TRADITIONAL WITCHCRAFT & RELIGION
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What is Traditional Witchcraft?
Who are you asking? Ask 100 different ‘traditional’ witches and you’ll probably get 98 different answers. But for the sake of this site, most of us choose to ascribe to an answer which is likely to be the most historically correct; that traditional witchcraft is the actual art of magic itself, its accompanying skills (such augury and the preparation of cures and banes) and the practice of traversing the spirit worlds.
The practice of magic can be traced to ancient times. From stone tablets, papyri and fragments of original scrolls that still survive, we know it was practiced by our ancestors in the British Isles, Germany and Sweden; and right across to the east and beyond, including Greece, Bulgaria, Egypt and Mesopotamia - just to name a few. Roman authors and priests included magic formulae in their writings for beneficial workings. Harmful spells were usually illegal, although many accounts of curses and banes can be found in earlier Magical Papyri. Diviners (fortune-tellers, augurers, and astrologers) were actually supported by the Roman and Egyptian states.
It is also likely that the practice of magic existed prior to the invention of the written word, and rock paintings across the globe suggest all sorts of different forms of magic being used to encourage successful hunts and fertility. We just don’t have any existing proof how far back the origins of magic reach. According to Bronislaw Malinowski, a noted anthropologist, “Magic never originated, it was never made or invented”. We interpret that as meaning that magic has always been in the world.
Unless there’s someone who hasn’t yet come out of the broom closet, none of us can trace our magical origins back to the beginning of time. We only know one or two witches who can definitively trace their heritage back several centuries, although we have read of others. Therefore, our practices must originate with something more recent. Recent can be as early as a 16th century ancestor passing down what he or she discovered or as late as someone today thinking, ‘I can do this’ and it works. It can be a centuries-old family tradition, or a ‘tradition of one’.
Witchcraft and Religion – Two Separate Entities
Many of today’s practices (whether it’s admitted or not) are reconstructions of what is believed to have been done in times past. Certainly, magic and religion have crossed paths in history, and the mythology and texts of religions with magical aspects (such as the Eddas and the Mabinogion, the Greek Magical Papyri and the Egyptian magical texts) are available to be read and interpreted. Throughout history, people have combined the use of magic with certain belief systems (e.g., the Saxon Haegtesse, Norse Seidkona) merging the use of magic with a religious belief. Indeed, the gods followed by our pagan ancestors were not only invoked by magicians but were said to have magical abilities themselves. We know that the Norse gods practiced magic, as did the Egyptian, Roman and Greek deities.
But despite this, the art of witchcraft and any sort of religion remain two separate entities. Whilst the coupling of Pagan beliefs together with the practice of witchcraft is very popular nowadays, discussing Pagan beliefs on this forum just isn’t relevant. But why?
Because those practicing the Cunning Craft were NOT always Pagan. Like any craft, it moved with the times and was practiced by those of many different religions - and in fact during history many were Catholic (as are many practitioners of Traditional Craft today!), - and many more with no religion at all. For the non-religious witches, take your pick of kitchen witchery, folk magic, Hoodoo, chaos magic, and a score of other methods of practice. Or don’t pick, but incorporate whatever aspects of one or more interest you.
Christianity, in its efforts to become the ‘big dog religion’ on the planet, killed many magical practitioners whose practices were seen to disobey the principles of Christianity. They forced many to renounce their practice – and many others simply abandoned their ways for fear of retribution. We are probably lucky in that at least some chose to pay lip service to the principles of Christianity and still retained their abilities, albeit in a much more secretive environment.
So no doubt, Cunning Craft DID indeed continue throughout the Inquisition and other times of hardship; but whether PAGAN witchcraft did, is another matter. This is why Cunning Craft could continue throughout history to the modern day – it was conducive with more than one religion, and was treated as a ‘craft’ rather than a ‘belief system’ (especially in such places as Ireland, where we still see today a significant fusion of folk magic and Catholicism).
There are hereditary Craft practitioners who claim they have inherited a certain set of Pagan deities, traditions which survived christianization; and this may be true - but in most cases, it is more likely that the practices themselves were being handed down, not the religion. And because most of us are ‘making it up as we go along’, it is by definition something that suits us on a personal level. Even the truly hereditary witches we know are taught the basics and then modify what they’ve been taught to suit themselves. For some, it is a spiritual practice, others incorporate deities into their work (worship may or may not be a part of that work) and yet others consider it a craft with no more connection to religion or spirituality than woodworking, pottery-making and the like. If it wasn't for this, then it’s possible that Cunning Craft wouldn't have survived.
Why is Wicca not a relevant topic point on this forum?
Well … this is like asking why Catholicism isn’t a relevant topic point on this forum!! Wicca has, for all intents and purposes, become a religion in its own right - and therefore whilst many of its original practices find their origins in Traditional Witchcraft, the discussion of Wicca as a tradition itself is not relevant to the discussion of magic.
For this site’s purpose, Traditional Witchcraft is not Wicca. Although Wicca is now old enough to have been ‘passed down’ and as such could be considered a traditional practice, Wicca is not old - it is a magical system which was brought into conception in Britain in the 1950’s, by Gerald B Gardner. Within Wicca you will find aspects of Italian Witchcraft as defined by Charles Leland in his Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches; elements of British folk magic; Victorian ceremonial magic; the medieval Grimoire Tradition; and even some things we know about the practices of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians.
It is a common misconception that Wicca started off as a religion. In fact it was first designed as a magical/occult practice, and it had surprisingly very little emphasis on religion. However its sense of secrecy coupled with a sudden boom of interest made it susceptible to recycled misinformation and hearsay - and thereby we entered what some like to call the ‘fluffy era’. This new and uninformed interpretation of ‘wicca’ began to be embraced by the new age movement and left wing feminism, and thereafter, Wicca became more of a religion than it had ever been before - as well as picking up a rather unfortunate unlearned reputation.
Other than the few practitioners who continue to follow Wicca as the occult practice that it was intended to be, it is hard today to differentiate between the magical practices of Wicca and the spirituality of those who follow the path. In fact many who continued to follow the original intentions of Wicca have abandoned the term all together, as the word ‘Wicca’ means something entirely different than it did when it was first conceived.
Witchcraft and religion are two separate entities, and this site is for the study of the art itself. As you enjoy this site, please be aware and respectful of the wide variety of magical practices you will encounter.
Whilst we appreciate that sometimes it is hard to discuss a certain magical topic without discussing a religious or spiritual aspect, a good majority of the members here do not consider magic a religious practice; therefore religion is not a relevant topic point on this forum. If a religious aspect must be discussed (for instance, a certain magical operation mentions a deity name, or is practiced at a particular religious festival) then please be thoughtful as to how you word the post, so that it can be appreciated by all.
We quote Julio Caro Baroja from his The World of the Witches, “… in general, magic is connected with man’s desire and will, and religion with feelings of respect, gratefulness and submission” (his emphasis). Therefore, if you are of a religious nature, it should stay separate from your participation on this site.