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About the History of the Craft
by Ruth Wynn Owen

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What is now known as 'the Craft' has a long and honourable descent from the most primitive of religions known to man, the worship of the Great Mother. A child, surrounded by the unknown, a stranger here, needs a mother; even so, when mankind was in its childhood it turned to a mother, who could make all things well, who could protect and save, who gave, as mothers do, food and warmth, shelter and comfort. So, all over the world, the worship of the Great Mother arose, spontaneously. She was the earth, from which they gathered and collected their food. They also fished and killed beasts for their food, and, so that the beasts might be allowed to fall to their spears and arrows, they asked the god of the beasts they hunted, the Great Stag, the Great Salmon and such, to grant them of his children; and, in return,they would give him honour and gifts. They acted out the hunt in mime, a living-through of the hunt, as they wished it to be, with no hunter hurt, and with the killing of the one acting the hunted animal. When they started to till the earth, Mother, the earth, gave birth to their crops. A woman was magic, as she could make another man inside her, so was the earth, who from 'dead' seed brought forth food. Later the God became the Lord of the Mother, and so the father of men, and the father of the crops. The mother bore the crops,and the god became her son, the crops too; killed with the cutting of the crops, and reborn from the mother each Spring.

Beside this there was the worship of the Great Lights. The sun giving life, making grow, the moon who monthly grew from a maid to a pregnant mother, and declined to an old crone, withered and full of wisdom and experience, and so, magical - as their own older people were, because they knew things, and remembered things. So the sun became the father god, and the moon the mother goddess. The sun was food, hunting and the crops, and as he died, as did the sun at the winter solstice, the crops and the vegetation each year, he became the Lord of Death, and of recurrence of life. The moon, who never died as the sun did, but went through the whole life cycle each month, was equated with the Mother, the giver of liofe, and of re-birth, of fertility of man and beast, and fields. In her womb they 'planted' their dead, to come again in time, reborn to the life they knew.

These basic ideas collected around them a conglomerate of other ideas and god-aspects, minor gods and spirits, some general, as water, fire, rain and thunder; some local, as spirits or gods of earthquakes, volcanoes, particular animals and plants, and of places, the lake, the cavern, the forest, the mountain, the waterfall. So religion varied more and more, from place to place. We will follow it in these islands.

Here were the Mother and Father, moon and sun; they had their priestly caste who interpreted them to the people, and were intermediaries with the goddess and god, and did the magics needed. Most clans or families equated their earliest mythical ancestors with sun and moon. These 'first parents' were also usually a tree or plant, and a bird, beast or fish, which were sacred to their children, their descendants. When the Romans came, they found in Gaul and these islands many chieftains and princes of clans, but the law and justice was administered by the priestly caste, the Druids. They found these people interesting and intelligent, their generals took some for their friends. They wrote of them with admiration for their rule and wisdom. Diogenes Laertius says that they taught the three fold maxim, 'To worship the gods, to do no evil, and to exercise courage'. They tell us that these people believed in rebirth on this earth, and the recognised three of their own gods, Jupiter, Mercury and Diana, in the gods they found here. The main 'College' of the whole Druid faith was on the island of Anglesey, in North Wales, and to it people came from all over these islands, and from Gaul. In France the Romans had managed to achieve a measure of co-operation, but this was impossible here, as these Druids were intensely national, and stirred up trouble for the conquerors as soon as things seemed to be settling down, and in the end the Romans found it necessary to exterminate the entire 'College'. The Roman soldiers were so intimidated by the sight of the druids standing along the shore with up-stretched arms, and the black-clad women, with hair streaming, who ran between them, whirling flaming torches, that they could not be made to jump from the boats and attack, until one officer led the way along, when they allowed themselves to be driven ashore. They left, as they thought, not one Druid, man or woman, alive. They cut down the sacred groves, they smashed the circles and standing stones, and burned the sacred houses; but, owing to the nature of the religion, each clan had its trained god and goddess representative, and many Druids were away on their duties, so, though the faith of these islands kept very quiet, it survived. As the Romans settled, and finally left, it emerged once more. Then came the Christian Church.

The Druids had told the people of 'a light of the East, coming from the West', and had told them to make this light welcome, and let it rest here. So it did come, the Christian faith came first to these shores from the west, from Ireland, and they let it 'rest here'.

Why not? Here was the Mother, whose Son was also the Father, and who was killed, and rose again, just like their own Mother-Father-Son. The names did not matter, they had many names in different places. Then came the Church of Rome, the Old Faith and the new Christians were prepared to be friendly, and the first missionaries had been told to adapt old gods to new saints, old festivals to Christian ones, old sacred places to church sites. It worked fairly well with the new Christians, and with those who followed both old and new impartially. Then orders came that they must change the dates of some of the festivals, as they were following the Eastern Church which had already split with the Western, Rome-based church, and this did cause trouble, and lost many friends and converts. Celts can be led, but they cannot be driven. The rest of the country had met the Roman church first of all, and were already using the Roman calendar. However, a number of the gods and mythical 'first Fathers', became 'Christianised and sainted', and legends of their conversions and pilgrimages to Rome grew up.

Christianity spread all over these islands. Pockets of the Old Faith remained in remote places. Most people were Christians as they had to be, and enjoyed the festivals, and the candles and the chanting, and the colourful churches, and many lapped up the education given at the monasteries; but few thought it necessary to stop being of the Old Faith as well. The old priesthood continued, and became the 'coven', which only means a group of like-minded people, as a convent, not an old word, it is from Norman French. These covens became the elders of the faith, those with magic, and who administered the faith, and all people joined them at the Great Festivals. The coven was, some people believed, ideally thirteen, but actually rarely so. Often there were not that number with 'the gifts' in the district, or there were more, and one did not exclude a good member. The Old Faith continued in double harness with the new. The local priest, being literate, was often the 'Man in sober black, with little bands' described at the trials, and said to be the devil. He was go-between for several covens in the sparsely populated country districts.

The teachings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, the gospel or 'Good News' of the Christians was soon overlaid by accretions invented by the priesthood. The Church had become great land owners, all over Europe, and to protect its riches, it engaged in power politics, backing one kingdom against another. It ruled the masses by superstition, by fear of eternal damnation. Some people, clinging to the early teachings of the church, began to question doctrines, and the lives of the elect priesthood, which seemed to them sinful, and luxurious. They started small groups trying to live by the early ideals, and left the church. Though the church had insisted upon celibacy for priests, the higher hierarchy, though they did not marry, led lives of open immorality, lived like lords and had no idea whatever of compassion for all men. They were career men and politicians, and worldly quarrelsome ones at that. Among the humbler priesthood the rules of chastity were still maintained on the surface, and led to a seething mass of repressed instincts and guilt when their natures overcame them; natural impulses became converted to sadism, masochism and less pleasant outlets in their very difficult lives.

Suddenly the church realised that it was no longer lord of a mass of passive subservient peasants who lived and died that it might be comfortable and powerful and it took fright. All over Europe it turned on the sincere and breakaway groups as scapegoats for the mess that Europe and the church were in, the pestilence, the famines, the murmurings of the poor, the dangerous hint of less than instant obedience, less willing soldiering and dying for one churchman or lord, for no reason.

The church declared that the troubles and miseries were the result of the wrath of God, because anti-Christ was rearing its head among them and they did not watch, pray and stamp it out. Safety lay only in the arms of Mother Church, did they not know what the devil was raising in their midst? They must be vigilant, and notice every deviation from the church of God or things would be worse and God more angry and damnation for their wicked tolerance sure. So they accused the deviants, with singular lack of originality, of all the things of which the Romans had accused the early Christians, plus those they used when using their normal scapegoats, the Jews. The Jews had killed Christ, so they were due for anything that came to them. The most interested party, Christ, had forgiven them at the time, but this had escaped their notice. Now they charged all the non-Church sects including the Old Religion, the 'Witches' with the same amended list. They practiced infanticide, cannibalism, sodomy, incest and other unnatural practices, casting the evil eye, bewitching to death, profaning or mimicking the Mass, cursing to death, worshiping Satan and making pacts with him, poisoning water sources, blasting crops and beasts, creating infected miasms to spread plague, lived in gross sexual immorality, including intercourse with the devil in some cases.

Now, in the case of early Christians and the Jews, we know such charges to be merely popular emotion stirrers, and otherwise, sheer nonsense, and in the case of the groups accused, the Albigenses, Waldenses, Cathari, and the pagan faith survivals, knowing the faiths of most of these groups, and others charged, we can safely assume these charges to be the lies of frightened people without honour. The vast boil of Europe burst, and an age of such barbarity ensued that in the end the accusers were taken over by their machine, and were accusing and killing each other. They began to believe their own inventions.

In 1489, two churchmen, Sprenger and Kramer, produced a book to assist in detecting and dealing with witches. It was the infamous Malleas Mallificarum, or Hammer of the Witches, which became the bible of the witch hunters, even under Protestantism. Life and ethics mattered not a whit, only what you believed, and if this was not the full doctrine of the church, you were guilty. A white witch was as guilty as a black sorcerer. Of course, the magic practised by many churchmen, ceremonial magic, was not wrong, for they commanded devils, but witches were commanded by the devil. Now the witches in England had often heard of the Christians' devil in church, but they had never equated him with their god, even when, as Lord of the Beasts, he had horns, and often a tail and hooves, which was how the church imagined Satan, as a sort of hideous Pan. Now they were told that they worshipped the Christians' principle of evil, the Devil.

Witch trials did away with all normal legal procedures. One was not faced by one's accusers, or told who they were until the trial. All that was needed was an accusation. He was imprisoned, and confession extracted in Europe and Scotland by torture. In England, this was not legal, unless the witch was accused of a capital crime committed by witchcraft. However, we well know, from present day example, how much can be done without 'legal' torture, and by what we now call 'brain-washing'. Many accused witches were so nearly mad by the time they stood trial that they probably thought they really had committed the impossibilities of which they were accused, and embroidered the salacious details to mollify their judges, who seemed to like that sort of thing. Far too much reliance is put on the trials as evidence to support the popular idea of witchcraft.

The sameness of the confessions comes from the fact that there was a numbered list of questions used, of the 'Have you stopped beating your wife' variety. Answer 'Yes' or 'No'. Which ever you choose, it implies that you did beat your wife; there is no room for a straight denial. Most trial records give numbers, for the questions, with simply 'Affirmed' written beside them or 'He (or she) affirms this'. They were written up later, if time, as depositions, as though the witch had confessed in a long speech, or in answer to normal questioning.

Another reason why the trials are not good evidence for the actual habits of witches, is that they rarely got a real witch. Notice that only once, (in Scotland) were a group ever taken in the act. All other accusations were by heresay. It was a fine way of settling old scores or getting an enemy out of the way. The other reason that they rarely got the real thing was that the Old Faith lingered among the great families and those who could be expected to be the first to know when a witch - drive was coming, the local magistrate, the minister, the lord of the manor, who warned in plenty of time the people likely to suffer and they disappeared quietly, cattle droving, or visits, or 'on pilgrimage' (a great favourite this one). The actual coven members knew, anyway, of course, as they had 'the gifts' and spread the word as well.

Anyone accused and taken was forced to give names of accomplices to the number of thirteen, in the mistaken idea that she belonged to a coven. The poor soul had to rack her brains for names, and in trying to do so, some real witches did get named by chance,though the accused, rarely a witch, had no idea of this. When taken, these naturally confessed to the popular idea of a witch and so saved the true beliefs and habits of the Faith. If the witch was considered to be a bad risk she was usually strangled in prison by some of her own people. We read that 'the devil strangled her in her cell',for no one had been near her, only the minister, the gaolers, the sober matrons sent to examine her person - so it must have been the devil. It couldn't have been any of those, or the lord of the manor, or the magistrates, could it? Many others hanged themselves, to save being made to talk, or to escape public death.

In England, the punishment for being found guilty of witchcraft was not death unless the witch had committed a crime by her craft which was itself punishable by death. They were hanged, not burned. There were crimes, such as treason, which were punishable by burning, but the writer does not know of any record of a witch suffering burning in England for this.

In Scotland, the law was different, and a witch was strangled and then burned, or sometimes burned without strangulation. It is said that there were burnings in Ireland, and on the Isle of Man, but the writer so far has not seen the records.

It was at this point that the Old Faith parted company with the Church. Not necessarily with the Christians, for those who suffered with the Craft were all Christians and many a Christian scholar and priest lost his living, and sometimes his life, on the Continent, in trying to halt the delusion and madness that was causing the deaths of so many in the Craft.

The Old Faith went underground for five hundred years, this time, though it survived fairly intact in some remote districts. There were acts of Parliament passed against witches. King James 1 was an ardent witch hunter and wrote a book against them, but then, he also wrote a book against the smoking of that foul weed, tobacco.

The Craft had never been organised on a national basis, it was a collection of groups with much in common and many dissimilarities. Now isolation caused those to be emphasised, and one group remembered one thing, and one another emphasised another. Those born during this time, with the gifts, who would have in the past entered the Craft, now started up as wisemen or wise women, on their own, with no knowledge of the religious or ethical background of the Craft.

Gradually the age of unreason was succeeded by the age of reason. People no longer 'believed in fairies', and witches went out with them. The drift to the towns began, better roads meant less isolation. The general belief was that the whole belief in the Craft had been a delusion of the persecutor, except in the remote country, where some still kept their fear of the popular idea of the witch, and their belief in 'the little folk'.

However, the Witchcraft Act was never repealed, and became a serious embarrassment to the emergent Spiritualist movement who were 'pretending to consort with spirits', according to popular belief again. Wisemen and women were now working much more in the open, but the Act was still there if they were complained against.

Finally this anomaly was repealed in 1951, and replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, and witches popped up out of every corner, which was not, of course, the object of the exercise! Then came trouble. The remainder only knew their own particular branch of the Craft, and were adamant that all the others were liars and not witches! The scene was made even more complicated by the number who wanted to be witches, and not being of a family or district that still retained a group, had to invent a tradition for themselves. Then there were those, with no inkling of things past,who wanted 'something different' who latched onto the trials, the popular beliefs about the Craft, black magic, ceremonial magic, all sorts of esoteric bits and pieces from all over the world, Voodoo, and sex in forms natural and un-natural - or to taste - and said they were witches. In the old days, everything was learned by heart, and nothing but recipes was written down, except in riddles which served as a reminder to those in the know, and made no nonsense to anyone else. Now, 'old books of rites and teachings' sprang up like toadstools, mostly a mixture of foreign magic, grimoires, and the nightmares of the dyspeptic.

Now the writer thinks it is right to make ones own rites and teachings, and something can as new as today and perfectly valid if made with integrity. A thing is not necessarily good because it is old, what was silly then is sillier now that we know more, but that it is a pity to produce pseudo ancient rites or rules.

Let us hope that now we are past all this. There is more wish for union, and more tolerance among the young in the Craft today than there was even ten years ago. A man finds the faith for which he is ready, if he seeks. We are not all at the same stage of development, and all gods of light are one god. Let us build a good future History of the Craft.


1. In your opinion, should members of the Craft cut away entirely from other faiths, such as Christianity, or try to understand all sincerely held beliefs?

2. How important is traditional lore to you? Would you like to write some of your own rituals and rules?

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