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Witchcraft is as old as the human race. It dates from the days when,
by the flickering light of a clay lamp, a Stone Age artist worked in
the silent depths of a cave sanctuary, drawing upon the walls the great
beasts he hunted for his food.
Sometimes he depicted the beasts with arrows and spears in them,
in order to gain power over them by sympathetic magic. Sometimes he
showed them in sexual union ; because unless they mated freely
and had abundant young the herds would diminish and he would be
Fertility of animals and humans was all he knew; farming had not yet
been evolved. The mysterious principle of life worked in Nature, and
carried on the world ; a world of forests and plains, of chasing great
beasts more powerful than himself, of the safety of the dark cave and
the warmth of the blazing fire ; a world where fire, water, the seasonchanging earth and the wide air, full of stars at night, were indeed the
elements of life.
For him the moon waxed and waned, filling the night with ghosts and
shadows, and manifestly ruling women in the cycle of their creative
life, bringing each month either the magic moon-blood or a waxing of
their womb, until a new baby appeared.
Woman was the vessel of fertility, the vessel of life. The first known
artistic works of humanity are little figurines representing a nude and
pregnant woman. Some of them are carved from mammoth ivory,
others from stone. They are beautiful, dignified, remote. Beside them
the Pyramids are things of yesterday. They are not portraits. They
represent rather the abstract principle of fertility, of life itself; a goddess
of fertility, man’s most primeval object of worship.
Because woman contained life, she also contained magic. From
Algeria comes a very interesting Paleolithic drawing on stone. One might
even call it the earliest known picture of a witch. It depicts a woman
standing with upraised arms, in an attitude of invocation. From her
genital region a line runs across to the genitals of a man ; he is shown
half-crouched, and in the act of releasing an arrow from a bow. Around
him are animals, and the arrow is being aimed at a large bird which
looks like an ostrich.
This is obviously a scene of hunting magic ; the woman at home in her
cave or hut, practising witchcraft to enable her man to kill game for
their food. The drawing, though primitive, is done with a true artist’s
hand. The tension in the man’s figure, the cautious hunter closing in for
the kill, and the woman’s earnest invocation, are well conveyed. She
is depicted rather larger than the man, to give her importance, and
seems to be wearing some magical jewellery, a girdle and some dangling
amulets on either arm. Upraised arms as an attitude of prayer and
invocation are frequently seen in very ancient art.
Another remarkable picture that has come down to us from those
twilight centuries of Stone Age time, is the famous ‘Sorcerer’ from the
Caveme des Trois Freres, in Ariege, France. This depicts a dancing
figure, half-man, half-beast, with the spreading horns of a stag. Some
authorities regard this as a masked man, others as a Homed God.
Margaret Murray describes this picture as “The earliest known representation of a deity” ; but I believe the fertility goddess figurines, referred
to above, are now thought to be older.
The naked goddess of life and fertility, and the Horned God, are still
the deities worshipped and invoked by witch covens today. Of course,
this does not prove a direct inheritance from Stone Age times, except that
which we all bear in the deepest levels of our minds. Nevertheless,
witchcraft is certainly not the invention of superstitious churchmen in
the Middle Ages, as some writers would have us think. (See CAVE-ART,
RELIGIOUS AND MAGICAL.)
Witches very like those of the Middle Ages were known to the
Ancient Greeks and Romans. Lucius Apuleius wrote about them. (See
APULEIUS, LUCIUS.) So did Virgil, Pliny, Theocritus, Petronius Arbiter,
Horace, Lucan and Tibullus. Medea and Circe were regarded as witches.
Ovid describes Medea as using wax images to cause harm to the people
they represented, and Diodorus calls her Hecate’s own daughter. (See
Hecate was the Ancient Greek goddess of witchcraft. (How could
the Ancient Greeks have had a goddess of something which did not
exist until the Middle Ages invented it ?)
However, by the time of the classical writers, witchcraft had come to
be feared as something rather uncanny, and not respectable to meddle
with. It belonged to an older stratum of society, before the polished
urban civilisation of Rome ; even though the latter, in popular orgiastic
rites such as the Floralia and the Lupercalia, retained distinct traces of
more primitive times.
Witchcraft belonged to the old half-forgotten days of the primeval
matriarchy, when woman who tended the hearth-fire and stirred the
cooking-pot was the first ‘wise one’, the seeker of herbs and binder of
wounds, the seer of pictures in the fire, the hearer of voices in the wind,
the interpreter of dreams and the caster of painted stones for divination,
the worker of magic for hunting, and of the greatest magic of all, the
magic of life.
Witches were the descendants of the Wild Women who had sacrificed
the Divine King, when his term of office was fulfilled, so that his blood
might fertilise the land. Their magic was both dark and bright, like the
Moon Goddess they served. But the time came when the masculine
idea and the male gods began to rise and challenge the supremacy of
the Goddess Mother of Nature.
Kings began to insist on ruling in their own right, instead of by favour
of the goddess; nor would they accept a sacrificial death. Descent began
to be traced through the father, instead of through the mother. Men
began to arm themselves with stronger weapons, and war and conquest
were glorified. Laws and customs that tended to repress the dangerous
powers of the feminine side of things came into existence. Men took over the chief places of the priesthood, and organised religions that
exalted the male side of deity.
The older, deeper things of religion found their way into the Mystery
Cults. These endured because they appealed to something within the
human soul that felt a kinship with magic and mystery ; for the same
reason that witchcraft and the fascination of the occult endure today.
With the coming of Christianity according to St. Paul, the takeover
was complete. Women were told to keep silent in church, that they
should be ashamed to be female, that sex was unclean. The pagan
Mysteries were forbidden in the fourth century A.D., and their priests
and priestesses denounced as sorcerers. From then onwards, the underground organisation of witchcraft began to take shape. So too did the
various abominations witches were accused of.
Black witchcraft had always existed. Lucan’s Erichtho, and Horace’s
Canidia and Sagana, are terrifying hags who take part in horrible rites
involving blood sacrifice and desecrated graves. But now came the
complete refusal to recognise any other side of the coin. All witchcraft
was declared to be black, because the old gods were devils; so their
servants must be devil-worshippers. (One finds the same outlook
among some writers today).
The common people, however, tended to cling obstinately to the old
ways; and there was a long transition period in Europe before the Christian Church finally gained the upper hand, which it did more by force
than by popular vote.
The first English writer to recognise that the witches’ Sabbats were
simply the continuation of the old popular Nature worship, more or
less clandestinely, into Christian times, was the distinguished antiquarian, Thomas Wright. In 1 865 a new edition, privately printed, was
published of Richard Payne Knight’s Discourse on the Worship of
Priapus, to which was now added another essay, “On the Worship of the
Generative Powers during the Middle Ages of Western Europe”.
Owing to Victorian prudery, the book had to be privately printed;
and Wright, remembering the storm of denunciation which had broken
on the head of Payne Knight when his book first appeared in 1 786,
prudently refrained from adding his name to the work. The book was
for many years classed as something to be sold under the counter, and
only recently has it begun to receive the recognition it deserves, as an
original piece of research. Meanwhile, all the old fables of hell-fire and
devil-worship continued to be told about witchcraft. People did not
mind hearing about Satan; but sex was really something terrible !
Briefly, the thesis contained in these two essays is that the worship
of the powers and means of fertility by the ancient peoples of the world
was in reality neither obscene nor depraved. It was the worship of the
fundamental power of Life itself, animating the universe, and bringing
forth all the things of Nature in their wonderful beauty and diversity.
When the early Christian Church came under the influence of fiercely
sex-hating puritans and ascetics, this old worship and its rituals, dear
to the common people, were driven underground, and gave rise to the
cult of witchcraft as we know of it today.
Historically and psychologically, this theory makes sense. We have
to remember that people died because they would not renounce the
‘heresy’ of witchcraft. When people die for a faith, that faith exists. We
know that in the full hysteria of witch-hunting that gripped men’s
minds in the Dark Ages, many people perished who were not witches at
all ; but this was not always so.
Nor did people risk persecution and even death to attend the Sabbats,
if the Sabbats were the impossible farrago of horrors that official
propaganda represented them to be. People went to the Sabbats for a
perfectly understandable reason ; they enjoyed them. They carried on
the witch cult for a perfectly understandable reason ; it was a different
religion from orthodox Christianity, with a very different outlook, and
they preferred it.
Thomas Wright regarded the witches’ Sabbat as being mainly derived
from the Roman traditions of the Priapeia and the Liberalia, festivals of
orgiastic Nature worship. Today, however, we have a wider knowledge
of ancient religions; and we know that in fact the ideas behind the worship of the Life principle are fundamental to them all, in both East and
The Chinese formulated their philosophy of the interplay of Yang
and Yin, the masculine and feminine principles of Nature. The original
Shiv a of the Hindus was an ithyphallic horned god, whose representations, found in the prehistoric city of Mohenjo-daro, bear a curious
resemblance to the Celtic horned god. Cernunnos. In some of them, he
even has something which looks like a candle or torch between his
horns, the very attribute of the Devil of the Sabbat.
Margaret Murray, in her famous book The Witch Cult in Western
Europe (Oxford Paperbacks, 1 962}, draws an important distinction
between Operative Witchcraft and Ritual Witchcraft. Under Operative
Witchcraft she classes charms and spells of all kinds; but Ritual Witchcraft is witchcraft as a system of religious belief and ceremony. The very
fact that witchcraft needs to be so divided is another pointer to its great
antiquity. In the beginning, religion and magic were two aspects of the
same thing, the belief in numinous, unseen powers, both inherent in
Nature and transcending Nature. Only slowly and lately did the division
between religion and magic take place. The original priest was also a
magician ; and before the priest was a priestess, who was also a witch.