Riding the Broomstick

Witchcraft remains a prime source of interest for people intrigued by myth and legend.  Not only does the practice of Wicca tap into ancient archetypes and deities, it also has a huge continuum of its own myths whirling around it.

Many of those were – and are – designed to destroy it as a practising spiritual path.  Myths have always been powerful material for propaganda, utilised by politicians of every stripe down the centuries.  That’s because myths can imprint their message very deeply, on the unconscious, making it hard to shake.  Anti-Semites used mythic archetypes in an infamous and widely-distributed pamphlet – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the early 20th century.  It purported to be a Jewish manifesto that built up the myths of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world through the media and finance.  A complete pack of lies, it has been discredited as a hoax many times.  Yet many in the Arab world still believe it to be true, and the Protocols are continually referenced even today.

Religions, of course, act in much the same way as politicians; both are involved in a struggle for power, over souls or voters, hearts and minds.  When the Christian church tried to get a foothold in Britain more than a millenium ago, it found a thriving nature-based religion.  The only way the new belief system could establish itself was to discredit the old religion.  And so stories grew up of the old religion’s ‘wise women’ eating babies and ruining crops.

It was very effective and continues up to the present day.  Effective, of course, might not be the best word.  Between 1450 and the mid-18th century anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000 women – branded as witches – were murdered.  Their Christian persecutors accused them of being in league with Satan – even though Satan is a Christian concept and witches do not believe in him.  We like to think that’s all part of an unenlightened past.  But even today we have ignorant head teachers outlawing Halloween and burning Harry Potter for fear its use of magic will lead impressionable young minds on ‘the path to Satanism’.  People still get get fired for being a Wiccan.  And regular scares appear in the media of witches involved in child abuse – the baby-eating myth retooled for a new age.

But Wiccans have also been accused of generating their own myths.  In 1921, Margaret Murray published her seminal work The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, which tried to establish an unbroken tradition from modern witchcraft back to the old, pre-Christian religion.  That was generally derided by many scholars as a way for modern practitioners to legitimise their beliefs.

Most people now believe Wicca to be pretty much a twentieth century revival.  And what’s wrong with that?

However, a new academic work now gives weight to Margaret Murray’s assertion.  Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits – Shamanistic Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic (Sussex Academic Press) compares beliefs from around the world and infers that modern witchcraft is a direct descendant of prehistoric shamanism.  The book is hard-going, but it shows that in the mythosphere – as in everywhere else – the ‘truth’ is hard to come by.

4 thoughts on “Riding the Broomstick”

  1. I saw that reviewed in the current FT and I was thinking it would be very interesting to read, so I think it’s going on the list. It won’t be for a while, though – I’ve just spent my current book budget on pre-ordering a novel that comes out at the end of the month and some books by a bunch of cowboys.

    If you look at things in an archetypal way then it would be possible that Margaret Murray’s work is a modern (or relatively modern – not far off a century now) invention while responding to the same archetypes that other shamanic traditions do. In that case it could be an accurate recreation without necessarily belong to an ongoing tradition.

    The arguments for and against survivalism in folklore and tradition are both strong and I suspect both partially correct. In one respect attributing traditions that belong to village plays or carnivals to survivals of ancient religious practice is a denial of the creativity of the people in the intervening time, on the other hand practices like throwing coins into water at wishing wells or shopping malls are so similar to the votive offerings given at holy wells and found at temples to water-aligned deities that a connection is very hard to deny.

  2. I am continually fascinated in this supposedly modern world by the web of superstition that still holds our society in place. In a way there’s a gulf growing between those who have access to rapidly expanding and complex knowledge – scientists – and the rest of the population who are cut off from the vast depth of knowledge needed to comprehend those advances (and I include everyone who’s not a theoretical physicist in that). More and more people are turning to superstition/religion to make sense of the world, particularly when you factor in the whole creationism thing.

    Which has nothing at all to do with Wicca, but is of interest nonetheless.

  3. And he lives not a million miles from me (spoke to him on the phone, but never met him). He’s an expert on prehistoric stones, cairns and alignment. HoAp is an excellent imprint!

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