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The Meaning of Witchcraft
By G.B. Gardner
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2013 G.B. Gardner
All rights reserved.
The Witch Cult in Britain
My Directorship of the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft at Castletown, Isle of Man, brings me a great deal of correspondence from all parts of the world; some interesting, some abusive (a very little, just enough to enliven matters), some fantastic, and some funny in all senses of the word.
However, my more serious correspondents want to know the origin of witch-craft. Where, they ask, did it come from? What is behind this thing that obsessed the minds of men for centuries? Is it an underground cult of devil-worship? A dark thread running through history? An irruption of the supernatural into normal life? Or is it an enormous delusion? What is the meaning of it all?
This is a matter which of late years has exercised the ingenuity of a number of writers. These may be roughly divided into three schools. Firstly, those who take the severely rationalist view that witchcraft was a kind of mass hysteria, arising from psychological causes. Secondly, those who maintain that witchcraft is real, and that it is the worship and service of Satan, in whom its devotees appear to be great believers. This is the attitude taken by that very prolific writer, the late Montague Summers, and his many imitators. Thirdly, that school, headed by anthropologists like Dr. Margaret Murray, which has tried to look at the subject without either superstitious terrors and theological argument on the one hand, or materialistic incredulity on the other. This school of thought maintains that witchcraft is simply the remains of the old pagan religion of Western Europe, dating back to the Stone Age, and that the reason for the Church's persecution of it was that it was a dangerous rival. I personally belong to this third school, because its findings accord with my own experience, and because it is the only theory which seems to me to make sense when viewed in the light of the facts of history.
Perhaps I had better state briefly what that experience is. I am at present the Director of the only museum in the world, so far as I know, which is exclusively concerned with magic and witchcraft. I was a Civil Servant in the Far East (Malaya) until my retirement, and I made a large collection of magical instruments, charms, etc., which formed the nucleus of the present collection here. I am also an archaeologist and an anthropologist, and through these studies I became interested in the part played in the life of mankind by magical beliefs, and by what people did as a result of these beliefs.
When I was out East, before I had any contact with witchcraft in Britain, I investigated much native magic without finding anything which could not be explained by telepathy, hypnotism, suggestion or coincidence, and frankly I considered magic as an instance of the curious things that people will believe. In those days I was very much interested in Dr. Margaret Murray's theory that witchcraft was the remains of an ancient religion; but as all authorities seemed agreed that while there was evidence that some people may have been witches, there was not the slightest evidence that witches had ever been organised into covens; and as Charles Godfrey Leland, who had known many witches in Italy and elsewhere, and wrote a lot about them, never mentioned any coven or any organisation, I dismissed witchcraft as something which had possibly happened once, but even if it had existed it had been "burnt out" three hundred years ago.
The earlier books I read on the subject all seemed to agree to a certain extent. They said that witches existed everywhere, and were both male and female. They were intensely wicked people. They worshipped the Devil, often in the form of a heathen god (but then, all heathen gods were the Devil). They had a big organisation, regular religious ceremonies on fixed dates, a priesthood with priests, priestesses and officers, and an organised form of religion; though their deity might be called "a god" and "the Devil" almost in the same sentence. This was explained by saying that all non-Christian gods were really the Devil in disguise.
However, in the late 17th and the 18th centuries public opinion seemed to change. In spite of the strong views of John Wesley and other clergymen, people did not believe in witches any more, to the extent that when two clergymen induced a jury to convict Jane Wenham of talking to the Devil in the form of a cat, and she was sentenced to death for this in 1712, the judges protested and she was released. In 1736 the penal laws against witchcraft were repealed; and I did not think that anyone, with the exception of the Rev. Montague Summers, dared hint that there might be anything in witchcraft today without being laughed at. Charles Godfrey Leland had been regarded as a romancer who had written up a few Italian fortune-tellers, and while Dr. Margaret Murray was known as a good anthropologist, it was thought that she was writing about things that happened three or four hundred years ago, when people were superstitious, and believed silly things.
However, after Dr. Murray's books appeared, some other people were bold enough to admit that there were some witches left, but said that they were only village fortune-tellers, impostors who knew nothing about the subject, and there never had been any organisation, and anyone who thought otherwise was just being imaginative. I was of these opinions in 1939, when, here in Britain, I met some people who compelled me to alter them. They were interested in curious things, reincarnation for one, and they were also interested in the fact that an ancestress of mine, Grizel Gairdner, had been burned as a witch. They kept saying that they had met me before. We went through everywhere we had been, and I could not ever have met them before in this life; but they claimed to have known me in previous lives. Although I believe in reincarnation, as many people do who have lived in the East, I do not remember my past lives clearly; I only wish I did. However, these people told me enough to make me think. Then some of these new (or old) friends said, "You belonged to us in the past. You are of the blood. Come back to where you belong."
I realised that I had stumbled on something interesting; but I was half-initiated before the word "Wica" which they used hit me like a thunderbolt, and I knew where I was, and that the Old Religion still existed. And so I found myself in the Circle, and there took the usual oath of secrecy, which bound me not to reveal certain things.
In this way I made the discovery that the witch cult, that people thought to have been persecuted out of existence, still lived. I found, too, what it was that made so many of our ancestors dare imprisonment, torture and death rather than give up the worship of the Old Gods and the love of the old ways. I discovered the inner meaning of that saying in one of Fiona MacLeod's books: "The Old Gods are not dead. They think we are."
I am a member of the Society for Psychical Research, and on the Committee of the Folklore Society; so I wanted to tell of my discovery. But I was met with a determined refusal. "The Age of Persecution is not over," they told me; "give anyone half a chance and the fires will blaze up again." When I said to one of them, "Why do you keep all these things so secret still? There's no persecution nowadays!" I was told, "Oh, isn't there? If people knew what I was, every time a child in the village was ill, or somebody's chickens died, I should get the blame for it. Witchcraft doesn't pay for broken windows."
I can remember as a boy reading in the papers of a woman being burned alive in Southern Ireland as a witch; but I could not believe that there could be any persecution nowadays in England. So, against their better judgment, they agreed to let me write a little about the cult in the form of fiction, an historical novel where a witch says a little of what they believe and of how they were persecuted. This was published in 1949 under the title of High Magic's Aid.
In 1951 a very important event occurred. The Government of the day passed the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which repealed and replaced the last remaining Witchcraft Act, under which spiritualists used to be prosecuted in modern times. This Act is, I believe, unique in legally recognising the existence of genuine mediumship and psychic powers.
I thought that at last commonsense and religious freedom had prevailed; but even so, the passage of this Act was highly obnoxious to certain religious bodies which had been preaching against Spiritualism for years and trying to outlaw it as "the work of Satan," together with any other societies to which they objected, including Freemasonry and, of course, witchcraft.
About a year previously, this Museum had been opened, and I had flattered myself that showing what witchcraft really is, an ancient religion, would arouse no hostility in any quarter. I was to find out in due course how wrong I was!
Any attempt to show witchcraft in anything even remotely resembling a favourable light, or to challenge the old representation of it as something uniformly evil and devilish, or even to present it as a legitimate object of study, can still arouse the most surprising reactions. The virtues of humanism, which Charles Saltman defined as "sensitivity, intelligence and erudition, together with integrity, curiosity and tolerance," have still quite a long way to go in their struggle against the mentality which produced the Malleus Malejicarum.
In 1952 Pennethorne Hughes wrote a book, Witchcraft, which gave a very good historical account of witchcraft, but stated that while in mediaeval times witches had a fully worked-out ritual of their own which they performed, modern witches were simply perverts who celebrated "Black Masses," which he described as being blasphemous imitations of the Christian Mass. This made some of my friends very angry, and I managed to persuade them that it might do good to write a factual book about witchcraft, and so I wrote Witchcraft Today. In writing this latter book, I soon found myself between Scylla and Charybdis. If I said too much, I ran the risk of offending people whom I had come to regard highly as friends. If I said too little, the publishers would not be interested. In this situation I did the best I could. In particular, I denied that witches celebrated the Black Mass, or that they killed animals—or even unbaptised babies—as blood sacrifices.
One of the first questions I had asked witches as soon as I had got "inside" was, "What about the Black Mass?" They all said, "We don't know how to perform it, and if we did, what would be the point of doing so?" They also said, "You know what happens at our meetings. There is the little religious ceremony, the greeting of the Old Gods; then any business which has to be talked over, or perhaps someone wants to do a rite for some purpose; next there is a little feast and a dance; then you have to hurry for the last bus home! There is no time or place for any nonsense of 'Black Masses,' and anyhow why should we want to do one?"
I think this is just common sense. To a Roman Catholic who believes in Transubstantiation, that is, that the bread and wine of the Mass are literally changed into the flesh and blood of Christ, a ceremonial insult to the Host would be the most awful blasphemy; but witches do not believe this, so it would simply be absurd to them to try to insult a piece of bread.
I am not the first to have pointed this out; Eliphas Levi, the celebrated French occultist, who was also a devote Catholic, stated in his book, Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, that the first condition of success in the practice of black magic was to be prepared to profane the cultus in which we believed.
Some may hold that anyone who does not believe in Transubstantiation is lacking in the True Faith and doomed to Hell. I am told that certain Nonconformist ministers preaching against Transubstantiation obtained consecrated Hosts and held them up to mockery in the pulpit; but I have never heard that this made them witches.
What about the Christian people who carry such consecrated Hosts about in lockets as personal charms? Are they being reverent or not? And are they witches? (We have some of these charms in this Museum.) I know very well that some people would be shocked at this practice, but this does not alter the fact that it is done.
The point which those writers who persistently link the witch cult with the Black Mass fail to appreciate is that they can either maintain that witches are pagans, or that they celebrate Black Masses; but that in the name of logic and common sense they cannot have it both ways.
Unlike a number of sensational writers, I do not wish to convey the impression that there are witches at work in every corner of the land. On the contrary, there are very few real witches left, and those keep themselves very much to themselves. They are generally the descendants of witch families, and have inherited a tradition which has been preserved for generations. This is, indeed, the traditional way in which witchcraft was spread and preserved; the children of witch families were taught by their parents, and initiated at an early age. In fact, this is very probably the origin of all those frightful stories of the witches bringing babies to the Sabbat to eat them; what really happened was that witch parents dared not omit to have their babies baptised, for fear of instantly arousing suspicion, so they used to bring the babies to the Sabbat first, and present them in dedication to the Old Gods. Then, they felt, it wouldn't matter if a ceremony of Christian baptism was later gone through "for show." ("When I bow my head in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon Thy servant in this thing.") However, as the persecution of the Old Religion grew more fierce, it became dangerous to admit children. Innocent children prattled among themselves about where their parents went and what they did, and one unlucky word overheard by the wrong person might have meant death to the whole family. There are terrible records of children being hanged or burned with their parents, merely because they were of the witch blood. Margaret Ine Quane, for instance, who was burned as a witch here in Castletown in 1617, had her young son burned with her, simply because he was her son. Hence the custom of initiating the children was less and less observed, and this, coupled with the wholesale extermination policy carried on at the Church's instigation, soon greatly reduced the numbers of the cult.
However, there is one factor in the continuity of the tradition which the opponents of the cult had not reckoned with. The witches are firm believers in reincarnation, and they say that "Once a witch, always a witch." They believe that people who have been initiated into the cult, and have really accepted the Old Religion and the Old Gods in their hearts, will return to it or have an urge towards it in life after life, even though they may have no conscious knowledge of their previous associations with it. There may be something in this; because I know personally of three people in one coven who discovered that, subsequent to their coming into the cult in this life, their ancestors had had links with it, and I have already mentioned the witches who "recommended" me.
Of course, witch rites today are somewhat different from what they used to be many centuries ago. Then the great meetings, called Sabbats, used to be attended by large numbers of the population, who arrived provided with the wherewithal to cook a meal for themselves (hence the "hellish Sabbat fires" we have heard so much about), and prepared to spend a night on the heath in merrymaking, once the more serious rites were over. In fact, most traditional country merrymakings have some connection with the Old Religion; the Puritan Stubbes, in his Anatomie of Abuses, fiercely denounces the people who stayed out all night in the woods "Maying" on the old Sabbat date of May Eve; and Christina Hole, in her English Folklore, notes how the Northamptonshire "guisers"—folk-dancers dressed in fantastic costumes—are called "witch-men" to this day. Such instances might be greatly multiplied.
The English climate, of course, did not always permit these gatherings to be held on the heath; and I think that in this event they probably took place in someone's barn, or in the hall of a great house whose owner was friendly to the cult. In the Basque country of Pays de Labourd in 1609 the official investigator from the Parlement of Bordeaux, Pierre de Lancre, was horrified to find that the Sabbat was sometimes held in the local church, apparently with the priest's consent. He was particularly scandalised to find how many Basque priests sympathised with the Old Religion.
We are often told horrid tales of witch meetings in churchyards, and of witches who, in the words of Robert Burns, "in kirkyards renew their leagues owre how kit dead." But in the old times the churchyard was the regular place for village merrymakings. In those days a churchyard was not, as it is today, a place of gravestones, but simply a green sward. From M. C. Anderson's Looking for History in British Churches we may see that dancing in the churchyard was quite feasible in the old days as the author says that it was not the practice to erect gravestones to those who were buried there. "The great folks were buried beneath sculptured tombs within the church.... The little people remained anonymous in death before the 17th century."
Excerpted from The Meaning of Witchcraft by G.B. Gardner. Copyright © 2013 G.B. Gardner. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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