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.