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History- The Burning Times
Rev. Cheryl Sulyma-Masson
has a long eventful history, some of those events are joyous while others
serve to remind us of the consequences of seeking to live freely.
Witchcraft is often called the oldest religion existent in the West. It is
pre-Christian. It is also pre-Judaism, pre-Buddhism, pre-Islam and
pre-Hinduism. Many statements made about Witchcraft are disputed and
judged even by those with no real research or knowledge of their own. In
actuality, it is closer to Native American traditions and the early
Shamanic traditions of many areas. Unlike many of the more modern
religions, those currently referred to as mainstream, Witchcraft is not
based on dogma and scriptures. Witchcraft, the Old Religion, takes its
teachings and inspirations from nature. The Sun, Moon and Stars are looked
to for their insights and information, as well as trees, birds, animals,
seasonal cycles and other vibrational realities.
It is probably important to note here that Wicca or Witchcraft is not
Shamanism, and that Shamanism is not a religion but rather an ancient
mystical practice that uses altered states to contact Gods, Spirits and
other energies from this realm and others. These efforts were made to
bring healing, wholeness and guidance into the life of the Shaman and his
or her tribe. Shamanic practices exist within Witchcraft and many other
religions. The Shamanic view is "that for wholeness all realms must
be incorporated including the mental, physical and spiritual realms."
Anthropologist Dr. Margaret Murray felt that she had traced back and saw
Witchcraft¹s roots in Paleolithic times some 25,000 to 30,000 years ago.
She felt that it was a fully organized religion throughout Western Europe.
Many recent scholars have disputed and sought to dismiss her findings with
regard to Witchcraft, but few have disputed or found fault with her
opinions regarding the existence of a religio-magick system.
We can see throughout anthropological research that early man and woman
tended to deify that which they held in awe or did not understand. This is
a process now called animism. Early man and woman also practiced what we
now call sympathetic magick. Sympathetic magick is the art of showing a
deity what one wants or needs by acting out the symbolism necessary to
bring about an understanding of that need or desire. Tribes gathered to
show the deity that food was needed through successful hunts or that
fertility was required within the tribe or animal population. In this way
the act of ritual was born and became a part of the Old Religion then and
The primitive people of those thousands of years ago were hunters who
followed animal herds. Some of those primitive people were called Shamans.
These Shamans were said to be able to attune themselves with nature and
the animals. Early man believed the concept of a Mother (female) lifegiver
and a Father (male) who hunted and protected.
Early man respected animals and their lives that had to be taken for the
tribe's survival. To show this respect, after hunting, the unused parts
and skins were filled with rocks and given to the waters or the womb of
the Great Mother. Their skulls were kept and used for portents and
guidance. During these times, many symbols of the Goddess were carved in
stone, and womb cave openings were honored as symbols of the Mother.
Symbols of the God were also carved on cave walls along with symbols of
the animals that came to sacrifice themselves for the survival of the
The phases of the Moon were marked, as well as the Sun's cyclic journey
through the sky. As time passed, fishing and wild food collection became
an important part of life. During all this time the Shamans were working
with the energies of the times and as villages grew from settling tribes,
the people combined their energies and efforts for the good of the clan.
In this we see what probably represented the first covens.
These groups continued working with the energies of the land. Working more
and more to attune with the areas they had settled in. Learning the ways
of planting and growing crops. Marking the seasonal wheel and watching the
signs of the earth and sky, planet and star, animal and plant became
magickal sciences. As these magical sciences became more understood they
could be more easily worked with and further studied.
During this time other cultures, more organized and Warrior based were
coming into power. Sometimes these Warrior clans would drive the followers
of the Old Religion into the hills and mountains where they became known
as the Faeries, the Sidhe or spirit people. In some cases the Goddess of
the Old Religion would be married to the invading clans Gods within newly
created mythology. The Celts, like others, adopted many of the Goddess
features and incorporated them into the incoming Druidic Mysteries.
Through this intermingling and marriage the "faerie blood" was
implanted into the new conquerors.
When Christianity first arrived there was no real change. The people
viewed the Mother/Child/Sacrificial King of the Christ mythos as simply
another version of their own earlier tales. The mythology of the Goddess
cycle with Consort/Mother/Child was often adjusted by conquering
Patriarchies.The Priest of the new Christian Religion would often work
with the Priest of the Old Religion in the celebrating of seasonal rites.
The early groups of the Old Religion (the covens) became known as the
benders and shapers of the subtle forces that they had knowledge of. They
became known as the "Wit", "Witta", "Wicca",
"Wicce",or "Vitki", Irish, Anglo Saxon and Germanic
words respectively meaning " to bend or shape".
During the 12th and 13th century many temples were built for this new
religions' Goddess "Mary." By now Pope Gregory The Great decided
to make an attempt to mass convert to Christianity. He did this by
building new Christian churches over ancient pagan worshiping sites. He
was somewhat successful since the artisans who built the churches were
most often pagans. Because of this many of the churches to this date can
be seen full of Green Men, quarter guardians and pentacles.
this time the Church began to truly realize how difficult a rival the
Horned God and Fertility Goddess were in their created battle for
followers. The early Old Religion had a much more attractive P.R. package
than the religion of Christianity with all of its restrictions.
Christianity incorporated this information when creating the concept of a
totally evil opponent to their own deity. It was no accident that this
figure resembled the Horned God.
Poetry and the music of the Goddess were still widespread compensating the
peoples need for the Goddess in some manner. Pope Gregory also instituted
the first Papal Bull in 1233. In 1324, an Irish coven led by Dame Alice
Kyteler was tried by the Bishop of Ossory for worshiping a Non-Christian
god. Dame Kyteler was saved because of her title but the rest of her group
were burned for heresy.
During the next centuries' wars, plagues and crusades advanced over
Europe. Joan of Arc lead the armies of France to victory. She was
popularly bruited as a sorceress and originally alleged a witch, but she
was officially condemned as a heretic and was burned at the stake on May
30, 1431, as a relapsed heretic. This fact indicates the embryonic stages
of Witchcraft accusations, when in 1431 it was much simpler to secure a
conviction for heresy rather than sorcery. Unfortunately within the
century the reverse would be true.
During this time the stability of the Medieval Church was shaken and the
feudal system was breaking down. The Christian Church was swept by
religious revolts that Church felt it could no longer tolerate. In 1494
The Papal Bull of Innocent the VIII unleashed the inquisition against the
Old Religion. Issued on December 5, 1494, it served as justification for
pitiless persecution. It instituted the of combating the "Devil"
and saving mankind from "his" clutches. (Three earlier
Bulls"Sixtus 4th," were the first to equate sorcery and black
magic with heresy, thereby facilitating the task of the Witch hunters.
1473, 1478 & 1483).
In 1486 the Malleus Maleficarum, "the Hammer of the Witches,"
was produced by Dominicans Kramer and Springer, two of Pope Innocent¹s
Inquisitors. This laid the ground work for a reign of terror that gripped
Europe well into the 18th century. All of this indelibly equated the
incorrect definition of the word Witch, created by the Christian Church,
as a reality in the minds of many.
During this period it is estimated that 9 million men, women and children
were tortured, some estimate 85% of those were women and children. They
were tortured and killed under this incorrect and convenient (for the
Church) definition. Misogyny (hatred of women) is evidenced as a strong
element in the medieval Christianity. Because women gave birth they became
acutely identified with sexuality, and due to the views at that time
regarding sexuality, they were associated with evil. The Malleus stated
"All Witchcraft stems from carnal lust, which is in women,
insatiable." Anyone could be accused of this concocted evil and
anyone could accuse anyone else, including children. In those days it was
"Guilty until proven innocent."
so called Witches (per Christian definition) were held prisoner, stripped,
tortured (at the time it was legal), deprived of sleep, food and much
more, all in an effort to obtain a confession to the act of Witchcraft, as
the Church defined it. Even after confessing to the inquisitors many
times, the torture would continue until a full coven of thirteen names
were given. Confessions were all written entirely by the Inquisitors
to be signed by the prisoners. Occasionally torture would bring a merciful
strangulation before the pyre, but this was not usually the case.
job of inquisitor became quite profitable since these hunters were paid
for each conviction. Midwives (who were considered threatening to the
patriarchal medical society), up-spoken women, the elderly and any other
possible problem creators for the Church were targeted. Many say that few
who died were actually members of any covens of the Old Religion, but due
to the sheer numbers some may have been. In the Bishopric of Trier
in Germany, in 1585, there were only two villagers left and only one
single female inhabitant after the arrival of the Inquisition.
In 1586 the Archbishop of Treves accused the local Witches of causing
severe weather. After torture and confession one hundred and twenty men
and women were burned to death for interfering with the elements. Those
who could escape did, but those who could not suffered a cruel fate.
By the late 17th century the surviving craft was well underground. During
this underground period Christianity published much on its version of
Witchcraft. When James the Sixth of Scotland became James the First of
Scotland and England in 1603 he brought with him new versions of his
"Demonology". In 1604 he convinced Parliament to pass his new
act changing the emphasis from the Malleficarum to "a pact with the
Devil" type thinking, to heighten the acts against Witches. By the
end of his reign even though his attitude had changed, his act remained in
effect until 1736. It was then replaced in England with an act from George
the Second that stated there was no such thing as Witchcraft and to
pretend to have occult powers was fraud.
Most of the Salem Witch trials were persecuted under the King James the
First statute. On December 14, 1692, the Massachusetts General Counsel
enacted the 1604 bill to give "more particular direction in the
execution of the laws against Witchcraft." It remained Massachusetts
Law until 1695.
In 1692 there were many areas of tension in New England. Those included
political, land related, disease and those related to religious
repression. Because of the strict religious society of the time with its
strict upbringing of children and adherence to the Bible, it created a
very strong societal belief in the Devil and so called Witchcraft that had
already been accepted overseas. Though the Witchcraft craze abroad was
starting to subside (the last execution was in 1685) New England was
heading into its own crazed entanglement with the inaccurate Christian
definition of Witchcraft.
The onset of hysteria in New England was related to a group of young
girls, one of them being the daughter of Rev. Samuel Parris. Their
meetings with a West Indian slave Tituba to do divinations about future
husbands and other things prompted their guilt and anxiety. When some of
the girls started "taking fits", no one could make sense of the
behavior or discover medical causes for the episodes. This led to the
opinion of bewitchment as the cause. Questions started being asked, the
first was always "Who is bothering you ?" As the calls came out
for names the accusations against more vulnerable members in society
started. Some believe it was easier for the girls to name these people and
view their punishment rather than admit to their own lies. Others had
explored theories of an alkaloid type toxin called "ergot", a
mold that produces the fits and other symptoms.
Regardless of the causes the accusations started to spread. The difference
in the New England trials was none of those who confessed were put to
death. Those who denied the accusations and fought to clear their names
were the ones who were hanged. What started with the vulnerable people in
society spread to the more prosperous members in society, Martha Corey was
one of these people. Martha Corey was believed to have a good position in
the church and politics of society, but she was very outspoken against the
Witchcraft Trials. During her trial Sheriff Corwin, appointed by those who
did the hangings, surprised even her when he presented her husband as a
witness. He claimed he could not say his prayers one evening while they
were home. After Martha Coreys' conviction floods of people from all
society were accused. Even Martha's husband Giles did not escape the
trials. He found himself accused and when he refused to speak or present a
plea so that he could be tried, he was pressed to death in the attempt to
get that plea. This was probably done by Giles Corey, because he knew that
people who went to court were always found guilty.
These incidents brought about the beginning of the end of the New England
Witchcraft Trials. Soon after the fifty prisoners still confined to jail
were released. It is claimed that one hundred and fifty people were
accused and fifty-five were found guilty, but even today more records are
being uncovered and reviewed about the accuracy of those claims.
Finally in 1711, the General Court declared the use of spectral evidence
unlawful, and reversed twenty-two of the thirty-one convictions. It was
not until 1957 that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts reversed the
remaining guilty verdicts finally acknowledging the errors of that time.
During the Witch Trials much misinformation came to the forefront. Most of
the actual Witches had gone underground and most were not very
enthusiastic about volunteering information regarding the real practices
to try to combat the misinformation.
In 1921, Dr. Margaret Murray produced her book "Witch Cult in Western
Europe". In that book she discussed the Pre-Christian religion of
Witchcraft. Though many of her opinions have disputed there is still
important information in her book. In 1931, her second book "God of
the Witches" elaborated on some of her other comments.
In 1949 "High Magicks Aid" by Squire (Gerald Gardner) was
written. It combined Witchcraft and some ceremonial magick in a fiction
book to spread information safely. Finally , in 1951 England repealed its
last Witchcraft Laws and replaced them with the Fraudulent Mediums Act.
This opened the way for two more books by Gardner; "Witchcraft
Today" and "The Meaning of Witchcraft".
Other Witches followed. Raymond Buckland was initiated in Perth Scotland,
and is considered responsible for bringing Gardnerian Witchcraft to the
USA. Sybil Leek and Laurie Cabot brought other family traditions and
European traditions to the forefront in America. Today there are many well
known Witches, some from the more modern traditions, and others from older
traditions, all providing a wide range of choices for the beginning Witch.
Some resent the more public Witches, while others believe that their
involvement has enabled many people who would not otherwise have known
about the Craft, to become involved. Many early Witches have taken much
abuse so that those of us who follow in their path can have the hope of
Today Witchcraft is growing as more and more people are drawn to reconnect
with the Old Ways, and through them, to the Earth.