Witchcraft; it seems to have become a meaningless term — a catch-all phrase for everything pagan and sorcerous at core. We have the nostalgia of some, the desire of a return that leads to the recreation of forgotten mysteries and yet others to yield to an infatuation of nature where Nature becomes the temple and purpose. Yet others hail to the diabolic and embrace in witchcraft a ‘counter-nature’ for their aspirations while others see in witchcraft the continuation of Murray’s ‘Dionysian’ fertility cult celebrating a Great Mother.
We find the term ‘witchcraft’ being used as a reference for pagan ways, for naturalism and for a host of practices of a darker strain. In all its varieties the idea of witchcraft gets deluded, enriched and amputated by the diversity of practice and inclination that seek this label – and it might be so that the witches’ art can be taken by anyone, just as anyone can teach themselves a trade or handicraft by a few books. Yet others walk out in the terrains of the wild ones and are there, by purpose or accident, recognized as ‘the other’ by one of their own.
No one can be the judge of any of this but, lead by ones’ persuasion, one can say something about its nature. For me, my perception of Traditional Craft has developed over nearly two decades now, where I have been blessed to meet pilgrims and masters of a variety of persuasions that I would define as the Craft of the Wise invested in traditional pedigree. Like many, I became aware of the term ‘traditional witchcraft’ through the letters and writings of Robert Cochrane and my search was rewarded by meeting a host of wonderful practitioners of the art, where kinship was mutually recognized.
The arts and crafts of the witch are often about transgression, but the kind of transgression and practices that honor nature and defy profane social order in favor of truth. Truth — what a troublesome word! Because truth is not about facts and evidences, but about the immanence of the source — hence, we might say that the ‘sorcerer’ meddles with the source and the witch has made the workings upon the source into a craft. This is truth — truth is an active state of being. In a world that loves deception more than truth, naturally those who advocate it risk being vilified and becoming the subject of hatred and suspicion.
So, perhaps it is correct to assume that the craft of the witch can be defined as possessing natural and occult knowledge that enables one to manipulate or appease the spirits of nature and the soul of the world to be favorable. If so, many can be said to be practitioners of witchcraft by sorcerous virtue or intimate knowledge of spell-craft and sympathetic means to reach ones’ goals. Naturally, when knowledge considered hidden is revealed in divination and by the means of classical astrology it can cause suspicion —and likewise the uttering of spells and enchantments that twist and tweak a natural and unfavorable current into a benevolent and rewarding one.
The cunning man who charms away a wart, the planet doctor who cast an election and make a talisman for a given purpose or the lonely walker who blesses a barren womb to give child are all people who practices parts of the plethora of the Craft. We might concord that these varieties of the art can be judged as ‘witchcraft’ in the same level as the ‘venefica’ (originally ‘venerated works’, that were later associated with ‘poisoning’) and ‘malefica’ (negative workings) that were subject for condemnation by the Tribunal of the Inquisition. The Craft itself is ultimately the knowledge about ‘the cursing hand’ and ‘the giving hand’. It should also be noted that there is a tendency to separate the good witch from the evil witch. Ginzburg describes well how the balance of the world is kept in place by the battle between the benadanti, that blesses the world, and the maladante, that curses the world. It is the same power and secrets that are manipulated, but by one to the benefit of the community and by the other to the detriment of common welfare. So, in this the icon of the witch as a poisoner and embodiment of possible wickedness — to be a constant threat to social order — is indeed a reality the witch embraces willingly or reluctantly.
The witchcraft accusations were passed upon people who were accused of malefica, and also for acting in ways not in conformity with what was considered ‘lawful’ magic. Lawful magic was actually largely wortcunning and sympathetic workings done by a cleric – hence those who meddled with this outside the official ecclesiastical or royal confinements could risk being condemned for malefica, even if the work was for good ends. From the Middle Ages and until the maturity of Modern Age, ‘witchcraft’ has gone through many phases of understanding, but it always has something wicked and uncanny about it. The word ‘witch’ has become so problematic that practitioners of Traditional Craft often accept the label, just to escape it, as in the case of Robert Cochrane who merely accepted the label as holding some sort of meaning, though he would not define himself as a witch. For Cochrane this discomfort with the term ‘witch’ was partly caused by a group of Wiccans he dubbed ‘Gardnerians’, who also considered themselves ‘witches’. I will leave this issue alone and just state that Gerald Gardner — as demonstrated in recent research by Philip Heselton — most likely obtained a traditional induction into a lineage of traditional witches. But he also wanted to make the transmission and the knowledge he received his own. For Gardener this meant turning witchcraft into a ritualistic system mediated by fringe masonry sprinkled with some Crowleyan and Rosicrucian elements. Nothing wrong in this, but in doing this he also became the father of a modern fertility religion, which we see Wicca is today. This might be seen as a transgression in its own right as it took on distinct dogmatic features that are unusual for the persuasions I know who define themselves as ‘traditional witches’ proper.
I would say that ‘the witch’ is not one who intends to transgress, nor one with an agenda of defying social order. The ‘witch’ is that constant and still element at the outskirts of the worlds that is true to itself, because if possess a blood different from the many, and in this turns into ‘the other‘ — the constant reminder that the world possess a living and vibrant soul anchored deep within origin. The presence of blood shows itself in a natural and arcane perception of the world that comes naturally for ‘the other’, who sees the world as enchanted throughout with possibilities and secrets. This goes quite massively beyond the mere worship of nature and its spirits and seeks to re-discover our connection with source.
The idea of witchblood/elven blood is a constant theme and indeed the question of blood is exactly what sets the witch apart from a cunning man or a sorcerer — a secret pedigree that lives on from forgotten times where all was mystery, where the visible and invisible world was free from its veil. To possess the blood or not is an issue that at times is found provocative and seen as caused by elitism, but this is not so. It is about pedigree and belonging as related to family and kin. Over time many of these families dissolved and were broken leading those of the blood to find themselves again by calling upon the blood of the land and find their rekindling of the fiery blood there, in their native land. For others the cunning meeting and unbroken family ties have made the recognition and acceptance of the elven blood less enigmatic and its mystery more clear than what it is for many a solitary pilgrim who walks woodlands and mountains, following the whispers of a silent throbbing calling in the soul of the worlds.
The Craft of the Wise is diverse, but diverse across the poles of blood and land. This means that one specific practice can manifest in a myriad of variations mediated by land, blood and man — and for those keen of eyes these bonds becomes salient and evident wherever they are found. It is also my conviction that even if the blood is forgotten it doesn’t mean that it is not there.
The icon of the Witch we have today owes much to Fernando de Rojas ‘La Celestina’ and Jules Michelet’s ‘The Sorceress’. In ‘La Celestina’ we find the lovesick Calisto that searches out the help of the brothel madam, Celestina, to subdue the object of desire with potions and spells painting a seductive and dangerous image of the witch as a siren of debauchery possessing forbidden cunning, mirroring Circe. Michelet follows up this imagery in many ways, but within the historical annotations and explanation he allows the witch to emerge, a poetic reality — a fairytale made flesh — and it is perhaps this poetic icon that colored our perception of the witch more than any other account. I see Julio Caro Baroja and Carlo Ginzburg to refine this icon. I would also place Emma Wilby and Gustav Henningsen in this succession of research, as they were widening the scope of their study and brought more nuances into the study of witchcraft.
As mentioned, Michelet argued that witchcraft occurred as a rebellion against the feudal system and the Clerical abuse in the Middle Ages; in other words that witchcraft originated in the Middle Ages as a countermovement to clerical and political abuse. He is here, as the research by Keith Thomas and Eva Pocs has demonstrated, in error. It seems like the ‘sorcery’ he has as focus for his presentation developed within the ecclesiastical walls of Church and monasteries. It is possible to suggest that the clerics and friars actually entered holy office with this wisdom or simply made use of the tricks and spells they learned from the dwellers in the countryside. This can also be assumed by the Black Mass and the Witches’ Sabbath being seen as one and the same thing by Michelet and many with him. The Witches’ Sabbath is largely a motive we find amongst the Basque people and thus recognized by witches from other places in the world accustomed to spirit congress. It might be that the Black Mass is a corruption of this Sabbath or Aquelarre of the Witches given an unholy form and meaning. At least the occurrences of Black Masses and the investigations on the Sabbath of the Witches coincide along the same timeline and geography. The historical precedence of Black Masses however is largely lodged in the scandals surrounding the Ursuline convents in Loudon and Aix-en-Provence where diabolic possessions and marriages with demons where performed in orgiastic style befitting the popular imagination of Black Masses and continued by one Abbé Etienne Guibourg (1610 -1686). Guibourg died in prison, but the Black Masses were still found to be celebrated, in truth or by rumour, amongst French and Germanic Clergy leading up to the orgiastic worship of the Carmelite Msgr. Eugene Vintras and his successor Abbé Boullan. Boullan took the Black Mass into workings of a sexual and magical nature more akin to sorcery than celebrations to appease nature and night. We can truly ask if these clerics were of the blood or not — an answer will not be possible to give, just assumed or denied… The terrain of Traditional Witchcraft is and should perhaps be and remain a mystery?
The mark of the ‘witch’ is that he or she seeks ‘the other’ in places of power — and they are found everywhere, like the kith and kin of the ‘witch’ dispersed all around the world, these crossroads are found everywhere. It is here the idea of Traditional Witchcraft enters; it is about a connection with origin by virtue of a shared blood and ancestry. It is about family in the most radical sense of the word, as famulus — denizens of a household, be they disincarnated or alive, mimicking the idea of the totem pole amongst North American Indians. The Witch who is Traditional will have such kinship and while most of these families maintain a seal of secrecy seeking to uphold their stillness and silence, we have some who have and still do demonstrate the play of famulus in the way they present themselves to the world, knowingly or not — it is about the otherness that speaks from the silence, where truth lingers and slithers…
Most dictionaries, like Webster’s for instance, will define witchcraft as ‘a power more than natural’, ‘the power of influence’ or ‘to charm people’ — hence enchantment, the power to bind someone or something by utilizing natural bonds or spirit agency. Sorcery and witchcraft are often synonymous and defined as ‘the witches’ art‘ — and so is the congress in dream or ‘orgy’ (in its real Elysian meaning; a magical communion of the senses) with spirits, often deemed evil — whilst they are in truth the denizens of the Night.
The crossover between sorcery, witchcraft, tradition and cult is a tricky one and it gets even more dazzling if we turn the gaze outward and look, for instance, at India, where witchcraft today is synonymous with wickedness and is treated as a threat upon social order. This despite that witchcraft, in truth, might be seen as something being passed down amongst Kapalikas and tantric sects of various orientations focusing on yathuvidah – ‘the sorcerous knowledge’. It would be more accurate perhaps to label these practitioners as similar in type to the North European idea of ‘Traditional Witches’ as they possess a darshana/samaya, or traditional doctrine whereupon they enact their spell craft in company with spirits. Likewise, the obscure Jewish keshupherim – the ones who knows keshup (the secret workings of the moon) is someone brought into these mysteries by virtue of intercession of past Rabbis and Rebbas that continue to work from the other side and open the world of night for the practitioner. Can these people be said to be ‘traditional witches’ or are they more akin to those sorcerers who work the mighty djinns as written about here in this anthology? If so, where is the dividing line between the art of the witch and the witch itself? To a certain degree it is about the induction into a group that possesses lineal succession that rest itself on traditional knowledge, knowledge varied in focus and scope.
If we turn to West-Africa, witchcraft is considered an innate power some people are born with, a chaotic and eruptive fire that must be tempered, but from the perspective of the Yoruba people — not battled. This witch power (ajé) is found amongst women called to take on initiation to the Lady of the Birds of Night, Iyami Osoronga. These women make part of the Ogboni council — the society of wise ones — and they alone possess the power to crown or dethrone a king. It is only when malefica is enacted with boiling passions and in a spirit of wrath and vengeance these women are understood to be witches in the negative and wicked form. From the perspective of a traditional witch this might be seen a recognition of ‘otherness’ that leads to initiation and induction to the mysteries. In addition there is also the Imole Oso that is given the form of a wizard and is the spirit protector of a secret cult loosely connected to the Ogboni. Access to the cult is granted by divination and only a few are called to enter — they are then subject for initiation to these mysteries and must merge with the spirit of Oso — becoming Oso themselves. Are any of these — or perhaps all — feasible to the label of Traditional Witchcraft when their cultural trappings are removed?
The issue is that when you call upon the spirit and they answer, who can deny you this connection? If you deem this connection to be one of blood, rest only in your own irrevocable conviction of having found your Self — and this will automatically cause a humble remembrance of the forgotten. In finding yourself you might find kith and kin — or not. In stating this I am also aware that I open doors – but I also know that Truth speaks in Silence and thus any need for profane verification of one’s Self discovery will turn itself into dust and broken illusions. Blood will recognize blood, because the initiation as such was a pact from before…that can be found and lost again and again.
We might understand Traditional Witchcraft as a poetic reality of night and nature that, whilst taking various shapes, gives form to the possibility of the ‘other’. Traditional Witchcraft is a set of practices born from need, land and blood. It is the art of working one’s Fate and the art of working hedge, hill and mound for one’s benefit. This benefit can be limited to one’s immediate needs or a group or conclave of people and their needs. The witch in the traditional sense is someone who is aware of their pedigree — the particular blood that sets the witch aside as other.
Robert Cochrane stated that a witch is never a pagan, but a pagan might be a witch, pointing at the error in conflating paganism and pagan re-constructions with traditional witchcraft proper. The distinction lies in the difference between reverence and worship, and what is known as dual observance, which is quite characteristic of several strands of traditional witchcraft. A dual observance indicates that one is able to see the same mystery playing itself out in various cultural manifestations and is capable of embracing both — the most salient one being witches who uses saints as well as their own famulus and spirit guides to accomplish their ends.
Because of all possibility and diversity ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ is still misunderstood, and some even see it as a vacant term that can be filled with whatever meaning one chooses. But, it is not quite so. Even if traditional witchcraft varies — sometimes dramatically — in its diverse expressions, there are a few pillars that will always swirl around in its kaleidoscopic dance. First and foremost we have the idea of ‘tradition’. Tradition is not only a lineal succession of initiation. It can be passed on by fiery blood passed on horizontally, blood to blood, flesh to flesh, or it can also be awakened by the celestial flame striking down... No matter how the induction or initiation is conferred it will always lead to the same results and realizations — that one is of ‘the other‘ — and this comes with a natural understanding of the enchanted world view. The secrets of the world are found unbridled within the witches’ own soul…