Looking for Witches and Wiccans in History
Did Wicca and Witchcraft exist throughout history? People in many fields of study have been debating this issue for decades. No definitive answers have surfaced. Wiccans and others usually believe and promote one of three explanations about Wicca:
- Wicca is a new form of spirituality that re-creates some older practices and ideas.
- Wicca is a return to or revival of an old, even ancient, form of religion. Because not a great deal is known about the old Craft, contemporary Wiccans must add to the old tradition.
- Wicca is a continuation of a very old religion that has been passed down through families and covens in an unbroken line since ancient times.
What you believe about Wicca and Witchcraft really comes down to how you define the terms and who you believe.
Deciding whether Wicca and Witchcraft were real
Determining whether Wicca and Witchcraft really existed depends on how you define those terms. Here is what researchers know:
- Historical and archeological evidence clearly shows that many groups throughout history did worship the Goddess or Goddesses. For example, hundreds of carvings of the fertility icon Sheela Na Gig date back to the Middle Ages or later. These startling similar representations are on display on buildings — even Christian churches — throughout Great Britain, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland and may be artistic representations of the Goddess.
- Many groups throughout history saw Deity in nature; they believed that Deity was all-present in the world, that people come from and are part of the Divine and that Deity is in everyone.
- Some people did practice herbalism, healing, divination, and magic.
- Throughout history, people attended agricultural and fertility rites, festivals, and celebrations that were timed to the cycles of nature.
So one definition of Wicca and Witchcraft is as a set of beliefs and practices that people followed but didn’t label — a natural way of life, as opposed to a religion.
But was there an actual, organized religion called Wicca or Witchcraft? That’s a more difficult question to answer.
Some researchers believe that Witchcraft was an organized religion that was invented by the Catholic Inquisition during the great Witch hunts of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. According to the Witch hunters, Witches worshipped and served Satan. Proponents of this theory believe that the invention of Witchcraft was either a mass delusion by members of the church, who fervently believed in Satan’s power to deceive humankind, or a deliberate ploy by church and government to persecute people for political and social reasons.
Other people, including Margaret Murray, believed that Wicca and Witchcraft were organized, pre-Christian religions of Europe.
Defending or doubting Margaret Murray
Margaret Murray (1863-1963) was a British Egyptologist, folklorist, and anthropologist. She is also regarded by many to be a grandmother of modern Wicca, because her books so heavily influenced modern Wicca.
In 1921, Murray published her book, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921). In her book, Murray argued that Witchcraft was the universal, organized, pre-Christian religion of Europe. This ancient religion survived across Europe until early modern times. Murray based her argument on her examination of the Witch trial documents of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Murray believed that the ancient Witches worshipped a horned God, which the Christians of the Inquisition claimed to be their Satan. That’s why Witches were accused of Satan worship. She called the ancient religion the Dianic Cult, because the female form of this God was Diana, the Queen of the Witches. However, the male Deity dominated the religion. Murray’s Witch cult had come from a British race of small people, now known as the Fairies. The Witch cult celebrated eight festivals every year (Sabbats) and minor events (Esbats). They organized themselves into small covens of 13 people.
Researchers have been attacking Murray’s scholarship for decades. They say that she assumed that the confessions of the accused in the Witch trials were true, when in reality the victims of the trials were tortured until they would say anything to stop the pain.
Some researchers do accept that small pockets of the ancient pre-Christian religions did survive into modern times in various areas of Europe. They acknowledge that these isolated groups may have retained fragments of the old rituals and practices. However, they don’t accept Murray’s idea of an organized and widespread pre-Christian religion that remained intact throughout history. Murray also showed no documentation for her claims about the religion — the Sabbats, the covens, and so on. Again, scholars say that these terms were created by the Inquisition during the Witch trials.
Leland and Graves: Other voices
Charles Leland (1824-1903) was an American writer who believed that the Craft survived from ancient times. His works, like Murray’s, had a big influence on the modern Wiccan revival, especially, Aradia, Gospel of the Witches (1890, and reprinted 1974). Leland was an author from the United States. Apparently, he led an adventurous life as a political radical, an abolitionist, and a folklorist.
Leland claimed that he knew a woman, Madellena, who was from an old Witch family of Italian heritage, and she provided him with the family’s book of magic. The book tells the story of Diana, the Queen of the Witches and her union with Lucifer, the God of the Sun (not Lucifer, the Christian Satan). This mating produced a daughter, Aradia.
Aradia went to Earth to teach Witchcraft to the peasants, so they could use the magic against the ruling class and raise themselves out of poverty. The Charge of the Goddess is a very popular piece of poetic prose from this book. This passage has been rewritten often, and most traditions of modern Wicca use a version of it. The term “the Old Religion” probably originated with Leland’s books. Leland maintained that women were treated equally with men in the old Craft, and he remains popular with many feminist Wiccans. He is not at all popular with scholars, however, and they have dismissed his books as bunk because he provides no documentation beyond his claim that Madellena was a practitioner who shared her knowledge with him.
Robert Graves (1895-1985) is a British writer who promoted the idea that the Craft existed in Britain from ancient times, and he claimed that several of the old covens survived. His book, The White Goddess, also influenced the modern Wiccan revival. Graves’ writings about the Great Goddess are poetic and inspirational, but few people view the book as a work of scholarship.
Wiccans differ in their opinions of Murray, Leland, and Graves and about the historical timeline of the Craft. However, they take the period of the great Witch hunts very seriously.