Etymologically ‘witch’ derives from roots in Old English and older Germanic sources referring directly to magical practice, dealing with the dead and even with priesthood. Posited IndoEuropean roots incude *weg2 – strength, power, and its immediate derivative *weg-yo, which produces the proto-germanic *wikkjaz - necromancer. These roots produce the well-known Old English word wicce, a magic-user. *Weg-yo also directly produces ‘wicked’ suggesting that the word ‘witch’ is infected from the beginning with notions of social danger. The term is used neutrally in some sources, such as references to midwives, but the primarily Christian sources for Old English tend to use the term to translate Biblically proscribed practices such as ‘necromantia’. The Latin ‘augur’ – a diviner - is also translated ‘wicce’. So we have a term that refers plainly to the practice of those specialized spiritual arts that have been called ‘magic’ – vision-journeying, spirit-contact and alliance, knowledge of the powers of natural things, and the skill to do the little manipulations of influence that are called ‘spells’. While the etymology doesn’t connect ‘wicce’ with wisdom, the same sorts of spiritual specialists were often referred to as ‘wizards’ and other terms drawn from roots meaning ‘wise’. In these origins we find the idea of witch as priestess of Paganism, as community spiritual professional.
The Witch Figure In Paganism
We are familiar with the medieval and renaissance image of the witch as rebellious evil-doer, using arcane powers to trouble the common people. What many Pagans may not realize is that the archetype of the night-riding dangerous (female) magic-user comes directly from Pagan roots, with no help needed from the new church. The Bacchic cult in Rome displays much of what became associated with the later Witches’ revels – drinking, dancing, song and illicit sexual fun, all under the goat-horned mask of the God. Greek culture feared a nearly mythological class of women who worshipped the Underworld Gods, practiced abortion and worked charms and spells. There is very little evidence that such people existed, but they are common figures in the popular literature of the time. Of course the practice of spellbinding and divination as a craft was common enough, but while such lower-class magicians might be scoffed at by the educated they weren’t associated with the notions of the ‘strega’ in Roman times.
In northern Europe the Germanic influence provided another stream of boundary-breaking spirit sorcerers. Continental terms translated into English as ‘witch’ include the German hexe, Dutch heks and Old High German hagzusa, all derived from roots meaning ‘hedge-rider’. Germanic tradition records various categories of magic-users, including female seers and spellbinders, male singers and spirit-masters. Many writers would like to find a connection between Odin as the strange, wandering sorcerer’s god and the later quasi-Christian notion of the ‘devil’ with who witches must consort. Other aspects of the later witch myth, such as ‘familiars’, the Wild Ride, flight on staves or animals and the connection with the werewolf all find models in Germanic Pagan lore.
Once again, all the material we have in writing from northern Europe comes from the beginning of the Christian era, and this makes it difficult to tell how much these practices were associated with a figure called a ‘witch’ in pre-Christian society. More specifically, it seems unlikely that there was a Pagan ‘witch-cult’ as such. The various Gods, beliefs and practices that became associated with the ‘witch’ seem to have been distributed in the many varieties of common Pagan religious practice. The ‘witch’ seems to have been as mythological in Pagan times as in later Christian ones.
The Medieval Witch
Historically the word witch immediately passes from Pagan cultures into the hands of the literate church, which used the term to translate the various forbidden practices in their scripture. The text of the Bible has little use for the work of sacred images, divination and conjury that played a part in most non-Biblical religions, and the term ‘witch’ took on the connotation of daemonic (and demonic) polytheism, dangerous and illicit practices, and eventually even of opposition to human good and survival. Memories (and in various places, actual survivals) of the pleasant revels and stranger sorceries of Pagan religion were grafted with monks’ psycho-sexual fears to produce the sort-of Malleus Maleficarum archetype of the ‘Satanic Witch’.
Interestingly, I know of no example of an artifact or text of ‘medieval Satanism’. When the Church actually persecuted Pagan remnants they look pretty Pagan, though we may imagine a tendency among the peasants to conflate their old merry gods with the ‘devil’ of the new theology. In any case by the time we reach the early modern period the word witch has come to have nearly exclusively negative connotations and it’s difficult to find an example of a magical practitioner – either folk or scholastic – who will own the word. The fantasies of the Church finally begin to be enacted during the late renaissance, with the ‘black masses’ of the French court and the diabolism of modern folk societies such as the Horseman’s Word. Even then we have no example of someone plainly saying, “yes, we are ‘witches’” – at least not outside of the context of a trial.
Early Modern Rethinking
So we come into the late 19th and early 20th century with this layered notion of the ‘witch’. The witch is Pagan sorcerer (and/or 'devil-worshipper')and keeper of wisdom, she can heal or she can curse, and she might choose to work for fair pay. They might be members of secret sects or cults, where they broke the rules of society and reveled as they pleased. As the renaissance merged into early modern times, the witch was more and more a part of the ideological past. The effort made by European society to rise above the superstition of the witch-hunts reduced the ‘witch’ to a figure of ridicule among educated people in the 18th and 19th century, even as the practice of folk-magic by semi-educated conjurers and cunning folk remained a thriving trade. However the 19th century saw a new angle on the interpretation of the witch. Led by such writers as Jules Michelet in the mid 19th century, and giving inspiration to early 20th century writers like Leland and Murray, the witch came to be seen as a desperate or heroic rebel against the oppressive system of feudal state and church. The witch became the socialist peasant, worshipping ‘Satan’ (the half-remembered Old Gods) to spit in the church’s eye, or keeping their Old Ways in spite of persecution.
The Dawn of Modern Witchcraft
So how do we begin to see modern occultists self-defining as Witches? Of course with the publication of Leland’s Aradia in 1904 literate occultists could have found a model for practice that embraced both the fashion for classicism on one hand and the romantic political opposition of the poor to the church on the other. The entire hermetic tradition staunchly rejected the term witchcraft at that time, granting it at best a reference to remnants of folk-magic and at worst to imagined ‘black lodges’ of the Wheatley sort.
We can see a few pre-1950s examples, perhaps Cunning Murrell and Pickingill, perhaps some other revivalists or village practitioners in Britain who might have quietly admitted “some would call us witches”. The Australian artist Rosaleen Norton was inspired with occult, witchcraft and diabolist romanticism, and certainly referred to herself as a witch, and kept a coven in King’s Cross into the 1960s.
There’s an interesting side note in the Thelemic interest in the term. While Crowley himself discarded the word, both Frater Achad (in 1923 see #22 at that link) and John Parsons (in c.1950) wrote descriptions of a kind of Neo-Pagan ‘witchcraft’, and both in a time-frame that would have made their writings available to Gardner. (I’ve recently discovered accounts of a trip by Gardner to California and possible meeting with Parsons, which would help sew up a little theory of mine… more to come…) I’m still fairly willing to assume that Old Gerald found *something* going on in the woods, and combined it with his own occult knowledge to make his cult. As far as I can see the first occultists in the English speaking world to openly endorse the term ‘witch’ for their practice were Gardner’s new covens.
I must mention that there is some evidence of self-identified ‘witches’ in (neo) folk-magic sects in the new world. Appalachian and Ozark mountain traditions may have been conducting group ritual initiations involving swearing to ‘the devil’, sexual rites and other late Christian witch motifs for some while before the 1950s. There is an interesting by-road in the story of the US’s first ‘Satanic Panic’ in the 1930s and 40s which could, itself, have produced self-proclaimed ‘witches’. The legends of Ozark witchcraft are certainly there, and it’s possible that the sensationalist journalism of the times produced early self-defined ‘witches’. Once again little hard evidence exists.
The question of the real origins of Gardnerian (and thus of much of Neopagan) Witchcraft is being dealt with by historians even as we speak. Whatever one thinks of his claims to have discovered a coven in the woods, his system has proved to be a seed from which a whole category of modern occult practice and Pagan religion have grown. Gardner’s system influenced the practice of nearly every self-defined witch in the following 30 years, as invented North American groups assimilated or reacted to the new model. To me it makes sense to view Gardner’s Witchcraft (and its same-generation imitators, such as Sanders) as the “original Witches” in modern occultism. For convenience let’s think of the date for that as around 1950 – it’s clear that Old Gerald has his thing cooking by then.
At about the same time that Gardner was solidifying (and publicizing) his new system, a man remembered as Robert Cochrane was doing the same, with a different flair and perhaps less concern for the newspapers. Cochrane brought an interest in Celtic and British lore (soon imitated by Gardnerians) and harked back, perhaps, to the Bacchic rites, with the Staff planted in the north to mark the sacred space. In some ways Cochrane seems to me to be a reaction to Gardner’s work, but that may be selling short the man’s life-long interest in reinventing the Old Ways. Cochrane enjoyed referring to his work as older and ‘more authentic’ that Gardner’s, and attempted to invoke the authority of the “old witch families” of England. There’s been little evidence for any such families (outside of testimony from their last surviving representatives), or of their maintenance of ‘witchcraft’ traditions that can’t be accounted for by the popular occult or folklore literature of their times. Family traditions of occultism – common enough; family traditions of a ‘witch-cult’ – no evidence has been presented.
The Secret 70s
The Gardnerian initiatory lineage arrived in North America in 1966, brought by Raymond Buckland and his priestess. It immediately encountered the various strands of American occultism that were already using the term ‘witchcraft’, and sometimes even adapting practices from Gardner’s earlier writings, which had reached across the water before then. It’s possible that strains of folkloric witchcraft had survived in the Appalachian and Ozark mountain communities, and if so these were probably satanic in a sort of post-medieval sense. Of course the other major influence that merged with the new witchcraft was the countercultural ideology and its environmentalism. This phase has been very well documented and discussed by Chas Clifton in his book Her Hidden Children.
In 1974 an American woman named Jesse Wicker Bell published The Grimoire of Lady Sheba. This book contained much of the material in the Gardnerian ‘Book of Shadows’, the ritual book of the Gardnerian Witches. What Mastering Witchcraft had begun was energized by the publication of material that had been secret for 20 years, and the creation of covens continued throughout the decade. In this phase the word ‘Witch’ was earnestly contended for by these Neopagans – the message in the 70s was “Witchcraft is a religion”.
These bootstrap traditions tended, at first, to imitate the ‘mystery religion’ model of Gardner’s Witchcraft. They were secret and initiatory, and created their own secret books, rituals etc. This was also the period of the most ridiculous ‘witch wars’ in which these construct traditions compared pretentious origin stories and tried to one-up each other in the nascent Pagan press.
My own experience in the 1970s is probably typical of many who eagerly sought witchcraft, magic and the occult in those days. Having been a student of ‘the occult’ throughout my youth I had begun my own ritual experiments based on several published sources. I met my first self-proclaimed witch in 1972, in a local university. He was an earnest fellow, who had consecrated his tools and made his Book of Shadows, and came complete with a tale of teachers now departed, who “just didn’t tell him much” about the history or origins of his system. Personal differences in style meant I wouldn’t become a member of that group. My own awareness of the Pagan "scene" as a participant begins in around 1976, while teaching a college ‘free school’ course on the occult in the mid 70s. I met an Alexandrian Witch, but she was cut off from her coven. I met witches in the Society for Creative Anachronism but they weren’t in my neighborhood. In about 1978 I began working with a group that was an example of a new phenomenon – a non-initiatory ‘outer court’ for a Gardnerian Coven. One of the first of these in the US was the Temple of the Pagan Way in Chicago. Our group worked a system very like the Gardnerian, based on the material published as A Book of Pagan Rituals. By 1980 several members went on to become initiated Gardnerians, while I and others found other initiators.
The other trend during the 1970s was the beginning and growth of public, self-confessed Paganism. The so-called “British Traditional” style of Neopagan witchcraft (now more frequently being called ‘Wicca’) was attracting a lot of excited students – too many for the slow and personal training methods of those systems. Traditional covens began to produce ‘Outer Court’ groups, in which inquiring strangers might attend a few classes and maybe even attend seasonal rituals that resembled traditional witchcraft rites. From the other side many young people were simply taking the results of their own study and putting it into practice. Not all of these chose to imitate the secret and initiatory covens – some, such as the Church of All Worlds, and Circle Wicca chose to be open to seekers, and they also tried on the word ‘witch’ to see how well it fit with their new approach. In 1975 traditional Witches founded an effort at national organizing, the Covenant of the Goddess, which is now one of the largest Wiccan organizations in the world.
A Moment of ChangeIn 1976, organizers out of Chicago, the Midwest Pagan Council, created the PanPagan Festival, open to anyone who found their way to the place. I began to attend in 1979, and in 1980 more than 500 people attended the fest, including almost everyone who was anyone in the witchcraft and Pagan scene at that time, and many who would become well-known later. For the first time in who-knows-how-long 500 Pagans and Witches danced the circle under the moon. This event inspired the creation of the Pagan Spirit Gathering, the Starwood Festival, the Elf-Lore Gatherings in Bloomington, and inspired Boston’s Rites of Spring to move to the woods.
Just as important as this kindling of organizing, were the various moments when the various Secret Witchcraft Traditions of the 1970s met up with each other over a fire and a bottle. Many a moment of awkward silence (“er… I don’t actually talk about that…”) gave way to an exchange of ideas that both cross-fertilized the practice and myth of various systems and also pulled away the (usually phony) veil of Ancient Secrets that was so customary in the early days. In many ways the festival ‘movement’ put an end to (or a big dent in) the ability of a teacher to pretend to having secret witchcraft teachings passed down from wherever. We’ll discuss the 80s and beyond in our next segment.
At the beginning of the 1980s, the word ‘witch’ was being earnestly fought for by the Neopagan Goddess and God worshipping sects descended from Gardner’s experiments, and their imitators and competitors. Efforts were made to encourage dictionaries to adjust their definitions, and ‘Witches’ made an effort to place themselves as a religious minority in the US. The question of the ownership and meaning of that old word remains disputed, however. In the years since the early 80s the word has been used by a number of occult and Pagan systems.