentagram represent Love, Wisdom, Knowledge,
Law and Power.
Shamanic. Some of the fastest-growing traditions in
Witchcraft incorporate shamanic elements of trance
and healing. One of the earliest blendings was created
by Selena Fox, high priestess of Circle Sanctuary
near Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin. Fox combined Witchcraft,
transpersonal psychology and crosscultural shamanistic
Newsletter concerning burning of three witches at Derneburg,
October 1555
386 witchcraft
Shamanic elements include the discovery of one’s
personal relationship with the spirits of nature and finding
one’s power animals and plants, which become allies
in healing. Respect is paid to one’s genetic and spiritual
human ancestors, to all life-forms and to the Earth. The
initiatory experience is the vigil, a night spent alone in
nature without fire, shelter or food. The vigil, undertaken
after a period of training, brings the individual face to
face with deep, primal fears and provides for an intense
Goth. One of the newer traditions or movements, Goth
Craft blends Witchcraft and Goth culture, emphasizing
the dark aspects of deities and exploration of the shadow
side of spirituality. Goth Witchcraft features blood magic,
death magic, necromancy, and self-expression through
the dark arts (see Rav en Digitalis). Confrontation with
one’s shadow side and integration of it are important parts
of the path to wholeness as envisioned by Carl G. Jung
and also proponents of transpersonal psychology.
Further reading:
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon. Rev. ed. New York:
Penguin, 2006.
Bonewits, Isaac. Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Witchcraft and
Wicca. New York: Citadel Press Books, 2006.
Briggs, Robin. Witches & Neighbors: The Social and Cultural
Context of European Witchcraft. New York: Viking, 1996.
Buckland, Raymond. The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of
Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism. Detroit: Visible Ink
Press, 2002.
Farrar, Janet, and Gavin Bone. Progressive Witchcraft: Spirituality,
Mysteries & Training in Modern Wicca. Franklin
Lakes, N.J.: New Page Books, 2004.
Flint, Valerie, and Richard Gordon, Georg Luck, and Daniel
Ogden. Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece
and Rome. London: The Athlone Press, 1999.
Grimassi, Raven. The Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft.
2nd ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 2003.
Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern
Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Lipp, Deborah, and Isaac Bonewits. The Study of Witchcraft:
A Guidebook to Advanced Wicca. York Beach, Me.: Weiser
Books, 2007.
Rabinovitch, Shelley, and James Lewis. The Encyclopedia of
Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism. New York: Citadel
Press, 2002.
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