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Witchcraft from the Outside

Author: Nimue Brown
Posted: October 10th. 2016
Times Viewed: 2,930

I’ve never been a Witch, and have never followed that path in earnest, although I have my fair share of ‘Witchy women’ in my ancestry and I’ve read a lot of books. I first came into contact with The Craft as a child, due to my parents’ interest. A copy of Eight Sabbats for Witches joined the bookcase. My world widened. As a keen reader of anything and everything, as a Pagan Federation volunteer for some years, and running an eclectic circle I have been fortunate in being able to stand outside of Witchcraft and consider it. Truly, it has been a fascinating thing to watch.

In the beginning, there was Gardner – well before my time - and then Alex Saunders, and as Paganism and Witchcraft alike became better tolerated and understood, other people started raising hands and making claims. There isn’t much historical evidence to back up any pre-Gardenarian claims at all, as Ronald Hutton’s fascinating book The Triumph of the Moon makes clear. Absence of evidence is not quite the same thing as absence of history. It’s worth noting that often, the evidence for anything the poor were doing is sparse. Only the literate leave a written record. Only those who do not use objects to destruction leave clear physical traces. In history and archaeology alike, the poor tend to vanish.

We don’t know. Making peace with what we can’t prove is, for me, an essential part of any spiritual path. What interests me about modern Witchcraft, is not the murky history, but the visible trends I’ve watched over the last thirty years or so.

I was a teen when Rae Beth’s Hedge Witch book came out, and I remember the sense that everything had been blown open. You didn’t need a coven, or initiation or even access to other Witches. You could be solitary and self-organising (possibly aided by a book) . For me, this was a moment of great transformation and realisation. Nature is out there. Anything real can be found all by yourself, without reference to history or the authority of anyone else.

In the years since then, I see ever more Witches taking this same route, working with their own insight and inspiration, exchanging ideas in a fluid way that opens up the scope to make new traditions. The recent explosion of Kitchen Witchcraft as a movement would be a fine example of this. Two years ago, Rachel Patterson was the only Kitchen Witch I knew about... now there are many!

When Hedge Witches first came along, it seemed (from the outside at least) to be all about the lone Witch, working with whatever was to hand – with the hedgerow as a very literal resource. In recent years, I’ve noticed a much more shamanic-style aspect emerging around this. The hedge becomes a way of understanding the borders between this world and other worlds, leading to ideas of hedge riding as a form of travelling. This is something Harmonia Saille has written about. In the British landscape where hedges remain a dominant feature, it’s a powerful image to be working with, and one very rooted in the waking world.

Go back fifteen or twenty years, and Witches in the public eye would tend to be very clear about ‘White Witchcraft’. Pagans were a lot more vulnerable just a few decades ago, and much more likely to be attacked and accused of Satanism. I remember discussions within the Pagan Federation about the degree to which we needed to sanitise, or present a sanitised version to the world in order to be tolerated. Should we do that, or should we fight to be accepted as we are?

Nature isn’t all peace, love and light. Death and decay are part of the mix too, but talk about that and the ‘black magic’ labels would come out, and once you’ve been demonised, you can so much more easily be victimised. Twenty years ago, it would have been risky to put forward a book like Spellbook and Candle – Melusine Draco’s very even handed exploration of cursing within Witchcraft.

Times have changed, and I see far fewer people online angsting over issues of black and white magic. Years of discussions over what it even means to ‘harm none’ and how you balance up different kinds of harm, and need, have taken us from the stark, black and white debates to something a lot more nuanced. It becomes possible to talk about the moral and ethical uncertainties, the challenges and the decisions that face anyone on a magical path. For me, this is best summed up by the work of eclectic American Witch, Amythyst Raine-Hatayama who talks about standing in the shadows to ‘grab the powerful energy there’. “The gray witch does not live in a world of chaos or unbridled black magic. She has a code of honor, a sense of propriety, and a relevance in society today. Through shades of gray, the world of magick opens in technicolor, revealing the true heart of the witch.” (Taken from the book blub for The Gray Witch’s Grimoire) .

The heart of the witch, and the heart of witchcraft are topics of growing interest. We might glance back at Crowley’s talk of Love and Will to see the trajectory here. Looking at it from the outside, the magic of the 20th century strikes me as being very much about Will. The intent of the practitioner, has, I think, been in the foreground while their passion is in the background. Perhaps it’s inevitable that magic in a materialist and capitalist era must be all about the forcing of will. For all the peace and love noises of the Hippy movement, the Western World of the late twentieth century was not guided or inspired by love to any significant degree. As the consequences of this play out across the natural world, the need for care and compassion becomes ever more obvious. Across Paganism, I see people called to love and action – the anti fracking group Warrior’s Call would be a fine example of this, but there are many others.

I’m seeing a move away from ‘spells to get your every desire’ and towards a Witchcraft that is environmentally responsible and powered by love for the world. Deep spiritual engagement is, I think, becoming ever more important to Pagans of all paths. I’m seeing less quick fix magic, and more of a call to step up and be the change. David Salisbury’s book The Deep Heart of Witchcraft brings together all of these features, and it’s easy to see the influence of his heart-led mentor T.Thorn Coyle there, too. I interviewed David Salisbury recently, and he talked about how we need, as Pagans to ‘pay our rent’ and look at what we’re giving back to the world. To be people of the Earth, we have to take care of her.

What happens next? Where is Witchcraft going? My impression is one of increasing diversity, with all the various challenges that brings. I think the insular nature of pre-internet Witchcraft kept it more boundaried by traditions, but now that it is easy for people to talk to each other and share ideas, there’s an opening up. Druidry, by contrast, has been home to a lot of diversity for some time now – to the point whereby Druids regularly get unhappy about how on earth you define it, who gets to be a ‘proper’ Druid, and who isn’t. Watching Morgan Daimler (who does not self identify as a Witch) writing about Fairy Witchcraft, it’s evident that the field is widening all the time. The hedges are moving, and that has implications.

Diversifying can be seen as diluting. It can be seen as pick’n’mix, lacking proper roots, allowing anyone to say anything and generally muddying the waters. All of this can happen. At the same time, when a tradition diversifies, it moves away from dogma and authority. If we are all to be our own priests and priestesses, this move is essential. A ‘proper’ religion has structure and inbuilt control mechanisms. A spiritual practice is about personal conscience, and if you come back to ‘an it harm none, do what ye will’ Witchcraft has its foundations in strident individualism, not in conformity. While no doubt there will be bumps along the way, the process of opening out into ever wider possibilities is something I think will enhance Witchcraft just as it has enriched Druidry.

I see signs of diversifying all over the place. Non-authoritarian personal journeys are becoming ever more visible through blogs and books alike. There probably always was a great deal of variety in how people expressed this path, but the ‘in the broom cupboard’ effect may have made it less visible. There’s also diversifying in terms of moving away from the very narrow, heterosexual, white, middle class, western understanding of what it means to be a Witch that shaped Gardner’s version of things. Witches around the world are responding to the history, cultures and experiences of their own lands to find ways of being and doing that make sense here and now. This is a great strength.



Copyright: c. Nimue Brown 2015



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