Origins of Witchcraft

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Antlered figure, Caverne des Trois Frères in Ariège, France. Courtesy Raymond Buckland.
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Drawing of a Roman altar stone of Cernunnos found beneath Notre Dame Cathedral. Courtesy Raymond Buckland.

Origins of Witchcraft

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

It is impossible to pinpoint the actual origin of Witchcraft, although Dr. Margaret Murray did her best to trace it back from the persecutions of the Middle Ages to the beginnings of humankind in the Paleolithic Age. In fact, that early time was the beginning of religio-magic rather than the beginning of Witchcraft per se.

In those primitive times nature could be awesome to humankind. The sun, the roaring wind, the crackling thunder, and the flash of lightning were all things that seemed to have a power, if not a mind, of their own. Out of awe and respect came a belief in gods: a god of the wind, of the rushing river, of the mighty trees, of all things that drew respect. This was animism, the most potent factor in the evolution of religion and a belief that lingers, even today, in the islands of the South Pacific, in the bush of Australia, the jungles of Africa, and elsewhere.

Of primary concern to the early people was success in the hunt. Without meat to eat, skins for warmth, and bones and antlers for tools and weapons, a tribe could perish. When hunting, omens were sought to indicate how successful the hunt would be. Such signs and portents can multiply and become extremely complex. It seemed to those early people that there was some power controlling everything—a God of Hunting, for want of a better image. It therefore seemed logical that gaining the favor of that god would produce success in the hunting. From extant cave paintings we know that prayers, and probably rituals, were made to this hunting god, with one man acting as a priest, by playing the part of that god as he guided the others through a pantomime of the hunt to be undertaken. Since most of the animals hunted at that time were antlered or horned, it was thought the god of hunting was similarly antlered or horned. Paintings—such as the ones at the Caverne des Trois Frères in Ariège, France, and at Forneau du Diable in Dordogne, France— show an obvious human male leading a ritual dressed in the skin of an animal, and wearing the mask and horns or antlers of the beast.

Sympathetic magic was performed to aid in the success of the hunt. Again, this is known from extant artifacts (for example, at Le Tuc d'Audoubert, Ariège), such as clay models of bear and bison, pock-marked with holes where they were ritually stabbed in the mime of the hunt. Such rituals from relatively recent times include the Buffalo Dance of the Mandan Indians in the Great Plains region of the United States.

There was also a goddess, recognized by early humankind: a Goddess of Fertility, for without fertility there could be no animals to hunt. And without fertility there would be no children to swell and continue the tribe. Later, too, without fertility there would be no crops to provide food throughout the year. Early depictions of this goddess emphasized the feminine and the reproductive aspects of woman. There are many extant examples of these early "Venus" figurines (as they are termed): the Venuses of Willendorf, Lausel, Abri Patand, Sireuil, and many more. Most of them are figures with greatly exaggerated breasts, buttocks, swollen pregnant stomach, and enlarged genitalia, to underscore the fertility aspect. In a later stage of humankind's development, this Fertility Goddess became the more important of these two deities, as agriculture developed and people depended less on hunting.

So a crude form of religion came into being, made up of animism and magic, with a priesthood who served as plenipotentiary between humans and the gods. From what was essentially a polytheistic religion, the Hunting God and Fertility Goddess came to the fore in many areas to become the two major deities. With the development of agriculture and the later storage of food for the winter months, the hunting aspect fell in importance and the god became one of nature generally.

The practice of burial of the dead as innovated by the Gravettians (22,000-18,000 BCE) showed a probable belief in an afterlife, for the bodies were sprinkled with red ochre to resemble life and were buried with food and implements that might be needed in the afterworld. The God of Hunting then became also a God of Death and of the Afterlife, retaining his place opposite the Goddess.

As humankind spread from its origins in the Fertile Crescent, people brought with them these ideas of the deities, ritual, and magic. As different areas and different countries developed, the deities took on various characteristics, yet they remained essentially the same god and goddess from earliest times. The Great Mother remains recognizable, as does the Horned God. To the Celts, the god was known as Cernunnos (Latin for "the horned one"). He is found depicted on a stone altar discovered under the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and on a silver Iron Age cauldron found at Gundestrup in Himmerland, Jutland. By the Bronze Age, the Horned God was found across most of Europe and in the Near and Middle East.

Throughout western Europe the people followed this pattern, worshiping these two main deities with emphasis on the Fertility Goddess when it came to crops and farm animals. By then, individuals as well as groups would worship these deities, asking for what they needed and thanking for what they received. Farmers and their families developed their own forms of magic to encourage the gods in what they wanted. Much of this was in the form of sympathetic magic, as when a farming husband and wife would have intercourse in the first furrow plowed to ensure the field would be fertile.

The "priests" of the areas still existed but as much for administering herbal medicines as for leading religious rituals. They became known as the wicca (f. wicce) or "wise ones." From this came the word "Witch" (see Wicca and Witch/Witchcraft).

Murray, Margaret Alice: The Witch Cult in Western Europe. Oxford University Press, 1921. Murray, Margaret Alice: God of the Witches. Sampson Low Marston, 1931.