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My thoughts about Traditional Witchcraft, Wicca, cooking, gardening, and anything else that catches my fancy.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Modern Magical Myths And Misconceptions

I would like to address a few of the prominent myths I've come across in my dealings with the modern Traditional Witchcraft community. The vast majority of modern Traditional practitioners are well-educated on magical history and have a firm understanding of where their practices come from. However, there is a certain subset who, unaware of magical history, have discarded or belittled genuinely ancient magical beliefs and technology in the mistaken assumption that it is "New Age." It is the mistaken beliefs about these practices I would like to address here. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does focus on the most prominent misunderstandings and misconceptions I have come across. I will include a list of references and suggested works at the end of this article.

1. "Gerald Gardner introduced Ceremonial Magic to Witchcraft. "Real" Witchcraft is not Ceremonial."

This mistaken belief is often found in proponents of what I call "The Grandmother In The Woods" belief. Similar in some respects to other "Magical Grandmother" tales (once quite popular in the modern Pagan Witchcraft scene) this legend claims that traditional magic used no set system of practices and was, in fact, made up by the practitioner as they went along. This seems to be a reaction to the supposedly overly ritualistic praxis of initiatory covens and sects, but is there any truth in this? By and large, no. Far from being merely "good thoughts" or "sending energy," actual surviving spells and charms from history instead indicate a set list of procedures, Words of Power, and an established Craft that was passed down via oral training and the limited magical books available. It does not show a system that was made up by each individual practitioner. Again and again we find such time-honoured techniques such as the use of poppets and dolls, magical word squares (the "SATOR" square appears again and again) herbalism, and practices drawn from the Medieval grimoires. One of the few surviving spellbooks of an English "Cunning Man" named Arthur Gauntlet contains, not the simplistic candle burning spells and positive thinking of modern eclectic magic, but material drawn straight from "the Key of Solomon" and other such texts and relying heavily on complicated rituals, though turned to more practical ends. Even American works such as John George Hohman's "Long Lost Friend" are full of magical words and prayers taken from much earlier texts. Clearly, then, the line between what we think of as "Ceremonial Magic" and "Witchcraft" is much less defined than some would have us belief, and this has been true for centuries before the birth of Gerald Gardner. To be sure, Gardner drew upon such works as the previously mentioned "Key of Solomon" in his creation of Wicca, but in doing so he merely drew from the same well as earlier magical systems; he was far from being the first Witch to do so.

2. "Using crystals and stones in magic is "New Age" and not traditional."

This belief is easily proven false. Stones and gems have been believed to have magical powers for thousands of years. The Bible contains references to many precious stones being used in a ritual context, and throughout the Middle Ages rulers, kings, astrologers, and physicians drew heavily upon the alleged powers of different precious and semi-precious stones. The Amethyst was believed to help prevent drunkenness. Lapis Lazuli appears in Sumerian texts as being related to the Gods. The Elizabethan astrologer John Dee (along with Edward Kelley) used a mirror of Obsidian and a "shew stone" to speak with angels and spirits. Beryl was also used during older times as a scrying instrument. Cornelius Agrippa's seminal work "Three Books of Occult Philosophy" contains a vast amount of information regarding the magical use of various gems. Published in 1531, this is clearly predates the modern ages by several centuries. While it is true that the use of crystals and gems has been seized upon (and some might say been misunderstood) by the modern New Age movement, they clearly are not the source of the lore and magical practice surrounding the stones.

3. "Timing magic around the phases of the Moon and planets is "New Age" and not traditional."

Again hearkening back to the grimoires and "Three Books of Occult Philosophy," we can see that this claim is not true. Indeed, the Medieval grimoires require much, much stricter adherence to the planetary days and hours than I have ever seen used in modern practice. While there is some truth in the claim that uneducated, rural magical practitioners were probably not aware of the movements of most planets, the same cannot be said of the Moon. Anyone with eyes to see can view the phases of the Moon with ease, and for millennia the Moon has been credited with magical powers and its movements closely watched. "Three Books" has a long list of various gemstones and herbs associated with the Moon and which could be used for their Lunar influences. There is a very long magical tradition of performing "growth" magic in the Moon's waxing stages and "diminishing" magic during its waning ones. Even old farmer's almanacs list the various stages of the Moon during the various months, and these were relied upon when it came time to decide when to plant (the Moon's powers were thought to influence plant growth.) An associated myth I sometimes hear is "Traditional Witches do things when they are necessary and do not care about the Moon or planets." This, to me, makes about as much sense as "Traditional farmers plant seeds whenever they feel like it and ignore the seasons and growing stages." While it is true that in an emergency any kind of magic can be performed without waiting for the proper Lunar and planetary cycles, in general it makes much more sense to wait for the right conditions than to attempt spells during the wrong astrological conditions.

4. "Traditional Witches worshiped only a Horned God. Witch Goddesses are an invention of Wicca."

There is both some truth and some falsehood to this one. It does seem likely that many Witches of the Middle Ages onwards (and certainly up until the Witchcraft revival of the '30s/'40s) focused on a Horned God of some kind (sometimes known as "The Devil.") However, earlier Witches were associated, not with a God/Satan, but with a Goddess of some kind. Greek mythology gives us Circe the witch/sorceress, described as the daughter/priestess of Hecate, the Goddess of witchcraft. The Cult of Diana existed well past the introduction of Christianity, and as late as the 10th century the "Canon Episcopi" claimed that "some wicked women, perverted by the Devil, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and profess themselves in the hours of the night to ride upon certain beasts with Diana, the goddess of the Pagans, and an innumerable multitude of women, and in the silence of the dead of the night to traverse great spaces of earth, and to obey her commands as of their mistress, and to be summoned to her service on certain nights."  Even after Europe had been thoroughly Christianized, Goddess figures lingered on in the guise of "the Queen of the Fairies," or "Mother Holle" or "The Elder Mother." The Witches in "Aradia: Or, The Gospel of the Witches" were claimed to have worshiped both Diana and her brother/lover, Lucifer. Regardless as to how much of "Aradia" is a record of an actual surviving Witch cult (and I have heard convincing arguments for both yea and nay) it does indicate that even up unto recent times (but prior to Gerald Gardner) Diana and other Goddesses were still associated with magic and Witchcraft.

5. The Wand, pentacle, magical knife, magic circle, etc are modern Wiccan inventions and not traditional."

I have already addressed this mistaken belief in detail in a few other posts, but suffice it to say that these magical tools far, far predate modern Wiccan practice. Circe in Greek myth changed Odysseus's men into pigs with a wave of her wand, and ancient wands have been discovered in Scandinavian burial mounds and Egyptian tombs alike. The Pentacle/pentagram has been used for thousands of years in various guises and was at one time a Christian symbol as well. Modern use of the pentacle and magical knife spring from the grimoire tradition, and the magical circle likewise has a very long history. The shape of the circle itself, with no beginning or end, has long been associated with Divinity of various kinds as well as protection.  Circles of standing stones in various European locales attest to how ancient the use of circles in magic and religion really is.

For further reading about authentic historical magical practices, the reality of "dual faith" observance in early modern Traditional Craft, folklore, and precious stones and their magical use I recommend the following resources:

"Traditional Witchcraft: A Cornish Book of Ways" by Gemma Gary

"Three Books of Occult Philosophy" by Henry Cornelius Agrippa

"Canon Episcopi"

"The Black Toad: West Country Witchcraft and Magic" by Gemma Gary

"Modern Wicca: A History from Gerald Gardner to the Present" by Michael Howard

"The Key of Solomon" by Various

"Pow Wows; Or, Long Lost Friend" by John George Hohman

"The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet" edited by David Rankine

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