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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Gang of Four’s David Owen says Labour should “proudly and coherently” work with the SNP

The former Labour politician and SDP co-founder tells his old party to “face up to reality” and agree to ally with the SNP.

We don’t have an effective opposition. The question is how to make it effective. I think they should start to discuss with a view to deciding at a conference this summer on its policies. It’s just got to stop for a moment, have a pause on personalities. They’re going to have to return to personalities, they have to have a new leader. But at the moment, the issue should be: let’s get the policies right. I’m sure there are areas in which people want to see changes, but they’re obviously completely incoherent over Europe, so just let that incoherence lie.

If Labour party MPs can’t start to talk about why young people were attracted to Jeremy Corbyn, they won't find the solution. Corbyn – you can trash him like the right-wing press do every day, but they've always done that with every form of Labour leader we've ever had. I’m not defending Corbyn, I don’t think he is the right person to be leader of the Labour party and become Prime Minister.

They've got to widen their base, and they've got to widen it in an election. That doesn't stop the party having more values. The Labour party instinctively, like the country, needs to move a bit more to the left. I'm not afraid of talking more about socialism and social values. I think that would be matching the mood of the country.

Clement Attlee and the Labour party came in in 1945, and shocked everybody, including all the pundits and newspapers – they responded to a mood in the country that wanted a difference. I believe there is a mood in the country that wants a difference. They don’t want recycled Blairism.

You’ve just got to face up to reality. The fundamental thing is, where we slipped up in [the last] election, is that we were not able to answer the question – when they were ravaged and savaged about the SNP – Ed Miliband should've lost his cool. All he said during the attack about working with the SNP was that it ain't going to happen. Well, it obviously was going to happen.

What they needed to say is proudly and completely coherently: if the electorate send a Parliament back which has the SNP in substantial numbers, it is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them. Health policy – a pretty good step would be to take what’s happening in Scotland and more or less mirror it.

That is the nature of the beast, which is democracy. Even without changing the system of voting, we now have multi-parties, whether we like it or not. We were told the route through was not to create a Social Democratic Party alongside the Liberals, you had to merge with them and that there was no room for more than three political parties in Britain. Well, it’s absolute nonsense. We now have seven, you could argue. We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.

I think it’s asking a hell of a lot to be leader of a party, asking to be Prime Minister, when you've never performed yourself in government, you've never held a serious job anywhere else. It's a very, very big thing. He didn't want to be leader of the party, he didn't expect to be leader of the party, he stood on the basis that he was the person they all turned to on the left, and he did it, and he surprised us all. The fact that he won should be a serious message to us. The reason he won is because everybody was totally sick and fed up with the other people. We've got to face up to the fact that this has happened now twice. Is the Labour party going to go on churning out a sort of mollified form of Blairism?

David Owen is an independent social democratic peer and co-founder of the SDP.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

Lord Owen was Foreign Secretary 1977-79, a founder-member of the SDP and is now a crossbench peer.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition