First published in Pagan Dawn magazine, February 2020
Those who have an interest in magic, be it Wicca, Druidry or other esoteric arts are most likely to be aware of the persecution of witches, alchemists etc, the horrors of the Inquisition and many other events in the ‘history’ of magic and witchcraft. I use the quotes around the word history simply because what many of us believe (myself previously included) to be fairly accurate historical fact is in truth often urban myth and supposition.
The mythology that has grown around the subject is immense and has been so often quoted by esoteric practitioners, teachers and authors that it is generally not questioned at all. I cannot possibly hope to debunk all of the misinformation commonly quoted as fact in a short article such as this, I will however reveal some of the most common and shocking ‘facts’ that are either grossly exaggerated or not true at all.
Witch trials – it is commonly understood that thousands, if not millions of witches, wise women, cunning men etc were tortured, put on trial and then executed by being burnt alive at the stake. The majority of people put on trial were acquitted and in almost all cases if those found guilty were executed they were hanged. In England there were laws against witches since the time of king Canute, however it was a fairly minor misdemeanor attracting only penance and fines, becoming a common felony in 1542. It was not until 1601 that an Act was passed prescribing more severe punishment. In all cases it was necessary to prove that injury to property or person or gain at the expense of the person had been caused or attempted (the only exception being love philtres).
A fairly accurate guess for the number of executions in Europe in the 300 years from 1450 onwards is 50,000, the most occurring during the 1600s. In England there are only 200 confirmed cases of execution resulting from allegations of witchcraft. Almost all executions were hangings and in the cases where burning were occurred (it was more common in France) it was usual to strangle the victim at the stake prior to burning. In total up to 1650 there were only 3 recorded cases of burning at the stake in the British Isles, which would seem to indicate that it was not a common practice. Those found guilty were often heavily fined, pilloried or given some other punishment than death.
Records indicate that approximately 75% of trials ended in acquittal, given such accusations are rather hard to prove. In Britain the Church was not directly involved in any of these trials after the mid 1500s as these were secular trials by jury; even in Catholic Europe, ecclesiastical courts often failed to convict suspects. Witch hunting was generally unpopular and conducting trials was expensive. For example in the case of Isabel Cockie, who was burned in 1596, her execution expenses totaled over 100 shillings (more than 750 euro in today’s money).
The wide-spread misconception surrounding witch burnings may well be linked to the executions, often by burning, of religious heretics during the Protestant/Catholic strife that plagued Europe during the same period.
Benevolent magicians – it is often stated that witches & druids were not in any way evil, that they were all victims of Christian propaganda and that they generally did no harm to anyone - in fact they were just as likely to do the opposite. It is true that in rural communities healers existed who used their knowledge of herbs to help members of their village, in many cases these people were practicing Christians and few of them would have described themselves as witches. Pre-Christian mythology of the Greeks, Persians, Celts etc portrays the witch as an often solitary person who is willing to perform magical acts in exchange for some form of compensation, most often money; the services provided may have been anything from a curse to a love spell. Many examples exist of sorcerers, witches, wizards, druids etc using magic to harm others, in battles, against their enemies, the enemies of their patrons and compatriots and even random strangers. One such famous example is the sorceress Circe, in The Odyssey, who turns men into swine and other creatures, she shows her charming side to Odysseus, who is immune to her magic, but otherwise she is cruel and unmerciful. In the Story of Deidre and the Sons of Usna, King Connor treacherously implores his Druid Cathbad to trap the Sons of Usna so that they may be murdered, Cathbad duly obliges by creating a lake of slime/tar in which they become stuck and unable to defend themselves. It is also well known that Druids were believed to be able to cause illness or even death by the use of satirical verse, a course of action that can hardly be described as benevolent.
It would be wrong to claim that all magical practitioners were evil, and it is equally wrong to claim that all magical practitioners were virtuous, the same being just as true today. Early mythology and honest historical accounts portray the witch or sorcerer as impartial if anything, an occultist for hire with a portfolio of benign and malevolent skills available.
In order to prove that this is the case, one need only look at the array of spell books available which include curses as well as beneficial spells from antiquity to modern times, a number of grimoires exist from the late medieval period (note: Book of Shadows is a modern invention) which contain instructions for both malevolent and benevolent activities.Black magic does not exist – It is true that the Church has previously portrayed the magician as an instrument of Satan – a claim that is somewhat illogical as the notion of Satan would have been foreign to pre-Christian European religion, from which witchcraft evolved. The ‘Good Witch’ myth appears to me to be a belated counter-propaganda move aimed at destroying the equally ridiculous ‘Servant of Satan’ dogma still emanating from the Catholic Church. The reality is that since the Church began linking the occult with Satan (a practice that has it’s roots in Athanasius’s borrowing of Egyptian ideas in the late 4th century) that a certain element of society has been attracted to the more reprehensible end of magical practice. Numerous trials in modern times have taken place in which crimes have been committed in which satanic rituals have been used. Books on magic that refer to Satan and/or demons exist from the middle ages; some grimoires, in particular those referencing ‘The Key of Solomon’ make use of both angelic and demonic forces, others are clearly ‘Black Magic’ for example ‘Grimorium Verum’ published in 1517 and ‘The Grimoire of Honorius’ published in 1629. As early as the 1400s Black Masses occurred, the practice being a bizarre inversion and sexualisation of the Catholic Mass. Gilles de Rais was executed in 1440 after he was caught with other French nobility conducting a mass to raise Lucifer by means of offering body parts of children they had murdered.
Black magic may well have come into existence as a distinct genre of magic as a result of hysteria generated by the Church, it is indeed a hotch-potch of ceremonial magic and pure sadistic inventiveness, however over time all manner of crack-pots have been attracted to it and become its practitioners. Black magic is the work of the third rate and the insane, but to pretend that it is non-existent or never existed is pure foolishness. Esoteric satanic orders such as The Order of The Nine Angles do exist, which to the ignorant might appear to be cut from the same cloth as pagan organizations. By definition pagans cannot be Satanists as they do not acknowledge Lucifer or Yahweh, something that non-pagans generally fail to comprehend. Satanic covens also exist - I personally know a young man who was briefly a member of a satanic group, he became extremely ill during this time after receiving a ring that he was to wear at all times. He gave back the ring but was fortunate enough to be ejected from the group without further harm and went on to live life outside of esoteric circles.
Wicca and Druidry are ancient religions – Wicca was invented by Gerald Gardner, who recreated ‘The Old Religion’ in a new form, in part using the ideas of Margaret Murray and Aleister Crowley (who initiated Gardener in OTO). He published several books after the repeal of the Witchcraft act in 1951 in the UK, this was the launch pad from which Wicca has grown into a world-wide religion. Druidry is a reinvention of celtic paganism created in the early 17th century. In pre-christian times Druidry or Druidism is not a term that existed, according to O’Curry and Joyce the Irish term translating as ‘Druidical’ refers to all magic in the ancient mythology. It appears that even the word ‘Celtic’ is an invention of the late 17th century and it was Edward Lluyd who first linked the ‘Celtic’ nations – based on linguistic similarities. In the ancient world the people of Ireland, Britain, France, Spain, Switzerland etc where the ‘Celts’ existed were not a coherent group or race and were all referred to by their own tribal names, even the Romans regarded the ‘Celts’ as distinct groups. Modern druidry is linked to the revivalists of the 1720s onwards (John Toland, John Aubrey and William Stukley) via the Ancient Druid Order and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, but there is absolutely no discernable link to ancient Druids or even the Bardic schools of Ireland and Scotland that died out by the end of the 1600s. One might expect all modern pagans to be aware of the relatively recent origins of the pagan revival, however it appears that a great many people are entirely ignorant of the truth in this respect.
All of the above ‘insights’ might give you the impression that I have something against Wicca or Druidry, which is entirely untrue. The purpose of this exercise is to demonstrate how little we can trust what is commonly regarded as fact, which leads me to quote the often used cliché ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. I am an unashamed pagan, but one thing that I abhor in all people, religious or otherwise, is prejudice and opinion based on ignorance, I think that we owe it to ourselves to know what we believe and why we believe it. If you don’t believe what you’ve just read then please feel free to go and find the answers for yourself!
New Illustrated Everyman Encylopaedia
Wikipaedia (various articles on Satanism, Celts, Witchcraft, Druids etc)
Dictionary of the Occult – Andre Nataf
Witchfinders – Malcolm Gaskill
The Wordsworth Book of Spells – Arthur Edward Waite
Celtic Myths & Legends – T W Rolleston
Ancient Celtic Romances – P W Joyce
Witchcraft Today – Gerald Gardener
The Golden Bough – Sir James Frazer
The Book of Druidry – Ross Nichols
Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish – Eugene O’Curry
The Bardic Source Book – John Matthews
Dark Initiatory Witchcraft – Thomas Karlsson (Hidden Spirit 1:1)