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Craft History- The Burning Times

By Rev. Cheryl Sulyma-Masson

Witchcraft 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 now.
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 tribe.
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.

At 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."

These 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.

The 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 suffering less.
Today Witchcraft is growing as more and more people are drawn to reconnect with the Old Ways, and through them, to the Earth.