- By Gede Parma Akheron (c) 2012
To some the term ‘Witch’ or ‘Witchcraft’ refers broadly to any application of operational magic or sorcery for any particular end; others may articulate this, and certainly past and present English dictionaries have done so (e.g. the Oxford dictionary), as magic which is designed and intended for malevolence and destructive purposes. In this way, sociologically and anthropologically speaking Witchcraft can be seen to be evident in almost any world culture. Often an individual deemed to be a Witch is seen to be anti-social, living physically on the edge or away from the community and seen to be committing crimes against that community to intimidate, impose or irritate, and of course far worse as well. However, in the modern to post-modern ages of Western society the word Witch began to be applied in very divergent ways from the standard definitions. Witchcraft became connected to an oppressed and persecuted ancient Pagan priest/esshood as early as the French writer and historian Jules Michelet (La Sorcière, 1862). In the early 1900s a similar theory was propounded by the late renowned Egyptologist Margaret Alice Murray (d. 1963), though she went as far as to suggest that the Witches trialled and persecuted during the now infamous ‘Burning Times’ belonged to the remnants of an organised Pagan faith which she identified as the Dianic Cult, though the Witches, she explained, were more inclined in later periods to simply worship the Horned God, confused by many for the Devil or Satan. Much of this folklore has been connected to Witches and Witchcraft in Western Europe for centuries, though to call it an organised cult had never before been put forward as a solid theory; apart from, of course, the concept that Witchcraft constituted a direct Satanic heresy with rites which inverted Christian sacraments and drew power from blasphemy and sin. In many ways, although he constantly reiterated he had no concrete beliefs or ideas on the history of Witchcraft, the Murray theory assumedly influenced Gerald Gardner and his revival and restoration of the tradition he was initiated into in 1939 in the New Forest area of England. He also called these people the ‘Wica’ which refers to an old Anglo-Saxon word for Witch and which may connect the New Forest tradition with earlier Germanic origins. Currently the origins of Gardnerian Wicca are still in heated dispute, however research undertaken by people such as Donald Frew, Ronald Hutton, Philip Heselton, David Rankine and Sorita D’Este is beginning to illumine important pieces of the puzzle.
Today the word Witch and Witchcraft is used to define a whole plethora of practices and traditions which are subsumed under the also revived umbrella term of Western or European Paganism, or even ‘NeoPaganism’. While the earlier Wiccan Witches of Gardner and Alex Sanders identified their traditions as definitively Pagan, some other Craft practitioners did not, including Robert Cochrane of the Clan of Tubal Cain. However, in the United States of America, there were several streams of revival and recreation occurring in the 1960s and 1970s, including the Church of All Worlds, which had been inspired by several science-fiction works, though most prominently by Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. It was Oberon Zell-Ravenheart (then Tim Zell) who has claimed the first usage of the word ‘Pagan’ in regards to the emerging network of Nature-based religions and traditions. It is very interesting to observe however that whether due to cultural sensitivities or the awareness of broken and thus-restored tradition, that the groups and traditions claiming or being described as Pagan were and are largely of the European diaspora/inspiration, connected to a dispossessed collection of ethnicities whose once-ancestral traditions had long been stripped by the Catholic Church centuries before these travesties occurred in non-European cultures. The early Neo-Pagan or contemporary Pagan movement, in many ways, created a platform for the rediscovery of ancestral custom and tradition and the substance and meaning of post-modern indigenous identity in the Western spiritual world.
These days it is not uncommon to hear or read – “All Witches are Pagan, but not all Pagans are Witches” – but what does this really mean within the context of the reclamation of the word ‘Witch’ as a spiritual self-identifier or as a descriptive term to be applied to groups or individuals external to the observer?
Firstly, this statement above might not be correct according to some current cultural contexts. Brujeria, the Spanish-Mexican derived tradition of Witchcraft, is nominally Catholic in its religiosity; though deeply Pagan in essence, with an inherited polytheism through the veneration of the saints (and their invocation for spellcraft and sorcery), an operational usage of magical forces through natural and found items and fetishes and a historical foundation which holds the tradition and the context for its adoration of Female/Feminine Divine imagery and metaphor. Interestingly, if Brujeria is analysed in this way, it can be seen to be strictly Pagan if we define Pagan as:
Pagan (from Latin paganus – meaning of the country or in contrast, civilian [from the Christian - 'Solider of Christ' - oppositional view] – and/or the Greek pagus – of the area/the region) refers to those traditions, customs and practices arising from direct and embodied relationship with the Living Earth (and its relationship to the Cosmos) and its powers and spirits, which are both spiritual and religious in nature, and derive from the largely pre-Abrahamic mythic, mystic and ancestral wellspring of Europe and its diaspora.
In many ways a Pagan is Earth-focussed or Earth-aligned because of the implied connection or alignment to place or locale; however there is also a continuity of lore and custom passed from the mythic, mystic and ancestral wellspring of Europe and the diaspora. Some modern-day Pagan teachers, elders and activists, including Andras Corban Arthen – the spiritual director of the EarthSpirit Community in Massachusetts, USA – claim the latter point as the identifying qualifier for the application of the word ‘Pagan’; and that because of the word’s social, cultural and historical context it is specifically relevant to European indigenous traditions. However, many other self-identified Pagans would refer to the former as the qualifier of substance. Therefore, according to this view, if a spiritual or religious tradition or practice is Earth-centred or Earth-based, then it is quintessentially Pagan, regardless of European origin or inspiration. T. Thorn Coyle has recently re-evaluated this point and shifted her particular emphasis to Nature-based, rather than only referring to the singularity of this particular biosphere – our home planet of Earth. Others suggest that Cosmos-centred or aligned is more ontologically and philosophically representative of the broadest aspects or the underlying, informing principles than Earth-based or centred. I will suggest another refinement to this definition taking into consideration the actual etymological roots of the word ‘Pagan’:
Pagan as Place-centred or Place-aligned and perhaps contextualised by the legacy and inspiration of Europe, its diaspora and its collective myth, lore and tradition. If and how the demarcation of what is considered to be ‘Europe’ blurs into the Near East, into Africa or even further into India and Asia is significant, this may also be a qualifying factor. Ultimately, it is to Place as contextualised and held by Earth, Nature and the Cosmos that we are oriented by. To the Pagan the prime philosophical point is that the material (from Latin mater meaning ‘mother’) is synonymous and equal to the Spirit – the Vital Charge of the Life-Essence of the Living, Limitless Cosmos. It should be noted however that due to the convoluted and poisoned histories and legacies of indigenous cultures in parts of the world that have been invaded and colonised by European people, that the term Pagan or Paganism is not necessarily or immediately appropriate or applicable to these cultures, spiritual traditions or religious philosophies and practices.
How does the Pagan hold the Witch? Are all Witches Pagan?
If we refer to the earliest etymological derivations or sources for the word ‘Witch’ we discover the Indo-European root word ‘weik’ which refers to the non-binary concept of religio-magic(k), which is an academic term referring to the intellectual fusion of two streams that were never divided. To the earliest peoples of this Earth, acts of operational magic or sorcery (practically-applied Witchcraft) were rituals of religious devotion with spiritual implications. These later developed into sophisticated sects of mysticism and schools of philosophy; however, the most primal base is that of the understanding that all forms and expressions of Life are woven into a Web of Infinite Connections and thus there is inherent meaning in all relationships. No-thing is isolated; all shares in the communion of the Divine which is embodied in the Immediate, the Visceral, the Sensual and the Here and Now.
A Witch then is a conscious agent of the weaving of the Web of Infinite Connections and draws out from this wellspring endless possibilities. The Witch is the Shaman, and as the latter term is nowadays anthropologically applied to a variety of hugely-distanced (geographically) indigenous forms of sorcery, healing and ecstatic ceremony, the glaring omission of the European traditions indicates a deeply-rooted racism regarding the assumed appropriateness of applying ‘shaman’ to perceived ‘backward’ and ‘primitive’ cultures. Witchcraft is an English word which then refers to the shamanic and ecstatic traditions of our European ancestry and cultures.
If a Witch is a Shaman, and these terms are synonymous, then the latter requires reflection and re-evaluation in the context of this argument.
The word ‘shaman’ derives form the Tungus dialect belonging to the North-Eastern Siberian tribe of the same name. The term is most often a verb and can mean ‘to know’ or ‘to be raised in Ecstasy’. Several variations of later developments of the ‘weik’ – the origins of Witch – indicate parallel concepts. The Witch is the wise one, the Witch knows, the Witch sees, the Witch is aware, the Witch is raised in Ecstasy because s/he is the hedge-crosser and the walker between the worlds. Ecstasy is from the Greek ek and stasis, translating literally as ‘outside standing’ and referring to the spiritual transcendence of blurring the limits of the Ego as the functional ‘I’ which differentiates from all else and thus becomes an object amongst objects. To dissolve with and through Ecstasy is to become a subject in the subject/s and to explore fully the Web of Infinite Connections. This is the prime shamanic skill as articulated by the late Mircea Eliade, a prominent researcher of traditional Siberian shamanism – to travel between and through the worlds. The completion of the shamanic work is then to return to the Plane of Action – the Middleworld/the Land – and to translate the knowledge gathered via spirit-journey and trance into practical remedy or solution for the patient or the wider community. This has been the traditional work of the European Witch; of the ‘haegtessa’ (hedge-crosser in German; referring to a Witch). Embodied spellcraft and acts of sorcerous endeavour in which the Witch is very much centred and present in the immediacy of the place is also a skill of the shaman and often the technical knowledge of how to apply such operational magic successfully is gained via counsel with the spirits in spirit-journey and trance.
The Witch therefore is a title of both functional significance and spiritual context. One could employ Witchcraft in casting a spell, but this does not make one a Witch for life, though one may step into that role for a moment – which dwells as an innate capacity within all of us. The Witch is often identified by the community s/he exists within, and this may mean by the spirits or the humans, and in most cases both. The spirits bring the Witch to the threshold of initiation and the human community benefits from the knowledge which is brought back after the death-rebirth experience engendered by true initiation.
Today the term Witch is a spiritual identifier or religious label as contextualised by the contemporary Pagan movement. It has been reclaimed and has become a source of pride, inspiration and identity. This is admirable and magical in its own essence. However, this connects rather explicitly with modern revivals and restorations of magical traditions and philosophies, such as British Traditional Witchcraft (Wicca), whose adherents call themselves Witches to identify with a particular vision or perceived historical legacy or derivation underpinned by a variety of theories, which can not be proven either way, and are ultimately irrelevant.
The true nature of European Witchcraft is essentially shamanic; if the Witch is the Shaman in this case, then the question is, does the individual engage in such work and is s/he devoted/initiated (in)to it through connection with the other-than-human spirits, which include plants, animals, deities, the fey, and the list continues.
There are many Pagans who are not Witches in the current day – and there are many Witches who are also Pagan. Sometimes there is camaraderie between these two groups, though one is considered to be a subset inside a broader category (the Witch to the Pagan); there may just as likely be ambivalence or animosity. Pagan Witchcraft as it exists today may be a very distinct and unique phenomenon, and yet it has historical precedence and context. The important question is of the substance of the spirit held by the individual; and how they are regarded by the allies of the spirit-world, of the human community and of the Own Holy Self.