30th May 1987
Dear Tessa and Glyn,
I want to write about the religious and historical basis of witchcraft and Paganism. Too many things about witchcraft would be unclear to you, without this knowledge.
People often write and talk as though witchcraft and Paganism were the same thing. They are not. A witch is correctly called a Pagan, on account of his or her religious and spiritual beliefs, but a Pagan is not invariably a witch. There are many kinds of Pagan.
Paganism is the oldest religion. It goes as far back as our cave-dwelling days. Cave paintings and carvings of both the Horned God and Mother Goddess have been found. The oldest of these are the bird-headed Goddess figurines, conveying the message of transcendence through sexuality. That grasp of the sacredness of sexuality which is the keynote of Goddess worship. These, together with archaeological remains, show the sophistication of prehistoric beliefs. But there were no multitudinous pantheons of gods and goddesses, as in the Greek and Roman Paganism of classical times. Simply the one Goddess, in the very earliest times, and then the one Horned God, her consort.
Neolithic tribal shamans, whether men or women, were the forerunners of the modern witch. They celebrated and they ritualized the changing phases of the Moon and Sun. And they practised nature magic, to obtain success in hunting for the people. They healed the sick and obtained the psychic guidance which they (and the tribe) needed, by trancework and divination. They were wisemen and wisewomen for the community. In the earliest days, the priestesses, wisewomen, would have held the highest authority, for the culture was matriarchal.
Increasingly, Pagan cults tended towards an organized form and a hierarchical structure beyond that of the local community or tribe, thus representing the official spiritual beliefs of a kingdom or group of clans. Paganism in general also tended, even before the advent of Christianity and the other god-centred religions, to become increasingly patriarchal. Witchcraft has remained a Goddess religion and therefore a personal, non-hierarchical concern, rather than an official state religion. Historically, it has been a favoured cult among oppressed peoples, because it grants spiritual autonomy to all its followers and because it puts magical power into the hands of those from whom all other kinds of power have been taken away, along with their hope and self-esteem. The Goddess and God of witchcraft are accessible, visible in the Moon and the trees, the sunlight and the rivers. They offer the magical ability to heal and soothe and to resolve problems, in their names. This religion, then, finds its roots in prehistoric beliefs; and often those beliefs were preserved by a scattered, isolated peasantry.
Archetypally, the witch has been and remains on the fringe of the fringe, outside even the outsiders. Our affinities are with, for example, the pre-Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles. These mound-dwelling, matriarchally based, Goddess-worshipping people, to whom magic was life, were long ago pushed out of the mainstream of civilization, geographically and culturally. Nowadays, they have no physical domain at all. But their blood (the so-called fairy blood) runs in the veins of some.
Throughout history, the witches have pitched their camp in any and every culture. Within, but never quite of that culture (or not since neolithic times), they have played a strange role, being sometimes scapegoated, sometimes persecuted, and often sought after as helper, healer or comforter. Through the witch, a person finds a link with an elven world; that is, with a magical reality both feared and desired. We have often had to carry the projection of other people’s violent urges, sexually or psychically — and some ’witches’ have indeed been suitable candidates for this role, for nature magic can be misused, like any other power.
I should like to see all humanity return to the witches’ law of ’Harm none’ and to the Pagan reverence for the Earth. But I do not believe we can ever institutionalize or formalize the cult of the witches. It would not then be witchcraft. However, I do believe that the time is now ripe for a return to our Pagan roots (?routes), a large-scale return. I see no reason why large numbers of people shouldn’t worship the Goddess and the God and celebrate the seasons, in the ways I have been describing. But if there were lots of us, perhaps we should no longer be called witches (unless we showed particular aptitude as spell-casters), being no longer archetypally strange. Perhaps then we should be simply Pagans, along with all the other modern Pagans, whose worship and work may employ different techniques from ours, but which have the same or a similar basis and long-term goals. There is no reason why many should not celebrate alone or in their own families and localities; or practise uncomplicated nature magic. (Hedge Pagans?)
That is a dream. But I have a further dream that goes beyond that. It is that one day we shall, as in the earliest human tribes, have no need for priests or priestesses of any kind; nor for witches, since we shall all live in harmony with the Earth, all in communion with the Goddess and the God, living intuitively, magically. When that day comes, we shall no longer despise the feminine values, nor practise dominance, nor accept hierarchies, nor see ourselves as at all separate from the web of life. But unlike our ancestors, in their earliest states of innocence, we shall revere the male principle as well as the female. We shall value and worship the God as well as the Goddess, focusing on neither one to the exclusion of the other. We shall have gone on a long and difficult journey. And we shall (as at this time, particularly) have been in danger of losing our way (and maybe our world) through human stupidity and evil, and by the densest application of patriarchal values. But the world of my dream is where I hope that we are going: a world of reconciliation.
Meanwhile, as witches, we can work magically to help bring that day about. But we have one foot in fairyland and the other in the places where poor people live. We are outsiders.
Well, this is the beginning of an answer to your question, ’What is a witch?’ The question was most welcome, because these letters are a process of discovery for me too. I am finding out what I believe.
In justice to other forms of modern Paganism, I would like to tell you more about them, as well as about witchcraft. But I can’t. I can only tell you about what I know — about what I am. I do know that they are all new acorns from the old tree, now growing into new trees. They are a fresh religious impetus. And all, if they are worthy of the name of Paganism, seek a healing for the Earth and a return to the natural laws, to an ecological balance.