Tag Archives: Paganism

Magickal Thinking: The Modern Origins of Witchcraft and Its Tenuous Politicization by the Contemporary Feminist Left

I’m going to start this out by saying this: witchcraft isn’t real.  That’s not to say that there isn’t a modern religion known as Wicca or Witchcraft and various offshoots of it within the “New Age”, “Earth-based” new religious movements of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.  Those are most certainly real religions.  Some of them even enjoy the same legal status in some countries that other major world religions have.  As I understand it, U.S. Army personnel can even have their religious designation on their dog tags refer to them as practicing Witches/Wiccans and can request Wiccan chaplains.  For the purposes of this post, I’m going to refer to the real, modern religion as Witchcraft and its practitioners as Witches (with a capital W) and distinguish it from the historical phenomenon of the oft-maligned witch and accusations of witchcraft (with a lowercase W).  So again: witchcraft, and witches, are not real, and never were.

There isn’t any historical evidence that anyone has ever actually been a witch.  Surely people have been accused of being witches in Western Europe and have been tried, convicted, and executed for the supposed offense of practicing witchcraft, but this doesn’t mean that any of these people were ever witches.  And, of course, by witches I mean individuals who engaged in some kind of unorthodox religious/spiritual tradition that may have included such things as casting spells, summoning demons, being in league with Lucifer, dancing naked in the moonlight during a Black Mass, or anything else you might have seen in television or movies or read in a New Age book in the spiritualist section of Barnes & Noble or at your local neo-pagan trinket store.  The people executed for witchcraft were almost universally practicing Christians in their own communities.  (The exceptions to these Christian “witches” were usually Jews, who we should note were also not witches because they were, well, Jews, i.e., practitioners of Judaism.)  For historians and scholars, the verdict is quite clear: the witch was a Protestant bogeyman, and accusations of being one were not unlike those accusations seen in the medieval Catholic purges of supposed (and occasionally actual) heretics.  And it seems that almost anyone could be accused of being a witch: men and women, the elderly and children, high-born and low-born.  There are some cases of spouses even accusing each other.  At its height, the Protestant witch hysteria is the exemplar of a moral panic taken to its extremes.  And like nearly all moral panics, there was nary a kernel of truth to any of it.

Some will disagree with me (and historians) on this point and conflate pre-Christian European paganism with witchcraft, suggesting that, somehow, there was a minority of actual, practicing pagans that navigated their way through the centuries of a Christianized Europe.  They might even suggest that some of the witches who were executed during the moral panics actually were these crypto-pagans, and therefore “witch” is just a Christian pejorative for some kind of real, practicing pagan.  There are two problems with this view.  The first is that European paganism wasn’t witchcraft and did not resemble what modern Witches consider historical witchcraft to be.  For example, one probably would not argue that the Vestals of ancient Rome, who were pagan priestesses dedicated to the rites associated with the goddess Vesta, were witches.  No Roman would have viewed them that way, and I doubt even modern Witches would suggest it even to bite the bullet.  Priestesses are not witches.  Paganism doesn’t share the cosmology, ethics, belief-system, or ritual action of Witchcraft or even alleged witchcraft, according to modern Witches.  (N.B.: Modern neo-paganism, which is often influenced by Wicca/Witchcraft, may share considerable common ground, but that is not what we’re talking about.  So-called neo-paganism has no real historical connection to pre-Christian religious beliefs either other than appropriating some of its mythos to various degrees.)

The second problem with conflating witchcraft with pre-Christian European religious practices is that even European pagans accused people of being witches, though the terminology may vary from place to place.  The pagan Germanic peoples, for example, looked down upon men practicing divination and even outlawed such people upon pain of death.  So even in pagan communities you could be executed for being a little too “witchy” for their liking, so to speak.  So it’s clear that the kinds of practices associated with witches—spellcraft, divination, augury, etc.—were not part of mainstream pagan society in many parts of Europe.  There is no evidence that suggests, however, that such “witches” considered themselves practitioners of a separate religion from their pagan neighbors.  It seems that they just engaged in taboo religious practices that were viewed as unseemly, but shared the religious worldviews, cosmologies, beliefs, and general practices of other pagans.

I should also note that I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that indigenous religions outside of Europe constitute witchcraft.  This is a point that can be used against everything stated above.  If witchcraft was never a thing in Europe, then what about the “witchcraft” native to Africa or the Americas?  Well, that’s just not the same thing.  There’s a difference between a European Christian being executed for being a “witch” and an Afro-Caribbean being executed by colonial Christian authorities for practicing his native Vodun.  Such a person is practicing Vodun, not witchcraft, and to call it witchcraft is factually inaccurate and enforces a Western Protestant view of other religious traditions.  So no, Africans (or any others) were not practicing witchcraft either.  There simply was no such thing except in the minds of pious Protestants in the midst of a moral panic or as a racist, colonialist view of indigenous, non-Christian religious traditions.

Where does this leave us?  There was no such thing as witchcraft.  It was never a spiritual tradition practiced by anyone, though admittedly there may have been some people in Europe engaging in taboo and “magical” arts.  But there’s no evidence that this was considered a separate, native religious tradition, and invariably these people all identified with the dominant religious culture of their communities.  If, at most, a witch was just a woman who knew how to use herbal remedies, then I think it’s safe to say that witchcraft was never real in the first place.  However, it was an accusation meant to marginalize and persecute people.  In that sense, it is understandable why the cultural symbol of the witch is one with which marginalized people can identify.  And since up to three quarters of accused witches were women (as far as we know), it’s also understandable why young feminist women today are identifying with the historical symbol of the witch and why books like this exist:


That said, what exactly is my problem, and why am I talking about this at all?  To be honest, this entire post is just setting me up to say this: internet leftists need to stop accusing people of “culturally appropriating” witchcraft!

You can’t appropriate the symbols of a religious tradition that never belonged to anyone. It never existed.  There’s nothing to appropriate.  And even if someone appropriates from Witchcraft (i.e., modern, New Age Witchcraft actually practiced as a new religious movement by some people), then maybe that’s in poor taste, but it still isn’t appropriating from indigenous people.  Modern Witchcraft was invented at the earliest in the nineteenth century by Victorian occultists/spiritualists.  Surely you don’t think that white Victorian-era people count as an “indigenous people”.  (And again, you can’t move the goalposts to call witchcraft some non-European indigenous religious tradition because that’s inaccurate and most certainly racist, and it also makes the connection to the trope of the persecuted “witch” of the European witch hysterias meaningless since it can’t be both.)  Maybe it is in poor taste that Sephora, for example, might be commodifying  (modern) Witchcraft with their “witch bundles” as I saw many people say with “woke” glee.  I can understand why that might upset some actual Wiccans, just as I understand why a Catholic might get upset if Sephora started selling Virgin Mary branded white eyeliner for that extra pure and bright waterline all the girls want.  I won’t begrudge anyone from commenting on the grotesque nature of capitalist commodification.  But it’s not any kind of cultural appropriation, and certainly not from any indigenous culture.

There’s no such thing as witchcraft and you can’t appropriate from any kind of traditional “witch culture”.  And as a final note, there’s nothing inherently feminine about witchcraft either because, again, it isn’t real and never was, but also because plenty of men were accused of being witches too.  Maybe there’s something feminist about being a Witch/Wiccan in its modern imagining, but there’s nothing feminist about being a witch in the real, historical sense of what they were (and, incidentally, were not).  It turns out innocent Christian and Jewish men and women burn at the stake in pretty much the same manner and there’s nothing particularly subversive in that worth celebrating to me.  Don’t get woke.  Get educated.

Wiccan Ethics as Discontinuation of Indo-European Pagan Ethics

The religion of Wicca is one of the largest and most widely represented new religious movements within what is variably called the New Age, Earth-Based, or (neo-)pagan communities.  Like most of these new religious movements, Wicca is difficult to pin down, and many who identify as Wiccans or witches may eclectically adopt a variety of New Age or other spiritual practices.  However, one thing that Wiccans have contributed to New Age spirituality, and specifically religious ethics, is the so-called Wiccan Rede.  The Rede variously goes something like this: As long as no harm is caused (by your actions), do what you will.

I should note that it is called a rede, which is an archaic way of saying “a piece of advice”.  As such, the Wiccans and other neo-pagans adhering to it are not necessarily accepting a moral proclamation.  It may be called good advice instead of a moral mandate, e.g., like the “Golden Rule” in ethical religious systems like Christianity and rabbinical Judaism.  I see no problem with the Wiccan Rede at first glance.  It certainly does seem like good advice, even if it doesn’t claim to be some moral truth about the nature of ethics and moral behavior under Wiccan neo-paganism.  However, this kind of religious ethic is unknown in the Indo-European Pagan religious systems from which Wicca (and much of the New Age movement) derives its mythos, aesthetics, and claimed pseudo-historical lineage.

The Rede doesn’t represent Indo-European paganism from an ethical perspective.  By far the greatest ethical lesson taught in all Indo-European mythological systems and epics is this: hubris will be the downfall of everyone.  In Indo-European myths, whether Celtic, Greek, Hittite, Vedic, Avestan, Norse, Slavic, or Baltic, hubris kills humans and deities alike.  The exalted are humbled through cunning by their enemies, and through guile the humbled make themselves exalted.  The weak find strength and the strong are made weak, the good perish with the evil, and death swallows all life as winter swallows summer and night swallows day.  The real rede or advice derived from Indo-European pagan spirituality and myth is this: always keep your wits about you, stay humble and don’t ask for trouble, do not trust gods or men or seductive women or beasts, and know that everything comes with trials and sacrifice, even for the very goddesses and gods themselves.

Indo-European religious ethics are not so consequentialist as the Wiccan Rede would have us assume.  Sometimes you can do all the good things in the world and unpleasant things will result anyway.  It is haughtiness to assume that you ever know what your actions will ultimately cause, even if it is admirable to try not to harm anyone or anything in your comings and goings.  To elaborate further, Indo-European paganism would give us this ethical advice instead of the Wiccan Rede: know that you are most often powerless in a universe full of powerful forces, and make propitiation to them for the sake of the Cosmic Order.  Treat everyone as a goddess or a god, a fairy or a spirit, because they could be, and their wrath could come back to haunt you.  Be humble, be kind, choose sides wisely, and make sure that you never have to answer for any wrongdoing by not committing any in the first place.  The Indo-Europeans recognized honor and expected to be honored.  The narrative of “As long as your actions are victimless, then they are ok” that is proffered by the Wiccan Rede is not consistent with the ethical lessons of Indo-European myth, nor with the ritual action of Indo-European religion.  You can dishonor the deities simply by not offering proper homage to them, and thus you can incur their wrath.  It doesn’t matter whether or not they are harmed by your inaction; you have to have respect anyway.

As such, Indo-European religion is more accurately described as a system of virtue ethics, not consequentialism.  The moral lesson is to be humble, hospitable, and kind because such characteristics are personal virtues that will be counted favorably to your credit and the Powers of the Universe will give you your just desserts for it (if fortune favors you, and as such there is no guarantee).  Whatever ends that come about from your actions, good or bad, be you virtuous so that the deities and heroes themselves mourn the demise of someone so righteous should events turn against your favor.  This is the best one can hope for in an Indo-European pagan worldview.

The Wiccan Rede comes from either a fundamental misunderstanding or a rejection of the same Indo-European mythos, cosmology, and ethics it often claims to represent in renewed or continued form.  It is in fact a discontinuation of the religious purposes of the Indo-Europeans.  Wiccans see themselves as agents of magical or mystical power to enforce their will rather than accepting that it is one’s virtue, not one’s good will, that earns favor with the pagan Powers.  The virtue of your character and the heroism of your deeds are the ethical mandates of the Indo-European pagan.  Neither is this message a piece of advice for the Indo-European pagan.  It is cosmic law.  Good things happen to you because you are favored by powerful beings and deities who are pleased with you in light of your virtues.  Sometimes these virtues may even be shallow, like the virtue of simply being born beautiful and as such being favored by the deities.  Often these deities are even depicted as being enticed by the virtuous beauty of mortals.

If I am to make a guess, I assume the motivation for Wicca’s discontinuation of pagan religious ethics may have more to due with its determination to be anti-dogmatic.  Many Wiccans and neo-pagans I have met have expressed their appreciation for the consequentialist ethics of the Rede as opposed to the often oppressive religious morality of the more mainstream religious alternatives.  The Wiccan Rede serves to replace the equally demanding religious ethics of the Indo-European religions from whence Wicca takes much of its inspiration.  Indo-European religion is about virtue and religious purity as much as the Abrahamic religious morality that usually permeates the cultural ethos in which New Age practitioners are operating.  The Wiccan, in trying to escape more conventional religious systems, may be equally burdened by the Indo-European mandate to act with dignity and humility, keep herself pretty and clean and ritually pure, honor others with humility, make propitiation to the Powers, and sacrifice to please her patrons (whether deities or humans) so that she can have their protection.  It is an uncomfortable pagan dogma to accept that our goodness, fairness, beauty, and generosity is what make us worthy pagans, and not the mere consequences of our wills.

The Wiccan discontinuation of paleo-pagan religious morality is a novel effort to reinvent Indo-European religious practice, and it frames neo-paganism as an alternative to more conventional religious ethics.  I conclude by suggesting that this is not necessarily wrong or inauthentic as a genuine neo-pagan religious practice, especially since Wicca and neo-paganism do not usually claim to represent paleo-paganism or traditional Indo-European religions, per se.  However, I think it is important to hash out where Wiccan neo-pagan ethics fit (or do not fit) into the traditions they are claiming to emulate or otherwise continue.