Witches. Myth born in Reality, or Reality born in Myth?

James G Montgomery

he present-day view of the witch is very similar to that of the three witches mentioned in Shakespeare’s tragic Macbeth. That being, three ugly old hags hunched around a bubbling cauldron, cackling and laughing in croaky voices, beings who possess magical powers and evoke fear and revulsion from ‘normal’ and sane people in society. The recent pseudo documentary The Blair Witch Project is a good example of this irrational fear. And yet witches also arouse our curiosity; for instance witness such programs as the classic Bewitched and the latter day Charm. This maybe because of a new television image of so called good witches, not to mention, good looking young witches, but also their ability to use charms, cast spells, and see into our future. These beings have surpassed us as mere mortals and therefore can almost be set up as demi gods which it is possible, that they once were.

Entwined with our curiosity about witches and witchcraft however, is the basic premise that witches are somehow evil, somehow unholy, creatures of the night and therefore of nightmares. Indeed the Bible and Christian church condemns sorcery and in doing so not only invites the persecution of witches, but perpetuates the irrational and possibly primeval fears of humanity. Therefore one must ask, were witches inherently evil, or were they falsely accused of evil acts by zealots and opportunists from rival religions seeking to either further their own personal gain or that of their religion?

The word ‘witch’ has over time become just another word, frequently used as a mild curse word for a disliked or bossy woman. In European antiquity, however, before the rise of the organised Christianity, the ‘witch’ had a different meaning altogether. The ‘witch’ was seen as a wise person, usually a wise woman, one who was skilled in the healing arts. She may have had a knowledge of ancient herbal medicines and was often a midwife as well. Her religious beliefs, if she had any, were more often than not a faith based on the ancient environment which surrounded her and thus she had a supreme belief in, and respect for Nature, for example a faith in the Sun, the Moon, the forest, and in all livings creatures. The ‘witch’ also had a special reverence for the seasons of the year and the seasonal festivals celebrating the change in the weather relating to the harvesting of crops, something not unusual in pre-Christian Europe and something that still exists today in many parts of the world such as Africa.

True ancient witchcraft, contrary to popular belief, had absolutely nothing to do with the Devil or Satan as this entity was simply a supremely evil being found in the predominant teachings of European religion, namely, Christianity. The ancient witches who worshipped Nature in their Old, pre Christian religion, did not even recognise the existence of Satan. In actuality they were more afraid of various spirits and entities such as imps and sprites which were reputed to haunt dark recesses of forests and in caves. However, over centuries the ‘witch’ would come into direct conflict with the new Christian belief that rejected the pagan view of nature as a living and life giving being, as well as the importance of women in such a system.

In pre-Christian Europe most people originally followed a pagan faith quite innocently and by necessity, based upon seasons and earthly changes. Ancient witches, or priestesses, recognised a Goddess as well as a God. Indeed they would quite often recognise a number of Gods and Goddesses depending upon the season or whatever circumstances they found themselves in, again, not an unusual trait, even in today’s world. Eventually, these witches and their alleged satanic knowledge, would be challenged by the Church as they posed a direct threat to the very existence of such a Church as witchcraft in its truest form was, and remained, popular among the common people. Indeed, at first the Church denied the purported powers of witchcraft, claiming they were superstition or delusion, and that God alone had supernatural powers. However, as the popularity of witchcraft did not die out the Church was forced to revert to other, more devious methods of gaining total support and therefore total obedience. As one can clearly see, for the Church to become an all powerful and all knowing institution, it had to rid itself of any competitors. And so witches and witchcraft were easily denounced by the church and its rituals in all their finery, pomp and ceremony. The myth of the ugly old crone was now being pushed by the Church and in comparison to the Church’s gold and silver and often false reverence, the ‘witch’ became segregated and marginalised, now only a useless old crone living in the woods and posing no threat to anyone.

Later, when it was clear that witchcraft would not die out as rapidly as expected, the Church changed tact and reversed its original claims expressing the belief that witches were real and were in direct conflict with the Christian God by being evil creatures in league with the Devil, which only the Church, as the now only representative of God, could eradicate.

Starting in the main in the late 14th century Europe, witches began to suffer persecution, torture, and death in many cases. The wholesale slaughter of alleged witches was to continue largely unabated until the 1700s. Mainly it was women who were murdered, although sometimes men were accused of witchcraft as well and suffered the consequences. Indeed, the persecutors killed because of their religious fanaticism, their desire to build upon their religions power or due to totally irrational fear of what had now, through the exhortations of the Church, had become the unknown and therefore evil. Other times witches were simply killed for profit as money could be made from witch hunting. In this atmosphere of religious zealotry and male bigotry many women were killed simply on the slightest of suspicions as their was no one to judge who was a witch and who wasn’t. After all, God was now the only authority a person had to answer to and if a witch had been killed, who could say whether God’s will had been done or not. In all cases, including the celebrated Joan of Arc, no one would question the legitimacy of the now all powerful Christian Church.

Modern society now recalls the days of the benevolent, though still widely misunderstood, ancient witch with her earth-based, nature worship. Indeed the 1970s and the advent of the hippie saw a number of people turning to a type of pseudo nature worship with the next two decades seeing the advent and subsequent promotion of such ‘supernatural’ phenomena such as crystal power, faith healing and physic readings. However, in most cases the history and heritage of witchcraft in its true sense is disguised or transformed to suit modern day beliefs and the modern day penchant for ‘instant fixes’. In ancient times, for instance, certain wells or springs with their flowing waters were considered to have powers bordering on magical and were used for good luck or healing. Today we see an equivalent in Christianity and ‘Holy Water.’ The black and smouldering cauldron that is seen as a negative and infinitely evil symbol of the witch today, was, in ancient Celtic times, considered a source of knowledge, healing and sustenance. Rather than a negative force it was a life giving and positive sign relating to the improvement of one’s life.

St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, with the help of other missionaries, peacefully converted pagan Irish Celts to Christianity in the 5th century. Not surprisingly he is revered to this day for his great learning and kindness, traits which he most probably possessed and yet can we be sure than any of these early founding fathers of Christianity were in fact, saintly, or Christian in their outlooks, considering that the Church itself only cared for one thing, the expansion of its own power as an all knowing and all powerful institute. It is most probable that the early Saints were as they are remembered, kind and Godfearing men who truly believed in Christian values and not simply in the expansion of the Church as an institute of total authority in all things spiritual. The Irish experience however peaceful it may have been was most probably unlike many other conversions throughout Europe and eventually in the New World, where conversion by the sword was more common.

Emperor Constantine, when centred in Constantinople, made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. After his death subsequent imperial decrees were aimed at stamping out Paganism with an edict being produced in AD340 outlawing pagan practices in the Eastern Empire. By AD346 the practice of pagan worship became punishable by death. Following this, there were periods when paganism was decriminalised and even openly practiced again, especially under the Roman ruler Julian, who himself became a pagan after being inspired by the mysteries of ancient Greece. However, paganism eventually began to lose favour with Christianity becoming a stronger and much more organised institution.

This is not to say, however, that pagans had no blood on their hands and were solely the victims of Christian intolerance. Early Christians were, without doubt, persecuted under the pagan rule of the Roman Empire with many early Christians martyred for their faith. The raids and land grabs of the Vikings were another example of pagan atrocities committed against Christians, especially in Ireland and Britain where the Norsemen sacked monasteries, killed monks, raped women and seized slaves and the spoils of victory.

Indeed, so intense was the struggle for religion and beliefs that there was often pagan/ pagan killing as well. In ancient pagan Greece there was the ‘pharmakos’ or ‘scapegoat’, as we now know it as, which involved killing a human being to alleviate some natural calamity such as plague or the withering of crops. Of special note was the ‘Wicker man’ of the pagan Celts. As reported in accounts by Julius Caesar and other Romans, the Celts would build a huge, cage-like structure in the shape of a large man made from wood or wicker. Inside it were stuffed living human beings. In bonfire-like fashion the ‘Wicker man’ was lit, sacrificing the people inside. Ironically, Christians centuries later would burn pagans and alleged pagans as well, as ‘evil’ witches or heretics, during the Burning Times.

Examination of a witch
Examination of a Witch
T.H. Matteson 1853

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