Chapter one - Introduction to Witchcraft
by Ilil Arbel
Your world is rational and well ordered. Science, technology and regulated business are part of it. Why bother with a subject that seems so Medieval, perhaps even obsolete? What has Witchcraft to do with you, as you sit at your books, or at your computer? Thinking about these threatening old tales and vague images of evil may even make you uncomfortable. Is it at all worth your time?
Very much so. No pursuit is more important than the attempt to understand one's own self. Magic preceded psychology, and the story of Witchcraft affords a significant glimpse into the development of our minds and feelings. Somehow, in the innermost recesses of our private thoughts, something still answers the call of the ancient horns of the Wild Ride of the Fairies and witches. With all our modern achievements, we are the same beings that once huddled in dark caves. It is good to acknowledge our heritage and learn from it.
The story of the witches is as old as the story of humanity itself, as proven by prehistoric evidence. They stayed throughout the centuries, sometimes openly, sometimes underground, but always influential. They are still with us.
Unfortunately, much of what is known about Witchcraft is based on superstitious nonsense, causing a bias toward a large group of people. This is unacceptable in today's enlightened society, when most people try avoiding bigotry and prejudice. There has never been a group of people as misunderstood as those who follow Witchcraft, or as its followers call it, the Old Religion. It is estimated that nine million people have been humiliated, tortured and murdered because the world did not comprehend their ancient way of life.
In its purest form, the Old Religion is nature worship. It is also called Wicca, or The Way of the Wise People, and the followers are far from evil - they see themselves as guardians of the Earth and servants of a nature goddess. They are connected with the seasons, the plants, the animals and the planet, and seek a balanced life. They have much in common with ecologists. True, nothing in this world is untainted, and in the long history of Witchcraft there have been those who followed Satanism, Devil worship, Black Magic, Shamanism and Voodoo, among many other cults. But besides the fact that all those disciplines profess to the ability of creating magic, they have very little in common with true Witchcraft.
Upcoming chapters will discuss these Satanic activities as well as pure Witchcraft. It is impossible to understand the history of Witchcraft without knowing something about the Dark Side of magic. But it is important to realize that they are not, and never have been, one and the same.
Naturally, a good old village witch, who had to make a living selling her products and services, was a bit of a ham. While she could simply live and work in a clean cottage full of fragrant medicinal herbs, it looked much more convincing if she had a skull and a few bones on a shelf. It wouldn't hurt if her trusty cat was all glossy black rather than a tabby. The sound of a bubbling cauldron had a good effect. And the broom looked better if it was a bit charred by fire. The customers could imagine her flying out of her chimney, cackling gleefully to herself as the sparks almost caught the broomstick. The image was good for business.
But when the great Witch Craze began in earnest, and the witches lost their places as the village doctors to become the enemies of the Church, people no longer knew what was true and what was not. It was all a mix, anyway. Take the old broom, for instance. A witch never really rode it through the air, of course. Where did this bizarre story come from?
The answer is surprisingly simple. Witches used long, dark wooden poles to perform a special fertility dance. They rode the pole as if it was a hobbyhorse, and jumped as high into the air as possible. They believed that the higher they jumped, the better the crops could grow. Sometimes they "rode" the poles to their nightly gatherings, jumping up and down all the way. Occasionally the neighbors saw them, though they wouldn't follow them too far, as ordinary folks were superstitious and afraid of the dark in those days. The neighbors couldn't quite understand what the witches were doing, singing and jumping like that. Could they be preparing to take off and fly? It seemed very likely. Of course all the witches' doings were secretive, it was part of the Old Religion. They had to do something with this pole between festivals. So what better way to hide its purpose than to disguise it as a broom? All you had to do was to tie a few twigs and branches around it, and there it was, ready to sweep your cottage.
The Old Religion existed since the Stone Age. In a tradition that old, there have to be some rituals and forms of worship that may not appeal to everyone. Witches are aware of it and keep their practices to themselves. With very few exceptions, such as Sybil Leek or Aleister Crowley, who for various reasons made it their business to be known openly as witches, you won't know who they are. Secrecy is essential, because even in today's enlightened society, with all the laws against witches repealed, the presence of a witch still produces anxiety in a community, sometimes even direct persecution. Imagine if suddenly it becomes known in your hometown that the owner of the grocery store, or the plumber, or the lawyer who lives across the street, is a practicing witch. Imagine if it is your doctor, or the principal of your school. They will not be burned at the stake, of course. But the town, most likely, will either stop using their services or demand their resignation. It has happened many times.
The secrecy makes it difficult for those who have an open mind and truly want to understand. Who are these elusive people? What do they really believe in? Where have they originated? Do they have inherited traits, giving them paranormal, psychic powers? Do they cause harm to anyone? One thing is clear. From our earliest history, from the very beginning, the witches have been with us.
There are certain caves, at archaeological sites dating 30,000 BCE, located in the regions between Russia and Spain. On the walls, and even on the ceilings of some of them, there are many carvings and paintings of easily recognizable animals, mostly bisons, antelopes, horses, bulls and deer. They are beautifully and realistically executed in both black and colored scenes. The artists were good observers and could draw the animals with amazing accuracy. However, there is also a repeated representation of a mysterious creature, who could not have possibly roamed the plains with the animals. He is half man, half animal. His face is human, but he has large horns adorning his head. He is covered with fur and has a tail, but he stands upright and his feet and hands are human. His eyes are large, sad, wise and very human. Many archaeologists agree that he is the image of a sorcerer or witch, a powerful member of an ancient pagan religion. His followers probably believed that he was a "shape changer," a man who could make magic and change at will to an animal form. This school of archaeology believes that Western Witchcraft is a continuation of this pagan religion.
Other theories are a lot less likely and if considered each by itself, only partially explain the complicated origin of Witchcraft. Some people believe that witches were indeed in league with the Devil. This is an outdated, primitive approach, particularly for those with a scientific turn of mind, and a healthy skepticism about the existence of such an entity as the Devil.
Another theory is based on the belief that all the witches' activities are based on nothing but hallucinations. Smearing their bodies with hallucinogenic drugs could account for flying dreams, images of savage demons and other interesting details of their Sabbaths. Undoubtedly some covens did use drugs. There will be a chapter in this book, devoted to the flora and fauna associated with Witchcraft, and it must be admitted right here that not all plants were grown just for healing. Belladonna, Monkshood, Datura, and Nightshade were often used at the festivals, and they were hallucinogenic when properly prepared. But they were only a small part of the activities, mostly recreational in nature or an aid to altered states of consciousness. Dismissing the entire proceedings as hallucinogenic dreams is, at best, an oversimplification of a very complex subject.
Another important theory is the connection between Western witches and the Fairies, Pixies, and other "Little People" of Europe. Combining this theory with the one about the ancient, Stone Age religion may explain, once and for all, where witches come from.
There are many races of pygmies living in the world today. Some examples are the pygmies of Africa, Malaysia, New Guinea and The Philippines. The pattern of their lives is similar - they are generally pushed around by their bigger neighbors. As a defense, they develop a secretive lifestyle. They are usually great hunters, almost magically able to stalk and attract their prey. They possess poison arrows which they can shoot with uncanny accuracy. They move with such agility and stealth that it seems as if they can be invisible at will. Their neighbors invariably think they have magic powers. The pygmies are hostile, in general, but if well treated may become friendly, and share their knowledge of herbs, hunting and weather patterns, or even leave gifts or exchange goods with their neighbors. Powerful enemies, faithful friends, always acting under the cover of the dark night, no matter where they live.
Races like that existed in Europe. There are old rock dwellings in the Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland, Finland, and Russia in which you had to be about two to three feet tall to fit comfortably if standing upright. While individuals of this height exist, of course, there is no whole nation left in Europe today that is of this stature, so these dwellings provide an important clue.
Let's review the origin of witches in the British Isles as an example. When the various invaders, such as the Romans, Saxons, and Normans entered the area, they encountered these small people. They gave them various names - Fairies, Pixies, Sidhe, and so on. Some names still have a meaning for us today. The term Pixie, for instance, is derived from Picts, a well-known old race from Northern England and Scotland. Other name origins are obscure. As usual, the Little People were hostile to their conquerors. They stole cattle and destroyed crops, resenting the fact that they were driven away from the best lands. But some friendships occurred, too, sometimes even leading to marriages between the invaders and the larger of the Little People.
Having a "Fairy wife" was a good thing. The ladies may have been small in stature, but they were very clever and pretty, and sometimes brought not only superior knowledge of the region and its natural resources, but also wealth. A very happy marriage occurred as late as 1380 A.D. between the chief of the MacLeod Clan in Scotland and a noble Fairy, who gave him a famous gift, the Fairy Flag of Dunvegan. It still exists in a Museum. Many of the descendants of this marriage live today. There are also tales of Roman, Saxon or Norman girls who ran away to become the wives of the King of the Fairies or his Lords. It was believed these women led wonderful, long lives in Fairyland, away from the toil and trouble of our "ordinary" world. These enchanting folktales will be discussed in a chapter devoted to the great literary figures in Witchcraft.
Some of the Little People lived in tiny rounded houses made of wood. There were no windows, only a smoke hole in the ceiling, admitting a delicate twilight into the room. The roof was rounded, too, and covered with sod. In spring, under the gentle rains and soft sunlight of the region, the houses sprouted grass. From a little distance, the grass made the houses look exactly like small green hills. You could get in through a door on the side of the house, but also through the smoke hole in the ceiling, which was usually equipped with a ladder for the convenience of the sentries. So the big neighbors could see the Little People going in and out of the side of the so-called hills, or go down a smoking chimney. How easy it was to make up stories about the mysterious Little People, the Sidhe, who lived inside hills and disliked sunlight. Even more important, how obvious is the origin of the story of a flying witch that could get in and out of a house through the chimney! After all, if she didn't fly, how else could she get to the roof? An old hag like her surely couldn't climb so high?
The Romans mingled with the Little People and had many descendants. These Roman-Britons stayed after the Romans left. They were larger than the original Little People, and looked a bit different. But they had, of course, much sympathy and understanding with them. When the Roman priests left, they took the gods with them, as was the custom of those years. So even if the Roman-Britons didn't do so before, naturally they now started worshiping the same sweet, kind nature goddesses the Little People worshiped. After all, the native goddesses could so easily be identified with the Roman Diana or Venus. The bonds of family relationships and religion were strong. Together the two races faced the new invasions of the Saxons, Normans, Vikings, and eventually the Catholic Church.
The Saxons were good farmers, stolid, serious people, and they didn't like the frivolity of the Little People. So they banished them to the heaths, were they lived for generations, and were called the "Heathens." Curiously, we still refer to non-Christians by that name. The Little People went about their business, carrying on their night festivals, coloring their nude bodies with green paint made of certain herbs, and generally enjoying life. The Saxons disapproved, in principle, but being human, sometimes mingled anyway. The charm of the Little People was, at times, irresistible. The descendants of the mixed marriages were even larger than those who married Romans, since the Saxons were taller and heavier.
Then Came the Normans, and they liked the Little People very much. The Normans were not strongly Christian, they disliked the Saxons, and they found an affinity with the Heathens. Many of the Heathens took employment with the Norman Lords. For some reason the Little People were always very good with horses. This was a skill the Normans respected, as they were very fond of horses. The mischievous Little People delighted in the enmity between their old adversaries the Saxons, and the Norman lords. They felt appreciated by their new employers, and often invited them to the night festivals they still celebrated. The Normans couldn't resist. Outnumbered by the boring Saxons, they wanted fun and adventure. There are stories of horses disappearing from stables and of Norman Lords and Ladies riding all night, wearing strange disguises, on their way to attend the festivals. Perhaps this was the beginning of the legends of the Wild Hunts of the Fairies or the Wild Rides of the witches. Many, many mixed marriages took place.
Naturally, despite their mutual dislike, the Normans and the Saxons also started to mix. The descendants of this three-way mix no longer colored their nude bodies in green paint, but some continued to dye their clothes with this color. Wearing green clothes, you could easily camouflage yourself in, say, Sherwood Forest with your Merry Men, and shoot with uncanny accuracy at your enemies. You could have much fun stealing from the rich, and giving to the poor, as good Fairies always did, couldn't you? Or you would wear your green clothes at the May Games, which were similar to Witches' Sabbaths, complete with the Great Maypole, feasts, and mystical initiations.
So here is how the origin of the witches begins to make sense. This is the story as it occurred in England. The same stories, or very similar ones, took place in Finland, Russia, Germany, and many other European countries. If the original Little People really possessed paranormal powers, as so many of their contemporaries claimed, those powers would be diluted by the mixed marriages, but not disappear. They would lie latent, surfacing occasionally in succeeding generations, as all talents do. It's a long way from the ancient heaths, and those who wished to maintain the traditions of the Old Religion went through much pain and change through the years. So their descendants, friends and followers, who are the witches of today, may possess some psychic powers, or they may not. They follow a tradition as old as human civilization, but one that underwent many upheavals and transformations. They love and serve the Earth, but are still feared by humanity.
This book attempts to disentangle the mysteries and contradictions, without invading the privacy the witches wish to keep. Their history deserves a thorough and sympathetic examination. Like the members of any other group of people, they should be understood and respected for whom they are and what they stand for, without bigotry and prejudice.
Go to chapter 2: The Dawn of Witchcraft »