Witchcraft… the Oldest Religion?

trois-freres-detailWhen beginning to teach a new student, I often share these words written by Jack Parsons in 1950:

 WE ARE THE WITCHCRAFT. We are the oldest organization in the world. When man was born, we were. We sang the first cradle song. We healed the first wound, we comforted the first terror. We were the Guardians against the Darkness, the Helpers on the Left Hand Side. Rock drawings in the Pyrenees remember us, and little clay images, made for an old purpose when the world was new. Our hand was on the old stone circles, the monolith, the dolmen, and the druid oak. We sang the first hunting songs, we made the first crops to grow; when man stood naked before the Powers that made him, we sang the first chant of terror and wonder. We wooed among the Pyramids, watched Egypt rise and fall, ruled for a space in Chaldea and Babylon, the Magian Kings. We sat among the secret assemblies of Israel, and danced the wild and stately dances in the sacred groves of Greece.

 In China and Yucatan, in Kansas and Kurdistan we are one. All organizations have known us, no organization is of us; when there is too much organization we depart. 

In the 1970s Doreen Valiente wrote:

The gods of the witches are the oldest gods of all.  They are the same as those divinities that were real to the men of the Old Stone Age, who painted them upon the walls of their sacred caves.

My first introduction to this mythic concept–Witchcraft as the oldest religion==was seeing Sybil Leek on television in the late 1960s. I was familiar with make-believe witches, whether in The Wizard of Oz or on favorite shows like Dark Shadows and Bewitched, but here was someone who claimed to be the real thing.  I was surprised when a plump, rather jolly middle-aged lady wearing a colorful dress came out and informed the bewildered host that Witchcraft is the oldest religion known to humankind… or, as we used to say back in those days, mankind.

The original meaning of the word myth can be paraphrased as “sacred story.”  As the play Alkestis by Euripides shows, even the ancient Greeks disagreed whether the myths, the sacred stories about the doings of the Gods, were to be understood as literal truth; in the play, Herakles avers that all the myths are lies.  Writers such as Joseph Campbell and Karl Kerenyi, whose books on Hermes and Dionysos offer many rich insights into the nature of the Deities, have given us new ways of thinking about mythic knowledge.  Mircea Eliade went even further, explicating  how myth can lead us into an altered state of consciousness, taking a celebrant into strange and wondrous inner places of renewal and rebirth.

One of Victor Anderson’s first students, Gwydion Pendderwen, wrote in his essay, Anatomy of a Witch:

I live in it, not by it.  I dance with the fairies and become the were-beast at night.  I am without age, for I am of the covenant.  I burn in the flame of the sun, yet am cooled by the pale moonlight.

And Victor Anderson, asked to define the essence of Witchcraft, said:

I would like to see it practiced as the religion of the people, the religion of the soil that comes up through your feet and through your genitals.  Through your feelings, through all three parts of the soul.  From the center of the earth to the heights of heaven.  To be very nature, very normal, and very respectful and reverent.  And to truly love and respect one another … .

Having thought about this for many years, I have come to the conclusion that one reason why I like the word Witchcraft for what I do is because it has such a primal echo to it.  And it suggests that it is not accurate to think of Witchcraft as a “religion” in the same sense as the monotheistic teachings, with their churches and sanctuaries and paid, officially appointed clergy.  Before the establishment of official cults, what is now called the spiritual or the religious was not a separate thing.  It was woven throughout the fabric of every moment of every day.  

I think of Witchcraft as a primal, raw, feral energy current, driven first and foremost by the life-force of the Witch Hirself.  A Witch’s primal Life-force is amplified through hir relationship to the Elements and Those who Guard Them, and  further with such spirits as those of herbs, plants, and trees, the Landwights, and the endlessly waxing and waning tides of the Moon and the Seasons.  One of the sharpest differences between the real Craft and the version depicted in films and tales is that in most of the stories, the Witches need some kind of artifact, ancient book, sacred scroll or what have you to gain Power.  The true Power comes from within, not from without, and nothing and no one can ever rob you of it.  It is your birthright as a human being.

Research into the mundane history of Witchcraft, the recovery of the philosophy and technique of Magick, occult practices, and all the related topics, carries its own fascination.  But I often feel that too much focus on the externals of this history robs one of an ability to make that spark of inner connection to the spiritual essence that is the heart of the Craftimg-thing.

How the heart of the initiate thrills when the antique mysteries are written of.  She or he recognizes the same great truth expressing itself in many forms, yet as one thing.–Victor Anderson.

 

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