[Our newest installment of ev0king the Moon comes courtesy of author and witch, Frances Bilinghurst. Here, she discusses the origins of contemporary witchcraft; the form and necessity of sacred space; and her own journey of faith and practice.]
Witchcraft. A word that has always conjured up a myriad of interpretations – from the medieval image of old hags crafting all manner of evil in bubbling cauldrons and sexually enticing maidens astride broomsticks riding off to dance with the devil, through to today’s social media feeds filled with aesthetically placed baneful herbs, skulls and crystal collections. Serving as a gateway between the old interpretation and the new is that of initiatory, or British Traditional, Witchcraft that first came to the awareness of the general public in the mid to late 1950s, and from this “tree”, so to speak, many “branches” have since formed. Contemporary witchcraft is one such branch. In this article, I will attempt to explain the foundations behind this style of witchcraft and why I consider it to be relevant in our social media driven modern age. In order for me to do this, however, we need to take a trip back in time.
From the outset, what was been referred to as witchcraft has often had a religious slant. Within the ancient Greek myths two characters stand out who openly demonstrated their magical abilities: Medea and Circe. Medea was applauded when her magical abilities initially assisted the hero Jason in his quest to obtain the Golden Fleece. However, she quickly fell out of favour when she sought revenge after he later rejected her and her witchcraft depicted more sinister tones. Circe, on the other hand, was better known for her vast knowledge of potions and herbs as well as her ability to transform her enemies into beasts. This ability was demonstrated in the adventures of Odysseus, another Greek hero. Both these powerful witches were said to be priestesses of the most feared goddess who was connected with the underworld and witchcraft, that being Hekate.
During the Middle Ages witchcraft was perceived in an increasing negative light. Witches tended to live on the edge of society (even Circe’s island of Aeaea was located at the edge of the known Greek world) and were approached with a degree of intrepidation. As the Catholic Church’s stamped its authority across the Western world, witches were often perceived as women who rode their brooms at night in order to initially meet with the goddess Diana, then later the devil. In both instances, there remained the belief that witches worshipped a being other than the Christian God, and in an increasingly superstitious world, this became an underlying reason of fear.
As the fear of witchcraft intensified, the Church stated that evil existed in the world because the devil existed, and the devil existed because he was worshipped by witches, and it was through their meddling witchcraft which attracted malign spirits that enabled this evil to spread. Therefore, rather that God’s will, it was witchcraft that caused sudden and unexpected ill-fortune such as when crops failed or cattle died, or even when pregnancies did not go to full term. The Church also advised that the only way a person could protect themselves from witchcraft or remove any malign spirits was to engage a priest to perform an exorcism (which included a fee of course). From this belief, what has come to be known as the “Witch Trials” arose resulting in many thousands of mostly innocent people losing their lives.
Eventually reason took hold and in 1736 the English parliament passed an Act repealed laws where witchcraft was punishable by death, and instead imposed fines or imprisonment on people who “claimed” to be able to use magical power. It was not until 1951 that this Act was be repelled and replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act that prohibited a person from claiming to be a psychic and medium while attempting to deceive in order to make money from this deception. The repelling of the 1736 Act reflected how witchcraft was perceived in a less superstitious world. It was into this environment that a retired British civil servant by the name of Gerald Brosseau Gardner became the first person to publicly call himself as a witch and that he practiced a religion called witchcraft.
According to Gardner, he had been initiated into an ancient cult that centred around the worship of a goddess as well as a god through the honouring seasonal rites and the changing phases of the moon. This religion had a magical element to it and as he later explained, there were in fact eight ways of making magick with spellcrafting just one of them. However, like the mystery cults of antiquity, it was through the process of initiation that much of the inner “secrets” were revealed.
At the time of this declaration, England was a rather religious country, rebuilding itself after World War II. Therefore, for the public to hear this statement seemed to be an act of rebellion against societal norms which in turn provided Gardner with a degree of notoriety. In 1957 Gardner was asked by Daniel Farson, an early investigative reporter, why he believed in witchcraft. Gardner simply replied that it was “good fun”. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Fast forward to the 21st century and many changes have been made when comparing what is classified as witchcraft today to that of Gardner’s original disclosure. Often it is described as the “practice of a witch”, i.e., the magical working only, as opposed to having any religious or even spiritual connection. If social media is anything to go by, this “craft of the witch” tends to be focused primarily on spellcasting in order to obtain personal wants and desires, as well as an element of what is classified as “reactionary” magick, i.e., revenge targeting one’s enemies or people who may simply get in the way from achieving wants and desires.
Such images seem to resonate with the “evil” witch depiction from the medieval church which can still be found in Roald Dahl’s “Witches” or the stage show “Wicked”. I cannot help but wonder whether such a depiction is an act of rebellion against what has been described as the “love and light” movement of the early 2000s when a part of the “Wiccan Rede”, that being the concept of “An it harm none”, made its way into the public arena but without the initiatory teachings to accompany it, the words were taken on face value as meaning none (an impossible task in itself). In any case, both these black (baneful herbs, skulls and cursing) and white (love and light, crystals and personal empowerment) interpretations of witchcraft appear to omit the spiritual or religious connection that Gardner was spoke about.
For someone who took their first steps into the world of witchcraft pre-internet (i.e., the late 1980s and early 1990s), what I was initially trained in often bears little resemblance to what is depicted on my social media feeds (if that is to be used as a gauge). After discussions with people interested in learning how to give their own personal practice a bit more substance without having to join a coven, I was inspired to write Contemporary Witchcraft: Foundational Practices for a Magical Life. This book outlines a number of foundational practices that I will use nearly 30 odd years later.
I chose the word “contemporary” because it means “belonging to or occurring in the present”, an appropriate description for what I am attempting to achieve – that being to bring into the wider public arena some of the foundational techniques that would enable the solitary practitioner to experience for themselves a profoundness of the ancient mysteries. While these may not be experienced in the same way as through the initiatory process, but will be an experience all the same.
A core element to contemporary witchcraft is the acceptance that we are interconnected with the world around us. From acknowledging the ebbing and flowing of the solar tides (the sabbats that carry the mythos journey of the God) as well as those of the moon (the esbats that reflect the transformative nature of the Goddess), through to connecting with the land upon which we reside, we are constantly reminded that we are not separate from it. This means that our actions cause a ripple effect throughout the world and even the universe, just like a stone that has been thrown into a pond. Taking responsibility for our actions, be it physical, mental or emotional, adds to our understanding of the sacred mysteries. Contemporary witchcraft reminds us that even though we may live in a world surrounded by instant and even somewhat superficial aesthetics, we are able to bring deeper meaning to what our personal witchcraft by the application of foundational practices.
Through the construction of a sacred space, an area “between the world of men and the realm of the Mighty Ones” (as Gardner stated in the Book of Shadows), the witch connects with not only the Gods, but other entities that reside on the astral planes. It is here that all manner of magical workings are undertaken along with the worship of the ancient Gods through reciting the presentation of offerings and reciting chants, prayers and even poems. We then await for their insight to manifest through psychic means, arrive on the whispers on the wind, appear in our dreams, or be revealed through divination.
It is often through divine connections that magick is made and insights gained, often on a deeper and more spiritual level. There are many aspects of contemporary witchcraft including spell crafting, trance, energy raising and meditation, all of which centre around the belief in, worship of and building up a personal relationship with deity. It was not limited to one aspect. It was used as a guiding focus to improve our lives on often a deeper level – not just the mundane, the physical.
When it comes to reactionary magick, yes it does has its place within the practices of contemporary witchcraft, however often as a last resort after a great deal of self-reflection has been undertaken first. Likewise, the modern interest in aesthetics and beauty however, it is building up a personal relationship with the Gods that provides the practitioner with a deeper connection to the worlds (both inner as well as external) around them.
Maybe the era in which I discovered witchcraft has impacted upon the style that resonates to me, or my interest and personal discovery into metaphysics in an attempt to seek deeper meaning in the world around me as well as my place within it. Whatever the answer, one thing for certain is that we are blessed with having such a variety of interpretations of witchcraft today, with contemporary witchcraft being another “branch” on the ever evolving witchcraft tree.
[With an interest in the occult and all things mythical spanning over 25 years, Frances Billinghurst is the author of Dancing the Sacred Wheel, In Her Sacred Name: Writings on the Divine Feminine, Encountering the Dark Goddess: A Journey into the Shadow Realms, and Contemporary Witchcraft: Foundational Practices for a Magical Life.
When she is not writing, Frances is the founder of the Temple of the Dark Moon (Adelaide, Australia), principal healer for the Isian Centre of Metaphysics and designs devotional beads and sources other products for her Esty store, LunaNoire Creations.
Frances can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. She can be contacted through the Temple of the Dark Moon’s web site (www.templedarkmoon.com) or her writer’s blog (http://francesbillinghurst.blogspot.com.au).]