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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What progressives can learn from Europe

The centre-left must articulate its own vision of a cohesive society, backed by an understanding of sovereignty that accepts the nation-state is the central pillar of security and belonging.

The debate about the Labour party’s future has seldom been more parochial or inward-looking. Those who pass comment on Labour’s fate from the right and left of the party do so with an almost entirely British lens. In this insular universe, it is as if the world beyond the UK’s shores never existed. ‘Socialism in one country’ is back with a vengeance. Yet to recover politically and electorally, British Labour must learn from social democrats and progressive forces across Europe. There are three critical lessons from other countries that the centre-left ought to heed.  

The first is that centre-left parties have to resist being squeezed between neo-liberalism and the new social movements. Yes, social democrats should rebuild their economic credibility and espouse a responsible governing agenda. But that should not mean rejecting all ties to social and environmental activism. The networked civil society is where most political energy and vitality currently resides in western democracies. The lesson of Podemos in Spain and Greece’s Syriza is that people want to be agents of change themselves, whether saving local high streets from unscrupulous developers or working to build their own affordable housing. Casting a ballot every four or five years no longer constitutes meaningful political engagement. Across Europe, social democrats have to form new alliances in pursuit of a better society reaching beyond traditional party structures. 

A further object lesson is that opposition to austerity on its own is not enough to win power. Of course, premature cuts have weakened growth, jobs and living standards. In southern Europe, the masochistic pursuit of austerity threatens to unleash a social catastrophe. However, centre-left parties must show they would be competent managers of the economy articulating a coherent plan to deal with debt: not just net public sector debt over the economic cycle, but tackling unsustainable financial sector and household debt. Social democrats have to show how they would govern in a world where there is less money around for state spending after the great recession and the impending threat of secular stagnation. This demands a strategy for regulating financial markets that promotes the public good, tackles systemic risks and reforms banks that are ‘too big to fail’. An industrial modernisation plan would rebalance our economies away from their reliance on financial services towards knowledge-intensive sectors and manufacturing. In reforming the tax system, there ought to be a major clamp-down on cross-border tax evasion and fraud while restoring the progressivity of tax using redistribution to tackle new inequalities.

Finally, the left must not be distracted from confronting deeper underlying forces in politics. Centre-left parties are losing elections because voters don’t trust politicians to protect their way of life against the impersonal forces of global change. Europe has pitched dramatically to the right - not only towards Christian Democratic and Conservative parties, but new forces adept at exploiting voters’ fears about economic insecurity, immigration and hostility to the EU. In the UK, UKIP has now become the dominant challenger to Labour in northern England and the Midlands; last year, the Danish People’s party surged to power. In the heartlands of European social democracy, from the Nordic states to France and the Netherlands, right-wing populists are on the rise. In Austria this week, a hard right presidential candidate was in touching-distance of power.

The failure to counter the right isn’t just about poorly executed electoral strategies, weak leadership, or the price of incumbency in coalition governments: something more profound is going on. Regardless of national context, social democracy’s support base is being eaten away. The left is losing, not just on the conventional politics of economic competence, but increasingly on the vexed politics of national identity.

That said, the temptation to raise the drawbridge against immigration ought to be resisted. Flirting with a restrictive immigration policy is superficially tempting when the populist right is winning, but imposing arbitrary limits would be economically damaging as well as politically unprincipled. Instead, low wage and vulnerable workers across the EU ought to be better protected. Permitting the uncontrolled exploitation of low-cost labour in Eastern Europe has undermined the entire European project. More safeguards against agency working and zero-hours contracts are needed.             

Rather than pretending that government on its own can do everything to shield citizens and communities from global market forces, the priority should also be to encourage intermediate institutions located between the central state and the free market that rebuild a sense of local attachment, recreate respect for traditional jobs and civic identities, and encourage a spirit of mutual obligation embodied in organisations like mutual’s and co-op’s. The left must end its ambivalence about English identity in the aftermath of devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Labour must not be afraid ‘to speak for England’.

The centre-left must articulate its own vision of a cohesive society, backed by an understanding of sovereignty that accepts the nation-state is the central pillar of security and belonging. To navigate the hard road back to power, social democratic parties will have to acknowledge the communal attachments that give meaning to our lives in an era of unprecedented insecurity and upheaval. Only by securing the trust and allegiance of citizens within the nation-state can the centre-left win the argument for international engagement and co-operation: the cornerstone of a liberal world order. 

Patrick Diamond is Co-Chair of Policy Network. The Progressive Governance Conference takes place in Stockholm 26-7 May 2016