The Antinomian Nature of the Craft Movement

I had been planning to post next or soon a blog about Ozark Witchcraft, but I’ve decided against doing so, for several reasons, one being that I’ve had no direct contact with any Ozark Witches—except, I guess, for Cora Anderson, but we never talked about that—unlike the other flavors of the Craft that I’ve experienced or had friends who had and so on. What I know about the Ozarks is from reading; so I cannot discuss that in terms of my own life experience. Another reason is that several bloggers on this Patheos Pagan Channel, such as Kris Bradley, are providing much better-informed posts about the subject than I could.

I’ve had friends whose judgment I respect tell me that my writing is “engaging.” I’m not sure what they meant by that. It’s nothing I’m doing on purpose in order to “engage” anyone. I think they meant that my writing, when it’s about my own life, holds their attention. I’m guessing that such engagement results from my including details that would not be necessary in a strictly dry bones objective discussion. I include those details, first, because I think they are interesting and at least relevant and, second, because I thoroughly get the anthropological concept of “thick description.”

If you are trying to understand a new phenomenon, especially if it includes human beings, you cannot write an adequate description of it by leaving out unimportant little facts and details, because what is important and what is unimportant is precisely what you do not already know. Instead, you must include anything that could conceivably be relevant for understanding what’s going on. Do I already know everything that is important or unimportant about religion? Of course not. Do I already know everything I need to know about my own life? No, I don’t.

To believe that one can stop learning is to become unteachable, a condition that, according to Scott Peck (I’m rereading The Road Less Traveled for about the fourth time), is a mental illness, severe as schizophrenia and even less treatable, that has caused a huge percentage of the evil and cruelty in the world for as far back as we have historical records. To hold onto an obsolete map of reality, to refuse to consider any new facts that would require one to revise the map, is to be unteachable, is to be, in simple reality, mentally and spiritually ill. The evil arises when, confronted by new facts, one refuses to revise the map and instead shoots the messenger, hoping the message will go away. It won’t, but that is why the Taliban tried to assassinate a 14-year-old girl who told the truth about what the Qu’ran actually says. Right now, the two most pernicious maps in the USA are belief in the absolute literal truth of the Bible and belief that unregulated free-market capitalism can work. Each one of us needs to have the courage to tell people who hold such beliefs that they are effing insane and to refuse to vote for them.

So, now that all that is out on the table, I can state the real point: that the major importance of the Craft is that it is a weapon against the insanity of the unteachable, against people who have corrupted the teachings of their own faith community. The Craft is not a nature religion. It is not an indigenous religion. It is not a New Age or metaphysical or Pagan or feminist religion. Sure, some Witches also adopt one of those options, but there are others who don’t. Rather, the Craft is inherently an antinomian religion.

The heart of the Craft is in its foundational myth: that we are the heirs of those who were murdered during the Burning Times. (For me, its heart is also in the concept that the Ultimate Divinity is the Goddess—but that’s a different essay.) We have no organizational link of any sort to them; believing that we do is yet another variety of pernicious nonsense. But we do have an intellectual link. We do believe that those people who died had an absolute human right to believe whatever it was they believed. We need to consciously recognize that a major reason for the American Revolution was to forever destroy the illegitimate power of any church to compel belief. It was Patrick Henry who argued that the true purpose of the First Amendment was to ensure that nothing like the Salem Witch trials could ever happen in America again. So when at Samhain we read out the names of those who died in Salem Village, that is equivalent to the story that Mary saw Jesus alive by his tomb, or that Isaac’s life was spared, or that God spoke the Qu’ran through his prophet Muhammad, Blessed Be his name. True, those victims in Salem were probably Congregationalists, not Witches—but they died in our name. That is why the term “Witch” was chosen for this movement. We are morally obligated to remember their names, and any other names we can recover, like those of the Northberwickshire Witches—who apparently really were Witches in our sense. (Oh, your coven doesn’t do that? Shame on you. Do it.)

Tomorrow is my 72nd birthday, and this feels like a worthwhile accomplishment for a Sunday morning. I’m glad I’m still around, to tell the truth as far as I’ve been able to discover it during the last 58 years and to harass the greedy, the uncompassionate, the unteachable. Blessed be, y’all, and Mazel tov.



  • Dave Burwasser

    Agreed, what we do and believe is a thorn in the throat of Christianity. But that’s not the reason I am Pagan, it’s not why I got into, and it’s not the first thing I lead with when explaining my Path. (I lead with, “Nature is sacred.”) I’m just not comfortable with this core definition you are offering.

    • aidanakelly

      Dave, it’s obviously an uncomfortable definition, but it’s also not a “nothing but” definition. All kinds of other elements can be layered on it, but none of them are essential, and its fundamental stance will still be confrontational. This is pretty normal, actually. Buddhism confronts Hinduism, because they are both daughters (or sons) of the older Vedic religion. Normative Judaism and official Christianity are twin sisters born from Second-Temple Judaism, and have been having a nasty family fight ever since. The Craft movement has many roots, but almost all of them trace back to one or another of the social and intellectual rebellions against the corrupt authority of the medieval church. That, I think, is why many of us resonate to the antinomianism of the Gnostic writings. They faced a similar situation.

      • Dave Burwasser

        If you are unfortunate enough to get a forceps mark at birth it will be a life long modification of your body but it doesn’t define you. You are not, at the core, a “forceps man.”
        I guess we will have to disagree about this.

  • Peter Dybing

    Including you that makes, let me see, Oh, one person that thinks the line of reasoning above is well thought out. You can and have done so much better!

    • Robert Mathiesen

      I guess we’ll have to disagree on every point in this short post of yours, Peter. For whatever it may be worth, Leland called “the Old Religion” of his informant Maddalena a “counter-religion” (in his _Aradia_), and he meant this term to have much the same force as our more recent term “counter-culture.” The “magical pantheism” of my mother’s family (which, as I have said, is no older than the late 1800s) was very strongly antinomian, and one of the things I learned growing up was certain fundamental principles of succeeding as a professional criminal. I chose, instead, to become a professor, but professors can also spend their careers “subverting the dominant paradigm” — what others regard as corrupting the youth of the country. I’m only two years younger than Aidan, and from my own experience I think that Aidan is quite right that antinomianism has been a central theme in this country’s Paganism at least up to, say, 1985 or 1990. In my view, it should continue to be a central theme: if we form communities, let them be “counter-communities” only. YMMV, of course, and far fewer people have what it takes to thrive in a “counter-community” than in a mainstream one.

      • aidanakelly

        Thank you, Robert–and Deborah. Peter, you can do much better too. If you have some counter-arguments, just state them and we can have a sensible discussion.

      • Deborah Bender

        The late Grandma Julie, the matriarch of the Tower family tradition of witchcraft, turned one of the teachings of that tradition into the following verse:

        Trust a Gypsy; trust a Jew;

        Trust a minstrel; trust a knave;

        Never trust a Roman slave.

        “Roman slave” might be a Nietzchean reference to Christians. It could be given a broader interpretation.

        Grandma Julie’s comment on The Wicker Man was, “If we were burning a man to death, we’d have a better song for it.”

        • Robert Mathiesen

          Oh, I really like this! I would have enjoyed knowing Grandma Julie, I think. My own family’s magical pantheism began only with my great-great-grandmother, and her only child (my great-grandmother, who lived until I was 10) always opened her table to any gypsies and carnies who might be passing through Berkeley. (From the little I know about great-great-grandmother, she probably did the same.) Great-grandmother was as antinomian as they come, as were her only child (grandmother) and her two children (my mother and my aunt).

          Others may do as they please, but the moment either the Craft or Paganism in general becomes as respectable a spiritual/religious choice in our society as, say the Presbyterian or the Methodist Church — that is the moment I cvease to care at all about it and its future.

          • Aidan Kelly

            That’s a great line, Bob! May I quote you? Or, better yet, make a bumper strip?

  • Deborah Bender

    I remember that when the original The Wicker Man was first showing in movie theaters, the local Craft community I live in split right down the middle between people who loved it and people who hated it. I’m seeing something similar in the comments to this post.

    For me, the antinomian nature of the Craft was one of the things that attracted me to it, though certainly not the only thing. For me, being a non-regulation, non-established, minority is an essential part of what makes witches witches and not something else. I wouldn’t go as far as Aidan does and call it the most important characteristic, but I do feel it to be of defining importance. I should perhaps add that I am not against organized religions or congregational religions that accept entire communities as members. They are necessary to society and I belong to one of those religions. For me, witchcraft is up to something entirely different.

    Some witches think anti-nomianism is a bug, not a feature. An embarrassment to be left behind on our road to maturity and social recognition as Witches with a capital W. I have a lot of respect for some of the people who think that way, and many of them are making valuable contributions to contemporary paganism and the wider world. I work with them from time to time, but I would find it hard to be in a coven with most of them, because our ideas on “what the trip is about”, to quote you, are quite different.

  • Jared Hughes

    Greetings Aidan, Ozark “Witchcraft” really is much more akin to the Cunning/Village craft as apposed to Witchcraft it’s Self. As it has more to do with Healing as well herbs and ointments for all sort of ailments and mendings that are needed in life. ofcourse there are also the subjects of curses as well of exorcisms along with the long time honored craft of working with weather. most of the Ozark craft is a blend of folk lore and practices carried by those who settled in the ozark hill’s area, being more irish/scot english and welsh peoples who also got alot of knowledge from the native americans whom were/are living around the area there had also been an influx of african-american practice thrown in(root-working) that made for one of the most interesting blends of american craft practice. i would say if you want a glimpse into the world of the Ozark craft take a look at the books by vance randolph all be it there are some aspects to his work’s that have a rather harsh look at things but gives a reader much insight into the practice and way’s of some of the people he met in the early years of the 20th century.

    • Aidan Kelly

      Yes, I was going to use a longish quote from Randolph that shows there was an active social structure of real people who performed initiations–sexual initiations–into witchcraft back in the 1940s and earlier. But since all I know about the Ozark Witches is book learning, it just does not seem appropriate for what I find I’m doing with these blogs.

  • Robert Mathiesen

    Very much belated . . . yes, by all means quote it, and a bumper sticker would also be OK with me.