“Can you tell me how to grow, or is it unconveyed, like Melody or Witchcraft?” (from an Emily Dickinson letter to Wentworth Higginson)
A lovely lady recently asked me what were the best books available on magic and witchcraft, specifically witch/which books taught the craft and held the keys? My immediate response was there are none, though if you have mad powers of detection, you could find clues and veiled truths in fiction and non-fiction books that touch on or delve into the subject. Books like Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick; Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance and Rowling’s Harry Potter books; Hoffman’s Practical Magic; Dr. Murry’s God of the Witches, and Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon; Scot’s The Discovery of Witchcraft (grimoire) and Professor Harkness’s’ A Discovery of Witches trilogy; Michael Scott’s five book set on the immortal Nicholas Flamel; Ann Rice’ The Witching Hour; Baum’s Oz books; Brackston’s The Witches Daughter; and Judika Illes and other encyclopedic books on the craft…
Similarly, witches can tell a seeker about moon phases; glamoury; scrying and trancing; working with crystals, elements, and seasons; and healing and cursing. But they can’t show a seeker just how a keen awareness of patterns…weather, behavior, shadows…enables a witch to draw or exchange energy and harmoniously use vibrations to re-animate, to protect and shield, to achieve maximum conjuring results. As Dickinson intuits, the becoming, the enchantment is an un-conveyable art. It’s akin to asking a Zen Master how do you get to enlightenment?
This sparked many other questions, such as if witches are best described as workers of (natural) magic, where and how does a witch learn/know how to tap into magic? If it’s an uncoveyable ability or state of being, some would argue it must be instinctual or hereditary. There’s a ring of truth there, however, it’s more complicated because magic relies on the same qualities other crafts require—an indomitable will and focus, discipline and daring, an understanding of the natural world and power manipulation, and the intelligence to know when to remain silent—when to reveal. None of these craft qualities can be taken casually or literally. A witch mage can help a seeker sort through the forest of words, feelings, meanings. Our esoteric discussion was cut short, so I continue it here for my friend and for those that seek a way into a craft fraught with secrets, misdirection and deceit, new age platitudes, and more names than the Potentate of Pomposity.
I’ve found the word witch deceptive since I could pronounce it and its many derivations—hexen, cunning folk, crone, Strega, bruja, and hag. It’s as misunderstood as the words Druid, Shaman, Mother, and Daimon. It’s a guess, a slur, a question, a catch all, a popular guise assumed at end of October. Witchery captures so many cultural biases, political inclinations, sexual innuendoes, & mystic personas—stuff just beyond the average reach. To study ‘witch’ lore is to study how women have been perceived, abused, empowered, venerated, and persecuted and pummeled over many millenniums. To use the word to describe someone you know or read about often requires guesswork, making assumptions, and reading between the lines. Lisa Lister, in Witch, writes about the changing meaning of the word, and Adler, in Drawing Down the Moon also provides worthy analyses of the word.
Witches haven’t often been depicted kindly or honestly, exceptions being Miriam Simos (Starhawk); Gillian (Bell, Book, Candle); Samantha (Bewitched); OZ’s Glinda; Hallmark’s Cassie Nightingale… Legendary witches that were not to be messed with include Circe, Hekate, Morgana, the Weird Sisters, Baba Yaga, Mother Shipton, Alice Kyteler, Marie Laveau, Dion Fortune, George Pickingill, and the Charmed Ones. 20th century witches that came out of the broom closet include Gerald Gardner, the Frosts, Raymond Buckland, the Crowthers, Maxine Glass, Laurie Cabot, Sybil Leek, Zsuzsanna Budapest, and Vivian Crowley. As shapeshifters, witches have passed among average persons undetected. Many shrewd witches avoided death at the hand of witchfinders and church inquisitors. Others, like Agnes Sampson, Catherine Monvoisin, Joan of Arc, Maret Jonsdotter, and the Salem 19 weren’t so fortunate. In 21st century America, certain politicians declare they are being ‘witch hunted,’ and in some middle-east, African, Indian, and South American countries, you can be jailed and killed (burning, beheading, stoning…) if declared a witch. Murders of alleged witches, according to human rights agencies and United Nations researchers (NY Times, 2014 article) number in the thousands. Persecution and intimidation of witches’ numbers in the millions.
Mages, people able to influence another person or their property and possessions for good/wicked purposes can be traced back to ancient Egypt, Sumer, and Babylonia. The Norse realized the Norns, cunning wise women (aka witches) residing in Yggdrasil, the magical tree of life, were more powerful than the gods. The Greek equivalent was the Moirai, spinners of the threads of life. Witches were called demons, daimons, and spawns of Hades. Zeus’ relationship with Hekate (she who works her will), Demeter (earth mother), Circe (means ‘bird;’ she was Hekate’s daughter), Medea (means cunning; priestess of Hekate), and other deities and humans labeled witches was adversarial. Myths say these goddesses revealed the divinity and sovereignty of a woman’s body, their right to own property, love freely, wield power, and hone abilities. Hekate may have been one of the few Titans to escape Zeus and his siblings’ machinations and imprisonment.
It was the church that gave governments the authority to hunt and kill suspected independent (mostly female) witches to ensure they didn’t use their power to effect change. Since recorded time, kings have relied on cunning folk, witches, and wizards to see into the future, to help them destroy enemies, and ensure sexual prowess and fertility. These same kings thought nothing of killing a witch after their end was achieved. There are also stories in many cultures of kings being tied to the land; to ensure fecundity, the blood of an aging king was demanded—another reason to loath witchery. Wiccans (especially) use the term ‘blessed be.’ Its word origins hail back to blood sacrifices once made, hmmm. Though there were brief revivals, the craft of witch went underground and adepts that once led magical hunts became the hunted, the rebels, the person whispered of on moonless nights. Witchcraft and rebellion seems to go together like whisky and dark chocolate.
Certainly, witchery is not to be taken lightly or for the faint of heart. Witches, druids, shamans, daimons…are all carriers of hidden and lost wisdom and ways of evoking slumbering magic. It’s an enormous responsibility. While there have been and are numerous groups that claim to know the origins of witchcraft and its laws and rules, the few that actually do know never tell an uninitiated person. Pagan groups and covens with rules and redes get so much wrong by assuming what they read or heard is correct; they attempt to curtail something beyond their imagination. As the wildly perceptive, esoterically adept writer Tom Robbins said in Jitterbug Perfume, “the universe doesn’t have laws; it has habits;” the same can be said for witchery. He added, “habits can be broken.” That’s the beauty and terrible truth of nearly any craft.
I’ve traveled the world, visiting old haunts and dwelling places once strong with natural magic and witchy ways—tapping into currents of sorrow, violence, and persecution. Shakespeare called them weird sisters; L F Baum gave them mastery of North, South, East, & West; and Medea, Circe, Morgana, Mary Poppins & Hecate revealed to us a cornucopia of additional abilities. To the Gaelic, she is Cailleach (hag of winter); her name in the Netherlands is a Heks or kol; in Italy, Strega; and in Germany Hexe. The witch of Endor became Eudora on Bewitched, and many assumed the last names of the Salem 19 denoted hereditary witch bloodlines. An early record is found in a bible created in 931-721 BCE, 1 Samuel. It describes King Saul seeking the Witch of Endor to summon the dead prophet Samuel’s spirit to help him defeat the Philistine army. The witch roused Samuel, who prophesied the death of Saul and his sons. The next day, Saul’s sons died in battle, and Saul committed suicide. Be careful what you ask for.
Reputable polls* claim about 20% of Americans (2015) believe (or admit to believing) in witches, evil, ghosts, demons, and things that go bump in the night. I suspect the number is actually higher. The catch phrase of the X-Files was “I want to believe.” Similarly, when end of year holidays roll around, a majority of people think it’s “a magical time of the year;” they say there’s magic in the air, in a child’s eyes, in grinchy hearts that grow 10 times their size. Witches are attuned to magic every day of the year, every turning of the wheel. Despite still being threatened and murdered; called dark mother, toothless crone, and spawn of satan; witches still seek each other out, congregate in sacred spaces—alone or in groups—and work magic, protect, destroy, change, revive, and celebrate life.
On Beltane eve, one of the many moments of heightened awareness of magic within our 365+ day spiraling cycle, which/witch resides next to and within our known world, soul, and bodily form—the universe advertises its bounties, its unfathomable power, its kindred relationship with mortals. In collaboration with the divine women Zeus could not control nor contain, the universe invites you to celebrate your body, mind, and soul sovereignty and become an initiate. Step lively and barefoot round the maypole, inhale, rekindle the flame that resides in your heart and sparks your mind, and be bathed by waters that flows within you. (end Part 1…)
Note: In my book in progress, Perdura, the Last of Her, I join the writers mentioned in the first paragraph, and provide many clues and a few unveiled truths about the craft I’ve loved all my life.
- NY Times, 2014 and 2017; Washington Post, 2015; US News and World Reports, 2016…
Historic Notes: Pre BCE Hammurabi Code responsible for dunking witches to see if they were guilty or innocent. The Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis promulgated by Lucius Cornelius Sulla in 81 BC became an important source of late medieval and early modern European law on witchcraft. The Council of Frankfurt (794) called by Charlemagne, was explicit in condemning “the persecution of alleged witches and wizards”, calling the belief in witchcraft “superstitious”, and ordering the death penalty for those who presumed to burn witches. Inquisitions were commissioned to deal with Cathars of S France, whose teachings were alleged to contain mixtures of witchcraft and magic. It was proposed the witch-hunt developed in Europe from early 14thc, post Cathars & Templar Knights suppression, this hypothesis rejected by two historians (Cohn & Kieckhefer 1970s).
In 1258, Pope Alexander IV declared alleged witchcraft was not to be investigated by church. Pope John XXII authorized Inquisition to prosecute sorcerers in 1320, inquisitorial courts had rarely dealt with witchcraft. As Renaissance occultism gained traction among educated, belief in witchcraft, part of folk religion of rural population, was incorporated into theology of Dark lords…
In 1487, Kramer published notorious Malleus Maleficarum (lit., ‘Hammer against Evildoers’) which, because of newly invented printing presses, enjoyed a wide readership. The book was banned, and Kramer was censured, but it was reprinted in 14 editions by 1520 and became unduly influential in secular courts. In 1538, the Spanish Inquisition cautioned its members not to believe what the Malleus said. By 15thc, witch trials were rampant. Witch trials in Europe came in waves and then subsided. The witch scare went into decline, peaking in 17th c.
Hunts were seen across early modern Europe, but the most significant area of witch-hunting in modern Europe is often considered to be central and southern Germany. Germany was a late starter in terms of the numbers of trials, compared to other regions of Europe. Witch-hunts first appeared in large numbers in southern France and Switzerland during the 14th and 15th centuries. The peak years of witch-hunts in southwest Germany were from 1561 to 1670. First major persecution in Europe, when witches were caught, tried, convicted, and burned in the imperial lordship of Wiesensteig in southwestern Germany, is recorded in 1563 in a pamphlet called “True and Horrifying Deeds of 63 Witches.” Witchcraft persecution spread to all areas of Europe, including Scotland and the northernmost periphery of Europe in northern Norway. Learned European ideas about witchcraft, demonological ideas, strongly influenced the hunt of witches in North.