Historical Study And Modern Witchcraft

In the course of the 19th century, European scholars first began to address the question of historical witchcraft and the witch-hunts of the late-medieval and early-modern periods in a serious way (although many of their conclusions were based more on their own ideological convictions than on the historical evidence). As early as 1828, the German scholar Karl-Ernst Jarcke advanced the theory that those persecuted for witchcraft had in fact been practicing an ancient, pagan religion. His purpose was in some way to justify, or at least to rationalize, the witch-hunts as a serious effort on the part of ecclesiastical and secular authorities to enforce a real Christianization on the populace. In 1862, the French historian Jules Michelet published his study, La sorcière, making a similar argument, but to opposite effect. Michelet presented the supposed religion of witchcraft as a means of positive popular resistance against the oppressive authority of the church in the Middle Ages. The witch-hunts were for him not a rational and necessary step in the progress of European history, but an instance of terrible persecution and repression by zealous and unenlightened religious authorities.

Also in the 19th century, the Romantic Movement had spurred a major interest in folk-culture among European elites. Professional and amateur folklorists began cataloging and studying popular or traditional beliefs and practices, which of course at this time still included a belief in maleficium and other elements of witchcraft. While not typically credulous of these beliefs themselves, many 19th-century folklorists were clearly fascinated by and drawn to such subject matter. Academic anthropologists as well began delving into the structures, and possible realities, of ancient myths. In his Teutonic Mythology, published in 1844, Jacob Grimm argued that the historical stereotype of witchcraft included many elements drawn from traditional Germanic folk culture and the remnants of pre-Christian religious beliefs. In 1890, the first edition of James Frazier's The Golden Bough appeared, in which he explored the apparent unities between the mythologies of many ancient cultures, centered on the supposed existence of a single ancient fertility goddess and her consort who enacted a ritual of life, death, and rebirth that gave form to the seasonal cycle of the year. By the early 20th century, Frazier's ideas, and a focus on mythology rather than actual ancient cultures, were falling out of favor with many professional anthropologists, but were becoming highly popularized, and The Golden Bough sold extremely well to a general readership.

Frazier's notions of a single basic fertility myth underlying the core mythologies of many ancient cultures was profoundly influential on the emergence of modern witchcraft in the 20th century through the person of Margaret Murray. Murray was a British Egyptologist and amateur anthropologist who became interested in the historical phenomenon of witchcraft in medieval and early-modern Europe. In looking through the sources on witchcraft, she came to believe that she saw the vestiges of just the sort of ancient religion that Frazier had postulated. Clerical authors had, in her view, twisted the actual practices of this religion into diabolical rituals, but in the supposed orgies and depraved feasting of a witches' sabbath, Murray saw pagan fertility rituals. These festivals were presided over by an ancient, horned fertility god, such as the Greco-Roman Pan or Celtic Cernunnos, whom clerical authors had transformed into the Christian devil. In 1921, Murray published her first book on witchcraft, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, in which she advanced her basic argument that historical witchcraft had in fact been a remnant of an ancient fertility religion. In The God of the Witches, published in 1933, she presented her theories about the nature of the witches' sabbath and the corruption of the pagan horned god into the Christian devil by clerical authorities. By the time of 1954's The Divine King of England, Murray was maintaining that every English king from the time of William the Conqueror in the 11th century to James I in the 17th had been members of the secret religion of witchcraft, which survived as a powerful but clandestine force throughout this period.

From the start, many scholars were as skeptical of Murray's theories as they were intrigued. As her claims became more outlandish, skepticism increased. Since the 1950s, all of her theories and arguments have been largely disproved. Although it now seems clear that certain elements of the stereotype of witchcraft, especially night flight and the transformation of witches into animals, were indeed rooted to some extent in the remnants of ancient beliefs and folk-practices that were widespread across Europe, there is no evidence that historical witchcraft was in any way directly connected to pre-Christian pagan religions. Instead, historical European witchcraft was a thoroughly Christian construct, derived primarily from biblical, patristic, and medieval scholastic notions of magic and demonology. Certainly, the widespread witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries were in no way an attempt by Christian authorities to destroy a surviving archaic pagan religion that continued to exist in their midst.

Nevertheless, Murray's notions provided a basis for the initial development of modern witchcraft, often termed Wicca, in Europe in the second half of the 20th century. The man most responsible for this development was Gerald Gardner, an English civil servant and amateur student of world religions who spent much of his life in the Far East before retiring to England. Once back in his native country, he claimed to have discovered and been inducted into a coven of traditional, hereditary witches who practiced an ancient religion and who could trace their lineage back to the Middle Ages. In 1954, he published Witchcraft Today, in which he claimed to be introducing the genuinely ancient beliefs and practices of this coven to the world. In fact, the book was largely a mixture of the theories of Margaret Murray (with whom Gardner had collaborated as a member of the British Folklore Society in the late 1930s and who wrote an approving preface to Witchcraft Today), aspects of world religions, and ritual magic and occultism (Gardner had been made an honorary member of the Ordo Templi Orientis, an elite magical society, by the famed occultist Aleister Crowley, who in turn had years earlier been a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). Nevertheless, Gardner's book served as the primary genesis of the modern movement of witchcraft, and his followers and those inspired by him were convinced that they were merely continuing the practice of an ancient, pre-Christian form of religion.

In many ways a reaction to the apparent bankruptcy many people saw in the traditional Western religions in the wake of the horrors of the first half of the 20th century, Wicca, along with other varieties of neo-paganism, flourished in the counter-culture atmosphere of the 1960s and 1970s. The movement originated by Gardner was never strongly unified or cohesive, and many different traditions of modern witchcraft quickly emerged. By 1979, the movement as a whole came of age with the publication of two important works, both by American authors. Starhawk, a witch and political activist, wrote The Spiral Dance, which unified essentially Gardnerian forms of Wiccan belief and practice with a lyrical internal spirituality that embraced personal liberty, environmentalism and respect for nature, and especially feminism and female spiritual empowerment. The book largely superseded Gardner's Witchcraft Today to become the essential expression of modern witchcraft. In the same year, the journalist and practicing witch Margot Adler wrote Drawing Down the Moon, the first serious study of the origins and development of the Wiccan movement. Adler recognized that, especially in light of near-universal scholarly dismissal of the theories of Margaret Murray and serious suspicions about Gerald Gardner's reliability, the claim that modern Wicca was a direct continuation of an actual ancient religion that had survived underground for over a millennium could not be seriously maintained. However, the supposed pseudo-history of the Wiccan faith could be viewed as a foundation myth without in any way undermining the value of current Wiccan beliefs and practices.

Most modern witches now fully accept that, rather than continuing an ancient form of pre-Christian religion, they are practitioners of a new religion creatively based on ancient forms and principals. An aspect of this religion continues to be the working of spells and ritual magic, which modern Wiccans believe have real power. In this sense, they are, in fact, continuing in the true historical tradition of witchcraft, which has always placed this phenomenon, in various ways, at the juncture where religious belief meets magical practice.

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