Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Defining "Classic Witchcraft"

It was not that long ago that I reached the realization that at no time in my life have I ever known witchcraft that was wholly divorced from Wicca.

When I first became fascinated by the concept of witches and witchcraft, I was a child growing up in the 1970s. It was so long ago, and so much has happened since, that I couldn't say for certain how or when that fascination truly began--but begin it did, however it was triggered, and if I try to think back the earliest images that come to me are those of the familiar Halloween figure. Solitary, immeasurably ancient, black-clad, cat-accompanied, hideous and yet somehow appealing rather than appalling. Stirring a cauldron, stirring a potion, stirring up trouble, she was a defiant and transgressive figure, one not to be trifled with, the wielder of powers unknown and highly enticing to one so powerless as I. My first source materials were, naturally, children's literature and fairy tales, joined as I grew older by encyclopedias and books specifically on the subjects of witchcraft and magic, the occult and the paranormal; and all of those were very much products of the 20th century and the dubious scholarship and spurious claims of that century's witchcraft promoters.

Thus, I was early on introduced to such key concepts as "the Old Religion," the "Book of Shadows," even "the Cone of Power" and "the Burning Times," and of covens of witches performing their circular rites by the light of the full moon. I was not an exceptionally critical reader as a child; I read voraciously and indiscriminately, absorbing all sides of a thing and then letting the information simmer until my brain boiled over from the cognitive dissonance, demanding I sort it all out. I've since done so, of course, only to discover to my chagrin that what I always knew as witchcraft is indelibly, inextricably enmeshed with the trappings of the 20th century neopagan religion of Wicca (along with the borrowed elements of other systems that form parts of its composition).

Knowing this, how, then, do I define Classic Witchcraft? As an aesthetic as well as a practice, for one, because atmosphere can make or break a ritual. Bats and cats and the occasional pointed hat. Cauldrons and candles, owls and serpents. Skulls and bones. Incense and bonfires. All things eldritch and uncanny. Once the scene is set, the practice itself can take, well, almost any form that suits the situation. It could look like a fairly standard Wiccan ritual with a cast circle and all the trimmings, or it could be as spare as a steady silent gaze into a candle's flame. It might be performed robed, or skyclad, or in street clothes. Elaborate ceremonial with a lot of prep time and research, or completely off-the-cuff at a moment's notice. Indoors or outdoors. Better it be when the moon is full, unless it isn't.

What Classic Witchcraft is not is rote and regulated. The classic witch, that enduring figure that has never let go of my imagination, is not a person hemmed in by rules and restrictions or a lengthy list of Things That Must Be Done to make the practice "valid." The only real test of validity for the classic witch is, did it work? What works is what is key, and it will vary from one witch to the next, and it can only be discovered through experimentation. One witch can share ideas and experiences with another, and practices can (and should be!) handed on from one to the next; but those practices will likely look quite different from one generation to the next, and I've come to see that as not lamentable but laudable. A practice that isn't adaptable and progressive (which does not mean that it cannot also be grounded in tradition) is ultimately as relevant as a set piece in an old roadside museum: interesting, perhaps, but not very useful in practical application.


1 comment:

  1. The longer time goes on, the more I go with what feels right as opposed to what this or that book says I should do. I still borrow ideas from others, but I infuse my practice with very personal elements. I think that my magick and my spiritual connection is stronger for understanding that this is, for me, the way to go.

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