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Witchcraft before it was frowned upon


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I’m way out of my element here so please feel free to put me in my place!


I’m having difficulty finding books/information on habits, behaviors, rituals before the general illegalization of witchcraft. So much information is surrounding 16th century and after and I wondered if anyone has found good reads on witchcraft in the dark ages (I’m guessing it wasn’t even called that). I’ve done some reading on paganism but so much of it is about migration and warfare that it’s hard to sift through to find anything about daily life regarding beliefs and behaviors. I understand that it’s called “dark ages” for a reason but I assume there has so be more known than I’m aware of and I’m just having trouble locating it?


Many thanks.

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This is quite the topic so I'll try and answer the best that I can, and from my own perspective on things. What we call 'Witchcraft' is a body of practices, I would equate it to the anthropological use of the term 'Shamanism' as a way of codifying a particular set of ritualistic behaviours. Identifying the witch is always a task, as these practices were often insular, familial, or culturally based - in this respect Witchcraft was defined by the 'outsider looking in'. I wont go into too much detail regarding this facet as that would be a topic all on its own, but what I can say is, knowing this, we have to read between the lines a lot. When we understand the context for which specific practices have their bases, it is easier to see how these practices were engaged and evolved through time: context is everything, and context is a product of experience. As nature abhors a vacuum, we can likewise say the same thing about culture and tradition (regardless as to how 'pure' a tradition is - evolution is what has kept it going). 

Take for example, the Merseburg Charms - both were written in the Germanic 9th and 10th century, but they bear ancestry with earlier traditions and practices, specifically the second Merseburg charm:

"Phol and Wodan were riding to the woods,
and the foot of Balder's foal was sprained
So Sinthgunt, Sunna's sister, conjured it.
and Frija, Volla's sister, conjured it.
and Wodan conjured it, as well he could:

Like bone-sprain, so blood-sprain,
so joint-sprain:
Bone to bone, blood to blood,
joints to joints, so may they be mended"

Now, if we look at a charm recorded in the Atharva-Veda, written some time between 2000 - 1001 BC we find some similarities;

"Rohan! art thou, causing to heal (rohanî), the broken bone thou causest to heal (rohanî): cause this here to heal (rohaya), O arundhatî!
That bone of thine which, injured and burst, exists in thy person, Dhâtar shall kindly knit together again, joint with joint!
Thy marrow shall unite with marrow, and thy joint (unite) with joint; the part of thy flesh that has fallen off, and thy bone shall grow together again!
Thy marrow shall be joined together with marrow, thy skin grow together with skin! Thy blood, thy bone shall grow, thy flesh grow together with flesh!
Fit together hair with hair, and fit together skin with skin! Thy blood, thy bone shall grow: what is cut join thou together, O plant!"

And later in the Shetlands sometime in the 18th or 19th century:

"The Lord rade and the foal slade;
he lighted and he righted,
set joint to joint,
bone to bone,
and sinew to sinew
Heal in the Holy Ghost's name!" 

What these charms present, is rather a continuation of ritual practices through engagement, irrespective of outward religious modalities - it is neither pagan, nor christian but rather what is familiar. 

The Anglo-Saxon Penitentials written between the 7th and 11th Century are a rather interesting set of texts governing the private confessions and penance of early medieval England. As church doctrine holds witchcraft, and various practices associated with witchcraft, as sins the Penitentials humorously enough preserved portions of witchcraft belief in Anglo-Saxon England. For example, in the Canons of Theodore 152b it states that, "Whoever burns corn for the health of the living where dead men are buried is to fast for 7 years." This passage presents several things to consider, the first being that this was a genuine practice having an established history of usage and secondly, we may infer that this practice has its roots in earlier traditions considering its correlation to recorded Northern European practices of a similar nature. On the significance of such practices within the Anglo-Saxon worldview (I word I loathe to use) we can cite the relationship between burial mounds and parish boundaries as delineating an ideological connection between cultural identity and ancestral bonds. Such practices are best surmised by what Julian Goodare would define as 'Cultic' in that participants would 'share in a body of traditional knowledge and experience' - a craft! 

These are just a few examples, but again, when looking for the Witch, especially in pre-Christian or the early Medieval period, we need to look at what is unspoken. And again, I can only speak about the traditions I know, so this may be a bit specific and not applicable to others, but my suggestion would be to look towards things such as agricultural and calendar customs, charms and charming traditions (especially ones during the conversion period), and cultural identity. 


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An interesting read, those were the days when one knew to Keep Silent. I think most of the Wisdom of those ages are contained in Folklore and Fairy tales. Especially Scottish Folk Lore was handed down through stories, not written.

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Perhaps it's worth noting that one of the oldest deciphered texts in the world, the Code of Hammurabi, specifically prohibits sorcery*.  It is a Babylonian law code etched in Akkadian cuneiform. Mostly the law codes cover civil property disputes and marriage law, so it is largely uninteresting from an occult standpoint...however, it specifically prohibits sorcery. It seems that witchcraft has been frowned upon by various civilizations during all of known history, but obviously this is going to vary from culture to culture.  Maybe civilization as we know it is at odds with witchcraft.   In order to clearly see the entire issue, i find it's better to look beyond the small scope of what medieval European history can offer.  Under the medieval church, witchcraft was certainly persecuted...but so were traditional European beliefs in general. It spills over into the Northern Crusades and even the Spanish conquest of the New World.  The Christian armies were eradicating belief systems in the name of their god, not necessarily persecuting individuals as witches.  Finding the witch is someone else's job, and serves a different purpose than mass religious conversion.


*I am likely to use the words "sorcery" and "witchcraft" interchangeably, many others do not...and in the case of the Code of Hammurabi...the translation to a single English word from a language that hasn't been spoken in thousands of years it probably shouldn't matter

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It is of interest that we expand our scope beyond traditional European beliefs, and thank you for mentioning the Code of Hammurabi. I however disagree a bit with your last statement Caps, in that I do think the translation is rather important as this helps contextualize a cultural understanding of the aforementioned (I'll get to that in a moment). Speaking of the Mesopotamian's, the Maqlu texts written in the first millennium BC are a series of tablets which outline rather complex 'Anti-Witchcraft' rituals, the performer of the rite is identified as an asipu, meaning exorcist or rather a practitioner of what may be called legitimate magic (priestly). The rite begins first with a petition to the Gods to attend and secondly whereby the performer identifies the Witch as the cause of the illness at hand. Lastly the opening of the ritual petitions the Gods to act as divine judges and to grant a decision; "Stand by me Great Gods and give heed to my suit, Judge my case and grant me an (oracular) decision". What is interesting about this is rather that the word for Witch (Kassaptu) is both legally and morally neutral, it is not an indictment, rather it sets the course for the reason why the Gods should intercede upon his behalf. Here, the Witch is positioned as a worker of malefica, directly opposing his work as the undoer of her spells. This rather creates a dichotomy between the two, when in fact both are notable for the same magics, rather one is seen as legitimate and acceptable (the exorcist) and the other is its antithesis (the 'Witch'). We see this later when the icon of the Witch begins to shift towards a demonic re-imagining, the 'enemy' of the exorcist, and again in the polarization between the European Cunning Man and the Witch - both could harm or heal, both could divine the future and were attended by 'familiar spirits' but whereas the cunning man was an accepted (albeit cautiously) member of society the witch was shunned.

When asking my old mentor what the difference was between a Cunning Man and Witch she answered me thus: the word. The meaning of a word lies in its usage as she would say, and in applying this to the 'Witch' we can see that, were we looking at things from her perspective the exact same formula would apply only reversed. Hence my statement that the Witch is defined by the outside looking in. Shifting semantics aside, how sorcery is defined in the Maqlu texts is entirely dependent on what it opposes, this context of application determines whether something fit within the legal (justifiable) or illegal (maleficent) whereas the act itself was entirely neutral. 


Edited by Volundr
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  • 3 weeks later...

I imagine that part of the issue here is that in most cultures a one time what we would now consider magical practices were such a normal part of life, it would not have been separated out for discussion. Before the practices were demonized, and marginalized as superstitions and heathen behavior - it was simply what you do. As common place as making a meal or doing the wash. 

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