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Article ID: 12314

VoxAcct: 335670

Section: words

Age Group: Adult

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On the Antiquity of Wiccan Ritual

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: March 9th. 2008
Times Viewed: 3,769

Leaving aside the knotty question of “what did Gerald Gardner know and when did he know it”- not to mention, how and from whom he knew it- all of the various elements of Wiccan ritual may be seen to derive from authentically ancient sources.

Magical lore was believed by the Middle Ages to descend from the Egyptian and Babylonian religious mysteries and was transmitted through books of magical learning called grimoires.

There are many versions of the book known as the Key of Solomon, so many that British seekers collated several renderings in the late nineteenth century, producing works that Gerald Gardner might easily have studied.

The advent of printing in the fifteenth century made possible the uncomplicated and relatively inexpensive reproduction of written materials by the time of England’s Elizabethan Era (the latter 1500s).

Magical ritual was plainly an extremely popular subject.

There are as many examples of Magic Plays among the rosters of Elizabethan theater as there are of History Plays or Revenge Tragedies. Moreover, there are so many surviving examples of pamphlet-grimoires, folklorist Katharine Briggs cautions (on page 113),

“It is difficult to over-estimate the number of magical manuscripts which must have been scattered about the country in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”

This implies a very literate population with a hungry taste for reading material and a keen interest in the performance of magical ritual; Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist satirizes a London obsessed with the magical arts.

As it is with our own practice, the magical/ritual conception of the Middle Ages centered on a magic circle, wherein they created a mystical space or a space “between the worlds.” There are many, many examples- Faustus (in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus ) and Prospero (in Shakespeare’s The Tempest ) both cast circles, although Faustus casts a very Ceremonial circle, into which he summons representatives of Lucifer, whilst Prospero invokes an enchanting circle by calling upon nature-spirits only.

Under the “Circle” section of my book The Burning Times: the Fifteenth Century and in Chapter II of A Briefe Historie of Magi, I include several more examples of the magic circle as understood in the medieval and late-medieval periods.

One of the first Middle Ages records of a ritualistic circle is ironically the posthumous 1310 trial of Pope Boniface VIII, one of the first people in Europe to be accused of devil-worship.

As the Pope’s enemies did not distinguish demonism from magic, the pontiff’s use of a ceremonial circle results in the apparition of a devil in the story told of a time when Boniface was still known as Benedict Caetani, notary to Pope Nicholas III.

According to Norman Cohn (page 122), a monk named Brother Berardus (loitering at a late hour near the window of a papal palace) saw “the lord Benedict” steal into a quiet garden. He watched as Benedict drew a circle on the ground with a sword and seated himself within its center. Benedict pulled out a rooster and “also fire in an earthen jar.”

The future Pope Boniface VIII killed the cock, tossing its blood on the fire. He read aloud from a book as smoke poured from out the earthen vessel.

“Then the lord Benedict left the garden and passed witness and his companion without speaking to them, or to any member of his household, and went into an unoccupied room. Witness with his companion Constantius slept next to the room of the lord Benedict; and all that night he heard the lord Benedict talking, and another voice answering. Yet there was nobody else in the room.”

The magic circle is plainly understood in the literate context of ceremonial magic, transmitted via printed sources. The magic circle appears as well understood in the oral culture context of peasant sorcery and village-level witchcraft.

According to George Lyman Kittredge (page 115), Queen Elizabeth’s Royal Acts of 1559 wished bishops visiting their dioceses to inquire of any women who resorted to “circles” or “witchecraftes” during childbirth. The only conclusion is that apparently a troubling number of women utilized both witchcraft and magic circles as routine child-bearing procedure; the point being that these are rural women scattered throughout the hamlets of England, they are unlikely to read and therefore must inherit their understanding of the magical arts through the oral culture of generations.

The plays The Witch, The Masque of Queens, and Macbeth all associate witches with magic circles; the Weird Sisters in Macbeth describe their “antic round” in their last speech (IV.i), meaning a circle of charmed space that they energetically dance into being. Three plays- The Masque of Queens, The Sad Shepherd and Macbeth appear to describe witches “raising energy” in order to power their magic. (Please investigate Chapter III of A Briefe Historie of Wytches. The script to The Masque of Queens leaves one with the impression of nothing so much as a shamanic ceremony.)

Medieval grimoires instruct that great care should attend the creation of a magic circle. Therefore the stage directions for the conjuring scenes in the (c. 1605) play The Devil’s Charter sound very much like an early seventeenth century “how-to” manual in witchcraft. It is believed that the play’s author used the magic book called the Heptameron as a reference.

The Devil’s Charter concerns the Borgia Pope Alexander VI (d. 1503), another pope like Boniface VIII imagined (especially by the Protestant English) to have been a demonist.

As a piece of anti-Catholic propaganda, The Devil’s Charter should be taken with a grain of salt however it is edifying in its depiction of magical ceremony.

In the climatic act of conjuration (IV.i), Pope Alexander outfits himself with a magic “booke, ” “white robes of sanctity” (special robes, worn only for magic-working), a “Pentacle” (a reference to the supreme mystical symbol of the five-fold star), and a “rod” (his magic wand). Before he casts the circle he performs”fumigation” by means of “some fire in an earthen vessel, ” meaning he purifies the atmosphere of the sacred space by burning fragrant incense: “Red Sandall [sandalwood] is my fumigation.”

The act of “calling in the quarters, ” or “fixing” the circle by charming its four cardinal points, is an obviously well-known idea.

The fourteenth century Italian astrologer/ astronomer, Cecco d’Ascoli (quoted by Cohn on page 103), credits the Persian mage Zoroaster with discovering “those four spirits of great virtue who stand in cruciatis locis, that is, in east, west, south, and north, whose names are as follows: Oriens [hence, the ‘East, ’ i.e. ‘oriental’], Amaymon, Paymon, and Egim, who are spirits of the major hierarchy and who have under them twenty-five legions of spirits each.”

It is little surprise then, to find in The Devil’s Charter that after Pope Alexander “fashioneth out his circle, ” stage directions indicate that he “taketh his rod [wand].” “Standing without the circle he waveth his rod” to the four directions- undeniably “sealing” the circle-space as would a modern Wiccan, by invoking four mighty angels to station themselves in each quarter.

Alexander “waveth his rod to the East and calleth upon- Vionatraba! To the West- Svseratos! To the North- Aqviel! To the Sowth- Machasael! Conjuro et confirmo super vos in nomine Eye, eye, ey; hast up and ascende!” (IV.i.1760-1764)

Quartering the circle is conceived in a number of ways- whereas Pope Alexander summons esoteric spiritual beings, Faustus calls the four elements as part of his circle invocation (I.iii): “Ignei, aerii, terreni, aquatici, spiritus, salvete, ” or “Hail, spirits of fire, air, earth, water!”

(Note: Faust exists in two versions, called Text A and Text B. The A Text was published in quarto in 1604, 1609, and 1611; the B Text was published in 1616 and 1619. For some reason, the B Text omits “terreni” from the invocation of elemental spirits- probably the simple result of a typesetter’s absent-mindedness. Nonetheless- if you are ever reading Dr. Faustus and you find only the spirits of fire, air, and water invoked- you are reading a version generated from the B Text. The A Text plainly makes more sense, with all four elements summoned.)

However Camden, the great chronicler of Elizabeth’s England, in his 1610 Britannia, describes Irish wise-women calling in the four directions (as relayed by Briggs on page 251): “I call thee P. from the East and West, South and North, from the forests, woods, rivers, meeres, the wilde-wood-fayries, white, redde, blacke, etc.”

It is perhaps in sympathy that Middleton has the witches of his play The Witch summon multi-colored spirits as their “charm-song” (V.ii): “Black spirits and white! Red spirits and gray!”

Whether as supernatural beings of awesome power or as the spirits of the four elements, or as the four directions or as magical beings represented by the varying colors of the spectrum- the idea of charging a circle by inviting spirits to guard its cardinal points is plainly a well-ingrained one in the late medieval period.

Indeed every aspect of Wiccan ritual as presented by Gerald Gardner, regardless of whatever source from which he derived them, may be seen to have genuine antecedents in medieval magical practice.

Assuming in fact that he cobbled the outline of Wiccan rites together through careful reading of the Key of Solomon and other surviving grimoires, this is no more than any other serious student of occult philosophy would have done from the twelfth century onwards. (A study of medieval magi suggests that they devoted huge amounts of time both to writing their own manuals and reading each others- which is pretty much what we ourselves do.)

However he came by his knowledge, Gardner clearly made himself expert in the performance of magical ritual; his magic-work is plainly the same performed by esoteric scholars of the Middle Ages (derived in fact from the same sources). The Middle Ages themselves dated these customs to the Ancient World empires of Babylon and Egypt.

In addition, modern Wicca has evolved the mythology of a specific context. That is Margaret Murray’s assertion of an underground, surviving pagan tradition that continued into the Middle Ages, centered about a horned forest-god.

In this light, the concluding circumstances to Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor should receive reflection. At the play’s end, the merry folk of Windsor (then as now a royal residence) steal into the midsummer night woods disguised as faeries. They are going to dance (as is their customary fashion) in a circle during (as Hamlet says) the witching time of night (from midnight to one o’clock in the morning).

This dance will be performed in a ring about an oak-tree dedicated to Herne the Horned God (clearly the sixteenth century survival of the Celtic Cernunnos). Falstaff (one of Shakespeare’s major characters) is wearing deer’s horns upon his head to imitate Herne the Horned.

Merry Wives dates to the latter 1590s; it is fascinating that it so well anticipates what Margaret Murray later imagined as “the Dianic cult” of witches.

Ben Jonson (in The Sad Shepherd ) and the writing team Beaumont and Fletcher (in The Faithfull Shepherdess ) equally craft plays that imagine an idealized rural life, overseen by a horned pagan woodlands god (in The Faithfull Shepherdess, it is the Greek Pan who rules over the pastoral home of the play’s setting).

Again, in every pertinent way, what we have inherited as the “modern craft” possesses a congruency with the seventeenth century or earlier.

We are an old people; we are a new people… We are the same people, different than before.


Katharine Briggs, The Anatomy of Puck: An Examination of Fairy Beliefs among Shakespeare’s Contemporaries and Successors (New York: Arno Press, 1977 ed.)

Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom, revised ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993)

George Lyman Kittredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England (NY: Russell and Russell, 1956 ed.)

R.B. McKerrow, ed., The Devil’s Charter, by Barnabe Barnes (from the 1607 Quarto, Kraus Reprint, Ltd., 1963 ed.) p. xi


Zan Fraser

Location: New York City, New York


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