Elements of Witchcraft

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft - Judika Illes 2005

Elements of Witchcraft

I wasn’t being entirely sarcastic about my perpetually unruly hair being grounds for suspicion of witchcraft. J.K. Rowling’s depiction of Harry Potter’s messy, defiant hair isn’t mere description and character development but a deep clue to his identity, based on centuries of tradition.

A fairly universal stereotype of the witch portrays her with unruly hair; perhaps a visual declaration that she is a person who will not be ruled. In fact, in Jewish and Slavic folklore, among others, to describe a woman as having “disheveled hair” is the telltale instant giveaway that she is some kind of witch, whether human, demonic or divine.

Hair also figures prominently in the myth of Sedna, Inuit ruler of the seas. Sedna sits on the ocean floor, her chief companion her familiar dog. (Visualize something like an Alaskan malamute.) She controls the balance between the sea creatures, who wish to live, and the people ashore, who wish to live, too, and thus must hunt, catch, and eat those sea creatures. Sedna, like the sea, is volatile and moody: she manifests anger and depression by withholding the ocean’s bounty.

When food becomes scarce, the only way to restore balance is to soothe, comfort, and appease Sedna. An intrepid shaman must soul-journey to Sedna’s watery abode, approach her and calmly, gently, comb out the painful knots and tangles from her long, thick matted hair. Only when this is accomplished will Sedna’s anger, frustration, and deadly agitation pass.

Witchcraft, shamanism (more about this soon), magic, conjuring, herbalism, “traditional” healing, “traditional” spirituality, religion: like Sedna’s locks these may all be too deeply entangled to ever completely separate. However, attempts to comb them out will hopefully soothe agitation and frustration, and will definitely reveal secrets and release hidden treasures.

Let’s examine the primal roots of witchcraft and the various historical elements that have shaped witchcraft and influenced perceptions of it.

The Roots of Witchcraft: The Magical World

How far back do we have to go to find that primal witch? Well, how far back can we get? Because however far we can go, we will discover magical practices waiting for us.

Recognition of magic power and the accompanying urge to manipulate it exists from earliest creation. Folklorist and practitioner of magic Zora Neale Hurston identified God as the original hoodoo doctor, because he spoke the world into creation with a series of magical words. That’s a concept that would have been familiar to the ancient Egyptians. Among their many creation stories is one where Ptah the craftsman god, the original mason, also brings the world into existence using magic words. Other creation stories from all over Earth posit a similar magical creation. The world and all inhabitants, including people, are created via incantation, song (charm), visualization, spell-casting or image-magic: figures molded from Earth, life magically breathed into them.

Other creation stories make the magical connection very explicit. In another Egyptian creation tale, the Creator, having contemplated creation, realizes that all will not be well and that people are potentially in for a lot of grief, heartache, and trouble. Feeling remorseful, the Creator quickly invents magic power (heka, to the ancient Egyptians) for people to use to ward off the harsh blows of fate. Magic is thus a crucial necessity of divine origin.

Another creation myth is both explicit about primordial witchcraft and ambivalent toward it. The Zuni are an indigenous nation of the North American south-west; according to their cosmology, shortly after Earth was populated, a sacred pair, male and female, commonly identified in English translation as “witches,” emerge bearing gifts. While traveling around, examining Earth, this pair, these witches, meet some young women and ask them who they are. The girls say they are Corn Maidens but they have a problem: corn doesn’t exist yet.

The witches immediately remedy the situation, distributing seven varieties of corn as well as squash and melon seeds, the staple diet of the indigenous farmers of the American south-west. This gift stimulates the Corn Maidens to form a pair of lines facing the sun and begin a dance in tribute: the birth of religion and agriculture, with full approval from the witches. This is a nice witch story. The witches, however, also bear another gift: death. They insist death is necessary to prevent Earth from becoming overcrowded. People, however, are horrified and behold witches, responsible for life-saving sustenance and the introduction of death, with suspicion ever after. It is an early acknowledgement of ambivalence toward witchcraft: the power to heal and preserve may also be wielded to harm and destroy.

You don’t hold any stock with mythology and ancient creation tales? That’s OK; let’s take a look at what the archeologists and anthropologists have to say. Plenty of physical evidence documents the primordial origins of witchcraft and magical perspective.

Physical Evidence of Magical Thought

Much of what we know of Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) and Neolithic (New Stone Age) cultures derives from excavations of funerary sites. Survivors lovingly cared for their dead compatriots, preparing them, sometimes painstakingly, sometimes at great expense, for whatever was perceived as lying ahead. They cleansed and groomed the bodies, dressed them, ornamented them with flowers, beads, seashells, and amulets. They left grave goods: whatever was needed for pleasure, nourishment, and safety in the next realm as well as for the journey there. Sometimes payment and/or guides for that journey were magically provided too, as well as guardians to protect whatever was understood to be left behind.

“Life” to these ancient people, clearly didn’t just terminate with death, as if the plug being pulled, everything was over. They had a broader, magical perspective of what constitutes “life” that didn’t end with the last heartbeat or breath. Instead one existence passed into another, one road leading from one realm into another. The modern phenomenon known as the one-way street, however, had yet to be invented. Had it been, there would be far less discussion of shamanism today and maybe none of necromancy. All roads could be accessed from both directions. Mysteries of death and what comes after remain integral to witchcraft.

The mysteries of death were not our ancestors’ only concerns, however; neither are they the main focus of witchcraft. Mysteries of birth and life were equally important—the flip side of the coin.

In 1908, a small statuette depicting a round, rotund female was discovered by the archeologist Josef Szombathy near Willendorf, Austria. The most famous of countless similar statuettes she was nicknamed the “Venus of Willendorf” and is now in Vienna’s natural history museum.

Her nickname was meant ironically. To modern ears, the name “Venus” epitomizes female beauty and grace, which currently almost inevitably means thin, smooth, firm, and youthful. The Willendorf Venus amused the archeologists who discovered her. Like many other statuettes of her era, she is fat and corpulent, displaying rolls of flesh and large, sagging breasts. She is not a figure of humor, however, nor was she intended to be grotesque. She is very carefully crafted. Her hair is beautifully coiffed in seven concentric rings—seven apparently already recognized as a magical number. She is an object of wonder.

How long ago was the Venus of Willendorf crafted? Whose eyes should we attempt to see her through? As the technology of establishing chronology improves, her age has been revised several times, consistently backwards. She was originally thought to date from 15,000 to 10,000 BCE, but the date now suggested is from 24,000 to 22,000 BCE, quite a few years ago. Today, in this era of super-sized meals and sedentary occupations, the Venus of Willendorf’s figure is far from unique. People battle to avoid her shape, resorting to surgery and all sorts of drastic diets. Imagine, however the hard-scrabble existence of some 20,000 years ago. Through the eyes of those days, the Venus of Willendorf must have been regal, queenly, self-contained, divine. She is the image of woman as the source of life, plenty, peace, fertility, and prosperity. Today’s ideal woman is squeezed into as little physical space as humanly possible. Not the Venus of Willendorf. She’s expansive, comfortable, and takes up as much space as she needs.

The Venus of Willendorf is but the most renowned of countless other ancient surviving images of the sacred female. Not all share her figure; some are slender. Almost uniformly, however, those parts of the human anatomy that are uniquely female (breasts, vulva, pregnant belly) are emphasized and frequently exaggerated. Whoever created these images (and they are literally countless and crafted over millennia) made sure that no one could ignore or overlook the fact that they are resolutely, profoundly female.

What we can see is that the people who created and venerated these images were not afraid or repulsed by large women, powerful women, or sexual women. Some of these images seem remote. Some may be wearing masks, others lack facial features altogether, yet virtually all have vaginas, accentuated so that you can’t miss them. Some cradle their breasts, offering them to viewers the way a nursing mother does with her child. Some point knowingly to genitals and swollen bellies. They are simultaneously maternal and sexual. Maternity and dynamic female sexuality were obviously not mutually exclusive to the eyes that carved and beheld these figures. Many are very beautiful even by modern conventional standards, with loving, mysterious faces. What is very clear is that our ancient ancestors perceived profound power and magic in the female form. In fact, many anthropologists and scholars of religion believe that the oldest cosmologies start with a mother. In other words, the very first god was a mother.

And of course, who is more god-like than a mother? It is difficult to remember in these days of modern conveniences like infant formula, hospitals, and nannies but once upon a time survival, happiness, and health depended entirely upon one’s mother. If your mother was powerful, devoted, healthy, and focused on your well-being your future seemed assured. If your mother was vulnerable, unable or unwilling to care for you for any reason, your future was tenuous indeed.

Everyone’s individual mother might be their own private goddess, but actual goddesses served as mothers of communities, tribes, and nations. Many of these simultaneously wonderful and terrible goddesses survive, as for instance India’s Kali and Russia’s Baba Yaga. Kali Mata (Mother Kali) remains an actively venerated Hindu goddess; her vast complexities and contradictions celebrated and wondered upon. By contrast Baba (Grandma) Yaga was banished to the forest and marginalized as a witch.

Loads of wonderful images of the divine female, together with analyses, may be found in Buffie Johnson’s Lady of the Beasts (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), as well as in the many works of archeologist and historian Marija Gimbutas.

The image of the sacred female doesn’t stand alone. Among the several dancing figures painted in the cave of Les Trois Frères in Ariège, France is one nicknamed the “Dancing Sorcerer.” Dating from approximately 10,000 BCE, this two-and-a-half-foot high figure is a composite of many creatures. He possesses the antlers and torso of a stag and a wolf’s tail. Interpreters argue as to whether his paws and phallus belong to a bear or a lion. The beard and dancing legs definitely belong to a man and there is something essentially human about the entire dancing figure. Many speculate that what we see depicted is a costumed, masked man.

This horned figure may be a dancing shaman or sorcerer, or both. He may be the “Master of the Beasts.” He may be the ancestor of one or more of the wide variety of horned male deities: Cernunos, Herne, Faunus, or Pan, or he may be an early depiction of any or all of them. He will emerge from his hidden cave to haunt us during the Witch-hunts. (See HORNED ONE.)

Among the most historically revealing archeological excavations is that of the city of Çatal Hüyük, located in what is now modern Turkey. The city was rebuilt many times over thousands of years. There are 12 layers on the site; the age of the oldest has not yet been reliably determined but the most recent is from c. 5600 BCE. The entire area was forsaken in approximately 4900 BCE for reasons yet unknown. This was a large city; at its height it’s believed to have supported 6,000 people (a huge population at that time), and it contained many shrines and temples. Among unearthed artifacts are those which are immediately recognizable and meaningful to modern witches and/or goddess devotees: bull’s horns all over the place, images of birthing women strategically placed near these horns, plus a statue of a massive, enthroned woman, seated between a pair of lions or leopards (animals which both once inhabited Europe). The image is recognizable as that of the Magna Mater, the Mountain Mother, the Great Goddess Kybele, who, according to one version of her sacred myth, is a deified witch. (See DIVINE WITCH: Baba Yaga; Kybele.)


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Charles Darwin’s then-revolutionary theory of evolution was also applied to the social sciences: so-called social Darwinism. Although this has since fallen from fashion, at one time common anthropological wisdom was firmly convinced that human civilizations preceded orderly through Darwinian stages, with magical thought as the first, earliest stage. Some cultures advanced while others stopped, arrested at that early stage. Magical perspective, the witches’ viewpoint, equaled primitive thought, with “primitive” implying something very negative, the antithesis of “civilization.”

Because contemporary magical thinkers were also perceived as primitive, backwards, and foolish, even when Western and well-educated, there was no thought of consulting with them when excavating sites or examining magical images. (This is changing; archeologists at Çatal Hüyük now engage in discussion with modern goddess devotees.) Instead attempts were made to define magical thinking from an outsider’s point of view, an outsider who was proud of his distance from that perspective.

The word “animism” was coined by the English anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor (2 October 1832—2 January 1917), generally acknowledged as the “father of anthropology.” Tylor gave this name to what was perceived as the earliest phase of magical and religious thinking, deriving it from the Greek “anima” meaning “soul.” According to Tylor, prehistoric humans believed that every person, creature, and object—everything!—had a soul, was animated, and hence the name animism. That Sir Tylor did not identify or particularly empathize with the human subjects of his research is apparent by the words he chose to describe them: “savages” and “rude races.” (No need to pick on Tylor, this was fairly standard language for anthropologists and social scientists of his time and later.)

Animism was perceived as a backward, primitive, uncivilized, unenlightened belief: the lowest rung on the ladder to civilization. That said, if one can cut through the thicket of value judgments, Tylor came very close to defining what might be understood as magical perception: the vision of the world that makes shamanism, witchcraft, and magical practices possible and desirable.

It is an ecstatic vision. In this vision, everything is alive, continually interacts and can potentially communicate, if it so chooses, if it can be so compelled and, most crucially, if you can understand. There is no such thing as an inanimate object. Because you cannot hear or understand them doesn’t mean that rocks, wind, trees, and objects are not communicating or cannot communicate. The shaman can hear, the shaman can understand and, maybe most importantly, the shaman can hold up her end in a dialogue.

The shaman, sorcerer or witch (and whether at this stage of the game there is any difference is subject largely to linguistics) is the person who desires this knowledge and/or shows personal aptitude for this type of communication. This aptitude is invaluable and may have been crucial to the survival, success, and proliferation of the human species. Creation stories tend to end with that magical act of creation. What happened next? Quite often, as in that Zuni tale, the witches show up bearing life-saving knowledge and skill.

Imagine the earliest people on Earth, our most remote ancestors, encountering new plants, strange animals, and substances never before seen. hey have no pre-existing scientific context.

Science posits a lengthy trial-and-error period. Conventional shamanic wisdom suggests that those animated plants, animals, and substances identified themselves and explained their gifts and dangers in a manner comprehensible to the shaman, who served as their medium to the greater human community. Animals, humans’ elder siblings, taught us healing, hunting, and basic living skills. This is not ancient history. This type of shamanism still exists, although it is as endangered as the rainforests in which it is now largely centered.

Shamanic Vision

According to many traditional understandings, there is no such thing as one monolithic world; that perception displays limited vision. Instead, the mundane world we live in, the world we experience only through our five senses, is but one among various realms or planes of existence. Although there may also be others, international conventional shamanic wisdom suggests that the following realms exist:

Image Earth: the tangible realm of mortal people and creatures

Image Spirit World: the realm of deities and spiritual beings—angels, fairies, djinn, and so forth

Image Dreamland: experiences in dreams really happen; just on a different plane of existence

Image Realm of the Dead: the after-life

These realms are not linear; instead they are simultaneous, parallel. They interconnect. You can communicate across realms; you can travel between them. Spirits go back and forth effortlessly; ghosts sometimes get stuck in the wrong realm and need a shaman to point them in the right direction, maybe giving them a little shove in the process.

Boundaries exist between these different realms, although precisely how permeable those boundaries are or aren’t varies and is dependent on a number of factors, not least being something as simple as time of year. (Thus the time period known as Halloween/Samhain/El Dia de Los Muertos is acknowledged as the time when those borders are particularly permeable, from all directions.) There are portals of entry between realms, if you can find them, if you can survive them, if you have the skill and knowledge to navigate your return. This is the soul-journey of the expert shaman.

Greek and Roman myths tell of Odysseus’ and Aeneas’ journeys to Hades. Orpheus journeys to Hades attempting to escort his beloved Eurydice back from the realm of the dead. In Norse mythology, emissaries are sent to Hel to see whether beloved, deceased Balder could be released. Because these “journeys” are often understood only literally, as if one ventures to the Realm of the Dead in the exact same way one travels to Disneyland, they are too frequently understood as “mythic” only in the sense of being fictional.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy of novels envisions another way of accessing portals between realms via the use of a magical tool, the subtle knife.

Shamanic functions include:

Image Communication with other realms, including those of the spirits and the deceased

Image Soul retrieval and other forms of healing

Image Location of lost or stolen items, in particular buried treasure

Despite jokes otherwise, shamanism may be the real first profession. (As for the alternative, many sacred prostitutes simultaneously served as shamans, not passive figures but dynamic ones, especially those engaged in ritual possession, channeling their goddess.) The shaman is a unique specialist although there are cultures that support large multi-person shamanic societies—with “support” frequently being the key word. Typically a community provides for a shaman’s needs in exchange for shamanic services, in particular in hunting/gathering or farming communities.

Sounds like a good deal? Well, yes and no. Shamanism isn’t easy; the experiences can be frightening, unpleasant, and dangerous, acquiring the skills painful, and simultaneously traumatic and exhilarating: typically the pivotal initiation experience is described as a spiritual “death.” Some part of the spiritual anatomy, although not the physical body, dies—ripped apart or butchered by spirits, frequently cooked up in a cauldron, consumed by the spirits and then finally, hopefully, if one passes all tests, put back together (re-membered) and resurrected. The shaman is able to journey into the after-life because she has “died” and returned. She is a liminal figure who exists in several realms simultaneously.

Because it’s dangerous, because there may be a lengthy apprenticeship (despite modern advertising, one cannot become a shaman over a weekend, although certainly skills can be taught), and because skill comes from experience, the full-fledged shaman is often an older person, and very frequently a woman for a variety of reasons. (In some areas, China or Northern Europe for instance, shamanism was exclusively a female preserve for a very long time.)

Image Hard as it may be to believe today, once upon a time in many places, menopausal women were regarded with a reverence verging on awe; their wise blood retained, its power increased exponentially within

Image If a woman survived child-bearing, she was also more likely to survive into old age, a phenomenon that may still be witnessed if you calculate the percentage of women to men in virtually every retirement community

Image On the other hand, a woman with no children to provide for her old age might have a strong incentive to develop psychic skills in order to remain a valued, cared-for member of society

Although some enlist, many more are drafted. Very frequently the individual has little choice in the matter. The spirits choose you, their call manifesting through dreams, visions (not necessarily your own), illness, bad luck, and/or animal attack. Traditionally, in some places, surviving bear, snake, or jaguar attacks was interpreted as a shamanic call.

Sometimes the shaman’s refusal to heed the call affects a whole community adversely: bad luck spreads around, as in the biblical tale of Jonah. (Read it again. He didn’t just accidentally end up in that whale’s belly; there was a reason Jonah found himself lost in the depths of the sea.) If the cause of misfortune is traced back to her recalcitrance, the community may insist that the shaman assume her role or risk ostracism, banishment, or worse—being sacrificed to appease the spirits.

On the other hand, if shamanic aptitude or a calling is recognized, a community may nurture the individual so that she may acquire her skills, providing her with the best material goods, and sometimes tolerating bad, erratic, unpredictable behavior because a powerful, consistently effective shaman is invaluable. The shaman is responsible for the community’s well-being and survival, its life and death. Why? Because shamanic services were perceived as crucial and integral to a wide variety of dangerous pursuits, including:

Image Childbirth, spiritual initiations, healing, and funerals: dangerous on the spiritual plane because of intense contact with other realms. On the physical plane, risk of physical contamination (infection) frequently exists. (Shamanically-speaking, these planes and dangers are not distinct.)

Image Hunting: eating meat involves killing a fellow creature, whose spirit guardians must be appeased to avoid disaster and maintain spiritual balance

Image Agriculture: digging holes or otherwise rooting around in Earth may be understood as rape if Earth hasn’t expressly granted permission, which perhaps only the shaman can hear or interpret. Harvest may be understood as murder, as in “John Barleycorn must die.” Plants are fellow living creatures, possessing their own spirit guardians who must be propitiated and appeased to maintain spiritual balance

There is no need to accuse or ask whether someone is a shaman. Her results speak for themselves. If things consistently aren’t going well, a more successful shaman will be found. It’s a little bit like traditional Chinese medicine, where a physician is desirable and respected only provided her patients remain healthy.

The shaman provides a needed service that, although fraught with spiritual danger, is expected to be reliable and dependable. The shaman must perform functions as needed: like a modern physician, she may be “on call” at all times, 24/7. The popular vision of shamanism as the role primitive societies invented for those with seizure disorders or the mentally unbalanced is incorrect, simplistic, and based on the notion that all other realms and spirits are “made up,” because if they don’t exist then, of course, the shaman’s journey is pure fantasy or fraud.

Shamanism is performed in various ways, through soul-journeying (going to the spirits), or through ritual possession (having them come to you.) The shaman summons spirits and ghosts and sends them packing—exorcism—as individual need arises. Her work may be enhanced by music, especially drums, chants, singing, dance, or silence. The entranced shaman may appear to be asleep or in a coma or even dead. For ancient people lacking scientific context, with no hospital monitoring equipment to measure life, the shaman who appears dead is dead, at least temporarily. She is a figure of tremendous power.

The shaman may develop profound individual ties with animals, plants, spirits, or other allies. The ecstatic component of shamanism cannot be emphasized enough; the very word “ecstasy” derives from a Greek shamanic term “existanai” (“to put out of place” as in a soul out of body). At best, shamanism is an ecstatic, transcendent, rapturous experience, for the individual shaman and also for the community whom she leads in shamanic ritual. This intense, dynamic rapture can be experienced and witnessed through ecstatic music and dance, the best sex, ritual possession, some forms of divination, or glossolalia (speaking in tongues), all of which may be components of shamanism.

Let’s be honest: the shaman can make people nervous, some people anyway, past as well as present. She knows a lot of stuff that you don’t. She knows stuff you don’t even know that you don’t know. Through soul-journeying and clairvoyance, she may know stuff about you that you would prefer not be known.

The shaman is very likely also to be a solitary person, at least some of the time. The soul-journey, the psychic journey is an intensely private, individual experience. The shaman talks with animals; the shaman talks with dead people; the shaman talks with ghosts and spirits who scare other people (and not every spirit or ghost, ancestral or otherwise, is pleasant, attractive, and nice); the shaman may even be able to assume the form of animals. Imagine today, when someone is observed muttering intensely to themselves, should a cell-phone or other similar modern reassurance that all is well not be immediately apparent, most of us will automatically give the mutterer a wide berth. Some shamans mutter all the time. (A Slavic euphemism for witch is “mutterer.”) Are they talking to their spirit allies, your long-dead ex-husband, or some other shaman across town who can magically hear them? Or maybe they’re just nuts. (Among the many telltale stereotypes resulting in an accusation of witchcraft during the Burning Times was being observed muttering to yourself, particularly if you were a ragged, old beggar-woman.)

What if the shaman yields to temptation and puts her powers to personal, selfish use? What if, in a time of conflicting interests, the shaman is bribed to favor one party or another?

New Age people are often dismayed to hear those from traditional cultures speak negatively of witchcraft and witches. Tolerance of witches is expected from these seemingly magic-tolerant societies. Of course, cultures that incorporate magical practices have also been known to burn witches. In these cases, “witch” is often understood to mean a shaman gone bad, a breach of a sacred trust.

The shaman doesn’t have to become corrupt to stop working full-time for the community. Eventually some suffer burn-out, at least temporarily, too tired or psychically drained. Maybe, for one reason or another, the spirits stop talking to you. Some shamans, perhaps following bad experiences (the primordial “bad trip”), failure, emotional exhaustion, psychic torpor, or perhaps just as directed by the spirits, might retreat into privacy—a cave, a hut in the forest, a little home on a mountain top or in a swamp—to recuperate, replenish their energy and live a private, magical life. People would know the shaman was there, this person in the wilds. She might be frightening, they might leave her alone most of the time, warn their children not to bother her—who knows what she could do if provoked?—but in a moment of desperation, when a magical solution seems like the only option, particularly when a private secret magical solution is required, one would know exactly where to go to plead or pay for assistance.

Among those occupations claiming descent from the primal shaman:

Image Witches, wizards, practitioners of magic

Image Conjurers, illusionists, purveyors of tricks, ventriloquists, sleight-of-hand artists

Image Diviners, readers, seers, fortune-tellers

Image Herbalists and healers of all persuasions, including modern physicians

Image Musicians, actors, dancers, puppeteers

The Fruitful Earth: “The Fertility Cult”

Anthropological discussions of witchcraft’s origins almost inevitably refer to witchcraft as deriving from ancient “fertility cults.” Little if any explanation is ever given as to exactly what constitutes a fertility cult, as if the meaning of the term should be self-evident. To a very large extent this is because old-school anthropologists—and society in general—were uncomfortable with explicit discussion of sexuality until recent decades (and not always even now).

The use of the word “cult” is the tip-off that we are outsiders looking in. Cult is a word used by outsiders to describe a phenomenon of which they are not part and toward which they bear either ambivalence or disapproval. “Cult” in modern usage carries a negative connotation: we have religion, strange other people have cults. At best, “fertility cult” has an archaic ring evoking Orientalist images of sacred prostitution. At worst, “cult” carries sinister overtones: people must be rescued from “cults,” deprogrammed from the brainwashing kind.

Those old-school anthropologists may have been looking with outsiders’ eyes but they weren’t completely off-base or wrong: witchcraft, from its primal roots to this year’s Halloween paraphernalia, demonstrates a profound preoccupation with fertility, even if it isn’t always blatant or easily recognized. So, in plain English, what is this fertility cult?

Now, first, stop rolling your eyes. Since the emergence of the women’s rights movement, terms like “fertility cult” and the traditional preoccupation with maternity have fallen into disrepute and for good reason. Over the centuries reverence for women’s reproductive abilities evolved into a trap with women only valued for potential fertility, like some prized chicken or cow.

Although obviously reproduction is crucial to survival as a species, it may not have been the literal output, the end-results, that were worshipped but instead a perception of women’s fertility power, a female equivalent of something similar to machismo, for which (significantly) no word or name now exists—with the exception perhaps of certain understandings of “witch.” Machismo, perceived as intense male virility, almost a hyper-masculinity, is a perceived power potentially projected by men regardless of whether they are engaged in sexual activity at that moment. The dynamic power, the capacity, is always there, regardless of whether it’s used.

Likewise, women may have been understood to radiate fertility-power, for lack of a better name, whether or not they were actively engaged in reproduction. This is based on the very ancient use of contraception and abortion in areas that especially venerated sexy fertility goddesses, as well as on the image of specific female spirits of fertility, like Artemis, who emphatically and deliberately lack children. The Artemisia family of plants, which are intimately identified with witchcraft, were gifts from Artemis to humans, hence their name. They were used in ancient times as menstrual regulators: historically they have been used for either encouraging or terminating pregnancy.

To understand the ancient obsession with fertility one has to appreciate just how hard life was once upon a time. We in the modern industrialized world are buffered from so much of life’s harshness. Human remains suggest that the average Paleolithic lifespan was only about 33 years. Death was a constant presence. Hunger, thirst, illness, the dangers of a harsh environment—remaining alive was not a passive act. Death, hunger, sterility must be consciously, vigilantly, consistently warded off.

The emphasis on fertility and rebirth that one sees in the most ancient human artwork and spiritual artifacts is an act of sheer defiance. It expresses the determination to survive, to bear children and see them survive, and to ecstatically celebrate and experience every possible moment of joy wrenched from potentially bitter experience: this is the birth of spirituality, religion, and witchcraft.

At its most primal and ancient, the fertility cult, for lack of anything better to call it, acknowledges that life is precious, sacred, potentially full of joy but all too often tenuous and fraught with danger. Earth is a wonderful place; there is no better place to be but life is short and continually threatened. Life and the forces that renew and regenerate it are sacred but must be constantly, carefully, enhanced, empowered, and preserved. To remain alive, to bring forth new life, one cannot be passive. Life emerges from a balancing act between male and female forces. The world can be divided into complementary energies. There are forces that bring forth life (yin/female), there are forces that stimulate that process (yang/male). There are forces that generate fertility, understood as abundance of all kinds, as well as those that serve as obstacles and challenges.

When these forces are harmoniously balanced, life is preserved and continues to be generated. Times are good and living is comparatively easy. Earth, left alone, possesses her own balancing act but if one, whether individual or community, possesses a personal agenda with specific desired results, whether personal fertility, animal husbandry, hunting or agriculture, then the balancing act becomes more precarious. Those scales must be tipped in your favor.

The Chinese yin-yang pictogram provides a visual depiction for this philosophy. Black yin and white yang are nestled beside each other; each contains a spark of the other’s essence. They are not mutually exclusive forces but require each other to exist. They do not war with each other. Their opposition may be understood as the opposing force that permits a vaulted ceiling to exist. Each needs the other: there is no perception of black without white, no perception of cold without knowledge of heat. Disharmony arises when there is imbalance between forces, when one side threatens to overwhelm the other.

Earth’s complementary energies may be divided into affinities or affiliations. Thus women are affiliated with darkness, the moon, water, and certain kinds of magic powers. All are connected and share an essence:

Image If the moon’s phases are consistent and reliable, all is well.

Image If a woman’s phases are consistent and reliable, all is well

Image If a woman’s phases are inconsistent or unreliable, they can be realigned by strengthening her affinity with the moon, the tides, and other lunar forces

Women are sacred and powerful because they can give life, because their bodies reflect the lunar phases, because the emergence of womanhood and fertility is announced by the rhythmic shedding of magical blood (and in many tribal societies, just as in many offices or wherever women live closely together, menstruation becomes synchronized and frequently linked to a specific moon phase).

Women are sacred and powerful because they can magically provide nourishment from their own body in a god-like manner. Every woman thus is potentially a goddess; it is the image of the female divine brought down to life. Sparks of sacred life exist in every woman. It is no wonder that the most ancient depictions of divinity are modeled after females, whether human, animal, bird or fish.

So is this it? The fertility cult as a celebration of women? Yes and no.

Men are magic, too. It doesn’t matter how magical and god-like the female is, there’s no reproduction without men, as is clear from tales of the machinations that Amazons or other female-only societies go through in order to conceive. It couldn’t be clearer than in the ancient tale of Isis, Mistress of Magic, who has enough power to stop the sun in the sky but can’t conceive the child she is destined to bear without sexual intercourse. Isis can resurrect her dead husband long enough for a quickie, she can charm up a working gold penis because the original went missing during the resurrection process, but with all that power she is unable to conceive a child without sperm.

It doesn’t matter how fertile Earth is, if it doesn’t rain or if irrigation isn’t otherwise provided, there will be no harvest. No rain, no growth. No semen, no pregnancy. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand these simple facts.

Anthropologists debate as to whether the ancients understood the male role in reproduction. Although their understanding was certainly not as technical or analytical as the modern understanding of pregnancy and conception, based on a slew of ancient virile storm gods (Zeus, Baal, Thor, Chango) clearly some connection was made; some appreciation that men, too, are integral to conception.

Women bear but men activate, the process. Sometimes the deity manifests in the form of a dancing shamanic man (Dionysus, Shiva, Bes), while in other cases he is a primordial source of fertility, the personified irrepressible procreative urge (Ogun, Faunus, and countless horned male spirits).

Other connections were made as well. Symbols radiate power. Basic magical fertility theory involves manipulation of various powers to generate a constant, steady, healthy, beneficial flow of fertility, not just of human beings but all living interconnected beings. The ultimate symbol, sacred short-hand transcending language, is the union of human genitalia. Each depicted separately radiates a magical, protective force. Put together they magically generate life.

Images of the human genitalia rank among the oldest religious artifacts; some images still linger on the outskirts of modern religious symbolism. Often the genitals are divorced from the rest of the body and venerated independently, such as Himalayan lingams and yonis. Sometimes the whole package is left intact, as with ithyphallic statues of gods. (In plain English, this means statues depicting deities with erect, prominent, sometimes really big penises.) You don’t have to go back thousands of years; this imagery is recent too, as in the suppressed sacred genital imagery of traditional Japanese culture or that modern tourist souvenir, the Thai penis amulet.

Sometimes the imagery is more abstract, often geometric. Triangles are utilized to demonstrate the directions of genitals: upward for the male, downward for the female. The hexagram, the six-pointed Star of David, depicts their merger, the union of fire and water. The protective image of the triangle is ubiquitous in what belly-dancers call “tribal style.” You’ll see it on countless Oriental rugs and Middle Eastern amulets. It is also ubiquitous in the Western witch’s wardrobe: she is rarely shown without her peaked, triangular hat.

Representations of this sacred merger of male and female may be observed elsewhere:

Image The pestle in the mortar

Image The fire in the hearth

Image The stick in the broom

Image The broomstick between the legs

Image The sword in its scabbard

Image The foot in the shoe (think about the prominence of shoes in wedding rituals)

Other fertility motifs may be harder for the modern eye to catch, mainly because our industrialized landscape is so vastly different from those of our ancestors who, as the cliché goes, lived much closer to nature. The most prominent of these are cattle horns, which in form symbolically unite male and female generative forces. The phallic connection may seem obvious, but cattle horns are also potently linked to female generative power. Think of all those ancient cow goddesses: Hathor, Isis, Io. The very continent of Europe is named in honor of Europa who rode a bull across the sea and who is virtually always depicted holding onto one horn.

What ancient eyes were exposed to that we are missing, in addition to the ubiquitous presence of cattle, was the inside of the human body, viewed without any modern scientific context. When a body was opened up (whether because of murder, funeral or sacrificial procedure, Caesarian section, curiosity, or exploration), the resemblance of the female reproductive organs, from the ovaries, moving down the fallopian tubes into the vaginal canal, to a bull’s skull with horns was noted. The connection is very explicitly portrayed in relief on Çatal Hüyük shrine walls. Images of the parturient (birthing) goddess are placed above bulls’ skulls with enormous horns, or sometimes over just the horns alone. The female figure’s belly may be marked with a circle, emphasizing the promise that lies within. Luckily, that promise is easily, consistently, observed in the horns and so it isn’t necessary to look inside the body. Instead that promise, that symbol, may be observed on every sacred cow.

You can see those horns, that promise of generative power, in the sky too, depending upon the phase of the moon. The Egyptian goddesses Hathor and Isis are often depicted as beautiful, elegant, generous women wearing horned headdresses with a full moon held between the points. The horns within the female body are connected through essence and affinity with lunar horns in the sky, the cow’s horns on Earth and the horns of powerful female deities.

Horns on a male deity invariably indicate that he’s virile, sexually insatiable, always ready, willing and able, hot, horny. Horns on amulets, like those found amongst traditional Italian amulets, protect and generate male reproductive ability. They also ward off the Evil Eye, understood as the antithesis of fertility.

The image of the sacred cow is almost as universal as witchcraft. It’s found in ancient statuary and in cave paintings. The sacred cow survives in modern India but once upon a time it was also common in Egypt, Greece, Ireland, Scandinavia, the Middle East and throughout Africa, not to mention the traditional Native American veneration of the buffalo, a form of wild cattle. This veneration hides in the Bible too: not only in the obvious golden calf, believed to represent Hathor or her son, but also in Leah, the only innately fertile biblical matriarch, whose name may be translated as “wild cow.” Even today describing a woman as “cow-eyed,” like the goddess Hera, is still considered a great compliment in Greece, a testament to female beauty, although it doesn’t translate well into English.

It isn’t the cow or bull that is worshipped in such fertility cults—it’s the potential and promise that they so potently represent, symbolize, and epitomize that is viewed with such veneration. The fertility cult isn’t limited to awe for cattle either. Other animals were recognized as radiating profound fertility power too:

Image Those perceived as resembling human reproductive organs (hedgehogs, snakes, weasels)

Image Those perceived as being especially prolific (cats, rabbits, frogs, toads)

Image Those able to reproduce in the most challenging environments (snakes again, scorpions)

All of these animals will be encountered when we explore those animals most associated with witchcraft (see ANIMALS).

The basis of the “fertility cult” is that life is beautiful and precious. Earth is wonderful, sacred; there is no better place to be. Physical expression of life is sacred and worthy of regeneration and reproduction. The physical universe—Earth and her living waters, the moon, other animals, plants, spiritual entities, the very human body—all are linked in a holistic web. In the best of all possible worlds, all powers within this universe are in balance, with good health, the potential for new life as desired, happiness, and joy as the result.

It’s not all positive, however. What of those who are barren, who can’t or won’t conceive? What if your individual goals are different than those of the community? What if your vision for your future, for whatever reason, doesn’t involve reproduction? If involuntary infertility is linked to spiritual imbalance, what is the perceived impact of the individual on the community? The barren woman may be perceived as dangerous to the common good, particularly in societies where agriculture and individual fertility are intensely linked.

Because women are linked to the moon, to Earth, seeds, and growth, and because those affinities aren’t perceived as only traveling one-way, an inability or unwillingness to conceive is often understood as adversely affecting the harvest, and hence everyone’s ability to eat. A woman’s infertility may be contagious or emblematic of some kind of dangerous imbalance or spiritual violation.

The healer/shaman/witch who can remedy this situation, producing miracles, stimulating conception whether through herbalism, negotiation with the spirits or any other magical process is a valued, priceless member of society. She is also feared: if she can increase odds of pregnancy, she probably has the power to decrease or eliminate it too. Maybe someone’s infertility is her fault.

Of course, all of this postulates that fertility, sex, human bodies, existence on the Earthly plane is a good thing, and thus worthy and desirous of being reproduced. This, however, isn’t a view shared by all.


Of course, there’s more than one way of making sense of the universe. The perspective of the “fertility cult” understands the world as filled with magical forces that must be balanced and carefully manipulated to achieve harmony. If any of these forces is pushed too far in any direction, balance is shattered and disharmony reigns; growth (fertility, prosperity, abundance) stagnates or stops.

But what if you’re seeing it all wrong? What if those forces cannot be balanced but are diametrically opposed? What if these forces are really in mortal combat? What if the perception that making love is sacred is only an illusion and instead what is really being made is spiritual warfare? What if the magic unification of two complementary forces (male/female) is impossible and the only possible outcome of a meeting between these two opposing forces is victory for one side, submission for the other?

What if that yin-yang symbol depicting merger and complementary coexistence of opposing forces is incorrect? Maybe the true diagram that maps existence is linear: two columns arranged like a balance sheet, or like a chessboard with opposing pieces lined up on either end.

No longer a spectrum, the material word can be organized into oppositional pairs:



Contrasting powers are no longer understood as complementary forces arranged on a spectrum; instead they are oppositional and no spectrum exists. There are no gray areas. Boundaries between oppositional forces are clear, distinct, and absolute. (In other words, no little white dot inside the black side or black dot within the white as in the yin-yang symbol.) Each opposing force is mutually exclusive of the other.

Every item on one side of the balance sheet is linked to every other item on its side and opposed to all items on the other. Each item on one side shares an essence with the others on its side; they serve the same master. The categories on this world balance sheet not only include physical observations but perceived moral, value judgments as well:


Because “evil” is now understood as absolutely distinct from “good,” serious theological concerns arise as to the origins of evil, where it comes from, who’s responsible and how it may be eradicated, once and for all. Questions as to who is leading each side, exactly who’s responsible and in charge, become crucial.

Those concerns aren’t relevant to the old shamanic/fertility cult perspective. It doesn’t figure value judgments into the equation, at least not on an abstract basis. Any power (light, dark, masculine, feminine) may be used for good or evil; it is how it is used that affects the outcome. The power in itself is neutral. This is absolutely not the case with what will become known as “dualism.”

I’ve given a very, very, very simplistic explanation of a profound disagreement in perspective that ultimately had earth-shattering, world-altering consequences, not least on spirituality, witchcraft, and women’s roles. How we treat women, children, the Earth, our natural environment, plants, and animals all derive from this dichotomy. At its most basic, the difference between the two perspectives stems from a very simple root: some people tolerate ambiguity (and may even enjoy it) while others do not.

The dualist perspective stems from very human emotions: fear and anxiety, a desire for security, clarity and order, firm unwavering boundaries, a need to categorize. Look at the balance sheet: order and clarity emerge on the same balance side as good, safe, and light. Male is on that side, too, as is right, high, and white. That old shamanic swirling world of invisible, merging, ambiguous powers is chaotic, fluid, and messy. It finds itself on the balance sheet on the same side as evil, dark, dangerous, wild, and female.

The word “dualism” is derived from the Latin duo, “two.” In English, the name also contains a pun: the two sides on that eternal chessboard duel with each other. That’s the most basic explanation of “dualism” although that word, like “witchcraft” has come to mean many things to many people. (In psychological and literary circles, as opposed to religious and historical ones, “dualism” is often used to discuss philosophers like Kant, Heidegger, and Descartes.) However, at its most basic, the term is used to denote a theological system that explains the universe as the outcome of two eternally opposed and conflicting principles, such as good and evil. There is no way to balance these forces because balance implies compromise and compromise strengthens evil. Everything in the universe can be classified on one side or the other. If classification isn’t clear, if something is ambiguous, then it’s quite obvious on which side of the balance sheet that something belongs.

In the dualist view, soul and body are distinct, and potentially in serious conflict. There’s only one of each and by nature they are out of balance. Too much attention to the finite body (and for extreme dualists, any attention) only places the immortal soul in danger. To strengthen the side of good, the perishable physical body must be sublimated, perhaps even mortified, and the soul nourished. Immortality is achieved through the survival and salvation of the soul.

On the other hand, sometimes these perspectives of the world are two sides of a single coin, like seeing the same glass as either half-full or half-empty. For instance, because women bring forth new humans from their own bodies and can provide nourishment from those bodies, and because parallels are clearly observed between women’s bodies and such physical phenomena as lunar phases and tides, in the shamanic/fertility cult perspective, women are perceived as embodying divine energy. This is because those lunar phases, nature, the whole physical world are all understood to be sacred.

From the dualist perspective, however, those very same observations of women, their reproductive ability, their associations with the dark depths of night and ocean, all indicate women’s powerful affinity with the physical world, which is affiliated with the evil side of the universal balance sheet, hence turning her into a danger zone for men’s immortal souls.

It is hard to conceive of a philosophy that has had greater worldwide impact than dualism. It has infiltrated virtually every corner of Earth, its roots so deep that they permeate our very languages. Without an understanding and awareness of dualism, you cannot understand the fear, revulsion, and/or ambivalence so many feel towards witchcraft. Because of this it is worth our while to take a brief tour through the history of dualism.

Its birthplace seems to have been in Persia, in what is now modern Iran, from whence it spread through the Middle East, the Mediterranean and beyond. Dates vary as to when Zoroaster (Zarathusra) was born in Iran. Conservative Zoroastrians, members of the religion founded on his teachings, suggest 6000 BCE. Historians generally suggest sometime between 1500 and 1000 BCE. Previously, Iranian religion had been similar to that of polytheistic Mesopotamia and the pagan Middle East. Zoroaster preached a new faith with a new perspective. Initially he was attacked for his ideas, but eventually he found favor with the king. Zoroastrianism became the state religion and remained so until the Islamic jihad arrived in Persia in 650 CE. Many Zoroastrians fled to India where a community remains, as they do in Iran and elsewhere.

Although these facts may be unfamiliar to most Western readers, elements of Zoroastrian religion will be familiar to many:

Image Zoroastrianism envisions the universe as a battleground of two gods who existed from the beginning: the Lord of Light and Righteousness and the Lord of Darkness and Evil. The universe is divided between into their armies, including people, who must choose a side. Fence-sitting is not an option; there is no gray area, no middle-ground; it is a world of distinct, clear boundaries. One must actively, consciously enlist in the army of the Lord of Light because if one does not do so then one willingly or inadvertently supports the opposition, the Lord of Darkness

Image Many Zoroastrians believe in a savior born from a virgin of the lineage of Zoroaster who will raise the dead and preside over the Final Judgment

Image In the inevitable final show-down, the apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil, the Lord of Darkness and his forces will be destroyed. The dead will be resurrected and the world purged and cleansed via a flood of molten metal, although only the wicked are scalded. The righteous will wade through this fiery flood as if through warm milk

Image There is a Final Judgment of souls. Sinners are punished (but ultimately forgiven) and then humans will be immortal, free from all Earthly ills: death, disease, old age, hunger, poverty

This vision of a world struggling between forces of good and evil permeates the philosophies and spiritual traditions known as “Gnosticism” as well.

In the most literal sense, gnosis refers to the knowledge or understanding (divine comprehension) that produces, or at least supports spiritual salvation. The Gnostic is saved when he personally sees the light and experiences epiphany.

There was never one unified Gnostic movement. Instead the term refers to a series of schools and teachers, emerging in strength during the first century CE, centered mainly in Egypt and Judea. There’s wide variety, a broad spectrum of beliefs held by the various Gnostic schools, and Pagan, Jewish, and Christian schools of Gnosticism exist. Eventually, Gnostic philosophy would exert a profound influence on mainstream Christianity.

Although there are many variations on the theme, a typical Gnostic vision goes something like this: despite religious propaganda to the contrary, the material world was not created by the highest, good God. A lower being formed the physical world but in the process, true divine sparks of light were trapped. Thus Earth is corrupt, tainted, or even possibly evil, but it contains sparks of godly, divine, trapped goodness that can potentially be nurtured, saved, freed, and redeemed. Human suffering derives from entrapment in this physical world, which is governed by an Evil Being who impersonates God and usurps His power.

Some ancient Gnostic Christians perceived that the creator of the physical world—the demi-urge in Gnostic-speak—was the God of the Old Testament. Christ was an emissary sent to bypass the demi-urge by the true God. Once the notion of the Trinity became established, incorporating the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, however, this perception became problematic and was considered heretical.

To put it mildly, the early centuries of the Common Era were times of tremendous spiritual seeking. Back in Persia, dualist philosophy continued to evolve. In 216 CE, a man named Mani (Manes) was born near the Tigris River in Babylonia, modern Iraq but then part of the Persian Empire. He was an intensely restless spiritual pilgrim who traveled widely, seeking enlightenment. Born a Zoroastrian, he studied and experimented with Buddhism and Gnosticism and even converted to mainstream Christianity for a while.

No religion he encountered satisfied him, although he found truths in many. He perceived all of them as incomplete, so he decided to perfect them, proclaiming himself the messiah of a new faith, Manicheism, characterized by an intense dualist vision.

Mani was a prolific artist and writer, setting down his philosophy and vision in words and drawings that were preserved for centuries. His became an important faith, not only during his lifetime but also for many centuries afterwards, with communities of adherents from Persia to Spain to China. Manicheism, at one time, was considered to be among Christianity’s chief competitors. The Church perceived Manicheism as a great threat and actively campaigned against it for centuries. None of Mani’s drawings, and only fragments of his writings survive because they were systematically searched out and destroyed by the Roman Catholic Church.

Mani’s luck changed when a new Persian ruler devoted to Zoroastrianism came to power. As the story goes (and to be fair, the story derives from those as opposed to the Zoroastrian magi as they were to Mani) the magi perceived Mani as a competitor and pressured the king, Bahram I, to arrest and condemn him. Various reports exist of his death, every one of them horrific. Either he was crucified, or flayed alive, or beheaded with his head stuck on a pole for extended public display. His martyrdom, however, only increased his popularity among some believers and made his faith, with its martyred, possibly crucified messiah, even more of an alternative path to Christianity.

The mission of Manicheism is to entirely separate spiritual light from material darkness. If and when this process is complete, then the Kingdom of Darkness will be for ever defeated. A microcosm of this war is fought out within each human being as the soul struggles to break free from the corporal body, while simultaneously the corporal body, under the dominion of the Lord of Darkness, tempts and encourages backsliding. Each person must achieve individual salvation: each human is a battlefield for the forces of Light and Darkness. You must actively choose your side. Among the keys to achieving liberation of one’s spiritual essence is an unwavering, complete obedience to the Manichean Church.

Some people are closer to that goal than others. Persons on the verge of spiritual liberation were known as the Elect. The Elect led highly disciplined, ascetic lives, abstaining from sex because indulgence in sensual pleasures (sex for its own sake) strengthens the body at the expense of the soul, and because babies, the result of sex for reproduction, are but fresh prisons for entrapped sparks of light. Furthermore, those precious sparks of light may be contained within sperm, which should thus be protected from the moist, darkness of the womb.

The Elect maintained a strict vegetarian diet, with one exception. Saint Augustine (13 November 354—28 August 430), a Manichean for nine years prior to his conversion to Christianity, reports that the Elect ritually consumed a concoction of dough and semen, the theory being that the trapped sparks of light might be liberated if consumed by those on the brink of salvation themselves.

Saint Augustine, pillar of the Christian Church, was a spiritual seeker, too, who explored pagan paths and Manicheism before devoting himself to Christianity. Although he rejected much Manicheist doctrine, Augustine also introduced the Manichean world-view into conventional Christian thought. Among those doctrines rejected by Augustine is the notion that knowledge (gnosis) leads to liberation. In Augustine’s view, humans are too tainted by Original Sin to accomplish salvation either through knowledge or other individual effort. It can only be achieved through obedience to Christian doctrine, the shepherd guiding the flock. However, he did retain the basic Manichean distrust of matter and the material—especially regarding sex.

Augustine taught that Adam’s defiance of God (as stimulated by Eve) produced a state of unbalanced desire (concupiscence) which infects every sexual act with the possible exception of completely pleasure-free, mechanical intercourse solely for the purpose of reproduction within the clear, firm boundaries of lawful Christian marriage.

Dualism permeates world culture, human culture, and especially Western culture. Dualist influence so pervades the vocabulary of modern spirituality that we don’t consider what common words literally mean: redemption, salvation, liberation—from what? They derive from the dualist world-view:

Image Redemption of the soul from the prison of the body

Image Salvation of the soul from its Earthly trap

Dualists are right: dualism and the fertility cult, shamanic or otherwise, are incompatible views. From the moment of its emergence, dualism has been on an intense, inevitable collision course with those celebrating the cult of fertility, who wish to revel in Earth rather than be saved from her. At their roots, they are genuinely two oppositional viewpoints, two ways of looking at, organizing, and understanding the world. On the dualist side, there is no room for tolerance because compromise means that you’ve assented to the power of the Lord of Darkness. Very frequently, dualists have categorized people they’ve encountered who have possessed a shamanic or fertility-cultish perspective as “witches.” The results for those thus categorized, whether in Europe, North America, Africa or elsewhere, have consistently been disastrous.

It’s very tempting to see the “fertility cult” as the ancestor of witchcraft and dualism as that of its opponents; that very temptation demonstrates why dualism can be so attractive. Real life, however, is rarely that black-and-white and that would be a simplistic vision that denies the complexity of witchcraft as well as world history.

There are very few places left on Earth that have not been influenced by both dualism and the more ancient shamanic/fertility cult. Most cultures blend these influences to varying degrees. Dualism even pervades the world of witchcraft. In those immortal words spoken by Glinda to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Many, if asked whether they are a witch, answer affirmatively but stipulate that they are a “good” witch, as if whatever powers they possess can only be used for good, not possibly for ill. (This may make the self-identified witch more comfortable with her identity, however historically, this distinction has made no difference to dualist authority, who often perceive the “good” witch as even more dangerous than her evil sister. See WITCHCRAZE!)

Witchcraft, defined as magical practices, is seemingly a crucial human need. Like the Egyptians’ heka, it emerges whenever it is necessary to attempt to ward off those harsh blows of fate or maybe whenever there’s just not enough joy and fun around. Witchcraft exists everywhere in various forms, and is thus found in all kinds of communities possessing all sorts of philosophies. What differs is how witchcraft is perceived (by the witches as well as outsiders) and whether it operates secretly or openly.