Old World Witchcraft: Ancient Ways for Modern Daysby Raven Grimassi
In Old World Witchcraft, noted author Raven Grimassi covers totally new territory--in his work and in the world of popular witchcraft books published in the last few decades. This book is actually about "an enchanted worldview," one that has not necessarily been inherited from the beliefs and practices of any particular region and one which is available to/i>
In Old World Witchcraft, noted author Raven Grimassi covers totally new territory--in his work and in the world of popular witchcraft books published in the last few decades. This book is actually about "an enchanted worldview," one that has not necessarily been inherited from the beliefs and practices of any particular region and one which is available to us today.
The "Old World" in the title is actually about a magical view of the Plant Kingdom and the spirits attached to it. While Grimassi's previous books discuss the cultural expressions and commonality of witchcraft beliefs and practices in general, this book penetrates much deeper.
Old World Witchdraft reveals rarely discussed topics such as the concept of Shadow as the organic memory of the earth. Readers will learn rooted techniques that possess power because these ways have always been connected to it. They will learn methods of interfacing with the ancestral current and with the organic memory of the earth. Through these they can connect with the timeless arts and learn methods of empowerment directly from the ancient source.
Totally new information about familiar tools is presented. For example, the mortar and pestle is a tool for spell casting, a device that creates interfacing with plant spirits and with shadow, and a focal point for veneration of the Plant Kingdom. Grimassi also presents the art of using plant ashes for magical sigil work.
This book is for people who have had their fill of books that say the same things over and over, who want to take the next step, and who are eager for the more rooted ways that have remained largely hidden.
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OLD WORLD WITCHCRAFT
ANCIENT WAYS FOR MODERN DAYS
By Raven Grimassi
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2011 Raven Grimassi
All rights reserved.
Hushed Voices of the Past
This chapter may at first appear to be an argument for witchcraft as the survival of an ancient sect. It is not. Instead it is a look at the evolution of themes related to the witch and witchcraft, which include religious elements and other enduring facets persisting over the centuries. But more than anything else, this chapter is a call to rethink what we believe is the story of witchcraft and to reconsider what we have been led to believe in a different light.
If we listen closely, and with new ears, we can hear the muffled voices of the past speaking to us about witches and witchcraft. These voices seem drowned out by the literary ones of the pre-Christian era and by those of theologians over the centuries of domination by Christian culture in Europe. The witch figure has long been vilified and redefined to fit the personal agenda of the writers in any given period of time. This took place on such a wide scale that we cannot be certain the original witch figure is truly the same unchanged character appearing throughout the centuries.
Scholars freely admit there are problems defining European witchcraft. Several things contribute confusion to this matter including attempts to sort witches from sorceresses and other magic-users. Another problem arises in trying to separate the legendary witch from the human witch, and the reality of witchcraft from its supernatural contamination. Added to this is the mire of learned tradition mixed with popular tradition and vice versa. In other words, how much did the views of theologians and the uneducated people influence one another? Did this influence lead to enlightenment or to conflation and invention?
As mentioned in the preface, I do not believe we possess a documented history of witchcraft. In other words, the academic writings are not an ethnographical study of a people known as witches. What we primarily have instead are writings about the views non-witches held about witchcraft and its practitioners. What is presented as "official history" appears to be largely the examination of how popular beliefs about supernatural beings evolved into an imaginary sect of people. The vast majority of people interrogated on the charge of witchcraft were not witches by any definition. But their coerced confessions to practices they were never a part of contain data scholars use to create a portrait of witchcraft and witches. Can we realistically treat this data as the authentic history of people known as witches?
The modern academic view of witchcraft is rooted in the stereotypes depicted in the writings and records generated by people who feared and hated witches. These roots go much deeper than the Christian era and can be found in ancient Greek and Roman times. The dangerous witch figure is a very old concept. Can such negative views be trusted? How credible are the sources?
Stories about witches have always been quite fantastic and unbelievable. Nevertheless, in previous time periods, people certainly believed in the fantastic. For them it was a real concept that witches flew through the night sky, transformed into various creatures, and frolicked with demons at grand festive celebrations. Such views do not truly match the earliest concepts from which the witch figure evolved. To find the preexisting concepts, we must look to the sparse fragments of the distant past.
What do the earliest writings in Western culture tell us about witches and witchcraft? Despite the modern stereotype of the ugly evil witch, it will surprise the average person to learn of a different depiction in ancient times. There are two sources to examine for a better understanding of the older model of the witch. I refer to ancient literature and etymology, which is the study of the origins of word meanings and how they can change over time or with usage.
In Western culture the earliest word translated into the English word "witch" is the Greek word pharmakuete or pharmakis. This is also the root of the English word pharmacist. The Greek word obviously refers to plants and their chemical properties, but in ancient times it also referred to a particular type of person. Scholar Richard Gordon has commented that pharmakis became one of the standard words for wise woman/witch. What does this suggest about the early nature of witches?
If we look first at the etymology of pharmakis by itself, the image of witches as "the plant people" easily arises. In this light, witches possess knowledge about plants and the effects their substances can create. Having such knowledge is not, by itself, a good or bad thing. It is the application of such knowledge that can be labeled as positive or negative. Popular stories about witches contain references to them healing and harming people. In this light there is no single nature of the witch, and yet in mainstream culture the witch is always thought of as up to no good.
Historically speaking, we know that witches have long been depicted as people of ill intent. In addition, the stereotypes portray the witch as old and ugly. But this image was not always the case. We know, for example, that Medea (a famous witch in ancient literature) first appears as a beautiful woman highly skilled in the arts of witchcraft. She also is portrayed as a priestess of the goddess Hecate.
Another figure is the beautiful Circe, who seduces the Greek hero Ulysses/Odysseus. It is not until the last two centuries before the Christian era that this basic model is transformed and the witch is described as hideous. The writings of the Roman poet Horace appear to be among the earliest to present such a model (and date to the first century before the Christian era). Scholar Richard Gordon states that no extended portraits of hag witches come from the Hellenistic period, although some witches are described as old women in a percentage of tales.
In ancient Greek legends the witch figure appears to be traceable to mythical women known as the Graeae or Graiae. These women first appear in the writings of Hesiod in a work titled The Theogony, which dates to around 700 BCE. Hesiod is important because he was the first in Southern Europe to set oral traditions into writing. His writings therefore convey prehistoric concepts. One example is the tale of the Titans, which Hesiod says is so ancient that few people remember anything about the Titans in his own time period.
In The Theogony, Hesiod writes that the "Graeae" (commonly written later on as the Graiae) are three sisters born with gray hair, which means they already possess great wisdom at birth. He describes them as fair of face and well clothed. However, in later centuries the Graiae are depicted in the tale of Perseus as three hideous toothless hags who are blind. They possess a magical eye that is passed around in order for all three to share the surrounding view. This is a far cry from the wise and lovely Graiae sisters in Hesiod's earlier period. It is, however, a very good demonstration of how concepts become distorted over time. Later in this chapter we will look at why it takes place.
So far we have explored the etymology in which we encountered the witch as a skilled herbalist or plant specialist. Next we will look at the practice of witchcraft, and from there we will examine the reported character of the witch. This helps us to separate the person of the witch from the legend of the witch. For this task we must first look to the ancient literary works in which witches appear. One of the problems we encounter is the definition of a witch, and whether or not the translation from one language to another should rightfully read "witch" (as opposed to someone who uses magic in general). In other words, is the character really a witch as opposed to a sorceress? Is there a difference?
The majority of the earliest tales of witches are actually fictitious. For this reason, there is a tendency in the academic field to dismiss the material as any kind of proof about authentic practices of witches and witchcraft in ancient times. However, a good fiction typically contains true elements along with invented ones. For example, a piece of fiction written about a gang in Chicago will incorporate real places, known slang, and current popular beliefs about gang members. This helps the reader relate better to the story itself because it seems more believable due to the familiar components. I view ancient fiction in the same way. I do not regard the ancient literary tales as historical accounts, but I do believe they contain historical elements. In this sense there is a "folklore as history" component here, and we should not automatically dismiss its value.
One featured element in the earliest tales of witches is the calling upon of stars in the night sky. A woman referred to as Giula of Bologna was accused of witchcraft (circa 1518) and condemned by the Inquisition for praying to a star called Diana. Scholar Matteo Duni comments on the appearance in witchcraft trials of such non-Christian elements as praying to the stars and the moon. This type of thing is very old magic, and evoking the aid of stars is a known historical practice of great antiquity. Among the earliest examples are evocations found in ancient Chaldea or Babylon. The extreme closeness between these historical verses and the witchcraft evocations appearing in ancient Greek and Roman literature is remarkable. Is this coincidence, or are we looking at something more significant?
Tales about the witch figure known as Medea are rich with old magic and contain the evocation of stars. Medea uses a wand, a knife, a cauldron, and an altar. These are the earliest referenced tools used by a witch. She works her witchcraft primarily at night and calls not only upon the stars but also on very primal forces. These include mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, and herbs. The idea that inanimate objects possess consciousness and power is extremely ancient. Additionally, Medea calls upon goddesses such as Hecate. This, coupled with the use of an altar, suggests a religious or spiritual connection. Indeed, in ancient tales Medea is described as a priestess.
Modern scholars reject the view of witchcraft as a religion in the past. Despite such a position, no historical era is without a religious connotation regarding witches and witchcraft. For example, in the Middle Ages and Renaissance witches were believed to "worship" the Devil. But scholars do not regard this element as something religious in nature, which is a curious position to maintain. It is interesting to note that in ancient Greek culture witches are described as practitioners of illicit religion, which means their practices were not regarded as meeting the standards of official religion as set forth by the authorities. No matter how much the practices of a witch looked religious in nature, witches were never granted that status by those sitting in judgment of such things.
In ancient times the people of all regions were exposed to the idea of gods and goddesses. Records indicate a widespread veneration of deities in all social classes. The witches of ancient culture grew up in the same world of non-witches. It is unlikely that they alone were unaware of the gods, uninterested, or completely uninvolved. Were ancient witches entirely uninfluenced by the regional cultures in which they lived? This seems very unlikely, and so we must take into consideration that ancient witches had some type of relationship with the gods.
When examining ancient literature associated with witches and witchcraft we encounter a complex problem. Historically, and in the literary tradition, witches have always been depicted as evil, dangerous, self-serving, and ill-intentioned people, but it is not uncommon for the enemy to always be viewed in such a light; therefore, everything they do is interpreted in accord with the preconception. We see this practice reflected in the attitudes related to the American Indian wars. When Indians were triumphant in battle, it is called a massacre, whereas defeat by the U.S. Army is a victory. It is really a matter of who is telling the story and what they have to gain. The bad guys are always the people belonging to the other side.
It is not my intent to portray ancient witches as a loving but misunderstood people. There were certainly sound reasons to fear witches in days of old, just as there were good reasons to fear any powerful people treated badly in ancient times. Jason (of Argonaut fame) manipulates the love Medea has for him as a means of getting her to use magic to achieve his goals through ill deeds. Afterward he leaves her and their children and runs off to marry another woman. But he remains the noble Greek hero, and she is the villain. In the mythical story of Ulysses/Odysseus, he has an affair with Circe and leaves her behind to return to his wife after one year's time. In the tale he is the good guy and she is the bad girl.
The most common stories about witches have them using poison and evoking foul weather in their preferred enjoyment of making life miserable for others. In the records of old witch trials we read accounts that witches are required to report their ill deeds to the Devil on a regular basis. We are further told that witches are beaten for poor performance and insufficient evil acts. That this type of nonsense was ever regarded as fact is even more unbelievable than the allegations made against witches.
We know from anthropological studies that the witch figure was a tool used to explain bad times, illness, and harmful acts of nature. Sick cattle, poor crops, unexplainable illness, negative weather changes, and odd phenomena were all attributed to the presence and activities of a witch. Kill the witch, fix the problem. Therefore, the legendary evil witch filled a needed place, which was that of the scapegoat.
It is one of the goals of this book to demonstrate that actual people existed who were witches. These were not the legendary or supernatural witches. Instead they were mortals like any, but mortals who possessed what can be called "an enchanted view" of the world around them. I refer to these people as Old Ways witches. They were the lineage bearers of the old magic and old practices that were disappearing under the pressure of the Church to eradicate pre-Christian beliefs and practices. These witches were not inherently evil, but they were more than capable and willing to harm their enemies as deemed necessary.
According to historian Richard Gordon, in ancient times there were two types of witches. One was the kind that could be encountered in daily life, and who was known about in her community. The other type was the supernatural or "night witch"—an impossible creature that was a vampire-like owl who could transform into a woman. The latter overshadowed the mortal witch and gave rise to displaced fear and violent persecution. Ironically, the blending of the real witch with the imaginary one eventually produced a positive result. This was the disbelief in the existence of witches in the past or the present. Time fused the two types of witches into one in the public mind. The eventual realization that the supernatural witch was a false concept automatically dismissed the idea of the existence of the witch itself. It was safer for witches to have people not believe in them, and so both sides shared the relief of disbelief when its time came.
One key problem in ferreting out the Old Ways witch is that the old stories about witches are all about the supernatural witch, and many of the folk customs still carry a belief in her. By comparison it is rare to find ancient tales of the mortal witch, and as a result some people conclude there weren't any. This erroneous assessment much too easily misleads people and directs them away from pursuing the buried truth. Finding the truth about ancient witches requires removing the coverings of distortion, intentional misrepresentation, political fabrication, and the invention of diabolical witchcraft by the Church and its agents.
In order to arrive at an understanding of witchcraft as it once was, as opposed to its misrepresentation, we must use the basic science of reverse engineering. Essentially, this science attempts to acquire knowledge about the original model or mechanism of something when little or nothing is known about it. The process starts with examining the model as it currently exists and then working backward through its connective parts. The trail is followed by examining the sequence of the parts, how they are assembled, and the function each plays, all the way back to the first part of the original model. By doing so, it is possible to come to a realization of the original idea or its generative form.
In relationship to witchcraft, we need to apply reverse engineering to popular folklore and diabolical witchcraft as well as to the views of the Church and its agents in the past. This is the story of how old witchcraft traditions were suppressed or demonized. It is also the tale of how popular beliefs and customs can be cultivated to displace or distort the cultural roots of their origin. Uncovering that origin is a worthy quest.
The work ahead of us begins with the idea of the diabolical witch and the stereotype of the Sabbat as a blasphemy against the Catholic mass. An examination of its invented components and the tracing back in time of its non-diabolical roots will begin to unravel the hoax. Investigating each of the elements helps to follow the ideas about witches and witchcraft that were grafted onto the theme, each one forming links in a forged chain of falsehoods.
Excerpted from OLD WORLD WITCHCRAFT by Raven Grimassi. Copyright © 2011 Raven Grimassi. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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Meet the Author
Raven Grimassi is a Neo-Pagan scholar and award-winning author of over twelve books on Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-Paganism, including Italian Witchcraft. He is a member of the American Folk Lore Society and is co-founder and co-director of the Crossroads Fellowship, a modern Mystery School tradition. Visit him online at ravengrimassi.net
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I have followed Raven's writings for many years and find this book refreshing in that he has stripped away all the fancy ritual, taken a road less followed, and stripped bare the concept of uniting with nature. When I was a girl my alter was a rock and some seashells and feathers. Does not having rich incantation and bright shiny objects make it any less sacred? The wiccan world and world of the Witch are very different. This book will take you to a simpler place, strip away all the drama and bring you back to the crossroads, where as children we played without fear.
This guy reminds me of the "academic" version of someone with short man's syndrome. Academic is in quotes due to the fact that when I read an academic paper, I tend to find a higher quality of logic. His "truths" sound flimsy at best, and that distresses me because I am Pagan. I do not like to see "logical" arguments with giant holes in them presented in a way that encourages an educated response, he makes us look like idiots. Also, this man does not seem to know who his audience is. He presents his information as if it will be submitted for peer review in an academic journal, yet the book is marketed to the general public and to Pagans who likely do not need to suffer through a multi-chapter discussion on what a witch might be. Other books manage to get to the point, he seems to enjoy pretending to be an intellectual far more than making much of a point at all. Dude sucks.
Why Raven, why? This is an author who could lend so much to the advancement of our beliefs, and yet consistently under delivers. Mr. Grimassi is not a theologian, anthropologist, or academic, and does not have the credentials to offer an "ethnographic study" of witchcraft. His work sited page is, at best 12th grade paper. He spends 1/2 the book saying the same things over and over. This is a magazine article written by a self proclaimed expert, desperately stretched into a book. And what's the fill? Just another rehash of the same old neo-pagan nonsense. Wicca renamed Ash, Birch, and Willow "Mr. Gimassi's version of old witchcraft, that desperately tries to be erudite but falls radically short. If one has not clue about witchcraft and is looking for something that gives a sparksnotes history with the occasion 'big word' and misplaced modifier, with some spells in the back, (complete with Grimoire, naturally) then this is the book for you.