Witchcraft and the
The concepts, beliefs, and practices of modern Witchcraft are rooted in ancient European Paganism. Witchcraft, as it exists today, is a religion and magical system that has evolved over countless centuries. Although its basic foundational concepts appear in those of the Neolithic era, a variety of ideas and notions particular to following periods have also influenced it. These influences include the classical period, Middle Ages, Renaissance, nineteenth-century Romantic era, and the modern Wicca movement that arose in the mid-twentieth century.
To understand the core essence of Witchcraft we must look to a time before the rise of Christianity, when the beliefs and practices of ancient Europe were unaltered by imported alien concepts. Despite the fact that European Pagans were diverse in their beliefs and practices, there is a root core commonality that speaks of something older upon which all were based. Was there once a central primitive religion to explain the similarities, or are we simply looking at the ways humankind itself commonly conceives of religious and ritual elements?
When considering prehistorical beliefs we are left with a great deal of speculation because we have no writings upon which to formulate our understanding of how prehistoric people perceived the items and images they left behind. Some commentators argue that in modern times we reason with minds that are totally different from those of our prehistorical ancestors. This suggests that we cannot understand or view things in the same ways as our ancestors. However, such a view dismisses the core of our humanness and how we approach, analyze, and react to the unknown as a species. It also dismisses a key element of belief within Witchcraft, which is reincarnation. In this light we still possess the collective soul experience, which means we were once our ancient ancestors. Therefore, as Witches, we can access the older understanding of the ancient beliefs and practices that are recorded as soul memories. See chapter 8 for further information regarding such methods.
While we as modern humans like to think of ourselves as being highly evolved, beyond our prehistoric ancestors, we are in fact still just as subject to the primal or primitive part of our brains. History reveals that humans are still motivated by the same drives, goals, and ambitions today as they were thousands of years ago. Ancient Greek plays are as relevant today to human society and behavior as they were in the time period in which they were written. Is it then reasonable to assume that, thousands of years before these ancient writings, humans were completely different? It is more likely that the ways in which our prehistoric ancestors thought and perceived were not as alien to us, as a species, as some commentators like to think.
We know that humans build upon existing ideas and concepts. One of the earliest writings in Western literature, the Theogony, demonstrates this fact. In this writing, the author Hesiod refers to an elder race of gods (the Titans) who existed before the rise of the gods of Olympus. Hesiod patterns the Olympic gods after the categories of the Titans, demonstrating an ongoing human tradition of passing along knowledge and information in an established format. To Hesiod, who wrote sometime around the seventh or eighth century bce, the Titans were an almost forgotten race of gods from an earlier and half-remembered era. From where then did the earlier beliefs regarding the Titans originate in this misty past? Were they not based upon earlier prehistoric beliefs that came before them? It would seem reasonable to assume such to be the case, and the commonality of the human experience to be the uniting factor.
In the remainder of this chapter we will explore the primal concepts that evolved into religion in a manner that views everything as connected along a line of evolution. We will not view the things we examine as having no relationship or connection as generations passed through the ages. Instead we will approach this as though humans passed on their religious concepts in the same manner as they passed on everything else related to their society and technology. It would seem odd to consider it in any other fashion, for even on a mundane level, the arrow that was once the spear is not unrelated to the tool, the concept, or the need. In a metaphorical sense, this applies as well to religious thought and conception.
The world of our ancestors was one filled with mystery and wonder. Imagine not knowing or even having any idea of what the moon and the sun were in the sky. What kept them there and how did they move about? Where did they go when they disappeared beneath the horizon? Who or what created them? Humans, being naturally curious beings, no doubt spent much time wondering about these and many other things.
In time it became apparent that the mysterious world operated in patterns. The most noticeable ones presented themselves in the seasons and the migration of birds and animals. Later, when humans turned to farming (becoming less dependent upon the animals they hunted) the growing cycle of the crops was well noted. What appears to be apparent from ancient writings is a belief that a spirit or a deity was somehow involved in the cycles and processes of this mysterious world.
Images and statues were created to depict these unseen beings. A system of appropriate offerings was constructed, and a type of veneration or worship arose. These were all attempts at communication, supplication, and alliance building. Some individuals within the early tribes seemed more attuned to the unseen world and its beings, and these people performed what might be called religious or spiritual tasks for the tribe. Various examples of this commonality in diverse human cultures are the European shaman, American Indian medicine man or woman, and the African witch doctor. For the purposes of this chapter we are interested in the European witch.
The earliest written references in Western culture to Witches can be found in ancient Greek literature. Here such figures as Medea are priestesses of Hecate (a Titan) and are involved in themes related to magic, herbalism, and divination. They frequently live in rural settings away from the developed towns and cities. From where did the concepts associated with Witchcraft in ancient times originate? What were the origins of the ascribed beliefs and practices associated with these Witches? How did the Witches come to embrace them? The simplest answer is that such things were passed along from earlier periods of European Paganism, and were eventually formed into a sect that came to be called Witches. But what were these earlier concepts and beliefs?
It is difficult to know precisely what prehistoric humans intended when they buried their dead with various objects, or when they colored the body with red ocher. Some commentators suggest that such acts were designed to protect the living from the dead, while others believe that this indicated a belief in an afterlife where the departed would require his or her personal belongings. In either case there appears to be a rooted belief that death does not exterminate the vitality of the departed individual.
The phenomena of dreaming may have caused early humans to believe in another world beyond this one, but similar in many ways. In the dream world we encounter various situations in a realm similar to the waking world, but one in which magical things happen. It is not uncommon in a dream for an object to turn into something different by itself. In dreams we can fly, breathe under water, and perform many tasks not possible in the waking world. What would primitive humans have made of this strange realm?
A person who is asleep looks very much like someone who is dead. This fact may also have established a connection between the absence of animation in this world and the reanimation in another. If one can appear dead (the dreamer) and yet experience another existence (the dream world) then perhaps actual death is much the same. In this light it is not unreasonable to conclude that primitive humans believed in the survival of the individual who physically died in the waking world.
The creation of figurative art, evidenced as early as 30,000 bce, demonstrates that humans of this period were conscious of symbolism and personification as a form of communication. Here also are signs of ritual process and the connection between desire and the manifestation of desire through the ritual expression of themes. This strongly suggests a belief that ritual/magical actions can influence those forces that operate the natural world and its phenomena. Burial customs also suggest a belief that each world had some degree of influence upon the other. Here we begin to see what modern humans might call religion, a word derived from the Latin religare, meaning to tie together.
Primitive burial mounds featured a relatively small hole. The general view is that this hole allowed the spirit to come and go as it pleased. A more mystical view is that it allowed the light of the waking world to enter as well as the light of the dream world (the moon). In any case, burial mounds would continue to carry Otherworld connotations throughout the passing centuries, eventually being viewed as faery mounds. A woodcut appearing in a pamphlet on Scottish Witchcraft, circa 1591, depicts a group of Witches standing over a mound. Inside the mound are three tiny adult characters feasting at a table, in front of which appears a full-size man lying on the floor (Normand, Lawrence, and Gareth Roberts. Witchcraft in Early Modern Scotland. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000). Some commentators view this as the depiction of a faery mound.
The placement of personal effects in the burial place of the dead can be viewed as an act of appeasement as well as preparation. In other words, it is an act designed to maintain the good favor o...