Magicians and sorcerers are known all over the world, and they derive from primeval pre-religious times.* But in Western civilization the form of occultism known as witchcraft is the surviving remnant of the “Old Religion” of pre-Christian Europe. This Old Religion was itself an amalgamation of the faiths and superstitions of the Iberian, Celtic,** and Teutonic peoples. In Europe these three sets of beliefs were layered, because the original natives (in England, the Iberians and Picts) were conquered by the Celts (Goidels/Gaels/ Gauls, Bretons/Brythons, and Belgćans) and these in turn were mastered by the Teutonic tribes (Angles, Saxons, and Danes).
The oldest faith, the Iberian, is the foundation of witchcraft. It involved the worship of nature gods at certain seasons of the year. The Great Mother goddess was the personification of Nature and the Earth. The male god was the Horned One, Kernunnos, whose stag horns identified him as originally a hunting deity.*** The goddess was Summertime, and the god was Winter. It was the old pre-Celtic natives who built the monuments of standing stones all over Europe. (The full purpose of these megalithic circles is not known, although the theory that they were observatories used to fix dates of the calen-dar has the widest acceptance.)
The Celtic faith, which was laid on top of the older one, had a more developed pantheon**** and was primarily devoted to worship of the sun and moon. The priests of the Celts, called Druids, espoused tree worship, hence
*Magic appeared in time prior to religion. It was manifested in hunting and fertility rituals. Power over nature was the object of these ceremonies. The witch doctor, or shaman, was the precursor of the priest, and some of this superstition remains in the inferior religions of mankind.
**The Iberians were a dark Hamitic people coming originally from North Africa by way of Spain (Iberia). The Celts/Kelts were a fair Aryan stock distributed in England as Gaels in the North, Bretons in the South, and Belgć on the southern Coastland.
***Images of Kernunnos show him holding a serpent and a torque (golden neck ring), symbolic of the phallus and vulva. He may also have a cauldron overflowing with grain - equivalent to a cornucopia. His spear and his kettle are sexual symbols as well.
****The gods of the Celts included: Lugh/Lleu the sun god, Belenos/Balor the god of death, Sulis/Kerridwin the mother goddess, Brigit the sheep goddess, Epona/Rhiannon the horse goddess, and Artona the bear goddess. Worship was also accorded to the good god called “the Dagda” and the evil goddess called “the Morrigan.” In Ireland the gods were the euhemerized kings and heroes of the ancient races.
the modern use of holly, mistletoe, and evergreen trees at Christmas, the old winter solstice festival. The Druids directed the lighting of yule logs and bonfires (called balefires or needfires) in the wintertime, whose purpose was to provide strength to the weakened sun. Another custom was to whirl a fire-wheel with four spokes symbolizing the four seasons; the end of each spoke was a torch, and when they rotated, a flaming swastika was created. This was the emblem of the sun as it rotated through the yearly cycle. As a dark side of their faith, they also burned human beings in wicker cages, or cast bound sacrificial victims into ponds.
Finally, with the coming of the Germanic people, a new and more familiar set of gods (Odin/Woden, Thor/Donner, Loki, Freya, Erda, etc.) were introduced. And a fully developed cosmology and eschatology were woven into the sacred sagas of the Nordic gods and heroes.
The chief concerns of the Old Religion were seasonal ceremonies that were related to the annual farming cycle. Sunlight and a good growing season required propitiation of the native gods at certain times on the calendar. Accordingly, the seasons at which worship was conducted were:
DATE CHRISTIANIZED NAME PAGAN NAME
October 31 All Hallows’ Eve, Hallowe’en Samonia, Samhain
(the eve of Hallowmas, or (harvest feast, bonfire to
All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1) give strength to the sun)
December 21 Winter Solstice, Yule
Christmas Eve (bonfire to aid the sun)
January 5 Twelfth Night (the eve of Late, anti-Christian
Epiphany, the Twelfth Day)
February 1 February Eve, Candlemas Imbolc (bonfires to
give strength to the sun)
February 5 Night of St. Agatha (Patron deity: Brigit)
April 30 May Day Eve, Beltane
Roodmas, Walpurgis Night, (Maypole, sexual
Eve of St. Walpurga’s Day springtime rites)
(Patron deity: Belenos)
June 23 Evening of St. John the Midsummer’s Eve
Baptist’s Day, or (shortest night of the year)
Midsummer’s Day, June 24 (Patron deity: Lugh)
August 1 Lammas Lugnasadh
(Patron deity: Lugh)
At Samhain, “Summer’s End,” (pronounced “Sowin”), the Great Mother relinquished her power to the Horned One. She took it back again at Beltane (pronounced “Baltinna”), the beginning of the next summer. The mating of the two deities at that time produced the fruits of summer.
One scheme shows the months of the Celtic calendar as follows:
Samonios Nutfall Moon Oct/Nov
Dummanios Darktime Moon Nov/Dec
Riuros Moon of Cold Dec/Jan
Anagantios Housebound Moon Jan/Feb
Ogronios Ice Moon Feb/Mar
Cutios Wind Moon Mar/Apr
Giamonios Bud Moon Apr/May
Simivisonios Brightness Moon May/Jun
Equos Horse Moon Jun/Jul
Elembiuos Moon of Claiming Jul/Aug
Edrinios Arbitration Moon Aug/Sep
Cantlos Song Moon Sep/Oct
After Europe became Christianized, the seasonal times of feasting and revelry were denounced as “witches’ sabbaths.” Also, the smaller, sometimes weekly, meetings of the pagan cultists were known in France as “esbats.” There was sexual license at these gatherings, because their main purpose was to ensure fertility and thus, survival or prosperity.
In the Old Religion, people with psychic powers were much esteemed. The “wise woman” was consulted about every affair of life, and her influence was for the good of the clan or tribe. One of the methods by which she fore-saw the future was by means of her magic cauldron, peering into its surface as with a crystal ball. Another use of her kettle was to brew drinks of youthful potency. Divination through animals called “familiars” was typical of the old superstition known as augury. Because of this occult association with animals, the belief arose that the woman could be transformed into the animal herself. The power to do “shape shifting” (lycanthropy) was claimed by ancient shamans from prehistoric times, and many primeval paintings in caves show persons disguised as animals.
The term “witch” is thought to derive from the Germanic word wit: “to know.” Thus, it is just a contracted form of “wise woman.” The actual name of the Old Religion, however, is “Wicca,” which is perhaps derived from wik: “to bend,” or from weik, which refers to magic. Males of the cult are usually called sorcerers or warlocks (OE waerloga: “oath breaker.”) Wiccans often refer to themselves as members of “the craft.” (It is also interesting to note that the word “pagan” comes from the Latin paganus, meaning “peasant,” and that a “heathen” was simply a rural person living on the heath. This shows the persistence of the Old Religion among the common folks.)
With the coming of Christianity, the old gods were denounced as devils, and so the benevolent Horned One became the malevolent Satan. At this time the wise woman in the village was denounced as a practitioner of black magic (and usually burned at the stake). This drove the faith underground and caused intense enmity against the Church. Thus the meetings of the bands, called “covens,” became secret and seditious.
The ideal number in a coven is thirteen members. At their meeting or sabbath, a man dresses as the Horned One, either in a deer skin with antlers or disguised as a black goat. Mock wedding ceremonies are performed, and females have intercourse with the man masquerading as the incarnate Devil. Outright Satanism might also be practiced by means of a “black mass” cere-mony. Singing or chanting of spells, along with ritual motions and circle dances are common. It is also an ancient supposition that infants may be sacri-ficed at these meetings.
Because wiccanism involves worship of the Horned One, the ritual was mistakenly identified as Satanism. And so, the old legal definition of a witch in England was “a person who hath conference with the Devil to consult with him or to do some act.”
During medieval times, both heresy and witchcraft were intensely per-secuted. As a consequence, many innocent, eccentric, or feeble minded per-sons were put to death. Accused witches were either burned, drowned, or hanged. In England an act of 1542 made witchcraft, sorcery, and enchantment punishable by death. By one estimate, 30,000 witches were killed in a 150 year period. Another source says 500,000 were executed between the 14th and 17th centuries. As late as 1768 John Wesley maintained that to suffer a witch to live was to surrender belief in the Bible.
It is likely that many of the people accused of witchcraft were, in fact, delusional and convinced that they really did have magical powers obtained by communion with the Devil. Unfortunately because of the routine use of torture in obtaining confessions, all testimony from these witch trials is highly suspect. If a thumbscrew was put to an old woman, she would doubtless con-fess to flying on a broomstick, making her neighbor’s cow go dry, or raising a destructive tempest. And yet, despite heavy persecution and social pressure, the practice of this ancient faith has survived and can still be found all over Europe. In Italy it goes by the name of la vecchia religione. (On the other side of the world, Catholicism is overlaid on the old faiths of Latin America in this same way.) Thus, traces of ancient heathenism have a surprising power of survival into modern times, especially among the ignorant and gullible mem-bers of society.
With highly impressionable persons, the knowledge that a curse or spell has been invoked against them can cause harm. But nowadays no think-ing person should be concerned with the supposed power of magic - either white or black.
Witchcraft is nothing more than a delusion. It can be studied as the remnant of an ancient belief, but in the final analysis its basis in flimsy fables and foolish folklore should discredit its authenticity as a viable philosophy of life, much less as an authentic religious faith.
Richard L. Atkins