So You’re Wiccan, huh?

You have no idea how tired I am of that question after people find out I am a witch. Then, when I answer, “no, I am what is generally referred to as a ‘traditional’ witch”, I usually get a blank stare.  So, below is an edited version of a short essay I wrote for a forum I belong to. I hope it will answer someone’s question, somewhere.

What is Traditional Witchcraft?

Who are you asking? Ask 100 different ‘traditional’ witches and you’ll probably get 98 different answers. It is not Wicca. Although Wicca is now old enough to have been ‘passed down’ and as such, making it a traditional practice, it has morphed from an occult practice invented by Gerald B Gardner in the 1950’s to the religion it is today. Within Wicca you will find aspects of Italian Witchcraft as defined by Charles Leland in his Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches; the Order of the Golden Dawn; Rosicrucianism; and even some things we know about how the ancient Egyptians worked with their gods. Wicca is not ‘old’.

The practice of magic can be traced to ancient times. From stone tablet fragments, papyri and fragments of original scrolls that still survive, we know it was practiced by the ancient Egyptians, Chaldeans, Greeks, Romans and others. I’m sure it existed prior to the invention of the written word. We just don’t have any existing proof. According to Bronislaw Malinowski, a noted anthropologist, “Magic never originated, it was never made or invented”. I interpret that as meaning that magic has always been in the world.

Roman authors and priests included magic formulae in their writings … for beneficial workings. Harmful spells were illegal. Diviners (fortune-tellers, augurers, and astrologers) were actually supported by the state. Both Greek and Roman gods were not only invoked by magicians but were said to have magical abilities themselves. From the Eddas and other writings, we know that the Norse gods practiced magic.

Unless there’s someone who hasn’t yet come out of the broom closet, none of us can trace our magical origins back to the beginning of time. I only know two witches who can definitively trace their heritage back several centuries, although I have read of others. Christianity, in its efforts to become the ‘big dog religion’ on the planet, killed many magical practitioners; forced others to renounce their practice and convert; or simply abandon their ways for fear of retribution. We are probably lucky in that at least some chose to pay lip service to Christianity and still retain their abilities, albeit in a much more secretive environment.

Therefore, our practices must originate with something more recent. Recent can be as early as a 16th century ancestor passing down what he or she discovered or as late as someone today thinking, ‘I can do this’ and it works. It can be a centuries-old family tradition or a ‘tradition of one’.

Many of today’s practices, whether it’s admitted or not, are reconstructions of what is believed to have been done in times past. For religions with a magical aspect, mythology such as the Eddas, The Mabinogion, and the writings of the Greeks and Romans, is available to be read and interpreted. And just as in the major religions of the world, interpretations vary and there are sects of virtually any ‘pagan’ religion.

For the non-religious witches, take your pick of kitchen witchery, folk magic, Hoodoo, chaos magic, and a score of other methods of practice. Or don’t pick, but incorporate whatever aspects of one or more interest you.

Because most of us are ‘making it up as we go along’, it is by definition something that suits us on a personal level. Even the truly hereditary witches I know are taught the basics and then modify what they’ve been taught to suit themselves. For some, it is a spiritual practice, others incorporate deities into their work (worship may or may not be a part of that work), and yet others consider it a craft with no more connection to religion or spirituality than woodworking, pottery-making and the like.

I fall into the latter category: I do not consider magic a religious (or spiritual) practice. Julio Caro Baroja said in his The World of the Witches, “… in general, magic is connected with man’s desire and will, and religion with feelings of respect, gratefulness and submission” (his emphasis). That about sums it up for me.