Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Witchcraft: Balancing History Against Practice

One of the most annoying and recurrent fights that erupt between witches involves dealing with academic outlooks on the subject of witchcraft, and how much historically accurate information we should apply to our own practices. In part, these fights erupt because a great many witches are heavily acquainted with outdated source material which flowed into the “rebirth” process of witchcraft as Wicca and other traditions were undergoing their birth pangs.

A detailed explanation of this process falls outside the spectrum of this rather limited blog entry; however, a rather simple explanation is that as various traditions and individuals were prepping to unleash a new outlook on Western witchery upon the world, they were enormously inspired by academics and pseudo-Academics who published various materials relating to the study of the phenomenon. This explanation applies to both Gerald Gardner – who was extremely influenced by Margaret Murray – and Roy Bowers (Robert Cochrane), whose essays show a fairly obviously influence by Robert Graves (in particular, The White Goddess is referenced in some of his letters).

Since then an ever increasing number of Ivory Tower scholars have cast their eyes upon the subject of witchcraft and other elements, refuting Victorian and post-Victorian scholarship and calling even elements that have now seeped into practice in Traditional circles into question.

This places those practicing any number of aspects related to witchcraft in a rather odd position; on the one hand, if we ignore the work of present academics we run the risk of making ahistorical and genuinely wrong claims about what we do. But, on the other hand, we also should not discount even certain ahistorical elements if they present a pragmatic solution to problems that plenty don't even realize may exist.

To use an example, let us take the “Wheel of the Year:”

The “eight Sabbats,” or specific holy days currently still in vogue in plenty of circles, was first presented by Margaret Murray in The Witch Cult in Western Europe. She writes:
“It appears from the evidence that certain changes took place in course of time in the religion; and, as might be expected, this is shown very markedly in the festivals. The ancient festivals remained all through, and to them were added the festivals of the succeeding religions. The original celebrations belonged to the May-November year, a division of time which follows neither the solstices nor the agricultural seasons; I have shown below (pp. 130, 178) that there is reason to believe these festivals were connected with the breeding seasons of the flocks and herds.. The chief festivals were: in the spring, May Eve (April 30), called Roodmas or Rood Day in Britain and Walpurgis-Nacht in Germany; in the autumn, November Eve (October 31), called in Britain All hallow Eve. Between these two came: in the winter, Candlemas (February 2); and in the summer, the Gule of August (August 1), called Lammas in Britain. To these were added the festivals of the solstitial invaders, Beltane at midsummer and Yule at midwinter; the movable festival of Easter was also added, but the equinoxes were never observed in Britain. On the advent of Christianity the names of the festivals were changed, and the date of one – Roodmas – was slightly altered so as to fall on May 3; otherwise the dates were observed as before, but with ceremonies of the new religion. Therefore Boguet is justified in saying that the witches kept all the Christian festivals. But the Great Assemblies were always held on the four original days, and it is this fact which makes it possible to distinguish with certainty between the Sabbath and the Esbat whenever dates are mentioned.”

In fact, plenty of the dates and festivals mentioned still had observance during the medieval period, although Murray's outlooks regarding fertility festivals are based on the rather hilarious concepts of the matter unique to the world of Victorian and post-Victorian academia, and are problematic at points. Nonetheless, the festivals themselves are at times – such as the overlap between the festivals of Beltane, Walpurgis Night, and Floralia – imbued with cultural elements relating rather directly with the practice of witchcraft and the emerging beliefs regarding it during the late medieval and Early Modern period.

More importantly – to practitioners especially – this system of utilizing a set of seasonally based days and practices, allows for one to create and interact with both the land and one's deities in a way that is highly worthwhile. It is, nonetheless as it exists in Murray's text, a rather ahistorical means of looking at festival days that were practiced well into the onset of the Early Modern period with Christian justifications following attempts by the authorities of the Church to keep the converted populace from falling back into practicing festivals (and religious observations) from Europe's “pagan” heritage. Despite these attempts, collective memory of former celebrations still remained and thus infused specific days with the spirit of “witchcraft” in later periods.

In this sense, the use of such days allows for one to tap the “deep, mythic roots” of witchcraft but also creates the potential for much misunderstanding; in many cases, the understanding of such events is rather directly shaped by Murray's over-arching (and rather hilarious) thesis, rather than from the events themselves.

As noted above, the pragmatic aspects of adopting a set of days linked to both folklore and witch beliefs is especially useful. It sets up an internally coherent map of events upon which offerings are given to one's Allies, during which one pays due attention to their personal deities and the spirits that work alongside said deities, and creates a period in which one is interacting with the spirits, the land upon which they act ritually, and so forth. I am personally of the opinion that this matters more than the ahistorical outlook from which it derives and allows us to bypass the rather dangerous desire to only practice aspects related specifically to the work of academia.

In other words, even if there are pitfalls to using it, it still works and aside from a few minor adjustments to our outlook, there is no reason to dismiss it entirely. On the other hand, one can also use festivals such as the Fasts of the Four Seasons, also known from the late Medieval period as the Ember Days:
“For in the year 1544, Martin Crusius, in his Annales Svevici, cites a curious tale, borrowed from an older chronicle. Wandering about the Swabian countryside were certain clerici vagantes who wore yellow nets draped about their shoulders in the place of capes. They had approached a group of peasants and told them they had been on the Venusberg and had seen extraordinary things there. They claimed knowledge of the past and could foretell the future; they had the power to discover lost objects and possessed charms which protected both men and animals from witches and their crimes; they could even keep hail away. With such boasts, intermingled with fearsome words mumbled ominously through clenched teeth, they shunned both men and women, especially the latter, and extorted money from them. As though this was not enough, they also declared they could call up the 'Furious Horde', made up of children who had died before they were baptized, of men slain in battle and of all 'ecstatics' – in other words of those souls who had had to abandon their bodies, never to return. These souls, they said, were accustomed to gather in the deserted places on Saturday nights of the Ember seasons and on Thursdays of the Advent, wandering about, sorrowing, until the appointed timeof their deaths, when they could be received amongst the blessed.* These clerici vagantes claimed that they had two lenghts of rope, one for grain, the other for wine: if one of them was buried, the price of grain or wine would increase that year...”
- Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles. (p. 55)

One of the aspects that Ginzburg highlights in his studies of witches, “proto-witches,” (my term) and similar practices is that on specific days and times of the year, certain individuals became ecstatic and dealt with the Otherworld; or to put it another way, individuals continuing to act in that capacity (even if they've been influenced by shoddy scholarship) are continuing a very long process of practice dating back several centuries, if not further afield along the timeline.

To this end, active practice is more of a requirement than long-term engagement with academic sources. And it always has been.

Extending this mindset to other elements is not terribly hard, either. I was recently reading a review of Emma Wilby's
Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits and was shocked when towards the end of the review, the reviewer noted that Wilby seemed to contradict herself regarding the practices of cunning folk. Sometimes, she noted, Wilby seemed to indicate that the individual was interacting with a spirit (or at least thought they were), whereas other times she indicated that the individual might be starving and thus hallucinating during the “encounter.”

While on the surface, these statements seem to contradict each other, from the perspective of active practice they do not. Fasting has long been an aspect of any number of magical practices, and we now know today that fasting causes
altered states of consciousness. The act of fasting causes the body to rely on its reserves of fat, burning them as fuel. As a result, one of the biochemical reactions triggered by the state is the release of “beta-endorphins” (endorphins are natural painkillers, a biological form of opiates that the human body itself produces) which can allow for one to basically “trip ballz” in a natural way. Starvation, rather than intentional fasting, can also cause these biological changes within the human body.

Given that we are seeing an altered state, and sound reasons for it appearing, this makes the potential for interaction between a starving poor person and a spirit all the more likely from where one sits as a practitioner. The “conditions” (biological, that is) are correct for just such an encounter, and what remains is what the practitioner got out of the encounter. It is only when they themselves come to doubt the event – perhaps based on false promises from the spirit – that we need to quirk an eyebrow.


* Italix mine, as well as bolding for emphasis.

1 comment: said...

Thanks for this. It is something I have been thinking about this past year as I have been looking at all the 'new' data and it's effects that I have missed in my long occult sabbatical.

It seems like there are two main schools of thought- one that outright rejects any academic findings, and one says you must revise your practice in accordance with them. I am of the mind that if what you do works, is sound in it's (possibly only internal) logic, you are quite good to go.

But then I view all of this from a perspective of sorcery and craft more than religion.