Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, 700-1100 (Review)

May 26, 2017

Witches and Pagans cover Max Dashu has posted significant excerpts of her multi volume project on the history of witchcraft at her Suppressed Histories website for years, and publication of her research in book form has been eagerly anticipated. This first installment (which Dashu refers to as Volume VII) covers the years 700 to 1100 – a good choice, because this period is critical to understanding the peak of the witch craze in late medieval and early modern times. This is also a period in European history where not a lot of information is available to the average Pagan.

Dashu is explicit that she is writing for a lay audience, but this is a thoroughly researched and referenced work, with a large bibliography and over a thousand footnotes. There are some readers who will think she excessively belabors her points, but there is so much misinformation out there, often written by slipshod academics and well-intentioned Pagans who rely on these academics, that a solid scholarly work was sorely needed. The conclusions Dashu reaches will not be startling to better informed researchers inside and outside academia, but the weight of evidence on which she bases her findings is gratifying in this highly contentious field. No doubt there are many who will be surprised.

The book utilizes linguistic analysis, place names, archaeology, folk customs documented by clerics, early theological treatises on demonology and witchcraft, and mythology of pagan origin recorded by Christians. Dashu is well aware of the shortcomings of each of these methodologies and discusses them frankly. Still the amount of evidence, from many types of sources, leads to well grounded conclusions. This book mentions in passing some of the biases which hamper academic research on witchcraft, leading to often repeated yet erroneous beliefs that have seeped into Pagan discourse.

Dashu informs us that Pagan beliefs and shamanic practices not only survived well into the Middle Ages in supposedly Christianized regions, they were widespread and deeply adhered to, particularly by the lower classes. Shamanic practices and worship of goddesses and nature deities were equated with witchcraft and devil worship by clerics and formed the basis for persecution. Though trials for malefic sorcery also existed in pagan Rome, the intensity and tone of the Christian persecution was different and significantly broader, including for example healing and divination. Aristocratic government and church leadership were intricately connected and both used dispossession of pagan culture along with persecution of witches as a way of solidifying power. The healers, diviners, and keepers of tribal history known as witches were overwhelmingly female, and witch persecutions were part of a pervasive Church strategy to further subjugate women, who were already dominated by men within their pagan cultures. Dashu firmly establishes that for centuries the targets of the witch hunts were shamans, usually female, and that the purpose of witch persecutions was to establish Christian hegemony and solidify aristocratic power.

Dashu also attempts to piece together what those pagan belief systems and female shamanic practices that were under attack actually were, and here her findings must be treated as incomplete. She focuses a great deal on Germanic cultures, and practitioners of the various Germanic traditions will find a wealth of information here. She discusses the importance of the distaff in women’s mysteries and the Norse practice of “sitting out” to achieve psychic insight. She explores the little that is known about northern European goddesses. She devotes an entire chapter to the important Icelandic poem The Volupsa. This is not, however, a definitive look at any Norse tradition, and really to have attempted that would have taken this book too far afield. I have noticed a tendency in witches in my acquaintance to devote their reading solely to authors like Dashu who approach witchcraft from a solid feminist perspective. There would be nothing wrong with that if there were more Pagan writers with a true understanding of feminist theory, but there are not enough of us around to be so selective. If the material here sparks some new interest you will need to draw from a variety of sources on the runes and Norse literature. I was particularly dismayed to hear a friend say she was inclined to cut out any reference to the god Odin from her practice after reading this book. I am a Dianic priestess, and it is more than okay with me if a woman only wants to worship goddesses, but I think we must remember that male as well as female archetypes become distorted in support of male dominance. It is important that we recognize patriarchal bias in our Pagan heritage, but it is equally important that we do not stop there.

Witches and Pagans is slow reading and cannot be tackled in one or two sittings. Dashu’s writing style is clear and straightforward, but the nature of the material is that it is dense. An index would be helpful. There is a web address for an index in the book which took me to a 404 error page. There are quite a few line drawings in the book which add a great deal to the text. This is a great resource with a lot of helpful information. I hope we will not have to wait too long for the next volume of “The Secret History of the Witches.”

What’s in a Name? Part III (Shaman)

September 11, 2015

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Their priests (whom they call Quiokosoughs) are no other but such as our English witches are.
Reverend Alexander Whitaker, Good newes from Virginia (sermon), 1613.

A question arose after my post on Witches and Wiccans regarding the difference between a shaman and a Witch. The answer is both simple and complex. The simple (and correct) answer is that there is no difference, except that one category is larger than the other. To give an analogy, what’s the difference between a Lutheran and a Christian? They are not different, are they? Not all Christians are Lutherans, but all Lutherans are Christians. The complexity with Witchcraft arises from the illogical but determined efforts of anthropologists to turn “witch” and “shaman” into discrete categories.

Let’s turn to the dictionary definition of “shaman” first. This is from Random House:

(esp. among certain tribal peoples) a person who acts as an intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds, using magic to cure illness, foretell the future, control spiritual forces, etc.

Witches act as intermediaries “between the natural and supernatural worlds” by performing complex rituals or more simple spells that are usually geared toward healing, divination, or controlling the outcome of events (such as bringing rain or finding a job). Witches are not, however, the “certain tribal peoples” that the word typically refers to. The origin of “shaman” is contested, but most believe it to be of Siberian origin. It has an identical meaning in the Evenki language. It might properly be used only to refer to a similar group of magical practices from Siberia, but it is more generally applied. Attempts have been made to limit the application by specifying that it must refer to a tribal group, indigenous practices, the use of trance states, origin in non-urban societies, long-standing evolution in nature-based societies, and practices which have continuity. Witches contend that their religion meets all of these requirements while many academic scholars contend that it does not. Honest scholarship favors the Witches’ point of view, but some might ask whether the quest for a shamanic definition that excludes Witches is itself rooted in dishonesty about the tenaciousness of Europe’s magical legacy, as well as visceral prejudice against Witches fostered by Christianity.

My definition of a “shaman,” a bit tongue-in-cheek, is someone who doesn’t use that word. All “shamanic” traditions have their own word for their priests and priestesses, and outside of Central Asia that word is never “shaman.” In English, the word is “witch,” with all its baggage.

Nonetheless there is an unmistakable need for a generic word for “a person who acts as an intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds, using magic, etc.,” because we need a word for comparing practices in a cross-cultural sense. That word has become “shaman.”

Marketing has also created or exacerbated a perception of a dichotomy between Witchcraft and other forms of shamanism. Books and courses that are not related to Witchcraft are frequently described as “shamanic” to their intended audience, with “shamanic” meaning everything but Witchcraft. Quizzing the purveyors of this material, they acknowledge that Witchcraft is a form of shamanism, but they feel that including Witchcraft under their shamanic banner hampers their marketing efforts. Doubtless this relates to the fierce prejudice against witchcraft which still resides with the general public. On the other side of the equation, Witches themselves sometimes object to the word “shaman,” feeling like a word popularized outside of their religions should not be applied to them.

So all Witches are shamans, but not all shamans are Witches. Are all Pagans shamans? No. Paganism and Witchcraft are polytheistic religions with a European or Mediterranean origin, but not all Pagans cast spells or perform magic with the intention of influencing events. So all Witches are Pagans, all Witches are shamans, some Pagans who are not Witches are shamans, but not all Pagans are shamans. Got that?

What’s in a Name? Part II (Witch)

July 31, 2015

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This is the second of a three-part series. A discussion of the word “pagan” is here

When I say I’m a Witch, people sometimes ask if I mean Wiccan, and whether those two words mean the same thing. The answer is sort of but not really.

The dictionary (Random House) tells us that “witch” means

1. a person, now esp. a woman, who professes or is supposed to practice magic, esp. black magic or the black art; sorceress. Cf. warlock.

2. an ugly or mean old woman; hag: the old witch who used to own this building.

3. a person who uses a divining rod; dowser.

The etymology of the word is controversial and contested but here is what John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins has to say:

The close Germanic relatives of witch have died out, but it seems that it may be related to German weihen ‘consecrate’ and even, distantly, to English victim (etymologically ‘someone killed in a religious ritual’), so the word’s underlying signification is of a ‘priestess.’ Wicked was derived from Old English wicca ‘wizard,’ the masculine form of wicce, ancestor of modern English witch.

So to recap here, “witch” is derived from Old English and is related to a Germanic word having to do with religious sacrifice, which connotes something like our modern understanding of the word “priestess.” Another word we associate with witches, “wicked,” comes from the Old English “wicca,” which means a male wizard. The feminine form of this is “wicce.” So now we have the derivation of “wicca”: basically the Old English word for a male sorcerer.

You may have noticed that the underlying meaning of “witch” is neutral in tone. The word began to have its negative understanding under Christian persecution. The record is clear, from Augustine of Hippo (354-430 c.e.) to the publication of the Inquisition manual Malleus Maleficarum (1487), that the witch persecutions were a culmination of a very long campaign to eradicate worship of the old gods and the practice of (non-clerical) magic for any purpose, including healing. While witches of both sexes were persecuted, women were especially targeted, hence definition 2: “an ugly or mean old woman; hag.” Theologians traced suffering in the world to the supposed pact between witches and the Christian embodiment of evil, The Devil. In reality, The Devil is a deity peculiar to the Abrahamic religions, and both the word and the priestly function of “witch” evolved prior to Christian influence. Under Christian suggestion some rebels did take up bizarre practices imagined by the Inquisitors, but most of the accused witches were innocent of magic of any kind and virtually all considered themselves Christian. Church officials pressured local governments to prosecute witches in their own courts, and as control of these prosecutions passed to secular authorities the arrests skyrocketed, with large numbers of people (mostly women) imprisoned, tortured, or even killed.

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In the 1950s Gerald Gardner took surviving magical practices on the British Isles, included a bit of folklore from other places, added a few innovations of his own, and presented it to the public as “Wicca,” proving that a witch under any other name isn’t nearly as scary. Gardener’s more easily accessed form of witchcraft spawned many permutations, which went under names like Celtic Wicca, Saxon Wicca, Eclectic Wicca, or Dianic Wicca. Taking a religious tradition, modifying it to suit your own purposes, and then calling it by the same name is the essence of appropriation, but consciousness around this issue was virtually nonexistent at the time. Most witches agree that “Wicca” should properly refer to Gardnerian Witchcraft, but the horse has left the barn on this one, because the general public has gotten the idea that the “Wiccans” are the good witches, as opposed to those other witches in storybooks who cast black magic spells. The practitioners of the woman-only Dianic religion, especially, were on the bad end of a joke, discovering belatedly that “wicca” means “male witch.”

How does Witchcraft relate to Paganism? All Witches are Pagans, but not all Pagans are Witches. “Pagan” is an overarching term for a variety of polytheistic nature-based religions. Some, but not all, of these Pagan religions are a form of Witchcraft. That answer probably leaves you with more questions than you had before, but this is the best I can do in a short blog post.

By the way, if you want to annoy a practitioner of Witchcraft, ask if she is a “white witch.” That phrase is part of a Christian framework, rooted in dualistic schemas of white/good and black/evil. Witches operate under a different paradigm, and use the color black frequently in their (very good) magic. While “white witch” is an irritating term and “black magic” means something different than Random House thinks it means, “Green Witch” is an acceptable term, usually denoting a Witch that is well-versed in herbology.

Review: Lucifer Ascending by Bill Ellis

June 14, 2013


lasc I picked up this book written by an academic active in Lutheran ministries because the author and I share an uncommon belief: that the West has never been thoroughly Christianized and pagan “superstitions” continue to operate in plain view. Bill Ellis’ examples on this subject are much closer to orthodox ideas of the occult then mine would be, including things like formal ritual magic, Satanic “bibles,” ghost stories, and graveyard encounters with the supernatural. My examples would be more banal, including things like healing charms, housecleaning rituals, garden planting, and signs regarding true love. Yet even keeping his examination of magic to the narrow scope that meets Christian definitions of diabolical, Ellis finds no shortage of material.

The inspiration for this treatise appears to be the high level of concern in fundamentalist circles generated by the Harry Potter books, which Ellis believes is misplaced. He places the tenets of the Hogwarts School in historical context and argues, “witchcraft, magical ritual, and contact with the supernatural constitute stable and generally functional folk traditions in cultures in both Europe and North America, up to the present day.” Ellis explores folk magic and legend of the past 300 years with more emphasis on German and Pennsylvania Dutch practices than I have seen elsewhere, and he also gives a nod to the prevalence of hoodoo. For this reason many students of witchcraft will find it useful in providing historical background. Ellis provides interesting theories about the function of witchcraft beliefs in Christian society and the reasons for authoritative suppression of witchcraft. Some of these motivations for suppression, such as patriarchal monopoly of medicine or legal control of marginalized people, will be familiar to many. One which was new to me has to do with the fundamentalist view of Christianity as a force for good that is opposed to witchcraft as the force of evil. Some Christians need to view witches as malignant evil-doers because that belief conforms to their world view and affirms that their own monopoly on goodness. The supposition that “a good witch is worse than a bad witch,” expressed in the Roman Catholic theology which laid the groundwork for the witch hunts, is generally believed by Pagans to reflect the desire of the church to hold monopoly over magic and ritual and to wrest power from women and the lower classes. But this may not be the issue operating in present day clashes between witches and fundamentalists. If certain Christians are determined to view themselves as stalwart goodness in a world of evil, then the presence of malignant witches is reassuring and the presence of good witches is profoundly unsettling. With fundamentalists of this stripe, pagan anti-defamation campaigns to show the world that “we’re really good people” will not meet with success and will even precipitate greater opposition.

Ellis devotes considerable space to Satanic escapades of teenagers which range from possession of Anton LaVey’s Satanic Bible to summoning witches or ghosts in order to curse them to vandalizing graveyards. He argues that these are expressions of rebellion arising from the disempowerment of youth, using the “demonic possessions” of the girls in Salem Village which precipitated that late seventeenth century American witch craze as an example. I would agree that obtaining a copy of a book entitled Satanic Bible is an act of rebellion, and the girls in Salem Village may have been acting out of their disempowerment, but many of these Satanic activities strike me as reinforcing of Christian beliefs. The cursing of witches and the vandalism of graveyards expresses disaffection and hostility in a socially conforming way. I would place these actions in a category with gay bashing or desecration of synagogues. If rebellion and defiance is the motive, why not vandalize a church? Churches are occasionally vandalized by teenagers, of course, but these churches tend to be African-American, which supports my take on the issue.

The role of women in the early beginnings of the Pentecostal movement, and how that movement co-opted elements of spiritualism and magic, I found fascinating. Ellis explains, “The revival expressed itself from the start as being in some palpable sense governed by supernatural forces.” He contends, “Revivalist movements likely do not produce cycles of supernatural or demonic phenomena, but they do provide ready opportunities in group meetings for people to describe their experiences and fit them into a shared mythology.” Within the context of a new religious movement women found opportunities for leadership that had been denied to them in more orthodox religious settings. One leader, Jesse Penn-Lewis, described the opposition to evangelical women’s ministries as “war by Satan upon the womanhood of the world.” It seems women have typically been at the forefront of new religious movements, from early Christianity to the Pentecostals, only to find themselves in subordinate positions again once these movements solidified.

Lucifer Ascending is more evenhanded and better researched than most books dealing with witches coming out of the academic presses, and I think it adds to the social discourse on witchcraft. Even real witches are not always aware of how pervasive witchcraft is.

WITCHCRAFT IN EUROPE 400-1700: A documentary history, 2nd edition (Review)

March 1, 2013

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Edited by Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters (University of Pennsylvania, 2001)

Much of the information available to pagans about the witch persecutions of European origin is biased and distorted, if not downright inaccurate. This is even (or especially) true of information from academic sources, which often have a strong antifeminist bias as well as a fear of appearing to validate twenty-first century pagan notions. Reviewing source material can cut through a lot of this prejudice and misinformation to give a more accurate understanding of the prejudice and misinformation that sparked the witch hunts.

Witchcraft in Europe is a collection of sixty-nine texts tracing the evolution of Christian belief about witchcraft. Included are theological writings, excerpts from witch trials, personal accounts by witch hunters, and essays by clerics and non-clerics questioning the validity of witch persecutions. Of particular value are the forty-one illustrations that reflect the understanding of artists of the period about witchcraft.

By looking at documents such as these we are by definition getting a biased account. These men (they are all men) were of similar religion, social class, and education, whatever their beliefs on the witchcraft question, and they themselves were limited in access to accurate data. Still, a look at their thought processes, understanding of the world, and personal motivations reveals a great deal about how the persecutions originated and provides a few insights as to why the fear of witchcraft grew to such monstrous proportions.

The original edition of this book concentrated on the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries, and most books about the witch persecutions focus on a narrower period than this, coinciding with the most intense trial activity. The editors decided that a longer view was necessary in gaining an accurate understanding of the development and evolution of beliefs about witchcraft. The longer historical period in itself makes this book superior to most others, although an understanding of history regarding paganism and witchcraft before and after this timeframe is also important.

There is an introduction to each of the texts giving a background of the author along with a summary of his other work, which is very helpful. There is also a forty page introduction, which has some biases. Read the rest of the book and form your own conclusions.

I have had this book on my shelf for years and have read many sections numerous times, but it was not until this year that I actually read the whole 400+ pages in order from start to finish. I have to admit it was painful, alternately tedious and infuriating, but in the end worth the effort.