Whither Witchcraft? A presentation on the historical understanding of witchcraft and the modern revival of withcraft in our contemporary society

October 29, 2012 - 12:03 pm 25 Comments

Whither Witchcraft?

A two part sermon presentation on the historical understanding of

witchcraft and a modern revival of witchcraft in contemporary culture

The Kailo Interfaith Community  October 28, 2012


When you first hear the word, “witch,” what comes to mind? Chances are, especially at this time of the year the image you conjure up is of an ugly old hag or an old wizened, wicked crone.

Whether that image has come to you through horror films, MacBeth,  or Hansel and Gretel, it matters little- it is a cruel and ignorant parody of the truth. It represents a psychological projection that is tied to a cultural and religious misogyny that, unfortunately, is still alive in conservative churches today.

If I told you that witchcraft or Wicca is one of the fastest growing religions in the Western world today, what would you say?

As this is the season for haunting thoughts and scary notions, let me take a portion of this service to “set the story straight” when it concerns witches and witchcraft. I will briefly try to explain how a genuine religious and spiritual expression became the source of both the tragic and the comic associated with Halloween, and how an almost genocidal persecution of women has been associated with witches as targets of ridicule, scorn and even execution.


Witchcraft, Wicca, or the Craft are all names for an ancient belief system that finds its origins in prehistoric culture. Various scholars indicate that these nature-based religions are the oldest type of religious understanding known to humanity.


In that regard, it predates Egypt and India, and its ancient and intuitive teachings can be seen as accompanying the first wondering of humankind. It is widely believed and well documented that some form of witchcraft can be found in every rural, ancient, or pre-patriarchal culture. The common beliefs held universally are attention to the cycles and seasons of the year, paying careful attention to regional plant life for their medicinal and magical properties, and looking to the animals as shamans- as our symbolic guides for wisdom.

Through various icons and idols, early civilizations fashioned an effective and imaginative polytheism that is still found among the Balinese, rural Hindu and Chinese lifestyles. While every European society, from Russia to Italy, from Sweden to Portugal has had within it, witches or nature worshippers, because our American society is so predominantly Anglo-Saxon, we commonly known more about the Celts and the Druids of the British Isles than any other branch of witchcraft and pagan teachings.

Additionally, since Wiccan practices and over all outlook on life is the similar to Native American and Native Taoist and Australian Aboriginal religions, we could say, that what most of us would define as witchcraft can best be summarized as Native European Spirituality.

The polytheism of witchcraft symbolically centers itself in the foundational belief that the Divine is not above or beyond them, but that Divine energy or presence was best understood as imminence; that the divine was not transcendent and aloof.

In that way, the God/Goddess is not removed from the natural world that so directly shapes our lives. This power resided in nature, and was to be understood as flowing through life and all around through the seasons


1of the year and resides in the mysteries of the human body and psyche. This was a profoundly intuitive belief system and as a result, witchcraft became a valuable storehouse of nature lore, rituals, herbal medicines, and has its own form of depth psychology replete with its archetypes and Mythic images that spanned the spectrum of nature and human concern.

Witchcraft, paganism, feminist thealogy and nature worship have similar histories. Clearly, some of their teachings overlap and have similarly suffered at the hands of patriarchal attitudes and prevailing church beliefs. By looking at a few key definitions, we can begin to see the sorry story of how such prejudice and banality were developed in our Western religions and society, and how those notions can be eliminated or at least clarified.

The word, witch, was not coined until much later in history. The first title used to describe this approach to religion and beliefs was pagan. Today, the word, pagan, is used to define anyone who is not orthodox, mainline Christian. It can refer to someone who seriously reveres nature without adhering to strict Western theological concepts of God as being “out there” or above and removed from us. That definition, by the way, easily includes most of us!

Originally, the word, pagan, or in Latin, paganus, meant a “country dweller” someone who lived away from the city, who lived in close contact with the rhythms and routines of nature and along mountain ridges, wooded forests and along seacoast marshes… OOPS! Simply put, a pagan was someone who drew meaning from a life that was intimately intertwined with their environment and with all of its natural cycles.


In that way, they were the opposites of a metropolitan or a citizen who defined their world by being involved with society, politics, or commerce.

As for the origins of the word, witch, scholars suggest two possible meanings. The first possible meaning comes from the word, WIC, which means to shape or bend. The reference here would be to anyone who has the power to shape their own consciousness, or to bend their thoughts and feelings to produce new outcomes.

The second definition of the word, WIC, refers to the blending of wisdom, playfulness, humor, and wit. Anyone who spends time among today’s witches might favor that last definition!

Once the traditional, hierarchical, and male dominated church came to power, the references in Scripture, tradition, and culture to witches and pagans began to take on only a pejorative and derisive meaning. It became defined as someone who was a heathen, and later from Judaism into Christianity, anyone who is non-Christian. In orthodox Islam, we have a similar treatment using the word, infidel. These pagan believers were arrogantly and unmercifully considered to be lower and less than the cultural citizens or the pious, church going believers. Consequently, they were also considered “cheap labor, brutish, beneath ordinary mentality or morality, a convenient source for slavery, ripe for exploitation.

Of course, that means we can add pagans and witches to the anawim– to all those who were socially disenfranchised and who shared a portion of the common horror of the Native Americans, Blacks, Asians, homosexuals, Jews, and any nonwhite and poor women.


Witches were women who believed in natural forms of medicine, healing, were an especially vulnerable target. They became hated by the established medical and religious institutions because they were spiritual healers, midwives, and herbal doctors.

Even though these women were able to help people effectively, in ways that the established church and traditional medical practices could not grasp or control, they became targets of jealousy and suspicion. When some of these helpers and healers gained acclaim, respect, and might have been given some pieces of land for their talents, then the great witch hunt could begin, and it was somehow justified as a way to reassert the patriarchal Church’s control in a truly diabolical way.

What do I mean when I say diabolical? In the Middle Ages, there was a text circulated among the clergy that was designed to expose and punish witches. This text for persecution was called the Malus Maleficarum and its pages contained elaborate and specific ways you could use to find out is a person was of the devil or if they were a true believer.

As a result of this text, thousands maybe millions of women, labeled as witches, sometimes their entire families and villages, were tortured or destroyed.

One glaring statement from the teachings of this book state that 80% of all women inherit original evil tendencies and that the original sin that becomes witchcraft starts in a woman’s lust and her carnal appetites. In order for these women to be saved from themselves, these often wise and beneficial women would have to have their souls bleached, or their will and their bodies broken!


Because no “great man” was associated with the creation based religions like witchcraft, it was unacceptable. Because witches audaciously believed that God could be directly experienced, and that her Spirit is ever active in benevolent Nature, they were brutally treated and superstitiously feared- even to the point of hysteria- which by the way, was a particular disease that could only affect people who had wombs!

(My experiences in Salem/Beverly MA)

(My experiences in State College, PA)

(My experiences in Charleston, SC)

Songs, chants, spiral dances… Meditation on Hecate and a body prayer called the Tree of Life…


Our world today is far from being free. The ferment and divisiveness concerning alternative ways and expressions of thought, worship and understanding God and our world are still being met with prejudice, fueled by bigotry and ignorance. We are forcibly reminded that more open minded, open hearted approaches to life, faith, and religion are practiced only by a scattered minority and so it is still an elusive cultural dream. We are still appalled that in today’s world witch hunts based on religious intolerance are still being held. This is one of the many imperative reasons to establish alternative approaches. It is the necessary task of our compassionate awareness to create inclusive spiritual communities that resist these narrow insistent voices and actions; communities that will provide open and welcoming space for all responsible expressions of divinity and wisdom teachings that would be otherwise threatened.

Additionally, the word most often associated with witchcraft, magic, also needs our attention. If we can rule out sleight of hand and stage illusions, we can recognize three distinct definitions of the word, magic,

and they run the full range from the delightful, to the dastardly, from the divine to the despicable.

Magic is:

1) The rites and rituals associated with intuitive learning and with enhancing our empathetic attunement with nature, our response to natural wisdom, nonmedical healing, and our alignment with the governing laws of the Cosmos.




) Practices that teach you how to alter your awareness or your consciousness, thereby training yourself to increase your awareness and understanding of the energies of life and how best to open your heart and mind… Such as meditation, visualization, etc.


) Sorcery or practicing ways to manipulate, design, or otherwise control the thoughts and feelings of others for self-serving ends. Any form of spiritual materialism that uses spiritual methods for selfish needs or to strengthen egotistical ends.


Since I have had direct experience with many kinds of occult groups, and with many varieties of spiritual and metaphysical practices, I can confidently state that among the witches, members of Wicca, and the Craft that I have met, 90% accept only the first or benevolent definition, and many accept the neutral second one. However, they abhor and utterly reject the third or pernicious approach that usually involves a person in some form of bastardized Christian rituals that are used to arouse fear and that are aimed at gaining mental control and emotional power over others.


Next, I would like to introduce the meaning and the inspiration that can be found from affirming the female image for divinity. As many of you know, I have spent considerable time extracting those teachings from early Christianity, and it is remarkable how well they support and uphold much of what is being taught in Wiccan circles today. Wisdom, you see, is timeless. I believe and have come to know that She is embodied throughout the ages, as Holy Spirit, and that She is calling to us still.


The idea of a Goddess or a cosmic Mother in the religious traditions of the West is still troublesome for some of us. Part of the reason for this difficulty is the exclusively male images, and the language choices that we have inherited and that the Judeo-Christian-Islamic Scriptures maintain.

This is operationally true even though modern scholarship finds much more room for gender inclusion in interpretation. Another reason for the awkwardness many Westerners feel with the Goddess image is our own lack of comfort with intimacy and with the ultimacy that the feminine holds within itself- especially concerning our issues with our own bodies and our relationship with the great goddess- Gaia, the Earth.

In the kind of symbolic polytheism known to witches, it would be wrong to state that the Goddess rules the world. Instead, we can affirm that She IS the world! She can be known by each and every person in a radically equal relationship and each person finds her through their own inner work, the recognition of their inner and most sacred truths.

In the West, sacred sexuality remains troublesome and problematic, but in the Craft, sexuality is not our source of conflict, but acts and lives within us as our positive polarity with Spirit, and provides a way that leads us toward finding our cooperative wholeness. In that way, the Goddess religions such as witchcraft teach that the depths and riches of life are found by how well we link or connect ourselves to all others, to our relationships, our communities, and to our world.

Now let me share a reading from Starhawk that explains the Goddess even further as to expand our appreciation and awareness:

“The Goddess can be seen as the symbol, the normative image of immanence. She represents the divine embodied in nature, in human


beings, in the flesh. The Goddess is not one image, but many… She includes the male in her aspects. For he becomes the child and the consort, the stag and the bull, the grain and the reaper, part of the light and the dark.

Yet, the femaleness of the Goddess is primary, not to denigrate the male, but because the female represents the bringing of life to the world [and the valuing of the Creation] The Goddess, the Mother, as the symbol of that value teaches us that the world [in all its complexity and majesty] has true value, it is our heart and soul. …

For women, the symbol of the Goddess is profoundly liberating, and restores a sense of authority and empowerment to the female, to her body, and to all life processes: birth, growth, lovemaking, aging and death. …

The Goddess of nature is also the Muse, for she is the inspiration behind much of culture, the arts, literature, music, and wisdom.

The female image of divinity does not, however, provide a convenient justification for the oppression of men. For it is the female that gives birth to the male, and includes the male in ways that a male divinity cannot. … The Goddess gives birth to a pantheon that is inclusive, not exclusive. She is not an insecure or jealous deity. ….”

Starhawk goes on to attest to the importance of social action and prophetic witness as a part of the craft and as a crucial consideration among eco-feminists and Wiccans. She states:

“Immanent power, power from within, is the source of the power that is among us. We can choose to cooperate or choose to withdraw our cooperation with any system, [culture or world view.]


And it is our choices and our decisions that must recognize the inner connectedness of individuals in a community [or a council of all beings] and that every person has an inherent value.

We are of the world, and we are of each other. The power among us and within us is great. Though we be hurt, we can heal… Within and among us is the power of renewal. And there is still time, time to choose that power, and to share it among us.”       Dreaming The Dark


I prize the memory of doing a spiral dance with Margo Adler and Starhawk and approximately 300 U-Us at the GA in New Haven in 1990… Joan Borysenko was my partner and we danced into the wee hours of the night … I could feel the sense of immanence and connection with the natural forces as we danced around the Moon and through the arms and across the faces of one another. The energy that can flow from eye to eye, hand to hand, heart to heart is truly remarkable!

Lastly, I admire witches I have known for they have always conveyed a sincerity a caring and an altruism that is noble. There is nothing of the “gypsy” fortuneteller preying on the gullible, or the slick charlatan who is offering expensive classes among them. Most feel that to take advantage of one’s spirituality for material gain goes directly against the intent of their teachings or the lifestyle and values they are seeking to promote.


Then who are the witches? They 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. In short, witches and Wiccans seek to honor the earth, honor themselves, and offer respect and caring for anyone who enters their lives, or who choose to join their circle.


They deserve our support. Amen, Blessed Be!


25 Responses to “Whither Witchcraft? A presentation on the historical understanding of witchcraft and the modern revival of withcraft in our contemporary society”

  1. Peregrin Wildoak Says:

    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 🙂




    Peregrin Wildoak´s last blog post ..Notes on hereditary and traditional British Witchcraft

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