The idea of Witchcraft as religion, which I love so much, has been launched into public interest and imagination by various people over the years. Margaret Murray and Charles Leland are two figures that between them span the mid 19th to mid twentieth century, and planted potent seeds in our cultural dream life with respect to the survival of Pagan religion within Christian societies in the form of “witchcraft”. Gerald Gardner towards the end of that period seems to have drawn together various influences to fashion his initiatic, coven based witch cult, with the aid of Doreen Valiente, who herself went on to do a lot of independent work towards furthering, quietly popularizing, and diversifying this emerging, modern religious stream. By now we are entering into the ferment of the mid twentieth century and a mounting counter culture with a great interest in alternative spirituality and the occult. Alex and Maxine Sanders in the 1960s and 70s led an engagement with the media which spoke the language of that extraordinary little time that many of us saw, and I personally think that it is from here that religious Witchcraft entered the modern popular imagination more fully.
The old historical assessments of Witchcraft as “The Old Religion” were often simply incorrect though. No doubt there were many cultural streams, religious or otherwise, which fed into both the modern phenomenon, and all manner of folk practices and beliefs. But a clandestine, cellular but organized Pagan religion, surviving from before the Middle Ages, that wasn’t on the cards. I also think that the amount we claim to have had lifted from us by Christianity, as opposed to the opposite, is often quite questionable in a world where cultural transmission and inheritance is more profound and fluid than what someone calls themselves.
Nevertheless, the publicising and propagation which people from Gerald Gardner onwards pursued had led to the creation of a popular desire for this kind of alternative religion. At the same time, the image of Witchcraft that was forming was closed, mysterious, gated and tended, a cult of living poetry and ordeal. This was part of its appeal. But the transmission, the aura, went further than this, to myriad people who felt called but were either unable to find a genuine coven, or for whom this form couldn’t be an open door. I think there were quite a few people who could neither answer nor forget that call, and they had to find their own way to answer. Or to put it another way, the answer had to find a way through their lives.
A number of writers did seem to try and answer the need that many were feeling, to find a way back to Witchcraft. I say “way back” because that’s what it felt like to me. Doreen Valiente brought out a DIY witchcraft book. The Feri and feminist influenced Starhawk brought out “The Spiral Dance”. Janet and Stewart Farrar brought out “The Witches Bible”*, because they knew people were trying to do this stuff anyway, so they may as well have what they considered reliable material. Marion Weinstein, Raymond Buckland, Paul Huson, there have been quite a few.
The first time I saw Scott Cunningham’s “Wicca: a guide for the solitary practitioner” was I think the very beginning of the 90s, and two things struck immediately. The use of the word “Wicca” rather than “Witchcraft” in the title. We all knew the word “wicca”, usually quoted (incorrectly) as a root of the word “wise”, from whence we referred somewhat fancifully to the “craft of the wise”. But we used the terms “Witch” and “Witchcraft”. Maybe people in initiated circles used the terms Wicca and Wiccan prominently, I really don’t know, as if they did then I had missed it. But I think the rest of us would have felt a little like pantomime characters taking ourselves very seriously, when “Witch” really said it all, and couldn’t be confused with basket weaving. I think for my generation the word “wicca” didn’t really have the same edge to it either.
The second thing was the cover of the book, which was actually rather beautiful, showing a painting of an androgynous looking character carrying incense in front of an outdoor altar, with the moon emerging from the trees, all in harmonious, warm colours. It was a long way from the shadows and glamour of the 1970s, but it looked more like the nature religion that a lot claimed Witchcraft to be.
Scott’s book didn’t really talk to me, but it did speak to an awful lot of other people. It was friendly, accessible, useful, ethical and wholesome. It seemed to hold the reader’s hand and guide them through things, but at the same time encourage them to find their own way. It was magical religion for the individual, and say what you like about Scott, he was serious that people could lead a magical life, practically and fully and with good balance. I was happy to see that, and I was happy to see quite a bit of what Llewellyn was putting out, because of that serious intention to help people lead a magical life.
Clearly times had really changed, and I was glad of that myself. While Scott was launching “solitary Wicca”, on this side of the Atlantic we held on to the term “Witch”, but had various forms of “hedgewitch” and non-coven forms of Witchcraft that didn’t require apostolic initiation, aided by writers like Rae Beth and Marian Green.
Nowadays anybody can try out some witchcraft, and find their way to a tiny bit of the Sabbat. It’s a different world to the one which beckoned 40 years ago, and it needed to be. But without the work of the Gardners and Valientes and Sanders many of us would not have received that vision the way we did, however we have responded to it. Maybe it was something which was of that time, funneling 19th century esotericism through Edwardian bohemia and the 60s counterculture. But then I do believe that it is a perennial romance.
I hope that vision and romance has not been lost in DIY religion, and a hundred causes that we might rationally attach to a faith that we could approve of. The need for genuine search, work and discriminating awareness is still there, but so is the need for healing, nurturance and the care of a full life.
There has been an ongoing spiritual and psychic dialogue between the emergent stream of spiritual witchcraft and the souls of those who have felt called to it. That congress is far from over, indeed if it ever will be. For all our talk of Nature, we are also talking about the soul, for if the attraction to Witchcraft does not come from the soul, then really it is not there.
And that really is where the discussion begins and ends. It has never mattered if someone could call themselves a Witch or a Wiccan, or even if anybody thinks that is a religion or not. What matters is what someone’s soul has seen, and how they make their way to it.
The first answer of a call is the hearing of it.
* originally published as two books, “Eight Sabbats for Witches” and “The Witches Way”.
[Very minor edit done 5th May 2013.]