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The Witches' Book of the Dead
By Christian Day
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC Copyright © 2011 Christian Day
All rights reserved.
A Covenant with the Dead
"Witchcraft"—the word evokes images of strange rituals held in forgotten corners of gnarled forests lit only by the moon and perhaps a candle or two. Within a bramble-lined clearing is a stone altar, upon which is spread a gathering of roots, charms, daggers, and other tools of the magical arts. At the center of the altar, the stark presence of a leering human skull presides over the ceremony as a venerated representative of the mighty dead. A lone sorceress, draped in tattered black robes, pricks her finger to draw three drops of her blood as an offering to the spirits as she whispers her dark oaths and secret desires on the wind. As the Witch waits, the dead hearken to her call, rising from their shadowy resting places to serve their mistress's bidding.
This foreboding image of the Witch as necromantic sorceress, working under the guise of moonlight and conjuring spirits, continues to lurk in the unconscious depths of peoples throughout the world despite the hopes of the well-intentioned to turn the ancient arts of Witchcraft into just another mainstream religion, lush with spiritual devotion but nearly devoid of magic. Something within each of us knows that Witches are creatures of magic; Witches cast spells, heal, and foretell the future; Witches commune with spirits of the dead and otherworldly entities and employ those powers to weave their intentions into the world around them. This book explores the enduring relationship between Witches and the dead, and shares rituals and incantations to help you open doorways to the spirit world.
The Witch in Myth and History
Dig into the past and you will find that Witches have nearly always lived on the fringes of society, casting their spells by candlelight, mixing potions for love and elixirs for healing, and calling on spirits, fairies, and other strange denizens of the unseen worlds to bring about change and to teach the wisdom of arcane secrets. Ordinary people sought out Witches in the dead of night, hoping to divine the future and procure all manner of spells for love, health, and prosperity—or to deal justice to those who deserved it. The Witches were proficient at all of these things.
It is not certain when Witches first walked the Earth, but the arts of magic have been practiced since humans first endeavored to understand the hidden workings of the world around them and to solve the great mystery of death. It is difficult to outline in great detail all of the practices of ancient magical peoples because, aside from the occasionally unearthed curse tablet, amulet, or sacred inscription, early sorcerers rarely wrote down what they did. They passed their knowledge only to family or long-prepared apprentices, and often took their greatest secrets with them to the grave. We discover the Witch among the dusty bones and relics of archeology, in the whispers of folklore, and through direct communication with the spirits of those who lived long ago.
Among early tribal cultures, those individuals who could do magic were often separated out and given roles of recognition and honor. In this way, the earliest shamans and medicine people came to be. These tribal magicians were not that far removed from Witches, with one important exception: their practices were revered by the people around them, whereas Witches were typically outsiders who did magic according to their own rules.
As humans settled down and civilizations were born, priesthoods evolved from those early shamanic cultures. Priests served an important function in the emerging warrior-based states because they provided spiritual nourishment for the masses—a role they still play today. Magic itself was gradually assimilated into the state as an officially sanctioned practice, but also began to be restricted to those who were authorized to use it. Others, especially those for whom magic was their birthright, refused to bow to these emerging authorities, preferring to practice magic in the ways they understood it. From these early rebels, the idea of the Witch was born.
Those who chose the path of priesthood often had magical and necromantic talents, but their practices grew more and more liturgical and political as time went on, gradually losing the power of spirit and magic. Thus, their people were left with oracles proclaiming the will of the state as "divine prophecy."
In classical Roman times, Witches often caused much fear; their craft was sometimes even outlawed, but still these magical people carried on in secret. The literature and commentary of the era paints the Witch as a dark and formidable enemy. Roman emperors of the pre-Christian era, for example, welcomed the practice of virtually hundreds of faiths, but not Witchcraft. The reason for this is simple: Witches had the power to affect the tides of reality around them. The Roman leaders of the time feared this power, knowing that, just as they could be stripped of their rule as the result of a few drops of poison in their wine goblets, the Witch's curse, a far more undetectable danger, could bring their reign crashing down around them if they proved to be unjust rulers who abused their people.
Witches were feared in ancient Greece as well. There, they were believed to practice necromancy, summon dark forces, and consult with daemons— spirits good or evil (that would later evolve into the Christian concept of the entirely evil demon) that the Witch employed to perform all manner of tasks. It was this use of spirits that caused the Greeks to associate Witches with the powers of darkness and the underworld. They were looked upon as strangers in their native land, sometimes to be consulted, always to be feared.
In the fourth century, a new spiritual behemoth arose in the form of the Christian church. It began as a small cult that honored its founder's principles of peace and love, but through the seduction of political power, this young faith merged with the Roman Empire to become one of history's most cruel scourges on humanity. Before long, the Church, one of many competing faiths of the time, could suffer no rival and began persecuting what it deemed to be "heresy" as a means of suppressing any threat to its political might. In doing so, the Christian authorities began to designate other supernatural forces, such as spirits, faeries, and deities, as demons, devils, and evil spirits. In doing so the Church not only set the stage for later persecution of Witches, but of all non-Christian faiths.
Among the deities that the Church of Rome recast as evil were the horned nature gods, such as Herne, who led the wild hunt, a metaphor for the spirits of the dead who maraud the land by night; Kernunnos, lord of animals and the underworld; and Pan, the classic goat-footed god of indulgence and carnality. Because the emerging Church held a fundamental worldview that nature was sinful, the horned gods were considered formidable enemies and were the primary targets of ecclesiastical wrath. The Church created the concept of the Devil from a composite of the Satan, or adversary, in Judaism (who was not originally considered the personification of evil but rather a tester of faith), and the horned gods and spirits throughout the known world, reaching as far as Celtic and Persian lands for inspiration.
The persecution of Witches came to full force during the thirteenth through the seventeenth centuries, when authorities thoroughly associated Witchcraft with the worship of Satan. According to trial records, the spirits of the dead that Witches worked with were seen as demonic familiars, and sometimes even the Devil himself. The familiar spirit was described as more of an evil assistant—a watchdog from the depths of hell, rather than the spirit of the Witch's beloved grandmother or an old friend.
Much of what we know about the practices of European Witches is gleaned from the records of the countless Witch trials that took place over several hundred years. Most of the records dealt with men in black (and no, not the kind who hunt aliens), queens of the underworld, and, of course, the Devil himself. But recent translations of Hungarian Witch trials records by Hungarian Professor Éva Pócs show possible links to ancient cults of the dead as well as connections to both Nordic and Celtic shamanism hidden within the testimony of the accused. The word wicca (pronounced "Witcha"), which is the root of Witch, is a Germanic term, and an increasing number of scholars are looking to the Germanic Norse for the roots of European Witchcraft. While the word "Witch" is specifically Germanic, I personally take the route of using the word more broadly, to apply to similar magical peoples throughout the known world.
Ever rebellious, Witches continued to practice their ways in secret, keeping the knowledge underground and passing it only to members of the family. Some hid in Christianity, becoming priests, nuns, and other religious functionaries while continuing to work the arts of magic in the quiet of darkened rooms, midnight chapels, lonely woods, and decrepit tombs.
Witches were magical mercenaries—an elite breed of supernatural power brokers. While they often served the communities they lived in from the edges of the village, the Witch's first loyalty was to herself and her family. For many, Witchcraft was the path of the lone practitioner, seeking wisdom in hidden places.
Witches appear in the myths and legends of almost every culture in history, and are often portrayed as enemies of cultural authorities that disapprove of them, labeling them as potentially dangerous outcasts and heretics. These magic-makers came shrouded in many guises, and did not always use the word "Witch" to describe themselves. Rather, they used the words of sorcery within their own languages. You can recognize Witches by their talent for controlling natural and supernatural forces, their ability to see into the past and future, and their skill at summoning the dead.
The Witch as Necromancer
Many of the great Witches of history, folklore, legend, and literature worked with the dead. These fearsome figures have become part of cultural traditions worldwide, inspiring both honor and fear many centuries after passing into the realm of spirit. Modern Witches aspire to emulate these illustrious enchanters and often call them to be part of present-day magic.
Perhaps no conjurer of spirits is more famous than the Witch of Endor, a woman who practiced her arts in spite of the condemnation of her ways by the authorities of her time. The Witch of Endor makes her first appearance in the Old Testament book of Samuel. The Prophet Samuel has died and King Saul, an insecure and bitter ruler, has begun to harshly impose the scriptural ban on sorcery and necromancy. But when his priests are unable to bring him the truth he seeks, Saul realizes that it's the Witch who is able to conjure truth when all else fails. He goes to the Witch of Endor (disguised and in the dead of night, of course) and beseeches her to raise the spirit of Samuel, who promptly foretells his impending death on the following day. It turns out that the spirit of Samuel was correct in his prediction. Perhaps such bans on Witchcraft by authorities were brought about by their understanding that the Witches could get results, and that these results were not always what the authorities wanted to hear. Because of her mastery of the necromantic arts, this skilled sorceress of Endor is still remembered and called upon by Witches in the present day.
The greatest Witch of classical Greek times is the legendary Circe, who appears in Homer's Odyssey as both benevolent helper of the hero, Odysseus, and feared wielder of justice to those whose hearts are untrue. Circe lived on a desolate island near to the entrance of the underworld and worked with the goddess Hecate, guardian of the crossroads and patroness of the dead. Circe tells Odysseus to travel beyond the Western horizon to the edge of Hades, land of the dead. She teaches Odysseus the process by which he can conjure up the shades of the dead through blood sacrifice, and so the hero makes his journey to the underworld, performing the rituals where the rivers Acheron and Cocytus meet, into which the waters of the river Styx flow—waters that separate the lands of the living and the dead.
In the saga of Erik the Red we find one of the most dramatic examples of the Seidr—the Norse form of Witchcraft. The Witch Thorbjorg was a seeress who was often invited to winter feasts so that she might share her visions of the future with guests. Thorkell, a chief farmer in a region of Greenland where famine had struck, called Thorbjorg to one of his feasts to hear her foresight of just when that famine might end. She arrived in a strapped blue cloak bedecked with stones, calfskin shoes, and catskin gloves, and carried a staff bound with brass and also adorned with stones. Around her waist hung a pouch in which her many magics were stored. Thorbjorg stayed the night and the next day; as she prepared to perform her Witchcrafts to answer the questions asked, she asked for a woman to perform a song of spirit-summoning called the varÐlokur, also known as the Warlock song or warding song. A Christian woman who was not a Witch, but who knew the song from the teachings of her foster mother, came forth and sang the varÐlokur so beautifully that the spirits of the dead emerged. Thorbjorg divined the future from these spirits, among them several that the Witch said would normally stay away. She imparted to the guests that the famine would end by the springtime and all would be well with the crops. This story not only shows a significant tie between Witches and the dead, but has provided a strong but much-debated possible source for the word "Warlock," and is why I use it today to describe myself.
Each of these Witches of old, as well as others we will meet later on, worked with the spirits in daily life. The power and wisdom they received from supernatural beings infused their ability to better understand the inner workings of magic. These great sages of Witchcraft now inhabit the twilight world of the dead, yet they continue to inspire Witches today, and are often conjured to bring their magical legacy into modern times.
Modern Wicca: Witchcraft Renewed
In the early 1950s, a new image of the Witch emerged in the form of modern Wicca, which portrays Witchcraft as an ancient fertility cult that worships a god and a goddess. Blended together from bits of pre-Christian religions, Freemasonry, and nineteenth-century ceremonial magic, Wicca incorporates magic into its practices, but it is often secondary to worship. While it is true that some historical Witches have been associated with this deity or that, religious devotion did not define those individuals as Witches, and was certainly not the reason why they were both vilified and deified—their power was.
Real Witches were distinguished by their magic, their cunning powers of manipulation, their connection to the spirits, and, most importantly, their willingness to exploit these powers for their own ends and to meddle in the affairs of others. I sometimes wonder if the gods and goddesses we call on today might once have walked the Earth as Witches themselves, having been so magical in life that they were deified in death. Consider the story of Jesus, who performed miracles and magic, preached from the fringes of society, and was later referred to as a god. While these facts do not necessarily mean that Jesus was a Witch, he certainly fits some of the criteria that I use to distinguish one. The Buddha also began as an actual person, Siddhartha Gautama, and is now revered by traditions throughout the world. So if it's safe to say that if this is true of other magical people, then it just may be that our very dieties are the departed Witches of long ago.
Contrary to the Earth mother goddesses and jovial gods of modern Wicca, when Witches were associated with gods or goddesses, these deities were usually even darker and more feared than the Witches themselves. The spiritual intelligences employed by the Witch were typically not the officially sanctioned deities of the culture he resided in.
Modern Wicca has two ironclad, dogmatic rules that adherents follow. The first, "Do what you will and harm none," is a concept likely adapted from the teachings of Aleister Crowley. The second, the "threefold law," is a precept stating that everything the Wiccan does will return to her three times. Neither of these axioms appears in history prior to the twentieth century. In real Witchcraft, there are no rules. Morality and ethics are situational and dependent upon the culture, upbringing, and personal philosophy of the Witch. There are times, such as when danger is imminent, that the Witch must take defensive action. It is not evil to protect yourself, your family, and your community. The competent Witch learns to work within the balance of nature and the tides of magic.
Excerpted from The Witches' Book of the Dead by Christian Day. Copyright © 2011 Christian Day. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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