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The Real History of Modern Witchcraft

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

Although self-professed witches claim that they practice a religion that dates back to Neolithic times, their practices actually stem from a more modern source.

The Latin word paganus originally meant “an inhabitant of the countryside.” When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century AD—and the city-based church leadership attempted to bring the new religion to the countryfied masses‚—the word’s meaning came to denote unsophisticated rural bumpkins who had not yet accepted baptism. By the 11th century, Christianity had become the accepted religion of Europe, its orthodoxy maintained by well-developed systems of inquiry and punishment. The dichotomy between urban Christianity and rural unbelief was thus somewhat academic. Unless conducting business with a Jewish moneylender or merchant, the average medieval person would have had to travel to Muslim lands to meet someone who did not share their Christian faith. The term “pagan” thus became synonymous with “non-Christian.” However, the term “neopagan” was coined in 1904 by Hugh O’Donnell, the Irish representative to the British House of Commons, who used it to criticize the drama of W.B. Yeats and Maude Gonne’s Abbey Theatre (now the National Theatre of Ireland). Blending 19th-century occultism with Celtic myth and legend, Yeats and Gonne (shown below) sought to reawaken a distinctly Irish national consciousness through their dramatic productions.

It was this mélange of 19th-century romanticism that eventually gave rise to modern neopagan practices, particularly Wicca, the neopagan spiritual path that was founded in the 1940s by British civil servant Gerald Gardner and claims the greatest number of adherents today (though exact numbers are impossible to come by).

Gerald Gardner and Wicca

Born in 1884, Gardner (below) spent much of his life as a rubber planter and colonial administrator in Southeast Asia before retiring to England in 1936. There he became involved in Rosicrucianism, a quasi-Masonic tradition that blends Christian and alchemic traditions in elaborate rituals and other occult practices. (Yeats and Gonne had also been involved in Rosicrucian groups.)

Though the core of Gardner's ideas probably coalesced around the 1940s, it was not until 1954, three years after the British anti-witchcraft laws were pulled from the books, that he published Witchcraft Today, in which he unveiled the practice of Wicca to the public for the first time. Much as Yeats had sought to give his hermetic-derived practice Celtic overtones, so, too, did Gardner seek to infuse his version of paganism with a quintessential Englishness.

For instance, he claimed that the word “wicca” was derived from the Anglo-Saxon wicce, meaning “sorcerer” or “shaper.” Other influences on Wicca included Gardner’s interests in nudism (Wiccan rituals are optimally performed naked), and BDSM, in which early rituals reportedly involved such practices as whipping one’s self. Wicca’s supposed pre-Christian origins also originated with Gardner, who claimed that wicce were the original witches of myth and legend. Gardner maintained that this cult, which he said resembled the mystery religions of ancient Greece and Egypt, had survived through the Middle Ages and into modern times, passed on from father to son, mother to daughter, and lover to lover. However, the idea of an organized pre-Christian religion surviving through the Middle Ages is rather unlikely. In the patriarchal society of medieval Britain, each village had a church and priest, and archdeacons and other church officials made regular visits to their parishes to make sure all was in order. In the close-knit village society, everyone knew each other’s business, and heresy would have been immediately discovered and stamped out. Likewise, there is no evidence for aboriginal British peoples, such as the pagan Picts, surviving into the Middle Ages, let alone allying themselves with the Norman conquerors in the 11th century, as Gardner alleged. There is thus little probability that an ancient, non-Christian religion could have slipped through the cracks of written history. Gardner also claimed that the wisdom of witches was written down sometime during the Renaissance but this, too, is a fallacy. The only magical practices that were written down during this time were the high magic practices of medieval sorcerers. (Indeed, magic was a common subject for learned Latin scholastic treatises) and later hermetic traditions (occult practices traditionally attributed to the ancient Greek writer Hermes Trismegistus which, although a non-Christian, shared many of the Gnostic beliefs expressed in the Christian Bible). If witch persecutions were, as Gardner claimed, directed at members of this cult, then surely witches’ books would have been discovered and exhibited at historical witch trials. But none ever were.

Witches and Magic in Premodern Europe

Gardner's suggestion that Wicca originated in primitive pagan practices seems, in fact, to have been lifted directly from the folklorist Margaret Murray's books The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1933). (Murray, in fact, wrote an introduction to Gardner's Witchcraft Today, so they obviously knew of one another's work.) In these works, Murray took the novel approach of treating records of witch trials as literal facts. From the conversion to Christianity to the early 1900s, witches, according to Murray, were an underground network of moon worshippers who operated in covens and participated in ancient fertility rituals. Though Murray’s book met with cautious praise early on, her theories have since been disproved when it was discovered that Murray massaged data to fit her theories, based elaborate narratives on slim evidence, and ignored or re-interpreted facts when they did not suit her ends. While some pagan rituals have survived to this day, they are nothing like what Murray described. For instance, the various hedge-wizard practices that were so reviled by Puritan reformers in the 17th century, such as dowsing for water, processions in the fields, incantations and rituals, or bricking cats up in the walls of houses for luck, were actually folk practices that had been unaffected by centuries of Christianity.

Even today, various folk-magic rituals survive, such as well-dressing in Derbyshire, England, (above) where the spirit of a water source is honored by decorating it with flowers.

Of course, there's also the Burryman of South Queensferry, Midlothian (below), in which a volunteer ensures good luck for the coming year by marching through the streets in an uncomfortable costume made of nettles, stopping to drink whiskey along the way.

Other pagan rites, such as the practice of decorating a tree at Christmas and hanging mistletoe, were incorporated into Christian traditions. However, nothing in these practices suggests that there was an organized, underground witch cult that survived into the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The Burning Times

Another idea Gardner lifted from Murray was the so-called “Burning Times,” a theory that the Church during the 15th-17th centuries set about destroying the Old Religion. The Inquisition, in fact, was created not for the purpose of hunting down witches but to persecute Cathar heretics in the south of France during the 13th century. Instead, accused witches during the Middle Ages and Renaissance were usually marginal members of the village community who were denounced as witches by jealous or annoyed neighbors. And though many of those accused as witches during the Inquisition may have been midwives or practitioners of herbal medicine, there is no reason to believe that the knowledge of midwifery or herbalism was more characteristic of witches than their non-persecuted neighbors. Nor was the ongoing hunt for witches in Europe during the so-called Burning Times the vast holocaust imagined by some. According to the best estimates, those accused of witchcraft numbered in the tens of thousands over two centuries, not the millions, as some have claimed.

A Goddess is Born

The most essential innovation in Gardner's thinking was that witches embraced both male and female aspects of divinity. The Goddess, in Gardner’s writing, became as important as God. Moreover, eschewing his generation's usual preference of using male pronouns (he/his) to stand for both men and women, the practitioner of witchcraft was referred to as a she/her. This much Gardner got right; practitioners of black magic were not conceived of as predominantly female until Heinrich Spengler and James Kramer’s 1486 Malleus Maleficarum, the book that, serving as a compilation of supernatural beliefs and neuroses of its time, became the standard witch-hunters' manual. (A 17th-century version of the book is shown below.)

While certainly much went into this conceptualization of a dual-gendered godhead, perhaps most important was Gardner’s relationship with Doreen Valiente (below), Gardner’s high priestess who, after his death in 1964, took over the leadership of the Wiccan movement until her own death in 1999. In fact, it was this female-centered element that may have led to the explosive growth of neopaganism.

The counterculture movement of the 1960s found in Wicca an alternative not only to traditional, patriarchal spirituality but also historical justification for women possessing temporal and spiritual power. As interest in Wicca soon outstripped the ability of covens to initiate members, it was perhaps inevitable that Wicca broke into different traditions. Whereas old-school Wiccans, such as followers of Gardner (Gardnerian Wiccans) and his student Alex Saunders (Alexandrian Wiccans), emphasized initiation and training, today, many other branches exist, such as:

• Dianic Wicca, whose practitioners emphasize the female aspect

• Kemetic Wicca, which gives its beliefs Egyptian trappings

• Faery Wicca, for those drawn to nature and faeries

• Celtic Wicca, which emphasizes all things Celtic

But the most numerous are the self-initiated practitioners who, inspired by what they have read or found on the internet, work alone. (The work of the late Scott Cunningham was particularly inspirational to the self-initiated movement, who are often derided as "wanna-blessed-bes.")

Pagan Ideologies Today

But the most unexpected direction that Gardner's Wicca has taken is its role in modern social movements. Activists often find in pagan ideologies not only the articulation of ideals and spiritual rallying points but also the opportunity to create a more perfect world. For instance, one of the more significant splinter groups—Dianic Wiccans—revere the Goddess, whom they see as the source of all life. Dianic Wiccans, founded by Zsuzsanna Budapest (below) look on witchcraft as the birthright of every woman, a birthright that has been stolen by our modern patriarchal society.

Other practitioners dream of more inclusive futures. For instance, of primary importance to such groups as the Reclaiming Collective (founded in the late 1970s) are feminism, environmentalism, non-hierarchal organization, gay rights, and an emphasis on non-violent social change. Their tactics range from Wiccan-derived magical rituals to creating giant puppets for anti-war protest marches. The creativity, sense of play, and the ecstatic rituals practiced by the Reclaiming Collective are also evident in the Radical Faeries. Founded in 1979 by Harry Hay, the Faeries are a communal, politically radical group of gay, bisexual, and transgendered men. (Interestingly, both indigenous Siberians and Native Americans believe that those who crossed gender roles had shamanic powers.)

Like many other activist neopagans, the Radical Faeries aim to create a more inclusive society, as well as attempt to create spaces by renting a campground in which they can participate in Bacchanalian rituals.

The Practice of Witchcraft

While neopagan rituals and practices are as diverse as the people who follow them, the one commonality they all share is the practice of ritual magic. Magic (or “magick,” to use the spelling by Aleister Crowley and later adopted by many neopagans) may be defined as the attempt to bring reality into line with the will, in order to find love, to get a new job, or to correct a perceived injustice. Like electricity, magic can be used either for harm or for good. So most Wiccans believe in the "threefold rule," which states that any harm or any good brought about by magickal practices will be returned to the practitioner multiplied by three.

Social media influencers and witches Georgia Burns and Harmony Nice.

Of course, there is great diversity in magical practice. Some witches form traditional covens of 13 while others practice alone. And it is ritual magic that has the largest place in the public imagination. According to popular mythos, props such as swords, cups, wands, brooms, and candles—as well as such acts as ritual sexual intercourse—are inextricably linked to these workings. Gardner described the traditional magical tools as everyday objects that the witch might make use of without drawing undue suspicion. But they actually stem from Rosicrucian symbols and rites. Likewise, ritual sex, which probably is written about more than it actually occurs, hearkens back to the hieros gamos, or the sacred marriage of alchemic and hermetic lore (in which it was often meant metaphorically).

Added to these tools may be some delineation of the ritual space, such as magic circles or pentagrams drawn on the floor. However, all of these trappings are more or less disposable, for the key ingredient for the practice of magic is the mind, spirit, and concentration of the worker. In recent years, the adaptability of neopaganism has led to an explosive growth in the movement. So, too, has public awareness grown, particularly from religious fundamentalists who are critical of any idea that deviates from their conception of divinely inspired truth. Like it or not, witches do indeed walk amongst us, albeit often in ignorance of that which they practice. By learning about the origins of modern witchcraft, which dates back to medieval high magic and renaissance hermetic traditions, would-be witches can better understand themselves and their practice and thus, more effectively shape their world.


This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine.



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