Hecate &
History of Witchcraft

"We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, the same universe encompasses us.  What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for the truth?  Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret."
-Symmachus, 384 CE

Hans Baldung Grien, The Witches, Germany, 1510
A powerful chiaroscura woodcut depicts a sabbat-preparation scene of witches gathered around the ointment urn.  The salve contained within, when rubbed over their bare skin, was said to enable flight.

The origins of witchcraft in the Western world stem from ancient mythology and folklore and are subsequently expressed through a long and brutal legacy of persecution.  The witch has emerged in modern times as a symbolic emblem of empowerment and has been a development of the late 19th century, the result of a seemingly endless battle between ignorance and enlightenment, oppression and catharsis.  

The story of the witch had been formed from fear - fear of the other, to be exact, fear of radical fringe, creative thinkers, defiant outsiders, non-conformers and at its center fear of woman.  The ongoing desire to crush individuality in favor of a more subservient collective are key factors in witchcraft's blood-soaked evolution.  For far too long, religious tyranny, violent misogyny (as well as passive misanthropy), and repressive patriarchal power have subjugated our innate curiosity for the magickal.  

Attempts to define what exactly is a witch are fluid and never final.  However, witchcraft and magic have roots in almost every culture around the globe.  The idea of witchcraft is ever evolving and one can never keep tabs on all aspects of the witch.  The witch transforms according to the era and environment - shape-shifting through the ages, but is a muse, always - the subject of creative idolatry, showcased in countless paintings, sculptures, books and plays.  As an enduring archetype, the witch most likely first evolved from matriarchial worship, the rituals of ancient goddess cultures and the mythic legacies of early civilizations.  These spiritual traditions exist throughout the world, but the lineage of the Western witch can be traced back to Mount Olympus, to the myths of the Greeks and Romans and to the earliest folk traditions and sacred rites of Egyptian, Germanic, Norse, and Celtic cultures

Ulrich Molitor, Women Drawn as Witches, Germany, 1508
This early woodcut demonstrates contradictory beliefs about witchcraft, as women are shown brewing a cauldron of live snakes and chicken parts.

The Greeks were particularly enamored about the witch.  In Homer's The Odyssey, the hero, Odysseus, encounters Circe, a witch and goddess with powers inextricable linked to the plant and animal worlds.  At her home on the enchanted island of Aeaea, she lives among tamed lions and docile wolves. mixing potions in her mortar and pestle that transform men into swine and back again.  Then there is Hecate, the triple-figure goddess associated with the darkened night, the crossroads and between death and life, the underworld, plant magic, and sorcery.  Euripides's great tragedy, Medea, embodies the vengeful power of a woman scorned.  After she is rejected by her husband, Medea's fury becomes murderous and potent.  In the polytheistic worship of the Egyptians, Isis is perhaps the most obvious embodiment of the witch archetype.  Representing rebirth and magic, she is the mother goddess, capable of resurrecting the dead and granting new life.  In Norse mythology, Freya holds the powers of fertility and divination as well as love, beauty, and war' her magical chariot is pulled by twin cats, and around her shoulders, a clock of falcon feathers gives her the gift of flight.  In Celtic traditions, Brigid is the goddess of hearth and home, a guide to healers and to all those who experiment in the magickal arts.

Unknown, Riding Witch, Russia, 18th Century
A wood engraving depicts the forest witch Baba Yaga, a Slavic folkloric sorceress who rides into battle on her wild boar, often called Hildisvini ("battle swine").  She is both feared for her wicked wrath, and sought for help and healing in times of distress.

In Christian mythologies, one of the first-known recorded appearance of the word witch occurs in the Old Testament, in the books of Exodus 22:17 and Leviticus 20:27.  Most likely written around 560 BCE, the passage in Exodus commands brutally, "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."  Leviticus expands on this with another demand that "A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death:  they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them."  In the Book of Deuteronomy, practices associated with many polytheistic religions, such as soothsaying or conjuring and spell work, were also condemned.  In the Books of Samuel, the Bible's most infamous sorceress, the Witch of Endor, practices necromancy at the bidding of King Saul, communicating with the dead to predict the king's fate in battle.   The 1597 treatise on witchcraft by King James VI of Scotland (later to become James I of England), Daemonologie, refers to the biblical Witch of Endor as "Saul's Pythonese," referencing mythologies around Pythia, priestesses who could foresee the future.  The publication of the book came just a few years after King James had overseen the first witchcraft trial in Scotland, and he penned Daemonologie in part to rationalize the viability of magick and the existence of witchcraft.  The king was not the first at all, or the last, to ignite violent retribution against those accused of sorcery.  And, like so many others, he would reference key biblical passages to support his cause.  

Daniel Hopfer, Gib Frid (Let Me Go), Germany ca. 1515
Three witches hold down and threaten the Devil as he fights against the birth of a wild boar.  Boars personify the Great Goddess with their crescent-shaped tusks, symbols of fertility and strength.

Since being introduced, the idea of monotheism has fueled adversity for those who might be seen to be empowered by spirit or self -- any forces beyond those of on Almighty God.  In the early manifestations of Christianity, witchcraft - or rather, paganistic worship and ritual -- would present a particular obstacle.  Beginning in the seventh century, as Christian missionaries began to arrive in Northern Europe, they sought to dismantle deep-seated indigenous belief systems.  The Anglo-Saxons had already begun to Christianize Ireland and the British Isles, in part by adaption and transformation -- elements of pagan rites and symbols were mutated and morphed, and then integrated in various ways into Christian myth.  The goddess Brigid became Saint Brigid.  Christianity spread in part through symbiosis.  

Mahiet and the Master of the Cambrai Missal, Grandes Chroniques de France, France ca. 1340
From the 5th-8th Century CE, the Merovingian dynasty allegedly tortured and burned witches, marking the earliest period of known witchcraft annihilation.

The Western world became essentially disenchanted, the magickal act an impossibility -- the capability for the miraculous possessed by God and God alone.  The Church was not yet intimidated or threatened by the witch, in part because of the resolution that the witch's powers did not, in fact, exist.  This conviction was due in many ways to the fact that the influence exerted over the Church by theologian Augustine of Hippo was still powerfully resonant.  In the early 400s CE, Augustine had argued that sorcery, witchcraft and the like should not be feared, because they were simply not threats, their presence merely an "error of the pagans" to believe in "some other divine power than the one God."

For a moment, a kind of "live and let live" policy reigned regarding paganism, with Christian leaders busy with other battles.  But ultimately, this attitude began to change, not surprisingly in parallel with shifts of power and challenges to the Church's imminent domination.  As always, the uncontrollable must be reined, the dissidents placed into submission by any means necessary.  

Charles Stanley Reinhart, The Ducking Stool, United States 1885
Picture depicts Witch Dunking, an early form of waterboarding.

During witchhunts, paranoia and hysteria ensued.  Kramer, fueled by rumors and hearsay, which would go on to document investigations into witchcraft and help compile research into the book Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), which was published in 1487.  The book detailed instructions for hunting down and identifying witches, which would cause a conflagration of accusation and torture, a funeral pyre of persecutions upon which countless souls would burn.  Through the 1500's the Reformation era would see innumerable witchcraft trials throughout Europe and the British Isles.  Mass executions, many by burning at the stake, were conducted across the continent.  In 1515, courts in Geneva Switzerland, are thought to have tried and killed hundreds of people for practicing witchcraft.  In Italy, a decade later, the number surged into the thousands.  

Both the Catholic and Protestant churches were leaders of the charge, the sectarian battles between the two faiths resulting in turmoil and strife, a fury taken out on the easily targeted -- predominantly women.  Blame was laid heavily across the shoulders of innocents, for everything from thunderstorms to shipwrecks, diseased crops to stillborn babies.  In the late 1500s the madness had swept into France.   Fueled in part by the publication, in 1580 of French lawyer Jean Bodin's treatise on witchcraft trial methodologies, On the Demon-Mania of Sorcerers, it seemed that witches were everywhere -- their malevolence hidden among midwives and weavers, brewers and potters, young maidens and crones alike.  

Boden's book encouraged torture, entrapment, and the testimonies of children against their parents.  From 1500 to 1660, it is believed that 50,000 to upwards of 80,000 suspected witches were executed in Europe, a large percentage of them women.  In 1973's Witches, Midwives and Nurses, historians Barbara Ehrenreich and Dierdre English make the claim that women schooled in midwifery and other healing practices represented a particular threat to the patriarchy.  

The persecution of witches,
"was born of feudalism and lasted -- gaining virulence -- well into the 'age of reason.'  The witch craze took different forms at different times and places, but never lost its essential character:  that of a ruling class campaign of terror directed against the female peasant population.  Witches represented a political, religious, and sexual threat to Protestant and Catholic churches alike, as well as to the state."

Men were also accused an executed for witchcraft even despite the fact that there were numerous occultists and astrologers in high positions within the royal courts, witchcraft and the study of magick were, for the most part, considered entirely separate.  John Dee, the favorite astrologer of Elizabeth I and renown for his ability to speak with angels and foresee the future in his crystal ball, was never accused of witchcraft.  Ronald Hutton explains in his 2017 book, The Witch:  A history of Fear, "magic had nothing to do with witchcraft because the former was mostly the preserve of men, who sought to control demons, while the latter was mostly that of women, who were servants and allies to them.  The self-image of such magicians, in the medieval and early modern periods, drew on the established ideals of the clerical, monastic and scholarly professions, representing themselves as part of the elite of pious and learned men." 

In 1590, the aforementioned King James along with his betrothed, Princess Anne of Denmark, would play key roles in investigating some of the most notorious witchcrtaft hunts, a series of trials that took place nearly simultaneously in both Denmark and Scotland.  When the princess's ship was hit by storms while she was en route to marry King James, the boat'scaptain conveniently blamed the mishap on witches, a group of Danish men and women who subsequently confessed under torture.  Soon after, King James, seized with paranoia, decided to hold investigations of his own, resulting in the condemnation of a dozen supposed witches in Scotland in what became known as the North Berwick trials.  After prolonged questioning and horrific torture (in some instances overseen by the king himself), the victims confessed and were burned at the stake in what would be the largest witch hunt in British history.  

The trials became a national treasure at the time, with a pamphlet Newes from Scotland documenting the confessions of a young woman named Geillis Duncan who, under torture, named numerous individuals as fellow witches:  "Agnes Sampson the eldest witch of them all, dwelling in Haddington, Agnes Tompson of Edenbrough; Doctor Fian alias John Cuningham, master of the school at Saltpans in Lowthian, of whose life and strange acts you shall hear more largely in the end of this discourse.  These were by the said Geillis Duncan accused, as also George Motts's wife, swelling in Lowthian; Tobert Grierson, skipper; and Jannet Blandilands; with the potter's wife of Seaton; the smith of Brigge Hallis, with innumerable others in those parts, and swelling in those bounds aforesaid, of whom ssome are already executed, the rest remained in prison to receive doome of judgment at the Kinges Majesties will and pleasure."

Gustav Klimt, Die Hexe, Austria, 1898

In Sscholar Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch, published in 2004, the trials were "the first persecution in Europe that made use of multi-media propaganda to generate a mass psychosis among the population.  Alerting the public to dangers posed by witches, through pamphlets publicizing the most famous trials and the details of their atrocious deeds, was one of the first tasks of the printing press."  News pamphlets and detailed books on witch hunting helped to push forward propaganda.  In 1647, the self-proclaimed "Witchfinder General" Matthew Hopkins published his infamous tome, The Discovery of Witches, in which he intricately outlined his witch hunting methods.  As word spread, the hysteria and horror would continue, and trials were held throughout most of Europe.  In France, in the span of two years, 1643 to 1645, more than 600 people were arrested for witchcraft in the Languedoc area alone.  Throughout the battles of the Thirty Years' War, a series of conflicts that flared in Europe between 1618 and 1648, witch hunts continued relentlessly, with countless put to death under false allegations; they were tortured until they confessed, and subsequently executed.  Political unrest and economic instability became harbingers for persecution to come -- those in power placed blame on the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.  

Claude Gillot, Errant pendant la nuit..., France ca. 1700
Depicts an imagined scene at a witches' sabbath.

The genocide of witches would continue unbated for generations, until the Age of Enlightenment in the late 1680's would begin to shift perspectives and philosophies.  In 1682, an elderly woman named Temperance Lloyd became the last person executed for witchcraft in England.  The trial was highly criticized, particularly by Lord Chief Justice Sir Francis North, an outspoken advocate against witchcraft persecution.  In his investigation of the case, he wrote, "The evidence against them was very full and fanciful."  Eventually, North's beliefs became widespread throughout the British Isles and Europoe, and the horror, at long last, seemed to be over.  Until a decade later, that is when witch hunt hysteria finally hit the shores of the New World.

Stewart Farrar, Janet Farrar in Osiris Position, England 1971

The archetype of the witch as the persecuted "other" was used by early suffragettes as the bleakest example of patriarchial tyranny.  In a powerful speech given at a 1852 WOman's Rights Convention, scholar and suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage made this claim:

"Witches too often were educated women who challenged existing power structures... The witch was in reality the profoundest thinker, the most advanced scientist of those ages...No less today than during the darkest period of its history, is the church the great opponent of woman's education, every advance step for her having found the church antagonistic." 

Gage, an author and scholar, was also an arden abolitionist and defender of Native American rights.  Her son-in-law also happened to be L. Frank Baum, who would go on to create perhaps the most powerful fictional witches in Western culture in his multivolume children's book series, which included The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  

In 1899, an American writer by the name of Charles Godfrey Leland published Aradia:  Gospel of the Witches, which helped introduce the concept of witchcraft as descended from the rites of ancient goddess worship and influenced several key figures in the development of modern witchcraft.  The Theosophists and Transcendentalists, meanwhile, were exploring themes of nature and t he supernatural throughout their vast output of ;literature and art of the late 19th century.  Magick and the study of the occult were embraced by such organizations as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose members boated the poet W.B. Yeats and the artist Pamela Colman Smith, who would go on to illustrate the iconic Rider Waite Smith Tarot Deck.  The infamous occultist Aliester Crowley was also a member and author of several books on ceremonial magick as well as his own Tarot deck, The Thoth Tarot, illustrated by British author Lady Frieda Harris.

Another member of the Golden Dawn who would influence the ongoing evolution of witchcraft was writer, scholar, and ceremonial magician Dion Fortune.  Her novels and nonfiction work, particularly her book The Cosmic Doctrine, were purported to have been penned through channeling from 1923 to 1925 and would have a profound effect on 20th-century witchcraft.  A few years prior, in 1921, the anthropologist Margaret Murray had pushlished her now rather infamous study The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, in which she claimed that witchcraft was indeed of pagan origin.  Murray introduced the terms olde religion and sabbat, claiming that medieval witch cults gathered in groups of 13 for nature and fertility rites.  There is little to back up the historical veracity of actual witch cults in Europe, and many of Murray's theories have since been debunked by scholars.  Murray herself based much of her book on themes she found in the 1890 discourse The Golden Bough.  Written by Sir James George Frazer and published in two volumes, it was a comparative study of mythology, religion and magic.  

Unknown, Doreen Valiente with Ceremonial Sword, England ca. 1970
Considered the high priestess of modern witchcraft, Valiente is photographed with a ritual implement.

The Women's Rights Movement would essentially reinterpret aspects of witchcraft and neopaganism into various facets of new-era witchcraft and the archetype remaining fluid and adaptable.  In an attempt to define tenets of modern witchcraft, a group under the name of The American Council of Witches reported in 1974, after much outreach, that the craft was varied and inclusive.  Each coven was considered autonomous; each explored various symbologies and rituals.