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Da Vinci Code for Witches (Part Three)

Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: May 31st. 2009
Times Viewed: 2,778

First ask yourself: What if it was all true after all? What if Gerald Gardner met a group of practicing witches in 1939- and they initiated him into the ancient witchcraft of the British people- just as he wrote in Witchcraft Today, the book that became the foundation for modern Wicca, credited to be among the fastest growing religions in the world. What if (after all) it were true?

Let us consider the following time-line. In 1579 the Windsor Witches hang, condemned by Elizabeth Stile’s confession of the death-magics worked by herself and her “sister witches.” The Windsor Witches (including one male, apparently of the cunning-man variety) associate with one another in a manner that strikes us as very like a coven- although that word is not used. In some of the Witch Plays of the English stage at the conclusion of the sixteenth century and birth of the seventeenth- destined to mark the hysterical period of intensification of witch-hunts on the Continent- witches operate in groups that look to us like covens.

One august Mother Audrey is credited with being the Chief Mistress (or High Priestess, as we would put it) of the Windsor Witch Confederation. Mother Audrey is otherwise known as Mother Seidre- presumably after the sacred seider-ceremonies (rituals of prophecy and omen) of the Norse. Reginald Scot and Ben Jonson tell us that “witches” (meaning women and some men around them) often acknowledge some special one as being of more preeminence than the rest.

After James Burbage erects his “Theater” in 1576, the Glorie Periode of Elizabethan Drama commences to continue in triumphant majesty through the reign of James I. So many Magic-Working plays get put up, the Witch or Wizard Play properly stands alongside the History Play or Pastoral Comedy as a stage-genre.

An observation is that the witches in plays of the 1580s are very different from those found after 1600. The earlier witches are either magic-working sorceresses or kindly and prophetic wise-women. One cannot find an English stage-witch after 1600 who has not been painted over with a grim veneer of (at times) an almost cartoonish villainy. A strange process- but one that demonstrates that England at one time possessed a cultural image of a sympathetic benefactress-witch (what they call a “white” or a “blessing” witch) , that was radically different from the slasher/splatter horror-movie hags of the Jacobean Age.

During the early 1600s, four plays are produced by Shakespeare, Jonson, and Middleton that show witches practicing “witchcraft.” This witchcraft involves dancing in a circle (at times in a crazed, mad dance, called an “antic round” by Shakespeare’s witches in their final speech) . As they do so, they chant charms of intention. This process is variously described. Jonson’s witch Maudlin calls it performing the “toy of the good turn”; Shakespeare’s witches call it “winding up” a charm. Jonson’s witches in Masque of Queens have as their desire to birth a “blue drake”- interpreted by many academics as firing off a metaphysical comet or meteor from the earth to the sky. Middleton’s witches perform and demonstrate this ceremony- but they do not explain or describe it.

This circumstance- dancing in a circle, chanting charms of intention, winding up charms by executing good turns- is very like that described as “raising energy” some 350 years later, in Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today.

According to Philip Heselton, in his books Wiccan Roots and Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration, a group of practicing “witches” (some of whom may be Hereditary, while others may have gained their knowledge through English folklore) did indeed meet as early as the first part of the 1920s. They met Gerald Gardner and he was initiated into witchcraft by them, to learn the information that he passed on in Witchcraft Today.

We have two periods: (a) the early 1600s, with English stage-witches performing something that looks very much like witch-energy raising and (b) the early 1920s, with Gerald Gardner’s initiating coven in operation within England’s New Forest. Is there some way to link or join the two eras together?

A favorite among British folklorists is Robert Kirk, a Scots minister who was fascinated by the native faerie-lore of Scotland in the late 1600s. A time (by and large) after the great witch-hunts had subsided, the fiery cataclysm of witch-burning (for the most part) blazed out, Kirk finds belief (and much more to the point) experience of the fees to be powerful in the rocky Highlands.

In 1691 he wrote an account called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, in many ways a prototype for modern folklore-research. (It is significant to note that, a century or so earlier, many of the famous Scots witches such as Bessie Dunlop, Alisoun Piersoun, and Isobel Gowdie, describe similar “faerie phenomena, ” in confessions which are tortured into admission of Satan-worship. In short, these Scots mystics start off discussing ecstatic experience of the fays and end up tortured into confessions of, “Yes, yes, it was Satan, I see that now.”) For more, please see “Chapter Three: The Faerie Queen, ” in The Goddess of Wytches.

A pause for a reflection: It should be considered that the Burning Times “plays out” in England very differently than in Scotland or on the Continent. The English do not torture in cases of witchcraft (excepting the brief and sadistic career of Matthew Hopkins, the Witch-Finder General, in Essex during the turmoil of the Civil War in the 1640s) . There is no systematic persecution of witches in England; the famous English witch-cases represent localized affairs, based upon highly specific circumstances.

The Burning Times does not really exist in England, as there is no mass movement to exterminate “witches.” It is not out of the question thereby for traditions of wise-woman witchcraft to outlast the Burning Times period- on the contrary, there is evidence that it did.

Kirk writes of the Scots (quoted from Doreen Valiente, An ABC of Witchcraft, Phoenix Publishing, 1973, p. 123) “ ‘Tis ane of their Tenets, that nothing perisheth, but (as the Sun and Year) every Thing goes in a Circle, lesser or greater, and is renewed and refreshed in its Revolutions.”

In other words (in 1691) , the Scots continue to hold (“Tis ane of their tenets”) that nothing perishes. Instead, all things (like the sun and the year, two things imagined as traveling in continual circles) go in circles- some great, some not- but circles. Every thing is “renewed and refreshed in its Revolutions.”

Does this not sound very much like the circle-dance of Wiccans- performed to celebrate the course of the sun throughout the year?

Folklore as a study begins during this period; John Aubrey is an English contemporary of Kirk’s who likewise starts to collect the folk-tales of the people. From his telling, the English continue to make use of simple magics and folk-charms on the cusp of the seventeenth century and the Age of Enlightenment.

In the early 1800s, the famous novelist Walter Scott gathers research into Scotland’s witch-history and produces Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft. In this book, he consistently describes various antique folk-customs as still continuing, much as if it were still the Middle Ages.

In Germany, Jacob Grimm produces the massive Teutonic Mythology, a ponderously weighty collection of Germanic folklore. Like his contemporary Scott, Grimm records various medieval (and often pagan) folk-customs as still continuing.

A remarkable story comes from John Michell, in his book Megalithomania: Artists, Antiquarians, and Archaeologists at the Old Stone Monuments (Cornell University Press, 1982) , p. 102. It concerns the Callanish Stones, in the Outer Hebrides, a site consisting of a stone circle, with an avenue of tall stones leading to it.

Local tradition holds that the spot was once a pagan temple, with the chief priestess or priest standing near the big stone at the center of the circle. Other stories maintain that the stones are actually pagan elders, transformed by St. Kieran. A 1703 record described it as “a place appointed for worship in the time of Heathenism.” Certain local families were esteemed as “belonging to the stones, ” and visited the circle in secret, feeling that it would not do to forget the stones.

What in the Outer Hebrides was considered a custom of local families that “belonged to the stones” in 1703, might well describe Hereditary witch-families in another place.

Michell cites a folklore-study on the Hebrides from 1966. Its author included an account of a house party her mother had attended in the latter half of the nineteenth century. An elderly gentleman, who belonged to the Scottish Antiquaries Society, was present. As a boy, the antiquarian had had his imagination stirred by an old man he encountered (this takes our account back into the early nineteenth century) .

The old man told the then-youthful antiquarian that- once- the people visited the Callanish Stones all the time, but now- because “the ministers” did not care for the habit- they only visited the Stones in secret, especially on May Day and at Midsummer. The old man told the boy, when the sun rose at Midsummer’s Morn, the morning of the summer solstice, “something” would walk down the stone avenue to the circle.

The antiquarian did not understand the word that the old gentleman used to denote the “something” which would walk in the stone corridor, but wrote it down as best he could. When he later, having embarked upon his career, described the word to scholars, they would agree that the word seemed archaic, possibly pre-Gaelic. They agreed that it seemed to describe something white or shining, possibly an old epithet associated with a local god.

Might not such a story demonstrate the devotion that certain folks will hold for the “old ways” of their people? Is not the “paganism” of the story striking?

“The dances that follow are more like children’s games than modern dances- they might be called boisterous and noisy, with much laughter. In fact, they are more or less children’s games performed by grown-ups, and like children’s games they have a story, or are done for a definite purpose other than mere enjoyment”- Gerald Gardner’s description of the rituals of the New Forest coven, quoted from Heselton, Wiccan Roots, p. 284.

In A Briefe Historie of Magi, I reference the following: A famous kind of Jacobean true-crime affair occurred in Yorkshire in 1605, when a man of good family named Calverley murdered his two small children, before seriously injuring his wife and a servant-man who tried to intervene (apparently the fact that the family was upper-class added to the gruesomeness) . These dreadful events seized the public imagination and were immortalized in the anonymous play The Yorkshire Tragedy.

It might not be a surprise that the house remained uninhabited for generations, crumbling into majestic ruin. Local legends grew up- Calverley’s ghost roamed the countryside at night, disappearing into a cave at day-break (although another legend holds that the phantom is rested as long as green holly grows on the abandoned manor-house) . A ghost horseman caused so much anxiety in 1886, it was reported that the local vicar “undertook the task of laying it.”

In their study of the play (and the story behind it) , A.C. Cawley and Barry Gaines, editors of A Yorkshire Tragedy (The Revels Plays: Manchester University Press, 1986, p. 113) record a custom of local school-boys from 1874. After the lads were released from the prison of education for the day, they gathered near the old village church. They placed their caps on the ground in a pyramid shape, before strewing breadcrumbs and pins upon the ground.

They formed a “magic circle” (the account’s words) by taking hands, and whilst tramping “round in the circle with a heavy tread, ” they chanted: “Old Calverley, old Calverley, I have thee by th’ears- I’ll cut thee in collops unless thou appears!”

Some of the “more venturesome” boys had to approach the church itself and whistle through the key-hole, while the rest continued to make use of the “bewitching couplet.” Then- terrified of the vengeful specter that they had commanded to rise- the boys tumbled and fell over each other running to the safety of their homes.

A strange and amusing little tale of Yorkish schoolboy life in the mid-nineteenth century. And one that is fascinating because it mimics the behavior of witches almost three centuries earlier- the boys chant an intention, as they travel in a communal circle, in order to generate or “raise up” some supernatural occurrence.

The question would then be- how do English school-boys have the idea to chant in a circle, in order to make a ghost arise- since that activity is associated with witches three centuries prior?

If the energy-raising “secret” to witchcraft can be preserved for three centuries, for English schoolboys of the mid-nineteenth century to make use of- might it not be preserved as well for the members of the New Forest coven, some of whom are born in the latter 1800s?

In 1911, Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz (translator of The Tibetan Book of the Dead) published The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Like Kirk almost two centuries earlier, Evans-Wentz found experience of and belief in the fees to continue widespread in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Brittany, and the Isle of Man. If what he calls “the Celtic Fairy Faith” has survived until the early 1900s, might not the “Witch Faith” have survived as well? At least well enough for Rosamund Sabine, Edith Rose Woodford-Grimes, and Dorothy Clutterbuck to make use of it by the 1920s and the time of the New Forest coven?

If one Googles “Mother Redcap, ” one will find that it is (1) the name of a band with a MySpace music profile (2) a pub in Dublin (3) a species of goblin in British folklore (“redcaps”) (4) the name of two English witches, one of whom lived an apparently turbulent life during the Civil War (1640s) and (5) a village witch apparently famous enough that her death in the 1920s was noted (according to the very fine Encyclopedia of Rosemary Ellen Guiley) .

Being a famous village witch would seem to put Mother Redcap into the company of Mother Bombi and the Wise-Woman of Hogsdon. Presumably whatever avenues are available to Mother Redcap that she is a witch in the first decades of the twentieth century are available to the original members of the New Forest coven.

When I wrote A Briefe Historie of Wytches, in which I examined the “Energy-Raising” Plays of the early 1600s, I did so from the safe-bet assumption that Gerald Gardner (in “making it up”) had founded his working coven himself and therefore had no predecessors. Having studied Mr. Heselton’s work, I now believe that a path of English folk-magic (congruent with what we ourselves do as Wiccans and heavily preoccupied with the ephemeral activity called “energy-raising”) lies between us and the last of the Middle Ages.

Occam’s Razor: All things being equal, the simplest explanation for something is most likely correct. Is this not the simplest- and therefore the most persuasive- explanation for Wicca? The amazing mechanism of English witchcraft continued to spin out wytches (drawn to and fascinated by the craft) over the centuries until it spun forth the witches of the New Forest coven, poised so as to be firmly in place when along comes a chap named Gerald Gardner, who will get the remarkable idea to write a book explaining the state of Witchcraft Today.

One will note that this leaves us in possession of an indeed ancient lore- a lore that reaches back to the time of Shakespeare and Jonson, and which was held as immemorial by them.

What magical circles we witches weave.

Here endeth this Mabinogi for Wytches.


Zan Fraser

Location: New York City, New York


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