'Which craft is Witchcraft' was written specifically for this blog, by a close friend of mine, and looks at the use and potential miss use of the idea that 'traditional witchcraft' must have a genuine lineage to be considered genuine. The article also examines the relationship between 'witchcraft' and 'folk magic'; asking whether or not they are actually the same thing.
Enjoy and feel free to comment at the end.
Which Craft is Witchcraft?
A Short Introduction to English Folk Magic in Myth and Tradition
So, what exactly is witchcraft? Witchcraft, at its most basic, is folk magic, and although folk magic and witchcraft are a worldwide phenomenon, English folk magic displays its own idiosyncrasies that specifically characterise it. Folk magic is not, and never has been a religion, although this in no way infers that it is does not require a spiritual awareness, for that is close to its heart. Witchcraft has always existed and always will, all be it in a state of constant flux and continuous evolution. Such evolution has seen many changes in the way that it is conceived and practiced. It is no longer the sole preserve of a tribal member existing on the edge of society, and since the final repeal of the witchcraft act in 1951, the witch sought to become absorbed into mainstream society, or so it would seem.
Gerald Gardner’s Wicca, the first publically acceptable face of witchcraft had burst into the media unashamed in 1954 with the publication of Witchcraft Today. Although the measure of the laws against witchcraft had mellowed over time, it had been an offense since Anglo-Saxon times, meaning that Gardner’s first revelations of the Craft had tentatively appeared in 1949 in fictional guise. As an added precaution, that novel- High Magic’s Aid bore his witch-name ‘Scire’ as the only clue to its authorship.
Under Gardner witchcraft became a religion with a new set of rules, backed by Gardner’s astonishing claims that he was the member of an English coven of unbroken oral tradition dating from pre Christian days. Sadly, the origins of Gardner’s rituals didn’t even extend back a hundred years, betraying clear influences from a number of sources including the works of Robert Graves and Aleister Crowley. Although English Wicca incorporates aspects of English folk magic within it, Gardner’s basis is found amongst a variety of other traditions such as the C.G Leland’s Aradia, a small publication that appeared at the close of the 19th century detailing Italian witch rites that he saw as ultimately drawn from the religious and magical practices of the ancient Etruscans. This is not to say that Wicca and folk magic are worlds apart, as both exhibit similar methodologies in terms of magical working, but Wicca is a new pagan religion rather than a revitalisation of what is often termed “the old ways” from an English perspective.
It is no surprise that Gardner’s claims attracted a counterblast from those aligned to what are referred to as more traditional witch practices, all claiming to be based on other traditions, and more often than not, even more arcane lineages, but do they have any real substance? The evidence for such is scant, and in most cases seriously lacking. For example, the story of Alex Sanders, Gardner’s biggest rival, contains a number of inconsistencies, most notably the two widely differing accounts of his own witch initiation. Sanders had largely tried to put a little more of the folk magic back into Wicca, but had retained much of Gardner’s basic religious structure and penchant for dubious history.
Others claimed a still more ‘traditional craft’ as it is now widely known. For instance, Robert Cochrane’s Clan of Tubal Cain, or 1724 tradition as it is often referred to, has been revealed as a similar hotchpotch of borrowed goods to that of Gardner, with its date of inauguration seemingly a fallacy if the evidence revealed by Doreen Valiente is to be believed, and certain elements are difficult to refute. Her Rebirth of Witchcraft also highlights many other questionable aspects of its claimed lineage.
Regardless of the validity of claim or counter claim, of which the real truth may never be known, there is a clear pattern emerging here; one of a disparate need to outdo each-other in terms of their specific archaic origins and unbroken working lineage, with the emphasis on the latter. Whereas English witchcraft itself may predate all of these spurious claims, it bears little relation to their formal structure and religious observations. It was, and still is, in its purest form, largely a solitary pursuit, and where any direct conference of powers from one person to another is concerned, this has been shown to have been relatively short lived, spanning no more than a few generations. Similarly, whereas these solitary witches probably had contact with each other on occasion, the formalised covine structure underpinning these traditions is derived from Dr Margaret Murray’s now largely discredited ideas first put forward in the early 20th century.
So, the conundrum remains, just what is real witchcraft and is it still accesible as such today? The answer is yes, although it is not that simple. As already stated, true witchcraft is folk magic, and as such, is constantly evolving. Its only element that survives in terms of any long standing continuity is the land itself, the source of its power. It is the only verifiable point of connection to the magic of the past in this context, and one that can still provide the witch with all that is required to interact with it on both spiritual and practical levels.
With regard to the former, this can be achieved by ritual interaction with its places of power; its woods, wells and fields, its rivers, coves and seas, its places of the ancestral dead, all those sites that have been sacred through the ages. These are the only verifiable lineage of folk magic, and it requires nothing more to continually exist. Such sites also provide the witch with the practical elements essential to the arte, as well as teaching its ways to those willing to listen to its genius loci, their spiritual personifications.
Such an approach seems lost to many modern pagans in their desire for arcane knowledge, preferring to put their trust in dubious traditions. This is not to say that Gardner’s Wicca and other modern pagan traditions are devoid of any merit, but they are not witchcraft in its purest sense, and often clouded by emphasis on an ancient continuity of physical lineage which does not exist.
To some degree, there are modern pagans who have attempted to revitalize witchcraft as folk magic in a purer sense. Those of particular note that rose to some prominence include the late Andrew Chumbley, who incorporated aspects of traditional East Anglian folk magic within his own diverse praxis. The connection to the land is one also understood by Peter Grey and Alkistis Dimech of publishers Scarlet Imprint. Having found the modern pagan traditions wanting in the sense of their comparitive safety and compromise, they have all sought to return the figure of the witch to one who resides outside the confines of modern society. Redefined as such, their respective witchcraft may not be to everyone’s taste, but undeniably connects to its folk magic roots with no overt emphasis on claims of dubious lineage, merely concentrating on its own existence and practice.
There are also practitioners and writers such as Michael Howard and Nigel Pennick who have chronicled many facets of traditional English folk magic, the latter having particularly championed its Scandinavian ancestry. There is no doubt that European, and in particular Scandinavian folk witchcraft, with its inclusion of both Christian and pagan elements, does parallel English folk magic in terms of its method and practical application as part of its natural evolution. Such acknowledgement and inclusion of Christian elements in English folk magic are an alien concept to many neo-pagans, but it is now a valid part of the whole nevertheless.
Such breathing of new life into tradition is not confined to Essex and East Anglia, just one such example being the renewal of the Pellar path of Cornish witchcraft recently popularised by Gemma Gary. Within her work we find no pretension of arcane lineage, but a clear mandate to follow long standing folk tradition augmented by personal communion and practice. As such, it represents a valuable insight into a rural tradition that has seen little change over the past couple of centuries, and is founded on that vital connection to the land itself. Acknowledging both Christian and pagan elements, it clearly parallels the Cornish folk magic of the 19th century according to both oral and written tradition. This fusion is also shown through the practices of the cunning folk, particularly here in East Anglia. These show similar methods of working that can be dated through written record to the 19th century, with some accounts dating to the 18th century. The rise of this dual observance for this new kind of witch only came to prominence in the 16th century. As an antidote to malevolent witchcraft, the cunning folk specialised in removing curses and other magical afflictions. That is not to say that they could not effectively curse if they wished, and in some cases, probably did. The moral stance of the true folk-Witch has traditionally been one of ambivalence, cursing and curing as they saw fit or were employed to do, each according to their own conscience. Some continuity of this position may be found amongst the chovihani or ‘gypsy witches’, who have always practiced both ‘black’ and ‘white’ magic, woefully inadequate as those terms may be.
Having potentially muddied the murky waters of Craft tradition as much as having provided answers, an annotated reading list of books is in preparation for posting which will hopefully serve as a primer to further research. Whereas they will undoubtedly clarify some of the issues already raised, the lack of verifiable witch tradition is scant amongst their pages, and it is left up to the reader to distinguish truth from half truth or outright lie. The land itself remains the only verifiable constant, and its many secrets are not revealed easily!
Author 'The Fork in the Road'