Witchcraft Yesterday and Today

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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.

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

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

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).

Image byLapatia, licensed under Creative Commons. 

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