By: Robin Artisson of Owlblink Bookcrafting Company
Neo-pagan witchcraft, or “Wicca”, had its inception in the 1940’s and 50’s, with the writings of Gerald B. Gardner. Gardner seems to have discovered a traditional coven that met in the south of England, and became inducted into their ranks. His own oaths of secrecy to them, however, prevented him from revealing their practices. When he went public, he was forced to write, embellish, and import occult information, to make up for what he could not reveal, and this is what became "Gardnerian" Wicca. There is no doubt that Old Gerald was associated with the likes of the famous Aleister Crowley, and was influenced by ceremonial magic, through the OTO, the Golden Dawn, and Masonry.
We know for certain that Gardner was also associated with a group of Occultists called the Fellowship of Crotona, and by his own description of them, they seem to have been a loosely-confederated group of Masons, Hermetics, Rosicrucians, and occultists, not actual “traditional” witches. The record of their activities and beliefs/practices bears witness to this. It is rumored that this organization had tendencies towards, and ambitions of “reviving” the Old Craft, but this places them in the category of “Reconstructionist Pagans” and not “Traditional Witches.”
Wicca, in its modern creed and ritual structure, very strongly resembles a de-Christianized version of the Order of the Golden Dawn, with many Thelemic and Theosophical imports, as well as obvious loan-material from Aleister Crowley and the OTO. All of these sources, and the personalities involved, flourished in the occult revival of the first half of the twentieth century, and it is to the middle of the twentieth century that Wicca directly dates from. Wicca makes claims to be “spiritually descended” from the Old Pagan religions, but the fact is, their ritual structure and theology does not have a strong historical resemblance to any Traditional European pagan culture.
Traditional Witchcraft, on the other hand, refers to the beliefs and practices of Crafter families, individuals, and underground organizations that pre-date the twentieth century. Normally, although the lore and practices of Traditional witchcraft may have root in very early times, the farthest back in time that most Traditional organizations can date themselves with any accuracy is the 17th century. However, Folklore and History from the 11th century and onward bear witness to practices similar to those carried out by Traditional Witches today.
Wicca has a very formal structure, based on the “three degrees” model of initiation, a loan from Masonry. The Wiccan religion is very hierarchical, with specific “High Priest/Priestess” titles, and the like, and normally oriented to the Female. There are only two actual “traditions” of Wicca…Gardnerian (the original) and Alexandrian…but since the explosion of occult interest on both sides of the Atlantic, many non-aligned “Eclectic” traditions have sprung up overnight, representing almost every culture or metaphysical bent you can think of. (Celtic Wicca, Faery Wicca, Saxon Wicca, Dianic Wicca, etc. etc.)
In Traditional Witchcraft, normally, there is no clearly defined group “structure”. If there is, it is only locally, and usually not as rigid as Wicca. Titles are not used nearly as much, and when they are, they are still informal when compared to the Wiccan emphasis on titles. Traditional Craft groups may have leadership, but they are as likely to be male as female, and their power as “head” of a group is not the power wielded by the average eclectic Wiccan “High Priest/ess”. Knowledge, experience, and willingness to serve is the deciding factor for most leaders of Traditional groups, not the ego-stroking, title collecting, or power-hunger that you find in so many modern new-age groups.
The rituals and rites of Wicca also tend to be very formal and written out beforehand, while in Traditional Witchcraft, most rituals are spontaneous, and much less structured than in Wicca. There are ritual forms, yes, some very old forms, but they are very partial, very open, and simple. The “inner level” of the ritual has more emphasis than the outer, in Traditional working. The idea is, it’s not how you do something, but why you do something.
In the Traditional Craft, a person’s progress is MUCH slower than in most forms of modern Wicca, in which a person can be a “third degree High Priest” in the space of a few months to a year or two, or even faster if they get their hands on an “instant witch” book published by Lewellyn. Living life, learning, and experience are crucial for genuine “progress” and actual “initiations” are generally experiences that happen on a personal level, given by otherworldly powers, over time. The Traditional craft accepts this.
Eclectic Wicca has many “new age” concepts within its canon that simply have no place in the historical or cultural context of European Old Craft. Some of these are listed below:
KARMA: this Hindu/Buddhist concept was carried into Wicca by Gardner, probably from a theosophical source. In traditional Craft, “Fate” is an important concept…but “karma” is unheard of. There is no belief in Traditional Craft of “karmic debt” or of “karmic weight” to actions. The actual Traditional Craft belief on these matters was and is very different than the eastern concept of “karma”.
THREE-FOLD LAW: This strange notion has no basis in history, nor does it hold up to sober reality well. While many peoples in many times and places have poetically threatened people with ideas of their actions returning to visit them “many times over”, Wicca accepts this as an immutable, physical law. The truth is, while most Wiccans have given up the belief in “hellfire and damnation” as a deterrent to their negative actions, they have replaced it with this “three fold law”, which threatens three-times retribution for negativity. No belief such as this exists in historical Traditional Craft, or in any surviving native European metaphysical system.
DUOTHEISM: The Wiccan belief system states that there are only two divine beings, A “god” and a “goddess”. The many different gods and goddesses worshipped by our European ancestors, or anyone else on earth for that matter, are thought to be “aspects” or “manifestations” of these two beings. Thus “All Gods are one God, and All Goddesses one Goddess”. This divine reductionism is referred to as “Duotheism”, and it is not a Traditional Witch Belief. It is, in fact, a very modern belief. Furthermore, many Wiccans believe this “God” and “Goddess” to be themselves aspects of an unknowable divine unity, or a great being sometimes called "The One"... leading us essentially straight to a new version of Monotheism, well suited to ease the consciences of the usually ex--Christian converts to Wicca.
Our European ancestors were Polytheists. They believed in many Gods, or in local Gods. This is true for most Traditional Witches. There are some beliefs now (and in ancient times as well) of some divinities being “greater” than others, almost to the philosophical point of transcendence, and universal power. This sometimes appears in Traditional Craft as well, but in the form of mysteries, and not everyday devotion, or new-agey monotheism.
BOOK OF SHADOWS: In Wicca, maybe the “BOS” is a real thing, but in the Old Days, amongst Traditional practitioners of the Secret Craft, to have written evidence of what you were doing was a death sentence if you were caught. Also, most people back then were quite illiterate. The Old Craft was mostly passed down orally, and if it was written down, it would have been written down sparingly.
The Wiccan religion has a “Rede” or a “golden rule” which forms the basis of Wiccan ethics…it states “As long as you harm none, do as you will”. This is a good suggestion, and basically a re-wording of the Judeo-Christian "golden rule". However, the Traditional Craft has no such rule. Ethics in the Old Craft are completely ambiguous and situational.
Wiccans treat this “Rede” as though it is an immutable cosmic law, when in reality, the word “Rede” is Anglo-Saxon for “advice”, not “law”. But to the Wiccan religion, it is an unmovable piece of dogma.
This whole issue turns out to be another New-Age Wiccan (and modern human) denial of the darkness inherent in nature, which I will discuss later. Harming and Hurting, these things exist in nature…and we humans are part of nature. Thus, they are part of us. You harm plants and animals to eat them. You harm bacteria in the water you drink. Life feeds on life. The Traditional Craft is very family and Faith oriented, and if someone threatens the family, or the faith, then stopping that threat is first and foremost. If that means harming someone, that’s what Traditional Witches will do, and there is no ethical injunction against it. The Craft, and the power it invokes, is not “good” or “bad”…it is both. There is a time and a place for both. This is hard for New-agers to understand, but it is simply the way of things. To deny either side of yourself, or of nature, is to move away from the central mystery: that of wholeness.
The Wiccan calendar is divided into eight Sabbats, or Holydays…the four Celtic Festivals, the two solstices, and the two equinoxes.
Unfortunately, this is a very modern development. The Celts, for instance, did not observe the Solstices or equinoxes in pre-Christian times. There is every evidence to suggest that the native Britons, (who far preceded the Celts’ coming to the Isles) did, but the Ancient Celts did not have an eight-fold calendar. They didn’t even have four seasons…only a Summer and a Winter. Gerald Gardner, again, influenced by other occultists, especially, in this case, by the romantic “revivalist” druids of England, brought this invented “eight sabbat” concept into Wicca.
In Traditional Witchcraft, the Holy Days that are celebrated are different from region to region, and from Tradition to tradition, and from person to person. An agriculture-based tradition may follow tides of planting and harvesting, and celebrate harvest festivals, while another tradition may celebrate solar tides. Point is, the holy days are always timed by tides of nature, and are different depending on where you go. The four old Celtic dates of Samhain, Bealtain, etc, may still be followed in some places, but if they are, the solstices and equinoxes tend not to be.
This topic is where the subject of seriousness and authenticity gets the most strain. It is so common in Wiccan circles to hear invocations to “Pan and Thor, and Lilith, and Ganesh” or any other assortment of Gods and goddesses that the coven feels like invoking. With no respect to culture or heritage, and with no authenticity or historical context, Eclectic Wicca’s belief in the Gods and Goddesses all being “one” makes these Wiccans feel as though they have the right to blithely call upon any combination of deities they wish. This is unforgivably new-agey, and shows complete lack of seriousness, and cultural context.
Some traditions of Wicca do try to adhere to one culture’s deities and religious concepts. This is an admirable step towards reality. But most do not.
In Traditional Craft, especially from the British Isles, the culture of the people of the land, and of the people a few generations back, determines the cultural context of the tradition. This is because Traditional Craft is part of the land and its people, and its history. Wicca, as a modern invention, and a mix-and-match of eastern and western occult ideas, lacks such a basis. Many Traditional Craft traditions in the Isles have an Anglo-Saxon or Germanic/Norse feel to them, and beneath this, a folk-memory of the Celtic culture. Scottish and Irish Traditions tend to be (obviously) Celtic in strain.
Wicca, as an entity of the modern day, and with its modern style and mostly urban following, has lost most of its connection to Nature and the Land. Wicca comes off as a “feel good”, “goodness and light” religion, usually venerating their Nature Goddess as a very loving, motherly figure, and viewing the unseen world as a place of positive power, and full of helpful spirits. This completely unbalanced view, with its fixation on how “wonderful and “beautiful” Nature and the otherworlds are, is utterly NOT how our ancestors saw the Gods and the universe, and it is NOT how Traditional Witches view things.
Nature is both kind and cruel, giving and taking. There is a great darkness inherent in Nature, both the natural world, and in the personal nature of spirits and gods, and humans. Harmful, destructive spirits are facts of life, both in the old times, and now, and the fact that the “goddess” is just as likely to devour her children as give birth to them, is also obvious.
Wicca tends to ignore this darkness, preferring the “goodness and light” approach. This makes sense, on a psychological level, for urban-dwelling modern people who have never experienced the hardships of living side-by-side with Nature.
Quite true to the Golden-Dawn based system of magic that Wicca espouses, The “tools” used by Wiccans are the Cup, Pentacle, Knife, and Wand, representing the four hermetic elements. The “magic circle” drawn is based on Hermetic circles from well-known high magical grimoires, such as the Key of Solomon, also used extensively by the Golden Dawn. The “quarter calling” is based on the Enochian magic of John Dee, also resurrected and used by the Golden Dawn.
Traditional Witches do not tend to use formal sets of tools, although they do have certain implements, depending on tradition. The four-element system is NOT common, though some Traditionals influenced by eastern or hermetic thought may have traces of it.
By far and by large, the tools used by traditional witches do not resemble the Wiccan “working tools”. They tend to be things like Stangs, besoms, cauldrons, cords, skulls, (of people or animals), hammers, mirrors, various stones, horns or bowls… some traditions use knives as well, but without the new-agey symbolism attached. Some Traditions may not use tools at all!
Circles are not cast and used to any major extent, at least, not like Wicca…The traditional term for a drawn circle is “Compass round” and often enough, certain natural places suffice for working areas, without a need to draw a “circle”. When compasses must be drawn, they are drawn by traditional ceremonies which bear almost no resemblance to Wiccan circle castings.
The spirits of the Land are invoked to uphold compasses, and ritual fires are lit….these are the necessary “elements” in most traditional workings. Sometimes spirits of the four kingdoms or “directions” are called, but this varies from place to place.
The idea is, that Land is sacred already…you do not “consecrate” the ground. You simply dwell upon it.
Some sensationalist (and mostly very young) Wiccans never tire of calling themselves “witches” much to the horror of the public and the delight of the press. Other Wiccans think of “witch” as a dirty word, and say “Wiccan” only.
Regardless of where you believe that the word “witch” roots from, or what it once meant, the Christian church, among others, has blackened the word, and corrupted it into a term of Satanic evil. Most Traditional witches do not use the word “witch”, preferring to call themselves “The People” or have no special name for themselves at all. They sometimes say “crafters” or “Pellars” or some other term, but “witch” was and is an ugly word, intended to be an insult and at one time, a serious criminal charge.
In the modern day, some Traditionals have taken to using the word “witch” to help lines of communication between them and the new-age world, to “speak in the language of the modern day”, as it were. But if the word “witch” is used, it is by group choice or personal choice. House Faringdoun Trod uses the term "Witch" to further its connection with the post-medieval form of the Cunning Craft that it practices, and for little other reason, aside from enjoyment of the term. Like it or no, many have lived and died by it, and it meant something very important.
Wicca firmly believes in a very eastern Hindu/Buddhist model of “reincarnation” and of spiritual evolution. Obviously, this is yet another theosophical import brought in by Gardner or any of Wicca’s other formative writers.
In The Traditional Craft, There is some notion that the soul or spirit may enter into another phase of existence after death, and this usually heralds a return into the power of the land, to dwell with the ancestors, or become a guardian spirit, or maybe just a return to being a part of the spiritual dimension of Nature. From this state, a re-birth into your extended family or clan may be possible, but it is mysterious. There is a well-defined, though naturalistic notion of spiritual existence for all things, up to an including humans. That time moves in cycles and so does the power of nature is obvious, and life and death are mysteries entangled with this flow.
As nature is alive, and so are we, that is immortality. The spirits of the land are also the spirits of the deceased, so Nature is venerated on many levels.
Through application of some Old Craft rites, a soul may achieve a higher level of existence, and dwell amongst the “Hidden Company” after death, but this is also a mystery known best to those traditions that teach this.