Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Origins of Witchcraft

The Origins of Witchcraft

Everyone has heard about the witch-hunts and persecution of witches which occurred mostly between the 14th and 17th centuries, a period known as the The Early Modern period, but where does our modern perception of witchcraft come from? In fact, where did our 14th century predecessors get their concept of witchcraft? In other words, where did witchcraft originate and how has it evolved?

The word 'witch' originates from the Anglo-Saxon word 'wicca', which was derived from the word 'wicce' meaning wise. The word 'witch' also means to 'twist' or 'bend', and relates to psychogenesis or telekinesis. The word 'witch' dates back thousands of years, to when people worshipped Mother Earth or Nature as goddesses. Women were revered as creatures of new life. Witchcraft means 'the craft of the wise' and is the oldest religion in the world, remaining in existence through the oral transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next. It was primarily practiced by women as they stayed at home while the men worked. Witchcraft incompassed not ony magic - home medicines and remedies including potions, herbs, stones, oils, and massages were important factors.

Earth Mother by Shere Crossman (Original)

Essentially, witchcraft was created along with human civilization due to fear of the unknown, and because of the role magic was believed to play in making day-to-day life easier. Witches were the mediators between humans and mysterious super powers, such as spirits and angels. When a witch succeeded in solving someone's apparently mysterious problem, it was labelled magic: a process which couldn't be easily explained using logical analysis. Witchcraft was practiced in almost every society and culture across the world, although beliefs and traditions differed from place to place. According to scholars, it predates the majority of well-known religions and goes back to the Paleolithic period.

Archaeological discoveries have shown us how people worshipped the hunter god and fertility goddess during this period. The presence of cave paintings, estimated to be 30,000 years old, which protray a man with the head of a stag, along with another showing a pregnant woman standing in a circle made up of eleven other people, proves that witchcraft is one of the oldest religions in the world. These relics are evidence that witchcraft predates Christianity by thousands of years.

 Dancing Witch Doctor Cave Painting Copy by Abbe' Breuil (Original)

While it was more often practiced by women, men were also witches, although this was less common. Witches were considered highly valuable, providing vital services for the health of the family. They healed the sick and suffering and were respected for how wise they were.  Witches had a range of different uses, being capable of inducing hypnosis, making childbirth and other health problems pain free; they could use telepathy, clairvoyance, intuition, dowsing, crystals, and trance as means of communicating with the dead. At this point, religion and magic were inseparable. However, as people flocked to witches with the health problems, the Christian Church began to feel threatened. 

The Wise Woman from Catkin (Original)

While witches and their craft were once respected, it has evolved massively since its creation. As we come to the growth of Christianity, witchcraft changed to suit this new religion, which portrayed the practice of magic as evil and those practicing it as heathens and heretics. Many of the ideas incorporated into the practise of witchcraft were taken from popular folklore, with the development of these beliefs being the responsibility of the Christian intellects of the time, before being filtered back to the common people through indirect means.

When looking at the old beliefs in witchcraft, one of the common elements is involvement with the Devil and demons. During the Middle Ages, the Devil was usually known as Satan, meaning 'the adversary'. Satan did not play a particularly big role in the Old Testament, but he was far more apparent in the New Testament, where he tempted those with a belief in God, trying to get them to turn their backs on their religion. In the New Testament, the war between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan began, each trying to gain control of the souls of mortal men.

You may wonder what this has to do with the evolution of witchcraft and that Christianity has little to do with witchcraft.  However, the growth of Christianity had a great deal to do with the later views on witchcraft. As Christianity spread, it encontered other beliefs and other religions, all of which those following Christianity would try to convert to the 'one true faith.' Those seen to be denying the word of God and to be leading souls away from God were seen to be a part of the Kingdom of Satan.

Before long, Christianity began to demonize the gods belonging to other religions, especially those which had converted to Christianity. Pagan deities were some of the most often used to describe the Devil, along with Roman and Celtic deities. People were taught to fear and hate these deities, with fertility gods most often being recognised as demonic. The Greek deity Pan and the Celtic Cernunnos gave the Christian Devil his goat-like appearance, with the Roman Diana adding the sometimes described woman''s breasts to his description. In the confessions of accused witches, these details were often described, although they were probably prompted by the inquisitor.

 The Persecution of Witches (Original)

In the 12th and 13th centuries, demons were creatures of spirit – much like angels, these were the fallen angels. If a demon were to be visible, its body was said to be made from the vapours of the earth, with this control of the air later becoming an imporant theory for the flight of witches.

The Christian religion maintained that only God could cause a miracle. Any claim that the Devil could control creation or free will was considered heretical, and any 'miraculous transformations' were considered to be an illusion, with illusion being one of the Devil's supposed powers over the material world. Where the Devil was considered to have power over the material world, God was believed to provide humans with free will. So, if you were seen as being possessed by demons, it was believed that it was through your own choice. According to Malleus Maleficarum, the Devil could influence a person's choices through bibery and tricks. This meant that accused witches maintained their moral responsibility, especially is a pact with the Devil had been made.

This brings us to another important element in accepted witch traditions. A pact with the Devil meant that not only did you practise harmful magic, you were also considered to be a Devil worshipper. This idea was developed over many centuries, with the earliest documentation of such pacts being by St. Augustine, although the belief didn't become widespread until the descriptions were translated into Latin during the 9th century. It was, by this point in time, believed that all magic practisioners received their powers from pacts with the Devil, although not all Devil worshippers were granted magical powers. A pact with the Devil was seen as some kind of legal contract with the Devil promising a reward in exchange for the witch's immortal soul. This reward may be a promise of wealth, power, sexual indulgence, or happiness in the afterlife. In some instances the witch would be bestowed with magical powers.

A portrayal of Devil worship and cannibalism committed by witches (Original)

The practice of magic increased in the 12th and 13th centuries with the transaltions of Greek and Islamic texts. One popular magical practice was necromancy, or communication with the dead, where demons would be apparently summoned so they could be trapped, meaning the witch could learn from their hidden knowledge. As the practice of magic became more common, so did condemnation of these practices, with demonologists stating that while necromancers may not mean to worship the Devil, their communications with demons must come with a price. They concluded that the witch must need to offer some form of bait for the demon, or do some service for the Devil in exchange for the demons knowledge. This meant that even if the practisioner didn't intend to worship the Devil, anything considered the practice of magic was condemned as evil.

This was not the first condemnation of magic, but a pact with the Devil was an imporant addition to witchcraft traditions, making the label of witch applicable to peasants who practiced magic with little or no understanding of the implications of their actions – a pact with the Devil, whether it was was intentional or not. This connection between magic and heresy was then used to condemn other so called heretics, including those found to be involved in secret, group worship and abnormal, inhumane behaviour. Witchcraft became a sort of religious mockery of Christianity, which was best expressed during the witches' sabbath, the next element in the concept of witchcraft.

At this point there was a shift of focus from the upper-class, educated, male magician to the poor, unknowledgable, female witch. There was a corresponding change in the attributes of the pact, from equal partnership where the magicial could fight for the advantage, to a role of subservience, where the witch submitted voluntarily. This was pointed out by King James VI of Scotland, when he said, ''Witches are servants only, and slaves to the Devil; but the Necromancers are his masters and commanders.''

A gathering of witches was known as the sabbath and was a place for those Devil worshippers to debase themselves, taking part in sexual activities with demons, cannibalism and the murder of innocent infants. In some parts of Europe, including France, Spain and Italy, witches were believed to take part in parodies of the Catholic Mass. When all of these activities were connected they provided fulfilled Christians worst fears. This society of so-called witch lore may have been invented by monks during the 12th and 13th centuries as propaganda in the war against other beliefs, such as those held by the Waldensians and Cathars, before being applied to other heretics. These intense accusations became a huge burden for accused witches as knowledge of heretical practices grew.

Belief in the sabbath was not universal, although it was widespread and an important addition to those who hunted witches. The assumption that witches gathered to worship the Devil led to many endless hunts for those connected to the accused witches, and was probably a contributing factor in the scale of the exhaustive searches.

Coven in Flight (Original)

Another belief that was often included in witch lore was the claim that witches were capable of flight. One way of doing this was through the Devil's material control over the air, which could propel a witch for great distances through the air. Another theory was that the Devil used his power of illusion, making the witch believe that they had flown. This second idea was also used in claims that the sabbath itself was an illusion. Regardless, flight was used to explain how witches were able to attend sabbaths which were believed to be held in remote areas. Origins of this concept may go back to pagan beliefs which were still followed by many peasants. One of these beliefs held that women could transform into strigae, or abhorrent screeching owls. Another belief was of the Dianic 'wild hunt, when a witch was said to ride through the countryside on the backs of various beasts.

Metamorphosis was another element in Early Modern witch lore. It was said that a witch was capable of transforming themselves or others into animals, with a particular favourite being the wolf. While this too was supposedly another of the Devil's illusion, it was a common assumption. To us, these beliefs may seem far-fetched but, at the time, they seemed like rational explanations. These beliefs were often challenged, although no one dared to deny the central theme of the Devil, which held the entire movement in one piece.
So, when looking at the origins of witchcraft, one has to understand that it had been present in society since the dawn of time, with witches being considered wise and important. However, with the growth of Christianity, fear of witches and the practice of magic was instilled into the public, pushing them to convert from their life-long religion to the 'one true faith', Christianity. What followed was the accusation and murder of many innocents who had often committed no crime or wrong doing.

Fortunately, with modern witchcraft, respect for this practice has once again grown and is now followed by many people in the modern age, without the fear of persecution. It attracts people from all walks of life, bringing them together in an understanding of the life, nature, evolution and mysteries of the universe through witchcraft. Unlike other religions, witchcraft allows a huge amount of freedom, with the only real rules being that you should harm none unless you wish it to be returned to you three times three, nor should nature be misused the generosity of nature by distrupting its balance. 

Next time: We will take a closer look at the persecution of witches during the Salem Witch Trials.