It is sometimes speculated that the word ‘witch’ came from ‘wit’ (in this sense meaning knowledge), and that it was originally a term that was applied to people who knew, or said they knew, things that other people did not. This theory as to the origin of the term ‘witch’ makes sense in view of the fact that another term commonly used for people who practised withcraft (or the ‘craft of the wise’) was ‘Cunning Folk’. Although there were male Cunning Folk, most people in western Europe who claimed to have the hidden knowledge of witches seem to have been women. Even today the popular perception of witches, derived no doubt from Grimm’s fairy tales and other such sources, is of stereotypical ugly hags with broomsticks and pointed hats, casting evil spells on people with their demon-inspired supernatural powers. In truth, however, the witches of the Middle Ages were in fact for the most part simply people who continued to worship the pagan gods. Before the coming of Christianity to western Europe, religious ceremonies were held at great stone monuments known as dolmen or cromlechs, many of which, like Stone Henge and the Rollright Stones, are still around today. In time these monuments were looked upon not only as tombs of the dead but as places from which the spirits of the dead could come to be born again in new people. These old stone tombs were therefore often the centres where witches gathered and in distant parts of the British Isles, like the Orkney, Shetland and Channel Islands, pagan ceremonies have continued to be enacted long after the coming of Christianity.
The priests of the old faith believed in a deity which was ultimately neither male nor female but manifested itself in a female and male polarity. The female deity in particular was at the heart of the old religion, representing nature, fertility and the endless cycle of life. Her consort the male deity shared this role of symbolizing life, death and rebirth and was usually depicted with horns, which are a timeless symbol of virility (hence the term ‘horny’!). The cycle of rebirth was also symbolized by the moon – the waxing, waning and full moons, sometimes represented by the triple aspects of the Goddess – the Maiden (waxing moon), Mother (full), and Crone (waning). In ancient times people depended for their living on their crops, and so the four largest ceremonies of worship, known as Sabbats or Sabbaths, were connected with the growth of plants throughout the year. The first Sabbat was Imbolc (February 2, the day we now call Candlemas), when the worst of the frost was over and there were signs of spring. May Eve or Beltane, which used to be May 11, was the second of the festivals and was intimately associated with fertility and sexuality, as befitted a time when leaves were on the trees and corn started to grow again. August 1, also called Lammastide or Lughnasadh, was the time of the gathering in of the harvest. It also marked the symbolic death of the Greene King, a nature spirit which had to die at the end of the summer so that life could come again next spring. Samhain (now Halloween) on October 31 was the last great Sabbat of the year. It symbolized the descent into the darkness that was essential if light and new life were to come again and was also regarded as the time of the Lord of Misrule, a period of chaos before order was restored. Some witches used this time to communicate with the spirits of loved ones who had died. Samhain was also seen as a time of reflection; a time to look back, and also to the future.
In parts of Britain, particularly lonely areas like the far north, East Anglia, Cornwall, Wales and Scotland, many people continued to worship the gods of the old religion for centuries after the coming of Christianity. These pagans were often looked upon as the worst enemies of Christianity and the monks, who in the middle ages wrote the history of those times, described the gods of the old faith as demons or devils. The church believed that the witches got their powers straight from the Devil himself and persecuted them for hundreds of years. Across Europe the witch-hunting craze resulted in the deaths of countless women – many of whom had nothing to do with witchcraft or the old religion. They were often tortured cruelly until they confessed and then burnt alive in punishment for their sins. As a consequence, the followers of the old faith often held their ceremonies in secret. In England the most famous witch trials took place in Pendle, Lancashire while in the USA it was Salem, Massachusetts that was the location of the most infamous witch hunt. In 1692 10 young girls declared that a West Indian slave had bewitched them and people were so frightened that within four months hundreds were tried for witchcraft. Many of these unfortunate people were hanged. Fortunately, on both sides of the Atlantic the witchcraft trials largely came to an end after about 1720.
In our more enlightened era, witchcraft (or ‘Wicca’ as it is now commonly known) is not only tolerated but in some places positively celebrated, as is illustrated by the fact that Salem now proudly declares itself ‘Witch City USA’! Neopaganism is officially recognised as a religion and and those who follow it are, largely, left to do so unmolested. Despite many modern affectations, Wicca incorporates most of the key aspects of the ancient nature-based religion of the original pagans of western Europe. All over Britain many of the temples of the old faith – stone circles, forest groves, mounds, cairns, tors, tarns, dolmens and cromlechs – still stand and are even put to their original uses at times. Halloween continues to be one of the most widely celebrated quasi-religious festivals in the western world. In this sense therefore, it can almost be said that witchcraft in its truest sense is very much alive and kicking and is likely to be around for a long time to come.