On every full moon, pagan rituals take place on hilltops, on beaches, in open fields and in ordinary houses. Writers, teachers, nurses, computer programmers, artists, lawyers, poets, plumbers, and auto mechanics—women and men from many backgrounds—come together to celebrate the mysteries of the Triple Goddess of birth, love, and death, and of her Consort, the Hunter, who is Lord of the Dance of Life. The religion they practice is called Witchcraft.
Witchcraft is a word that frightens many people and confuses many others. In the popular imagination, Witches are ugly old hags riding broomsticks, or evil Satanists performing obscene rites. Modern witches are thought to be members of a kooky cult, which lacks the depth, dignity, and seriousness of purpose of a true religion.
But Witchcraft is a religion, perhaps the oldest religion in the West. Its origins go back before Christianity, Judaism, Islam, before Buddhism and Hinduism. The Old Religion, as we call it, is closer in spirit to Native American traditions or to the shamanism of the Inuit people of the Arctic. It is not based on dogma or a set of beliefs, nor on scriptures or a sacred book revealed by a great man. Witchcraft takes its teachings from nature and reads inspiration in the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, in the flight of birds, in the slow growth of trees, and in the cycles of the seasons.
The worship of the Great Goddess, which is at the heart of Witchcraft, underlies the beginnings of all civilizations. Mother Goddess was carved on the walls of Paleolithic caves and sculpted in stone as early as 25,000 B.C. In 7000 B.C., cities arose in Asia Minor that developed a rich, Goddess-centered culture, combining agriculture, hunting, and early crafts, in which women were leaders. From excavations done in the 1960s, we get a picture of an egalitarian, decentralized, inventive, and peaceful society, without evidence of human or animal sacrifice or weapons of war.
Similar cultures flourished in the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, India, Central America, South America, and China. For the Mother, giant stone circles, the henges of the British Isles, were raised. For Her the great passage graves of Iceland were dug. In Her honor sacred dancers leaped the bulls in Crete. Grandmother Earth sustained the soil of the North American prairies, and Great Mother Ocean washed the coasts of Africa. Her priestesses discovered and tested the healing herbs and learned the secrets of the human mind and body that allowed them to ease the pain of childbirth, to heal wounds and cure diseases and to practice magic, which I like to define as the “art of changing consciousness at will.”
In the great urban centers, as society became more centralized, a new type of power developed: the ability of one group of human beings to control another. War became common. And as warfare came to shape culture, women were driven from power, and the rule of men over women ensued. This rule brought with it the system of inheritance through the father. This made the sexual control of women necessary to ensure that a father’s children were truly his. In Europe, the Middle East, and India, this move toward patriarchy was intensified by invasions from the warlike Indo-Europeans, who venerated male sky-gods and glorified battle.
The change to patriarchy was not an instant process. The old cultures resisted, and the transition lasted thousands of years (from approximately 4000 to 1500 B.C.) in Europe and the Middle East. The written myths and legends of the Old Religion that have come down to us all date from the transitional era.
Yet the concept of Mother never completely died. In India, She survived (and still does to today) in village celebrations and in the goddesses of Hindu worship. In Greece, She became the goddesses of Olympus. Her worship lived in mystery cults and folk traditions as well as in the healing practices and rituals of the “pagans” (from the Latin, meaning “country dweller”). The Great Mother was also Christianized as the Virgin Mary, whose worship is especially strong to this day in Latin America.
Those who held to the Old Religion of the Goddess were called Witches, from the Anglo-Saxon root wic (wicca is another name some use for witchcraft)—meaning “to bend or shape.” They were shamans, healers, benders and shapers of reality, strongly tied to village and peasant culture, linked to the land and the round of seasonal celebrations.
As the culture of Europe changed in the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholics and later Protestants persecuted Witches as a way of breaking down the peasants’ cultures in order to open the land to more profitable exploitation; to increase the power of the male medical profession by driving women out of healing; and to consolidate social control by attacking sensuality, the erotic, and the mysterious. Torture, terror, burning, and outright lies were their tools, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of victims (some estimate as many as nine million), primarily women, established the aura of fear that still surrounds the “Witch” and the Western view of suprarational powers and abilities.
After the persecutions ended in the 18th century came the age of unbelief. Memory of the Craft had faded, and the hideous stereotypes that remained seemed ludicrous, laughable, or tragic. Only in this century have Witches been able to “come out of the broom closest,” so to speak, and counter the imagery of evil with truth.
Excerpted from Yoga Journal (May/June 1986) and reprinted in Utne Reader (Oct./Nov. 1986).