Sunday, 31 May 2015

Dispelling Modern Witchcraft Myths

“We call to the Great God this night of longest day. Join us as the Sun, fiery Lord of the Heavens who blesses our land with the sunshine that makes our world grow! Join us as the Creator who joins with the Great Mother to bring forth new life! May your purifying light and fire bless us this night and drive away all that is negative in our lives. Be a part of our rites as you are a part of our lives! Hail and Welcome!” (from a Midsummer Ritual, Patheos)

Gavin Ashenden, speaking about baptism, says that “we need to reinhabit a metaphysical world in which repentance from the reality of sin is the way into the Church, and the struggle with the reality of the devil and the demonic are the marks of authentic pilgrimage.”

His blog explains why he is upset with the changes approved by the Church of England. As Trevor Grundy notes in “Religious News”:

“In the traditional service, godparents are asked whether they are ready to renounce the devil and all his works for the sake of the child being baptized. The new wording, approved Sunday (July 13), only asks whether parents and godparents will “turn away from sin” and “reject evil.”

And another member of the local clergy says that the devil is very real, and the Island of Jersey is rife with witchcraft.

Now this can easily make people prejudiced. Someone else I know says they have seen witches at the dolmens.

The problem is that what is happening is that a model of witchcraft is being applied in a modern setting to people who are definitely not witches in the traditional sense, in popular folk-beliefs.

This is the witchcraft that was the focus of one of the worst mass panics in history – the period of the 16th and 17th centuries which were the time of the witch-craze, when thousands were burnt or hanged after accusations that they were witches.

The model story, which invariable proved to be true in the confessions - made after duress or torture had been applied – was of witches meeting in secret in covens (usually of  unlucky 13), to partake in a black mass – an inversion and perversion of the Christian Eucharist – and worship the devil. That itself betrays the cultural background of the story. 13 is not universally unlucky; in Italy, for example, it is 17.

Of course, in these stories were fantastical elements, of witches flying to their meetings, or flying out to sea, and conjuring storms while riding the wind. These elements are usually expunged from the kind of narratives that Gavin Ashenden would have us believe, or they are explained away as hallucinations caused by ointments. Although it would be strange if Gavin Ashenden did so, as his main argument is that we should not be restricted to the limitations of our world-view.

In fact, as Norman Cohn pointed out in “Europe’s Inner Demons”, there was originally an accusation made against the early Christians by Pagans on dark rites that was almost identical in form to that attached to witches later on by Christians!

Most accusations against people accused of witchcraft were in fact done not by witch-finders – Hammer films have a lot to answer for – but by neighbours who wanted to settle grudges.

Such accusations could be deadly, once people found themselves caught in the net, but it should be noted that it was the civil and not the religious authorities who tried people for witchcraft, and if found guilty sentenced them to death. It was the Civil Courts in Jersey and Guernsey who sentenced many people to be strangled and burnt.

That dark period seems to be omitted in Philip Bailhache’s book “A Celebration of Autonomy: 1204-2004 800 Years of Channel Island's Law”. It was the relative autonomy of the Channel Islands which allowed the Island’s judges to sentence people to death for witchcraft, which was perhaps not something to celebrate.

Accusations from neighbours with grudges can be seen more recently. When we look back at the Occupation years, as the BBC points out:

“Dozens of letters were sent to the German Field Commander informing on other islanders who were selling or hoarding food, helping escaped slave workers, or listening to the radio. The post office tried to intercept as many of the letters as they could - steaming them open and destroying them. Letters that got through often led to death or deportation for those that were informed on.”

Louisa Gould was denounced to the Germans for helping a Russian slave worker; she died eventually in the Gas Chambers in Ravensbruck. Who denounced her? Her neighbours.

This is the pattern of the witch trials, as documented in historian Robin Brigg’s “Witches and Neighbours” in which accusations come from neighbours, and as Briggs shows, contrary to popular notions about men persecuting women, most of the accusers tended to be women themselves.

What has this to do with modern witchcraft at the dolmens? It is true that rituals are performed at the dolmens, but these are by modern day pagans – such as Wiccans or Druids. Calling them witches, and attributing to them all the baggage that is the legacy of the witch craze is not only mistaken, but also betrays a mindset that can be seen clearly in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”., where it is also alluding to what was called a witch-hunt of Joseph McCarthy and panic about reds under the bed.

In other words, it fosters fear and panic and superstition, and a frame of mind in which people are demonised. It begs the question: where is the devil? With the Wiccans and Druids and their earth-magic, with their ethical beliefs against doing harm, or those who would cast them in the role of witch, and drum up hatred and fear?

We should have learnt by now that demonising a group of people, like the Nazis did with the Jews, or in more recent times, in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, leads to violence, murder, and a disregard for justice.

The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament call the figure of Satan, “the accuser”. It seems to me that those who accuse others of dark witchcraft which has its roots in blind prejudice and fear have far more in common with Satan than those who practice peaceful earth rites.

Here’s part of a Wiccan ritual:

Oh great Goddess and God,
All nature vibrates with Your energies
And the Earth is bathed with warmth and life.
Now is time of forgetting past cares and banes,
Now is the time for purification.

Oh fiery Sun,
Burn away the non-useful, the hurtful, the bane,
In Your glorious power.
Purify me! Purify me! Purify me!

There’s not much there about evil and devil worship, not surprisingly, because neither Wicca nor Druidry have anything to do with that either now or historically. They are pagan, but not Christian perversions, they have no concept of  a devil, and as can be seen, both here, and with the quote from which I started, they actually have a lot in common with Christianity in this desire for purity and purification.

And here’s part of another one:

Take the Herb Pouch and hold above your head, saying:

By thy power, oh sacred herbs, may the Lord of the Sun
Burn away the hurtful, the troublesome, and the painful,
Leaving me purified through His warmth and Light.

It is about time that the fog of ignorance and fear was dispelled. I’ve written this post to try and dispel some of that ignorance.

Renouncing the accuser (Satan) in the baptism service should also mean renouncing the very human impulse to accuse and blacken others.

When you hear people taking about a lot of witchcraft in Jersey, when you hear about people talking about devil worship, you may understand why local pagans don’t make a big show of their beliefs and rituals.

I’ll finish with the close of another Pagan Midsummer ritual, which as you can see, has high ethical principles underpinning it and rather like baptism, uses water for purification.. 

I would point out that the use of water in rituals for purification is very widespread in many religions, including ancient and modern paganism, and not the monopoly of Christianity. Examples can be seen, for instance, in the ancient Babylonian Tablets of Maklu. Purification by water was an important part of Greek and Roman personal religious practices predating Christianity. And in 632 BC, Epimenides of Crete purified the entire city of Athens with water. So this part of the ritual is looking back to a precedent in ancient paganism, not Christianity.

Dip the forefinger of your right hand into the cauldron water, and trace a pentagram on your forehead, saying: Let my mind be open to the truth. 

Anoint your lips saying:
Let my lips always speak the truth.

Anoint your heart area, saying:
Let my heart seek the ways of the Goddess, now and always.

Anoint the centres of your palms, saying:
Let my hands be gifted to work in magical ways.

Anoint the soles of your feet, saying:
Let my feet ever walk upon the sacred paths!

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