History of Witchcraft
Historically, the name Witchcraft has been used to refer to two
unrelated and often mutually exclusive religions:
The roots of this confusion can be traced back to Europe during the Witch
burning times of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Wiccans were
accused of worshipping Satan and selling their soul to him. This false
belief continues today, and is still being actively promoted by some
- Wicca, the revival of a pre-Christian religion of Northern Europe,
- Satanism, the worship of the Christian devil, Satan.
This paper will deal with the religion of Wicca only. It is
unrelated to Satanism. There have been many
references in the books, media, etc which attempt
to differentiate between the two very different religions.
Wicca, is a reconstruction of an ancient Pagan religion of Northern Europe
which pre-dates the Christian era. It can be directly traced back to the
- Margaret Murray who authored The Witch Cult in Western
Europe and The God of the Witches. These books promoted the
concept that some of the Witches who were exterminated by the Christian
Churches during the "Burning Times" (circa 1450-1792) were remnants of an
earlier, organized, and dominant pre-Christian religion in Europe.
- Gerald Gardner, a British civil servant, who:
- joined a Wiccan Coven in 1939, taking the (then) usual vows of secrecy
- persuaded the coven to let him write a book in 1949 about Wicca in the
form of a novel, High Magic's Aid. He carefully revealed a few of the
Old Religion's beliefs and the historical persecutions that they
- wrote Witchcraft Today in 1954 in which he described additional
details about the faith
- wrote The Meaning of Witchcraft which described in detail the
history of Wicca in Northern Europe.
According to Gardner, Wicca:
- began in prehistory, as ritual associated with fire, the hunt,
animal fertility, plant propagation, tribal fertility and the curing of
- developed into a religion which recognized a Supreme Deity, but realized that
at their state of evolution, they "were incapable of understanding It"
. Instead, they worshipped what might be termed "under-Gods: the
Goddess of fertility and her horned consort, the God of the hunt.
- continued their predominately Moon based worship, even as a mainly
Sun-based faith of priests, the Druids, developed and evolved
into the dominant religion of the Celts. By this time, Celtic society had
gradually spread across Northern Europe into what is now England, France,
Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Scotland etc. They never formed a single
political entity, but remained as many tribes who shared a common culture
- survived the Roman, Saxon, and Norman invasions by going underground
- suffered major loss in numbers during the active Christian genocides,
which continued into the 18th Century
- reached a low ebb by the middle of the 20th century. Much of the
theology and ritual had been lost; Wiccan covens had become so isolated that
they had lost contact with each other.
Relationship between Witchcraft and Christianity
The first missionary to the Celts was probably St. Paul. His conversion of
the Celtic land of Galatia is recorded in his Epistle to the Galatians of
the Christian Scriptures (New Testament). Later Missionaries and the Roman
army gradually spread Christianity across Europe, easily converting the
rulers and the Druidic priesthood, but having less success in bringing the
common folk to the new religion.
Much of Christianity was derived from Wicca, Druidism and other Pagan
sources; this includes the sites of many cathedrals, the lives of many
Christian saints (who were really pagan Goddesses and Gods), and many
Christian holy days. There are many vestiges of Paganism which remain a part
of our culture; e.g. Groundhog Day, Christmas, May Day, Halloween, the
names of the days of the weeks and months of the year, common sayings,
numerous traditions associated with holidays, etc.
In order to gain a complete religious monopoly, the Christian Church decided during
the 15th century to hunt down and burn believers in the Old Religion.
The Church created an imaginary wicked religion, and said that Wiccans were
evil Witches who followed that religion, sold their sold to Satan, etc.
Hundreds of thousands of suspected witches were exterminated during
these "burning times" which lasted until 1792 in Europe and into the 1830's
in South America. The Roman Catholic church burned witches; the Protestant
churches hung them. Wiccans went underground, and stayed out of sight until
the middle of the 20th century.
Wicca emerged from the shadows in England in the 1950's with the publishing
of books by Gerald Gardner. It has expanded at a furious rate in North
America and Europe. They total about 200,000 in North America, where they
have overtaken such established religions as Buddhism, the Quakers, and
Unitarian-Universalism. The Canadian Census of 1991 recorded 5,530
Neo-Pagans, which would be mostly composed of Wiccans. However, the actual
number is believed to be much greater, as many Wiccans are known to lie to
the census taker rather than expose themselves to physical harm in the event
that their faith became publicly known.
Wicca is the only religious group of significant size whose members are
persecuted in North America. Many Assaults, arson, economic attacks are
reported yearly. There have even been shootings and one public stoning!
The perpetrators of this religious hatred are usually very devout, very
concerned but terribly misinformed people. They believe the misinformation
that has been spread about Wiccans continuously since the Middle Ages. It
is only in Eastern Massachusetts, Southern California and in a few cities
in North America that most Wiccans feel secure while coming out of the
Their beliefs include:
- Wiccan Deities: Most Wiccans believe that a creative force
exists in the universe, which is sometimes called "The One" or "
The All". Little can be known of this force. They regard the
Goddess and the God as representing the female and male aspects
of the All. Most regard various pagan Gods and Goddesses (Pan, Athena,
Diana, Brigit, Zeus, Odin, etc) as representing various aspects of the God
- Respect for Nature: Wicca is a natural religion, grounded in the
earth. All living things (including stars, planets, humans, animals, plants,
rocks) are regarded as having spirit.
- Gender Equality: Wiccans celebrate the sexual polarity of nature:
the fertilizing rain is one manifestation of the male principle; the
nurturing earth symbolizes the female. Females are respected as equal
(and sometimes at a slightly higher rank) to males. They aim for a
female-male balance in most of their covens (groups), although men
are typically in the minority. Sexuality is valued, and regarded as a gift
of the Goddess and God, to be engaged in with joy and responsibility.
- Three-fold Law The law states that:
All good that a person does returns three fold
in this life; harm is also returned three fold.
- The Wiccan Rede: This is the main rule of behaviour:
An' it harm none, do what thou wilt
This means that a person should feel free to do what ever they want to, as
long as it does not harm themselves or anyone else. This and the three-fold
law obviously prevent a Witch/Wiccan from doing harm to themselves or to
others, or attempting to manipulate others, or taking illegal drugs, etc.
Their practices include:
- Organizational Structure:Wicca is one denomination (the largest)
within Neo-paganism. Other Neo-pagan groups include individuals and
groups who are reconstructing Druidic, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and other
ancient religious traditions.
Many, perhaps most, Witches are solitary practitioners; they
perform their rites alone. Others form covens which are informal groups
of Wiccans. There is no hierarchy beyond the coven; no provincial or
national organization. Those covens which have a High Priestess and/or
Priest elect one of themselves to that office.
- Rituals: Wiccans try to meet out of doors where possible. North
American climate and concern for personal safety usually forces them indoors.
They gather in a circle, which is often 9 feet in diameter. Candles on the
circumference are oriented to the four cardinal directions. An altar is at
the centre or at the northern candle. Rites begin with a casting of the
circle, in which the circle is outlined and purified, and the candles lit.
A space is thus created within the circle; this is sometimes visualized as a
sphere, or as a cylinder or cone. The purpose of this space is to confine
healing energy until it is released.
The central portion of each meeting may celebrate the full moon,
a new moon, a Sabbat or a special Wiccan ceremony. It might include
healing, divination (scrying, Tarot cards, Runes, etc), teaching,
consecration of tools, discussion, or other life-affirming, nature based
activities. After the major work is completed, food (perhaps cakes and
wine) is eaten, and the circle is banished. Because of the increasing
concern over addictions to alcohol and other drugs, many covens have
replaced wine with juice, water etc.
- Wiccan Sabbats: (Seasonal days of Celebration) There are eight
Wiccan Sabbats, spaced about 45 days apart during the year. Four of these
are minor Sabbats: the two equinoxes of March 21 and September
21st when the daytime and nighttime are each 12 hours long. The Saxons
added the two solstices of December 21, (the longest night of the year)
and June 21 (the shortest night of the year). Actually, the exact date of
these Sabbats vary from year to year and may occur from the 20th to
23rd of the month. The major Sabbats are also four in number. They
occur roughly between the minor Sabbats, typically at the end of a month.
Different Wiccan traditions assign various names and dates to these
festivals. Perhaps the most common names are Celtic: Samhain
(Oct. 31), Imbolc (Feb. 2), Beltane (May 1), and
Lammas (Aug. 1). Dates are approximate. Their origins are believed
to be related to hunting, farming, and animal fertility.
- Rites of passage: These include:
- Dedication, where a person confirms an interest in the craft,
- Initiation, when a person symbolically dies and is reborn as a Wiccan;
a new name is adopted
- Handfasting, which was originally a marriage for a one year period. Most
Wiccans now regard it as creating a permanent partnership
- Parting of the Ways, which recognizes the end of a marriage
- Wiccaning, which welcomes a baby into the craft, but does not
obligate the child in any way
- Funeral Ceremony, for a Wiccan who has died
- Wiccan tools: Hardware which are used to perform Witchcraft rites
often look like common household items. The following are typical:
- Athame (double sided ritual knife) used for many purposes, but never
- A bowl of salt representing the element earth
- Incense representing the element air
- Two candles representing the Goddess and God
- A bowl of water representing the element water
- A bell which is rung to delineate sections of the rite
- A wand to cast the circle
- A goblet and perhaps a libation bowl to hold a drink
- A circle, typically 9 feet in diameter, formed from a rope or row of
small rocks, markings on the ground or floor, etc
- Four candles just outside the circle, at the four cardinal directions
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