One of the Christian blogs I follow, Interfaith Services of The Low Country, had a recent post on modern Witchcraft. It was very positive and very nice, and basically reproduced the modern Wiccan myth of an ancient and wise Paganism carried forwarded in secret by Pagan Witches bravely facing the persecution of Church and Establishment. So, in an ironic twist I found myself doing a quick comment-response to explain to these good Christian folk the actual roots of Wicca and that it’s not all that wonderfully mythic, really. How weird is that? :) The comment is below. Ta.
Dear Rev. Peter,
thank you for this post, which is very interesting.
I admire the motives and love behind this post, but would like to say a few things. The history of the Craft you are presenting is wonderful and inspiring and moving. It is also mythic, not historical. Not that in any way invalidates the experiences we gain from engaging in this rich mythic history.
I envy your experiences with Starhawk, who is a mythic-poet par excellence and whose works breath the very essence of this inspired myth. The actual history however, I think is more inspiring and I’ll plonk some links that shows this soon.
Some history :) Wicca’s origins are the 1920s-1940s. See Triumph of the Moon by Ronald Hutton. Wicca drew on new ways of seeing Witchcraft, paganism, nature and sexuality and combined these with traditional western magic and lodge work (largely heterodox Christian) to form a new religion, where the boundaries between magic and religion were collapsed into the icon of the Witch. Wicca is most definitely not “Native European Spirituality” in the same way that term is used worldwide.
Early modern witch-hunts did not target Pagan practitioners, as there were few Pagan survivals at all. Nor were the hunts mostly church instigated but secular. Nor did they target wise or cunning folk unduly. The victims of this aspect of our horrible past were mostly women who often owned land and who had no living or no influential male relative. They were mostly ordinary Christian folk and there is little evidence to suggest midwives and women healers were targeted or the hunts were in any way influenced by the nascent medical profession.
We only have to look at this from a commonsense perspective: a rural early modern community would be cutting its own throat by targeting midwives, herbalists and healers, who were core parts of the community. The actual numbers of victims have now been successfully calculated as between 40 000 -100 000 in the early modern period. And indeed, yes these folk were the Anawim.
Witchcraft as a word historically refers exclusively to practitioners of malefic magic. The same concept is found almost universally in each culture. Folklorists and learned academics starting using the term ‘white-witch’ in the modern period, but cunning and wise folk – the rural healers, midwives, magic folk, did not use that term to describe themselves. They often saw themselves as opposed to the mythic evil Witch. Only since Jules Michelet, late 19th century, and later Margaret Murray, did Witchcraft become a positive and self-declared label. Michelet was the forerunner for much of the myth you present here.
The concept of a female form of divinity rose into prominence in England and Europe during the late 19th century in the form of the composite deity, “mother nature”. As you say “Wisdom, you see, is timeless” and modern Wicca was the first popular religion to worship this new form of ancient and timeless female divinity as ‘the Goddess’. Wicca was then, and hopefully is now, riding the wave of cultural and social change, rather than maintaining a literal and historical connection to ancient paganisms.
You write, Witches are “in large part, women dedicated to reclaiming a positive sexual and spiritual identity, people who are committed to ecological awareness and environmental protection, to community outreach and service, and to alternative forms of healing and wholeness that are beyond the usual methods.”
This is indeed true of many modern Witches, but not all, and it certainly is not normative. Many of the founders and original practitioners of Wicca had little feminist or left wing leanings, and were often conservative in politics. Many modern Wiccans have little desire or need for community outreach or service or even charitable donations. Some are still as conservative politically as their spiritual ancestors of the 40s and 50s, and not a few maintain the strict heterosexist component of Wicca where all magic and blessings flow between members of the opposite sex only.
You may be interested in a few blog posts of my own on related topics, which I link below. Thanks again for your inspiring and lovely post :)