View Full Version : Wicca and Witchcraft: A Dying Art in a Thriving Industry

Thursday, January 19th, 2006, 04:10 PM
"Wicca is a popularized and diluted form of witchcraft, not the definition of witchcraft as so many of its followers appear to believe." In an era in which witchcraft has become, to many westerners, as nearly acceptable as Buddhism or Hinduism, it seems redundant to talk about witchcraft as a dying art. In every bookstore, all over the web, even featured on Pat Kenny’s family-fest Late, Late Show (Samhain 2000, RTE 1, Rep of Ireland, 9.30 pm) surely witchcraft is thriving and more, becoming increasingly mainstream and less misunderstood by the day. I could bore you with a list of books by exotically named authors, extolling the virtues of goddess worship and the benefits of magic, (but I won’t.) So then; there can be little doubt that witchcraft is in good shape, practiced and understood by thousands worldwide.

Or can there?

I submit below an outline of the differences between Wicca and Witchcraft, (a cook’s tour of both for our initiate readers) an exploration of the difficulties facing us in the modern world and a brief discussion of the paths open to us. This is but one opinion; any response is more than welcome.


In the first place, it is necessary to differentiate between Wicca, a modern goddess-centric religion and Witchcraft, an ancient and sometimes dark Art. Wicca is a loosely organized religion, centered around the books and theories of Gerald Gardner, and Wicca is the term applied by many people to all forms of witchcraft. Many believe that the word ‘wicca’ is derived from a saxon word meaning wise; this however has been disputed by both historians and linguists alike.

It is an eclectic religion blending Celtic, British, Eastern and Native American philosophies. The main characteristics of Wicca include the keeping of a ‘Book of Shadows’ and adherence to a ‘rede’ or threefold law; this is a form of Karmic law, which states that should you try to harm anyone, the ill-wish will rebound on you with three times the force. In recent times Wicca has become increasingly politically correct, centering on a philosophy of positive thought and healing light. It is first and foremost a religion, goddess-centric and pan-theistic.

That Wicca is a popular movement followed by many people of great sincerity, should not be in doubt, here or elsewhere. Unfortunately it is also certain that it is a popularized and diluted form of witchcraft, not the definition of witchcraft as so many of its followers appear to believe. And Wicca is an industry. It has spawned a generation or two of ‘expert’ authors, peddling everything from pre-fabricated spells to secrets of the universe; and with every new publication comes a new layer of misinformation. Even more worrying; spells, sacred names, secrets, herbs and oils and potions are prepackaged, ready mixed and available to any halfling with a credit card. Increasingly every web site has a ‘shop’ attached, or is linked to a whimsically named emporium with a line in bad taste paraphernalia.

But by no means the least irritant in this unholy brew is the arrogance of the breed. I have met with at least three witches, from the two western Irish families and a British family who were haughtily informed by wiccans online, that traditional witchcraft didn’t exist and that even if it did, it was no more valid than wicca. A member of the Clan, from Leinster was roundly abused by ‘a proud witch of two years standing’ for pointing out that witches weren’t actually burned at Salem or many other places, and she was also subjected to a patronizing and almost amusingly inaccurate citing of the Alice Kettler story, (Kilkenny)* (see end)When she protested against the over simplefied view that was being pushed, she was told that the other corresspondant was an expert, she had read all about Kettler in a book, and she was 'very well read' in all things celtic.

The practitioner in question holds a BA (hons) from UCD in history; she has spent the last ten years in historical research. But perhaps most importantly of all, she LIVES here; she was born here; she is in short, Irish. Note to Americans and Australians in particular. Even if you spend your adult life studying the Celts and their mythology and Yeats and Kavanaugh and folktales and Irish History, I have a news flash for you; you’re not Irish. You are in fact a guest in our culture and should have a little more respect and humility when approaching several millennia of history. And our education system is one of the best in Europe, far superior to the US or Australian. We tend to know quite a lot about our own society.

So what then, is witchcraft? Witchcraft is a form of pagan ritual and knowledge carried forward from ancient times, and although adapted by each generation to suit the times in which they lived, it contains certain truths and erudition that never change. With specific reference to Celtic witchcraft the survival of this knowledge and tradition is easily traced; Too powerful to fight, the peoples’ love for their goddesses was sublimated into a cult of the Virgin Mary in the Christian church; many rituals and traditions surviving under the watchful eye of the parish priest. (notably the August games at Taillte (Tealtown) whose origins lie in the mourning games ordered by the god, Lugh at the death of his foster mother, Tailtu)

The veneer of Christianity hid but perversely also preserved the pagan ways, aided by the fact that up to and beyond Elizabethan times Ireland was largely isolated and unlike Britain and Gaul never fell prey to the influences of continental Europe. A rich oral tradition encoded the story of the Old Religion into legend and myth, and the Christian monks were of inestimable help in writing down over the centuries many of these tales, (albeit with a liberal dose of Christian moralizing).

The invasion of the English from the eleventh century onwards did eventually result in the destruction of Irish culture, the outlawing of our Brehon laws, the persecution of the Bards and the outlawing of our language, religion, culture, music, and indeed at one point of the entire nation, all this came late enough in our history to ensure that the age-old knowledge was less diluted and polluted than elsewhere. And yet again, persecution aided the Old Religion as the determination of our neighbours to destroy our history induced both the catholic church and the few inheritors of the ways, to preserve it in the teeth of all opposition.

Another contributing factor was the encoding within the landscape itself of the Goddess and her story. From Newgrange to Cnoc Aine, the land itself speaks of the pattern of settlement from earliest times, and the spread of a matriarchal, lunar worshipping religion outwards from Beara in Kerry to the edge of Ireland and across the sea to Britain and Europe. Furthermore it tells the story of the struggle between this religion and the sun-worshipping cults, and their
compromise and integration.

So there is the provenance of Celtic paganism and its attendant forms, notably witchcraft. Easy to prove the survival and almost unbroken links between our Celtic present and pagan past, but what of the survival of the knowledge and arts of our ancestors? There are those even today, whose own families bear the threads of the past into the present and are themselves the preservers of the old ways, known as the Few. With the rise of Wicca there has also been a smaller but welcome rise in the followers of traditional witchcraft, a very close cousin to the family witchcraft under discussion in these pages.

With respect to the traditional secrecy surrounding these matters, a delicate subject at the best of times, it is permissible to state that there are approximately six families in Ireland who are true examples of hereditary Traditional Family Witchcraft. In each family, there is one in each branch who is a practitioner, so there are usually several in each generation, cousins rather than siblings. As a rule there is one main branch of the family, centering on the matriarchal line, around which all this occult activity centers, preventing it from becoming too widespread and diluted as the bloodline expands.

Should circumstances dictate that a practitioner die without issue, or the her family and bloodline is cut short by death, pestilence or violence the knowledge and expertise will be passed to the nearest female blood relative. What lends traditional family witchcraft its more bizarre aspects is, that while the practitioner is initiated into the secrets of the clan, her immediate family, sometimes including parents & siblings may well be almost entirely unaware of this. Or while accepting that their own parent or sibling was possessed of some psychic ability or other they persist in seeing it as a mild gift, an odd little ability that the practitioner seems to have inherited. This has led to generations of hereditary witches being persecuted by the following sentence; ‘you know, you’re the image of your Granny’.

On a more serious note, in some cases where the practitioner has been unable to properly initiate her successor into the craft, the unfortunate inheritor is doomed to spend a great portion of her life and certainly her adolescence seeking restlessly, feeling lost, worried by unusual abilities and badly channeled energies…

When properly initiated, even if abandoned before any in-depth exploration of her abilities or without a great deal of instruction the practitioner is likely to find her path with greater ease and to find the practical aspects of witchcraft a lot easier than many who come to the craft without much family background; as Celtic culture is extremely ancestor-fixated, the longer the line of witches in one bloodline, the greater the repository of energy at the disposal of the witch.

However many adept and intelligent practitioners have found their way into the craft in recent years, choosing traditional witchcraft and bringing to it fresh energy and perspective. I would be loath to suggest that their contribution is in any way less valuable than that of hereditary witches, rather that each has their strengths and weaknesses.

Accepting then the history of and general aspects of traditional family witchcraft, it remains to examine and compare it to its main rival Wicca. Unlike Wicca it is not necessarily a religion. It can be practiced perfectly well as a Craft or Art rather than as a religion. Many hereditary witches have been devout Catholic or Christian in one generation, atheistic in the next and pagan after that. Often there has been a duality of expression, with the natural inclination of the practitioner being towards spirituality rather than atheism, and with the god/desses of the old religion seen as complementary to, rather than in conflict with, the Christian church. Many older practitioners would be horrified to think of themselves as pagan; being firmly Christian, but seeing the use of the old sacred names as rather like saying ‘abracadabra’, as it were.

In the new generation the trend is toward an affectionate and reverent sense of the old deities, each seen as individuals and at the same time, manifestations of the universal power that is. Family traditional witchcraft also enshrines a complex and highly developed philosophy called by different names but often by the Story of the Homeland or The Concept of the Homeland. This is too complex to explain in a short essay but is, roughly, a visualization of the homeland (Ireland) and the sacred Isles surrounding it as representative of the journey of life; drawing on myth, legend, gods and goddesses, archetypes and meditations. This is the spiritual and philosophical basis of traditional family witchcraft and its practical manifestation is spell-casting and summoning, channeling of energy and divination, work with the elements etc, all done in conjunction with a sincere spiritual quest for growth and knowledge.

On a mundane level, the differences between Wicca and Witchcraft manifest themselves as follows; traditional witches do not keep a book of shadows, but a Grimoire, into which is recorded many things, herbal lore and lunar dates, details of ailments, phenomenon, elements, seasons, etc but not magic. Spells and Spell-craft, with rituals etc are not written into the Grimoire but safely encoded elsewhere.

The other glaring difference between Traditional Family witchcraft (and mainstream traditional witchcraft) and Wicca is that traditional practitioners do not adhere to the rede or rule of three but rather to an older rule; do what ye wilt an ye know what ye do. This means that if you are knowledgeable you can impose your will on the world with great power and also, whatever you choose to do you must be prepared for the consequences, and understand them. The system of magic practiced by traditional witches is based on an idea of balance, that life and death are balanced; that when you take you also must give; when you create you also destroy and vice versa. This is a very simplistic stating of the concept but it serves to illustrate briefly the difference between it and the rede.


Where then does Traditional Family Witchcraft stand in the modern world? It is a source of great frustration to family witches that almost everyone thinks of Wicca when they think of witchcraft, and assumes it to be all the same. And, that the principles and ethics or Wicca are applied to traditional witches, when they are in fact very distinct from our idea of ethics.

But perhaps most of all it is the militancy of Wiccans that most alienates the Family practitioner. After centuries of careful and discreet practice, after countless generations of witches refining and extending the knowledge and power of their predecessors, the eruption of modern Wicca onto the scene has come with all the force of the proverbial bull in the china shop; inexperienced and in some cases, downright ignorant acolytes of Wicca run amok through the once secluded glades of Hecate. Spells, like baking recipes are exchanged across the Internet and through New Age publications. People practice for a year and day and on day 367 start campaigning for days off around the winter solstice and the right to wear pentagrams to work. Nowhere is this strange new attitude more evident than in reference to what has become widely known as the Burning Times.

In other words, this refers to the medieval, and more particularly Seventeenth Century persecution of Heretics and Witch-hunts. For most American Wiccans, and of course, others, this has become a rallying point as the Salem Witch Trials are re-interpreted not as the tragedy of political machinations, religious fanaticism and land greed that they were but as a holocaust, a pogram against a religious minority, redefining the victims of Salem as practicing witches who died for their beliefs and also as a distinct ethnic and religious group.

That not one of the victims of the Salem Witch Trials was a witch seems to be irrelevant in this reconstruction; as indeed, is the evidence that the accusers were suffering from a form of LSD poisoning because of a fungus on their wheat. This disease has also been proven to have played a role in many other instances of witch hunting and supernatural plagues. Across Europe in the middle ages women were indeed burned at the stake under charges of witchcraft, but these were with few exceptions midwives and herbalists persecuted by the new rising male profession of Doctor. Indeed to get the populace to trust them rather then the midwife, doctors portrayed them in unflattering imagery, giving us the modern picture of a witch; as incompetent, greedy and often sick themselves (hence the green skin) and old-fashioned (wearing the by-now out-dated pointy hat, therefore provincial and rustic and old fashioned).

In the seventeenth century the church began to formulate an idea that there was a church of Satan, just as there was a church of Christ, and the devil had his followers. ‘Witch’ took on a new meaning, as the follower of Satan and the church set out to ‘find’ the unholy church. Naturally not only did they find it but they convinced so many of its existence that idiots across Europe called themselves Satanists and confessed to being his followers. For a full exploration of this phenomenon read Hugh Trevor Roper’s The rise of Witchcraft in Seventeenth Century Europe.

Through out all this true hereditary Witches emerged relatively unscathed. They could practice neither their beliefs nor healing, but they could and did protect the knowledge even from their nearest and dearest. Witches really suffered no more and certainly far less than midwives and the local senile Crone. But this realistic view of our history is unpopular to those who seek a cause and once again the ‘victim’ culture of America rushes to canonize the dead, in order to galvanize the living. Activism has become the single most divisive factor in modern witchcraft and by this I do not mean protesting against the destruction of the earth or writing letters for amnesty international. I mean the militant insistence upon witchcraft being recognized as a world religion, Wicca being accepted as its acceptable form and the very mysteries at its heart being accessible to all, regardless of merit or training. It is an odious from of egalitarianism that wishes to allow the tailor access to the surgeon’s trade, on the grounds that they can both cut and sew. And to those who have spent many years in pursuit of excellence in these Arts, the just-add-Llywellyn instant ‘expert’ phenomenon is depressing and insulting. And for every Wiccan with either natural talent or a genuine appreciation for the craft, there are dozens who deal in misconception and misinformation.

Even those Wiccans who are gifted have glaring misconceptions of the craft, its history and its purpose. Many have fallen so heavily in love with the idea of a Goddess-centric religion, celebrating womanhood, that they fail to realize that witchcraft has its (honorable) secular tradition as well; and because they invest so heavily in emotional terms, coming out to foe and friend alike they tend to react bitterly towards any suggestion that the tenets upon which they have based their life are less than accurate.

The idea of hereditary or traditional witchcraft being privy to secrets, rituals, spells or knowledge not shared by the Wiccan is unbearable to them; some write angrily about traditional witches being unwilling to share (duh!) and others post snippy articles using phrases such as ‘so-called’ hereditary witches and ‘self-styled’ traditional witches. One wonders how they would like to be called ‘amateur witches’ or ‘pseudo-witches’. There are few traditional witches and almost no family witches who would not be horrified at the calls for protests and law suits that abound on American Internet sites. They seem unwilling to stop until they have dragged the sacred Arts out into the florescent light. In fact at times one wonders whether they will be content until they have reduced it to another fast-food for the soul.

So what way forward for the be-leaguered traditional Family Witch, and her cousin-in-arms, the Traditional Witch? By avoiding the Internet and its ubiquitous wicca-ness we run the risk of increasing isolation and dwindling numbers, while we allow –by our passivity- the misconceptions and deceptions of the wiccan industry to bury our proud tradition under its cloak of conformity. By joining the internet, we become in effect part of the vast army of ‘One True Paths’ clamouring for the attention of teenagers and pre- pubescent newbies (O! detested phrase) that surf for net looking for instant coolness.

While we dither and debate, day after day our craft becomes more and more defiled and even the tag ‘ traditional witchcraft’ has been high-jacked by those claiming to be traditionals, or hereditaries without much evidence of this apparent, in either their spell-craft, their vocabulary or their understanding of the very tradition they espouse.

Source: Source (http://forums.skadi.net/redirector.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.whyw iccanssuck.com%2Ftwessay.html)

Thursday, January 19th, 2006, 06:19 PM
When I saw this I was thinking oh no not another article about the wiccans... but actually it was a fairly good article, and now I understand the problem with them. I never thought of them as real witches anyway. I don't think anyone does? If there is anyone with the smallest little bit of common sense, who stays with wicca for a while, (because they think it's the only form of witchcraft) they will eventually figure out the truth if they have any sense, that's why I'm not especially worried. Wicca can best be compared to a coffee filter... ;)

Thursday, January 19th, 2006, 06:31 PM
I don't think anyone does?

They themselves do. :P

Tuesday, February 14th, 2006, 06:47 PM
I'm a pagan, not traditional or hereditary. At least I don't think I'm hereditary, my family isn't that close.

Just some things I want to point out.
1. Not all "newbies" are in it to be cool.
In my case, I realized (many years ago) that I didn't agree with anything I had been taught. I had come to an age when I stopped believing things simply because I was told to. I thought about what I believed. I had no name for it at the time. Years later I would come across "pagan" and eventually learned that that is what I am.
2. We're not all interested in becoming "advocates for paganism."
I have no interest in getting retribution for anyone who was burnt at the stake or hanged in Salem. We, some of us just want it to be accepted. Even if it just means being able to wear a pentacle/pentagram without worry.
3. It isn't our, well it's not MY intent to squeeze every ounce of information out of the hereditaries or traditionals. Nor is it (my) intent to become a "Internet-Pagan." I'm new at this (even though I've been "studying" since I was around 13-15.) I have no one to teach me. My only sources of information are the internet and books. I've had to pick and choose over the years. Some books I'll pick up, and the bullshit detector in my head starts going off as my eyes scan across some stupid title such as "Spells for dogs." Other books are a little more cunning.

Other things I've had to ask myself are:
Which path(s) to follow. I want to follow the paths of my ancestors, but my ancestors don't come from just one country. How to I blend Celtic, Norse, Germanic, etc.
What do I do? Spells, prayers, rituals, holidays, etc. I may believe in multiple deities, but I still think myths are just stories to explain what wasn't understood. I don't celebrate the holidays as I don't know how, not to mention half the time I have no clue what I should be celebrating. Spells? Well, I'm not even going to touch on that.

I'm going to quit now. I'm starting to ramble.

Just know that the self-taught pagans like me aren't out there to "get" the traditional and hereditary witches/pagans. Many of us are simply trying to learn without a teacher or guidance.