White Witches: Historic Fact and Romantic Fantasy
(Excerpts from "Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft" by James Baker)
James Baker writes..........When I became interested in Wicca or modern witchcraft in the early1960s, it was Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft Today and Margaret Murray's The Witch-Cult in Western Europe that formed my impression of the subject. The idea of the continuous survival of England of an ancient, universal cult until the time of the witch persecutions -- or even to the present -- seemed well demonstrated. By the time I was able to visit Gardner's witch museum at Castleton and meet Alex Sanders (Alexandrian) in 1979, I was fully convinced of the historical veracity of these claims.
It was at this time, while characteristically buying up every book that might shed some light on the subject that I found Power through Witchcraft (1969) by Louise Hebner, "The Official Witch of Los Angeles." It was a disappointment. A quick reading caused me to dismiss her as an ignorant practitioner of some sort of folk magic, who was not part of or even aware of the real witch tradition that I was so fascinated with. (Later, I was to realize that I was wrong and I apologized to Louise Heubner.) It was writers such as Gardner, Doreen Waliente, Justine Glass, Sybil Leek, June Johns and Paul Hudson (after a fashion) who had the real dope! Together, their books constructed what I came to call "The Witch Party Line," the foundational myth and orthodoxy of Wiccan origins.
As a historian by temperament and profession, it was my ambition to discover all of the links between contemporary Wicca (or "Wica," as Gardner invariably spelled it) and its roots in the past. This was not a search for the proof of Wiccan claims but rather a desire to know more of what had been so coyly hinted at by Gardner and other authors. Having a university library at my disposal, I diligently searched through every likely monograph and serial to find more about the early days of Witchcraft. I tracked down the majority of references cited in Witchcraft Today, those listed in the bibliography in The Meaning of Witchcraft, and any other source that might shed some light on Wicca before Gardner. Anthropology and archaeology, theological history and classical studies, everything was grist to the mill.
But the result was most chaff! It became clear after two years or so that there wasn't much out there to be found, if one was strictly interested in Wiccan history. All of the material quoted by Garnder and the others, was neither new nor directly relevant to British Wicca. There was a wealth of suggestive material from other times and other cultures, but there was no demonstrable pattern of white religious Witchcraft, as exemplified by contemporary Witchcraft.
The ritual material in the Book of Shadows itself was skeletal in nature and quite inadequate as theology or exegesis. I searched for evidence and examples of a unified Horned God and Goddess cult, for the religious use of pentagrams, athames, cords, and the sigils in the Book of Shadows for casting Wiccan as opposed to Solomonic circles, for the application of Wiccan values, but to no avail.
Alex Sanders was of no help. He just suggested various books I already knew about or occult ones which, while tangentially related, represented quite different mind-sets from Wicca as a religion. Robert Graves' White Goddess for example was evocative and inspirational, but its symbols did not really accord with Gardner at all. In addition, the "poetical truth" that Graves invoked was obviously quite a different matter from historical veracity. I had become a bit impatient with "poetical truth," by this point. I had (and have) no quarrel with Wicca as a valid faith and religious practice, but the dawning realization that I had been deceived by its historical claims was galling.
The final revelation came from Francis King's pioneering Ritual Magic in England (1970). As a schoolboy in 1953 he had interviewed novelist Louis Wilkinson (Louis Marlow) about Aleister Crowley. Wilkinson had offhandedly mentioned that Crowley had known of a coven of witches "in his youth" but had declined to join. Questions about this, Wilkinson asserted that he himself had met such a coven, possibly the same one that Gardner knew, in the late 1930s or early 1940s. He described their use of protective ointments and, taken orally, the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom. It was his impression that " . . . there had been a fusion of an authentic surviving folk-tradition with a more middle-class occultism". Here at last was independent testimony that there had actually been a quite different witch cult before Gardner.
Wilkinson's evidence indicated that something was there before, but what? As King said, Gardner apparently got bored with the simple ceremonies, and " . . . he consequently decided to found a more elaborate and romanticized with-cult of his own". After talking with King at the Warlock Shop in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1973, I decided to both fulfill my curiosity and assuage my annoyance at being bamboozled by tracing not only Witchcraft's past but the entire history of Western occultism. It seemed reasonable that this would make it possible to separate the occult introductions and inventions from the actual folk practices in Wicca.
Now there is a wealth of material on the practice of folk magic in English history. Even the earliest books on Witchcraft, such as Gardner's works or Doreen Valiente's Where Witchcraft Lives, (1961) contain much historical folk magic unrelated to the rituals, practices, and beliefs of Wicca. From the sources liberally referred to by Sir Keith Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), George Lyman Kittredge in Witchcraft in Old and New England (1929), and the many English folklore studies, it is not difficult to observe a pattern of traditional magical belief and practice. What it demonstrates, however, is that almost all of the characteristic elements of modern Witchcraft have an "occult" bookish rather than traditional origin. I came to the conclusion that there are in fact two separate "White Witchcraft" traditions in English history: one very old and fairly moribund (coming to an end) and another which is very active yet no older than the twentieth century. The latter is modern Witchcraft. The former is the tradition of the cunning men and wise women, the more or less beneficent practitioners of traditional folk magic and popular sorcery. Ironically, this was just what Louise Heubner was talking about, to whom I apologize.
I eventually found that many of my observations and conclusions had been paralleled by Aidan Kelly when Crafting the Art of Magic was published in 1991. Another invaluable source which separates the "religion" element from the magical one with consideration of modern Paganism is Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions for the Ancient British Isles (1991). I trust that this short chapter can serve as a useful adjunct to these books by casting some additional light on the sources of the Book of Shadows and by providing an outline of the actual white witches of English history.
WHITE WITCHCRAFT - THEN AND NOW
The criteria by which I hoped to separate the "middle-class occult"elements from the true folk traditions in Witchcraft was essentially thesame as Kelly's. I divided the Book of Shadows material into three possible categories.
1. Those elements that were characteristic of known English traditions of folk magic.
2. Those that were either clearly anachronistic in conception and/or representative of book learning and intellectualized occultism. The latter would have to be easily available in published sources in the period when Gardner (or some other innovator) was working.
3. Any element that could not be found in either type of historical source might be assumed to be new or a part of an unknown tradition.
Only segments of the rituals in the Garden's Book of Shadows can be said to belong to the third category, and we have no reason to doubt that they are modern compositions, thanks to Aidan Kelly. I have no need to duplicate his excellent analysis of this material. However, some other sources for borrowed material which I investigated may be of interest.
Omitting details of the more obvious borrowing from Freemasonry (three degrees, ritual set ups) and ceremonial magic in interest of space, I have chosen to show the probably source for the following unique elements from the Book of Shadows: Obscure chants, the use of the term "athame," Drawing Down the Moon, the title Book of Shadows and the term "WICCA" or "WICA" itself.
The assertion of a continuous British tradition of self-conscious Goddess/Horned God worship would appear to be quite historical, (meaning not related to or concerned with documented history) but I do not intend to develop that argument here. Suffice is to say that the generic Goddess cult resembles the Christian notion of a single universalistic theism far more that the localized deities and "pluricultural" approach to religion of ancient times.
In his research from C.J.S. Thompson The Mysteries and Secrets of Magic (1927), Mr. Thompson said the use of a black-handled knife called an "athame" might be said to be a trademark of Gardnerian Witchcraft. Knives have never played a central a role in British magic as wands or swords, so the presence of such a tool with its distinctive name would seem to be an important clue. There is no record in British folk tradition of such a knife before Gardner (who loved knives in general and wrote a book on the Malay kris). The chant Eko, Eko, Eko Azarak, Eko, Eko! Zomelak first originally appeared in the art magazine FORM in 1921 in an article, "The Black Arts" by J.F.C. Fuller.
Thompson also points out that there is a picture of two Greek women Drawing Down the Moon and which has survived the modern Greek folk tradition. The Drawing Down the Moon is very definitely not a British tradition. Also, Gardner either employed the services of Aleister Crowley or Aleister Crowley did it as a friend, the latter being highly unlikely, to compose the Drawing Down the Moon. However, when Gardner wanted Witchcraft to be brought back, Doreen Valiente advised Gardner that people would never follow Witchcraft unless he did something about the words of Drawing Down the Moon, as most people back then recognized the flare of Crowley's writing. So that is when Garner said "If you can do better, then you do it" to Valiente and that is what most people know today of her rewritten composition of Drawing Down the Moon.
I would agree with Valiente that Gardner got the idea for the title "Book of Shadows" (which he never used in print) from Mir Bashir's account of a "Book of Shadows" found in Bombay in 1941, which he wrote about in an article in a magazine published by Gardner's own publisher Michael Houghton in 1949. " . . . The story ran that there was an ancient manuscript written on palm leaves, some thousands of years old in Sanskrit which tells you about your whole life by measuring your shadow."
The final contribution by Garner is the choice of term "Wica" to indicate Witchcraft. While is quite correct that "Wicca" is the masculine form of the Anglo-Saxon term for "witch" which is noted in The Meaning of Witchcraft, it had been out of popular usage for centuries before Gardner adopted his variant spelling to denote his sect. He apparently intended to make "witchcraft" mean "the craft of the wise" (as in "wise woman") as he dropped one "c" from the correct spelling to associate it with the root form was, and modified the pronunciation to a hard c, as in wicka. Later writers innocently corrected the spelling, but kept the hard c sound rather than adopting the correct ch, as wicha.
Having discarded Gardner's attempted "wise" definition, Wiccans now tell us that a root meaning "to bend" is in some favorable way relevant to the use of the word when it was used to denote illicit practitioners of magic. This is philological nonsense. "Wicca," like "strega" or "hexe" was always pejorative (derogatory). The word "Wicce" is the feminine name for a female. So we now have many books entitled with the word "Wicca" or "Wiccan" which are both masculine names, when in actuality since it is a Goddess religion it should be "WICCE" or "WICCEN". Once again women are having to deal with the "he" concept in a Goddess religion!
Modern Witchcraft is not a survival of an ancient tradition but rather the modern syncretization of a number of old and new elements that never ever co-existed, much less were united before. A good example of this syncretic tendency are the eight yearly festivals. Far from being a single "traditional" pattern, they are a combination of the Celtic festivals of Samhain, Imbolic, Beltane, and Lughnasadh; the Angle-Saxon Yule and the Michaelmas-like September feast; the traditional Midsummers (not part of either system) and, as Hutton says, the vernal equinox (rather than Lady Day, 25 March) is added for symmetry (for a balance, a pleasing whole.) There is no historic recognition of the vernal equinox, nor for the orderly eight-part system itself, which is a transparent modern conceit. That is why the festivals seem to repeat themselves. To some Samhain is the first of the year; to some Yule is the first of the year; and others seem to think Candlemas as the first of the year. And it only gets more confusing and very redundant in nature as if you take a close look at the Summer Solstice, Lammas, and Autumn Equinox, the Sun God keeps dying. How many times does He die?
IF NOT WITCHCRAFT, WHAT?
The wise women and cunning men were the real "wicca/wicce", the white witches in British history. Hundreds of documented examples survive from the Middle Ages to the end of the nineteenth century. Some were no more than local amateurs with a single spell or charm, while others were literate professional practitioners with a working knowledge of astrology and ceremonial magic who attracted clients from near and far. Although the witches shared a number of traditional practices and beliefs, true white witchcraft was never systematized i.e., form into a system. White witchcraft was never a self-conscious Pagan faith opposed to Christianity but rather an accommodation of traditional magical practices within popular religion.
It was more a trade or calling than a faith and simultaneously traditional and continuously mutable. Just as there is no reason to recapitulate Aidan Kelly's thorough work on Witchcraft, it is unnecessary to try to reproduce the masterful picture of British folk magic in Sir Keith Thomas's Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971). His chapters "Magical Healing", "Cunning Men and Popular Magic," and the section "Witchcraft" more than adequately demonstrates both the extent and practice of white witchcraft in early modern England. I would like to outline the most characteristic of these practices to create a composite picture of historic white witchcraft to set against the Gardnerian one.
While the white witches used rituals, they were not the group oriented circles of the legendary medieval Sabbat or modern Witchcraft but the practical rites of the sorcerer or the priest. Some of their practices were survivors of what country people called "the old religion," Their deities invoked were not Pagan gods but planets (occasionally visualized as spiritual beings rather than satellites of the sun), the fairies and assorted imps or devils. Their dress was not a skyclad minimalism and seldom the quasi-monkish robes now associated with the occult. The setting for the consultation was often staged to impress as well. Charts, books, wands, dried crocodiles and so forth were arranged to give the impression of magical authority. There was no call for nudity or flagellation and the occasional use of sex was incidental rather than central to the work at hand. There is little or no indication of any "Golden Bough" like seasonal fertility rites.
The tools of the trade were not a standard set of ritual artifacts but simply regional British variations of the paraphernalia of sorcerers the world over.
Scrying crystals, the divinatory "Bible and Key," and the sieve and shears were characteristically British as were wax, cloth or clay poppets; charms written on vellum, paper, or metal; divining or "mystical" rods, witch bottles and swords, wands and knives (not called athames). All sorts of animals (including human) parts, as well as vegetable, cloth, glass, pottery, metal or mineral fragments were employed in "receipts" for magical work.
The white witches had no unifying Book of Shadows but they did use many books, even if only for effect when they themselves were illiterate.
Manuscript grimoires, miscellaneous collections of charms, books of formulae, astrological and pseudo-astrological handbooks, and works on occult subjects were a major means of transmitting magical knowledge among English white witches. These not only passed ideas between higher and lower culture, but provided a legitimating aid of learning in the shadowy underworld of the witch and wizard.
Ritual initiations after Witchcraft, Masonic or secret society pattern were unknown. Instead some acted as apprentices to establish Cunningfolk while others were self-taught in the traditions of the countryside. The real death of the old tradition was not the result of a bourgeois revolution in rationalism but rather the defecting of the clientele to new and more modern, exotic forms of the same practices by Mesmerists, spiritualists, quacks and occultists.
Astrological patterns and agricultural cycles governed traditional magic rather than a system of astronomical observances. The moon's cycles were more important than annual anniversaries, although May Eve, Midsummers' and All Hallow's Eve retained their traditional importance.
Neither devotion to a God and Goddess, nor the social cohesion of group activity inspired traditional magical practices. It was instead the needs and desires of clients for healing, detection of theft, treasure hunting, fortunetelling, helping the "overlooked," removing curses, or charms for luck which motivated the activities of the witches.
Public opinion about the witches was ambiguous, to say the least. The Puritans in fact deemed the white witches worse than the black satanic variety, as the latter were perceptibly evil while the white witches might easily fool a Christian into a damnable relationship by appearing beneficent and actually providing a useful service. Cunning women, wise men, blessers, conjurors, and currens (a few of the many names for the white witches) were regularly veiled from the pulpit and secretly supported by the populace -- unless of course the white witch did something to earn the enmity of his or her neighbors. While both sexes were represented in the trade, the most eminent of the white witches were usually men. The women nearly always labored under a more mixed reputation and were more liable to be suspected of (and persecuted for) black as well as white magic.
WITCHCRAFT: THE NEW RELIGION
When Gardner dropped his revelatory bombshell in Witchcraft Today with, the implications that Wicca (male name) was or had been a pervasive secret sect in the English countryside, he was a member of the Folklore Society. I was able to ask Katherine Brigs, who remembered the event, about the impact of his book and his article in Folklore (private communication, 29 October 1973). The members of Folklore Society apparently quickly compared notes and, as none of them had ever found any indication of such a sect with their thorough knowledge of their own various regional areas, they dismissed his assertions. Gardner, although recognized as possessing a wide if miscellaneous knowledge of anthropological literature, was notorious as a flamboyant crank who would bring imposing knives to meetings (which intimidated some people) and Miss Briggs was rather sharp about his influence on "young people." She was firm in her opinion that it was all "moonshine."
Important: Here we come to the central paradox for the alleged "hereditary traditions." If religious Witchcraft was as old and widespread as would be necessary for even a minority of the English and American claimants to have been connected with families with such initiatory practices, then it is inconceivable that their beliefs and symbols would have no echo in the historical record which contains so many other Pagan and magical practices and symbols (Kelly 1991, xix). On the other hand, if traditional or "hereditary" Wicca (man) was so small and secret as to escape any detection (and any professional historian will recognize how ephemeral, insignificant, and localized a sect would have to be to escape all notice), then it is hardly possible that it could have been of any importance before Gardner and his successors blithely laid the whole thing open to the world. Hutton and Kelly show quite convincingly that this was the case.
I agree with Aidan Kelly that Gardner (or, less likely, an anonyms "proto-Gardner") was indirectly responsible for just about all modern witch activity. Some groups such as the Gardnerians and the Alexandrians are admittedly direct derivatives from his work. Other groups, either discerning that the Old man had (embarrassingly) feet of clay or desiring to modify his teachings, chose to disavow him as soon as they could and build independent traditions while retaining what they liked. It is revealing, for example, that no "hereditary" rivals to Gardner ( as opposed to jealous occultists such as Charles Cardell) publicly challenged Gardner in his lifetime.
The most exotic of these attempts to depose Gerald Gardner was an extravagant hoax which first surfaced shortly after his death in February 1964. The gist of the matter was that the real witch tradition could be traced not to Gardner but rather to an Essex Cunning Man named George Pickingill who died in 1909. It was claimed that he had 9 covens underneath him. Pickingill was a real old Cunning man, one of the last of the type, but quite illiterate and in his later years was more interested in caging beer and getting a rise out of the people than anything else. He was very much a practicing sorcerer but Pickingill was neither a witch king or a leading occultist with international connections was out of the question.
Shrewder independent movements were careful to excise those elements which would easily connect them with Gardner (such as scourging, the use of the titles "high priest" and "high priestess," the emphasis on nudity and so forth), and anything else they suspected was anachronistic. Some became more bourgeois by adopting robes and downplaying the sexual element, while others swung in the opposite direction by increasing the orgiastic elements and addicting initiations with severe whippings and wooden dildos, as is shown in the Frost's School of Wicca (male) or in Francis King's discoveries about a Midland group in Sexuality, Magic and Peversion(1972).
Still others, which had began quite independently, were swept up by the sheer popular attraction of the new Goddess movement and adopted many of its practices and tenets while claiming independence.
Witchcraft is what Eric Hobsbawm calls "an invented tradition." It was formulated in response to the psychic needs of modern people cut off from other traditions by cultural (how many people still live where this great-grandparents did?) and separation from nature.
I realize that many people received the "Witch party Line" from their original "teachers" at face value and are reluctant to let it go. Yet, if Witchcraft is ever to achieve social acceptance, it must be prepared to relinquish myths which do little but offer Witchcraft opponents an excuse by which to deny public recognition
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