Witchcraft – Bats and Broomsticks

A brief history of Witchcraft, complicated by misunderstanding and later revision

The father of Witchcraft is widely acknowledged as Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), who in 1954 published Witchcraft Today, claiming the existence of an unbroken traditional practice of Witchcraft surviving from pre-christian to contemporary times. In this he was heavily influenced by the work of Dr. Margaret Murray, whose book, The God of the Witches, was published in 1931, following her earlier work, The Witch Cult in Western Europe in 1921. Gardner also claimed initiation into a traditional coven of such practising witches.

These claims – an unbroken tradition, and Gardner’s initiation into it – have both been the subjects of intense scholarly debate, and I refer anyone interested in the myriad layers of this debate to the excellent and impeccably-researched Triumph of the Moon (1999) by Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University. Other research in this area has been done by Philip Heselton; Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival and Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration.

The popular myths of Witchcraft are all more complex or misleading than they first appear – the associations of Witches with Bats, Broomsticks, Cauldrons and Pointed Hats all have different stories to tell. The first known depiction of a witch flying is on a cleft stick, not a broom, for example.

Another common myth is of the “burning times” in which Gardner stated that perhaps nine million practitioners of Witchcraft had been persecuted and burnt. This figure is a gross exaggeration based on little evidence or research; the most commonly accepted figure is now closer to 40,000 victims over a 250 year period, with the majority of those executions in Germany – and most of these victims of persecution would have identified themselves as Christian. And not all were women, nor were the majority of victims mid-wives or poor. In England, those accused of Witchcraft were hung and not burnt.

There were no real comparisons between the accusations of witchcraft during this period – which involved cursing, blasphemy, causing ruin, and consorting with the Devil – and the Witchcraft revival since 1950. The idea of a coven of thirteen was not even a common factor in most of the trials, and first appeared in the trial of Isobel Gowdie, in 1662, disappearing until revived and popularised as a common element of Witchcraft by Margaret Murray in 1921.

However, this period of witch-hunts did provide the link between the worship of the Devil and the practice of Witchcraft. Many victims of the persecutions between 1450 and 1700 were tortured and confessed to consorting with the Devil. As Witches since the 1950 revival have no reason to identify themselves with Christian belief, the concept of worshipping the Devil or practising Satanism has no real validity to those practitioners.

Having briefly touched on some areas of fact and fallacy in the history and popular conception of Witchcraft, tomorrow we will look at the present state and future of Witchcraft as a developing pagan religion.

Marcus Katz is an MA student of Western Esotericism at Exeter University. He is a teacher of Witchcraft, Tarot and Ritual Magick in the Lake District at the Far Away Centre
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Mister Lizard is not at home to bailiffs – he is eating salmon pâté by the river

Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”?

Summer’s nearly over. I look at the angle of the sunlight as it strikes the back terrace of the Hovel. I have been here long enough to use the terrace as a gnomon marking the passage of the year. I need, like the protagonists of Withnail and I, to go to the countryside to rejuvenate.

Last week when the Perseids were meant to be in full flow I asked frantically on a social medium for people to chum me along on a midnight walk on Hampstead Heath. In the end my new friends A— and her husband, C—, together with his new friend (whose initial I have forgotten, but he is Australian, if that helps), stepped up to the plate and after a couple at the Flask we went on a wide-ranging tour, which was a bust as far as seeing meteors – or my favourite tree – went, but was still hugely enjoyable. At about 2 am they packed me into an Uber and I went home happy, but I still felt as if I could do with more countryside.

The next few days made me even more anxious to get out of London. There are ominous signs that some serious roadworks are going to be taking place outside my bedroom window any day now. A bailiff came and rang the doorbell and I didn’t have the heart, or the nerve, to say that Nicholas Lezard was not at home at the moment and, is, in fact, on a walking tour of Patagonia now I come to think of it, due back some time next year. I just took the piece of paper into my hands as if it were a chicken come home to roost.

The previous day, presumably the same bailiff had come round and asked if Mr Lizard was in, and my housemate gallantly – and quite truthfully – said “no”. (Why is it that when people answer the question “What’s the worst thing anyone’s ever said to you?” in the Guardian questionnaire they never say, “You’ve been served”? Maybe it’s because they haven’t ever been.) In addition, as I said last week, the cleaning lady is on holiday and the Hovel is starting to look distinctly seedy.

So, then I get a call from a person who once featured quite prominently in this column, some time ago. This person is bored and wants me to go to his or her town and alleviate his or her boredom. This person and I parted company in circumstances that were far from ideal some time ago, and only recently have diplomatic relations been resumed.

It is too late, I say, for me to get on the train now; but when I have reviewed the book I am meant to be reviewing, I will hop on the train tomorrow around noon. And so I do, despite some monkey business from the departures board at King’s Cross, which tells passengers the 12:44 has been cancelled, then hasn’t been, then has, then hasn’t after all, while the 12:14 has slipped away like a thief in the night without telling anyone it was doing so.

I wonder if my return to the town of ——— is wise. As a dog returneth to its vomit, so doth a fool return to his folly. And the burnt hand fears the fire. Look, I say to myself, all we’re doing is going to have a picnic by the river. As we buy our supplies, the stallholder at the market asks if I am my companion’s husband. “No, he’s my picnic buddy,” he or she replies. “Never heard it called that before,” says the stallholder.

And the day passes perfectly pleasantly. We have two bottles of wine, cheese and smoked salmon pâté with crusty bread. People in punts drift past us, with varying degrees of competence. I remember it is A-level results day and call the eldest boy to ask how he’s done. He’s done well enough, it turns out, to get a place at university, though he feels obliged to point out that his results came in exactly a year ago. This is the kind of thing that happens when the number of children you have exceeds your mental bandwidth.

Later on, a porter from the college behind which we are picnicking asks me if I am a member, or an alumni. “Alumnus,” I correct him gently, hoping that this should establish my credentials. He asks for my name, and he radios the porters’ lodge to check my veracity. For some reason it takes him several goes to get my name right.

One of these goes is “Lizard”. We offer him some cheese, but he refuses, on the grounds that he has just had a banana and a cup of tea. I could live in a guest room here, I reflect, at not much higher rent than one pays in London. And the beauty of it is that the police, and presumably bailiffs, have to ask permission to go through the gates. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser