The origins and Practice of Witchcraft
-A Practical Guide to Witchcraft and Magic Spells
By Cassandra Eason
A History Of Witchcraft
Witchcraft probably originated about 25,000 years ago in the Palaeolithic era. At that time,humankind and nature were seen as inextricably linked. People acknowledged every rock, tree and
stream as deities in the life force,and the Earth as mother, offering both womb and tomb.
Early man used sympathetic, or attracting, magick - in the form of dances, chants and cave paintings of animals - to attract the herds of animals that provided for the needs of the group, and to bring fertility to humans and animals alike. Hunters would re-enact the successful outcome of a hunt and would carry these energies into the everyday world. Offerings were made to the Mistress of the Herds and later to the Horned God, who was depicted wearing horns or antlers to display his sovereignty
over the herds. Animal bones would be buried so that they, like humankind, would enjoy rebirth from the Earth Mother's womb.
Where hunter-gatherers today continue the unbroken tradition that stretches back thousands of years -for example, among the Lapps in the far North of Scandinavia and the Inuits - these rites continue, led by a shaman, or magick man, who negotiates with the Mistress of the Herds or Fish in a trance for the
release of the animals.One of the earliest recorded examples of shamanism is the Dancing Sorcerer. Painted in black on the
cave walls of Les Trois Freres in the French Pyrenees, this shamanic figure, which portrays a man in animal skins, dates from about 14000 BC and stands high above the animals that are depicted on the lower walls. Only his feet are human and he possesses the large, round eyes of an owl, the antlers and
ears of a stag, the front paws of a lion or bear, the genitals of a wild cat and the tail of a horse or wolf.
By the Neolithic period, which began around 7500 BC and lasted until about 5500 BC, the huntergatherer culture had given way to the development of agriculture, and the god evolved into the sonconsort of the Earth Mother. He was the god of vegetation, corn, winter and death, who offered himself as a sacrifice each year with the cutting down of the corn, and was reborn at the mid-winter solstice, as the Sun God.
The Neolithic period also saw the development of shrines to the Triple Goddess who became associated with the three phases of the Moon: waxing, full and waning. The Moon provided one of the earliest ways by which people calculated time. Since its cycles coincided with the female menstrual cycle, which ceased for nine moons if a women was pregnant, the Moon became linked with the mysteries first of birth, then of death as it waned, and finally with new life on the crescent. Because the Moon was reborn each month or, as it was thought, gave birth to her daughter each month, it was assumed that human existence followed the same pattern and that the full moon mirrored the mother with her womb full with child.
The full moon was also associated in later ages with romance and passion, originally because this coincided with peak female fertility. Moon magick for the increase of love and fertility is still practised under the auspices of the waxing moon. It was not until about 3,000 years ago that the male role in conception was fully understood in the West, and only then were the Sky Father deities able to usurp the mysteries of the Divine Mother.
A trinity of huge, carved stone goddesses, representing the three main cycles of the Moon, and dating from between 13000 and 11000 BC, was found in France in a cave at the Abri du Roc aux Sorciers at Angles-sur-l'Anglin. This motif continued right through to the Triple Goddess of the Celts, reflecting the lunar cycles as maiden, mother and crone, an image that also appeared throughout the classical world.
Witchcraft And The Early Christians
After the formation of the Christian church, the worship of the old deities and the old ways were banned and the nature festivals supplanted by Christian ones. The Christians were pragmatic,
however, and Pope Gregory, who sent St Augustine to England in AD 597, acknowledged that it was simpler to graft the Christian festivals on to the existing festivals of the solstices and equinoxes. So,Easter, for example, was celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, which is where it remains today.
In the same way, the crosses on the hot cross buns that we eat on Good Friday were originally the ancient astrological signs for the Earth, and were eaten to absorb the power and fertility of Mother Earth. Hot cross buns were still thought to retain their magical qualities until the early decades of the nineteenth century and were said to offer protection against drowning. For this reason, hot cross buns were hung from the roofs of coastal churches where their remains can still be seen. The old ways did
not die quickly, however, and so for centuries the two religions co-existed as people gradually transferred their allegiance from the Earth Mother, or Mother Goddess, to the Virgin Mary and the
The Persecution Of Witches
But in medieval times, two largely political issues brought about the persecution of witches, especially women. The religious emphasis on the sin of Eve and the belief in the inferiority of women had existed since the time of St Paul, but with the rise of an organised male medical profession, women healers who had acted as herbalists and midwives became a threat. This was not least because their skills ensured less painful childbirth, which was considered contrary to the curse of God that the daughters of Eve should bear children in sorrow. So midwives were a prime target for the new persecutions and were often accused of sacrificing babies to the Devil. Given the high rate of infant mortality, this allegation was hard to refute, and a grieving mother might easily blame the midwife for the death of her infant.At a time of appropriation of common land and the enclosure of smallholdings, especially in Europe,such accusations were a popular way of removing peasants, particularly elderly widows or spinsters,reluctant to give up their land rights, since being found guilty of witchcraft carried the penalty of the
seizure of land.Some researchers have suggested that as late as 1693 in Salem, Massachusetts, the desire to appropriate land was behind at least some of the mass accusations of witchcraft made at the time. One landowner, Giles Corey, was apparently an innocent witness at the trials at first. However, he himself
was accused of witchcraft and was pressed to death - a torture in which heavy stones were placed on the victim's chest and which took three days to kill them - rather than confess, for if he had, his property would have been taken from his descendants.
High-ranking practitioners of magick who attempted to conjure demons were usually male, and included both popes and royalty. They generally escaped censure, however. The folk religion of the
countryside was an easier target.
In December 1484, the Bull of Pope Innocent VII was published, appointing Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger as inquisitors against witchcraft and heresy. These two clerics wrote the Malleus Maleficarum, the notorious Hammer of the Witches, which described in lurid detail the tortures that could be used to obtain confessions from suspected witches. In it, they adopted the policy that it was better to kill an innocent person who would be rewarded in heaven by God than to allow a guilty
person to remain unpunished.
This book became the best-seller of its time and was quoted to justify the atrocities practised against witches in mainland Europe and Scandinavia. Although torture to obtain a confession was not permitted in England except by royal assent, many inquisitors were very cruel even to young victims,who would eventually confess in the hope of having their interrogation brought to an end.
No one really knows how many people have been put to death for witchcraft. The worst period for witch burnings and hangings in Europe was between the mid-fifteenth and late seventeenth centuries,when the number judicially executed as witches during this period is generally accepted to be about a quarter of a million people. In addition, many more were lynched or hanged unofficially by mobs eager to find a scapegoat to blame for bad harvests or dying cattle. This unhappy era came to be known as the Burning Times.
Matthew Hopkins, who died in 1647, brought about the executions of at least 236 accused witches. He styled himself as Witchfinder General and, with four hired assistants, instigated a reign of torture and terror especially in the eastern counties of England, amassing a huge fortune for himself in the process.
In the colonies of America, the most notorious trials were those at Salem, held between 1692 and 1693. During this period of mass hysteria, 141 people from the town and immediate area were
arrested, and 19 were hanged. Even a dog was hanged. Dorcas Good, a four-year-old child, was the youngest victim to be accused of witchcraft and imprisoned. She was released on bail after her mother was hanged, but her younger sibling died in prison. Dorcas was driven insane by her experience.
About three-quarters of all those killed as witches in Europe and Scandinavia were women, mainly lower-class older women, female healers, village herbalists, wise women and midwives. With the
death of so many experienced healers and wise women, much knowledge was inevitably lost, and for a time infant mortality increased as male physicians took over the roles of the deposed midwives. But anyone who was different in any way - eccentric, senile or physically deformed - could be accused.Any old woman living alone might be blamed for the deaths of animals, the failure of crops and outbreaks of disease that were in reality caused by poor hygiene and diet, bad weather, human neglect
or simply blind Fate.
Of course, this occurred to some extent before the Burning Times. The difference was that now the Church and State were legalising and even encouraging this persecution. Even faeries became
associated with witchcraft. The Bean-Tighe, a faerie housekeeper, popular in the mythology of Ireland and Scotland, was said to reside with the village wise woman and assist her with chores; in the worst of the wave of hysteria over witchcraft, if an old women had an immaculate house, it was claimed she had faerie help - and so by implication was consorting with the Devil.
Under torture, even the innocent would admit to the vile deeds suggested by their inquisitors. Many of the confessions now appear to be remarkably uniform and come straight from the pages of the works on demonology, with which the members of the Inquisition would be familiar. Simple village circle dances performed at the time of the full moon and the old rituals performed to bring fertility to both fields and people - with a figure dressed as the Horned God and couples making love in the fields or leaping over a bonfire - became all too easily translatable into evidence of satanic covens. Although the last person executed for witchcraft in England was Alice Molland at Exeter in 1712, it was not until 1951 that the Witchcraft Act of 1736 was repealed and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums
Those who continued to practise the 'old ways' were usually families who could be trusted not to betray the secrets, although the fires of the Lughnassadh (the first corn harvest) continued in remote areas until well into the late nineteenth century and are being revived by pagans as community celebrations, especially in the USA. The secret family covens would pass the traditions down through the matriarchal line, usually by word of mouth. Those who could write, recorded their spells and rituals in 'Books of Shadows' - so-called partly because of the secrecy required to write and protect them. These were usually buried or burned with the witch on her death, or on rare occasions were
handed on to the eldest daughter.
Witchcraft In Modern Times
By the late twentieth century in the USA, witchcraft had been recognised as a valid religion by the American Supreme Court and accepted by the American army, but other countries, including the UK, are not so tolerant. What is more, in many lands, especially among smaller communities,misunderstanding and prejudice still persist. In the UK, for example, Wiccans who practise openly
and have children are sometimes regarded with suspicion by some health professionals.
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Love and Light xx
The History of Witchcraft