Traditional Witchcraft Historicity & Perpetuity

Michael Howard (1948-2015) was an Anglo-Irish writer, researcher, magazine publisher and editor, and member of the Folklore Society. As a writer and editor, his career began in 1974 when he launched the esoteric magazine Spectrum. This ceased publication after ten issues in 1976, when he inaugurated the witchcraft magazine The Cauldron, which was published for 39 years. In the early 1970s he also began contributing feature articles and book reviews to the US magazine Fate and the British astrological journal Prediction. In 1975, his first book on candle magic was published. Since then he has written forty books on the runes, folklore, herbal remedies, faerie lore, traditional witchcraft, Earth Mysteries and the Luciferian tradition. He has also edited books by E.W. Liddell on the Pickingill Craft, and by Evan John Jones on the Robert Cochrane tradition.

Mr. Howard has written several books for Three Hands Press including Welsh Witches and Wizards (2009), West Country Witches (2010), Scottish Witches and Warlocks (2013), East Anglian Witches and Wizards (2017) and his forthcoming Irish Witches, Magicians and Faeries (2018). He is also the author of Children of Cain, which details the history and nature of Traditional Witchcraft in Britain and North America. His latest work is The Luminous Stone, an anthology on Lucifer in the Western Esoteric Tradition, which he co-edited with Daniel A. Schulke. The following interview originally appeared on Three Hands Press blog in 2012 and has been reproduced here with permission.

Image Credit: Esther Wiegardt | CC0 License
Image Credit: Esther Wiegardt | CC0 License

Twentieth-century occultism witnessed a surfacing of various public claims to an historical witch-cult in England and North America, some with greater veracity than others. One of these is the so-called Traditional Witchcraft or Old Craft, the subject of your new book Children of Cain. From your own exposure to numerous types of Old Craft, what criteria tend to define it, and separate it from other forms of magic and folk-belief?

In my opinion the Traditional Craft can be defined by the fact it combines various magical systems and beliefs and ways of working magic that range from the primitive to the sophisticated – so-called ‘low magic’ with ‘high magic’. For example one finds the use of poppets for healing and cursing and the practice of fertility magic alongside a gnostic belief system offering the promise of spiritual salvation and enlightenment.

This is summarized by some comments made by one of the modern traditional witches who feature in my book, Robert Cochrane, discussing his great-grandfather in a letter to Robert Graves. Cochrane said that the Warwickshire and Staffordshire witches led by his forbear were not interested in attaining mystical states. Instead they practised magic for more basic reasons such as good crops, healthy children and the power to strike back at their oppressors. Of course there were and are many traditional covines who worked magically for both ends. In that respect there are examples of middle-class occultists working magically with rural witches that prove the point.

We are now witnessing the usage of such terms as ‘Traditional Wicca’, which many initiates view as an oxymoron. Do you think there has been an attempt by various magical groups to blur the lines of definition or appropriate the outer trappings of Traditional Witchcraft, and if so, why?

I’m not sure that Wiccans are deliberately trying to “appropriate the outer trappings of traditional witchcraft” and I see no conspiracy here. Nevertheless the use of such terms as ‘Traditional Wicca’ or ‘British Traditional Witchcraft’ has certainly blurred the lines of definition. From what I can tell the term British Traditional Witchcraft was first used in the United States to define and identify those lineages of modern neo-pagan witchcraft originating with Gerald Gardner, Alex Sanders and their followers. These were established lineages with a hierarchical priestly structure and a formal initiation with several degrees or grades. By using the term ‘Traditional Wicca’ or ‘British Traditional Witchcraft’ their followers were separating it from the more recent eclectic forms of ‘New Age Wicca’ and traditions such as solitary witchcraft and ‘hedgewitches’ or ‘kitchen witches’. Obviously this has caused confusion between traditional non-Wiccan witches and Wiccans. One traditional witchcraft forum on the Internet frequently has Wiccans join it because they do not know the difference between ‘Traditional Wicca’ and the Traditional or Old Craft that pre-existed Gardner.

Also there is a tendency for the followers of neo-pagan witchcraft to deny the reality of the Traditional Craft pre-Gardner and, ironically considering their own recent origins, claim it is a modern invention. One reason for this is that there is only a tenuous connection between the beliefs and praxis of modern neo-pagan and Wiccan groups and historical witchcraft and the ancient pre-Christian religions of the past.

What circumstances led you to write Children of Cain?

My primary reason for writing the book was because I have been studying and researching the Traditional Craft in one form or another for nearly fifty years now. In that period I have either known or corresponded with most of its leading players who are featured in COC. Therefore I felt qualified enough to write about them from my own personal knowledge. My secondary reason for writing the book was to dispel some of the misinformation, and disinformation, surrounding the subject. The best way to do this was to describe the lives of those traditional witches who are publicly known and the beliefs and practices of the traditions they founded.

What are the common misconceptions about the Traditional Witchcraft?

The main one is that many so-called traditional witches claim in books and articles and on websites that Traditional Craft is a ‘pagan fertility religion’. This leads to such aberrations as ‘Traditional Celtic Witchcraft’ and spurious claims of ancient traditions that date back to pre-Christian times. Many traditional witches don’t even regard their craft as a religion in the accepted sense of the word, let alone a pagan one. To them witchcraft is more of a magical system or an occult path of psychic and spiritual development.

There is also the tendency to identify the traditional witch as a little old lady making herbal remedies in the kitchen of her thatched cottage with roses around the door. This was and is only one aspect of the traditional witch or cunning person. Unfortunately this image is often set in a romantic vision of a past that never existed. It was not all sweetness and light. The brutal truth is that the witch had to make the potions because there was no free health care back then and they were living in dire conditions of poverty and disease. Sometimes these potions were designed to abort unwanted babies or to get rid of somebody who was troublesome. Also alongside the village wise-woman and solitary cunning man there were witch groups working organized and ritualized forms of magical praxis.

Today we have the modern phenomena of the so-called ‘hedgewitch’ or solitary witch, sometimes called the ‘kitchen witch’. Yet the feminist writer who coined this term in the 1980s did not even realize it had an ancient origin! In its archaic form in relation to the Old Craft the word hedgewitch had a different meaning and it meant ‘a rider on the hedge’ or ‘hedge-rider’. In the old days the hedge or fence was the physical boundary or barrier between the village or town and the wilderness. Hence the popular term that something or someone that is not socially acceptable is ‘beyond the pale’, from the Middle English palus, a pointed piece of wood or stake in a fence.

In the Old Craft the hedge is the symbolic boundary or passing-over point between this world and the Otherworld. Therefore the ‘hedge-rider’ is a person who can pass between the worlds. That is why ‘witches’ in rural areas were designated, rightly or wrong, as ‘pagans’, from the Latin paganus meaning ‘civilian’ or ‘country dweller’ i.e. somebody who lived ‘beyond the pale’ outside a town or city. They were also popularly called ‘the people who lived on the heath’ or heathens, from the Old High German meaning ‘savage’. Eventually the term heathen came to mean any unenlightened person and especially anyone who was not a Christian, Jew or Moslem. This did not mean that those known as wiccians, or witches, in the post-Roman and Anglo-Saxon period were followers of pagan religions, although paganistic beliefs may have survived in their ritual observances, such as making offerings to the genii loci, and the natural magic they did.

Another important mistake outsiders make about traditional witchcraft is that it is patriarchal and male-orientated. This may be understandable in a way because most of the publicly known writers on the subject, with a few notable exceptions, just happen to belong to the male gender. Also the Horned God takes a prominent and sometimes exclusive position in Old Craft theology and most traditional covines were (and still are) led by a man. This sometimes overshadows the important fact that women are very much the ‘power behind the throne’. They have an important and traditional role in the Circle of Arte as seers and mediums, but also as magicians and priests with an equal status to male Crafters. It is a fact of life that fewer women than men are drawn to Traditional Craft, possibly because of the popular misconception it is male dominated. Those who are tend to be strong confident women comfortable with their gender and sexuality, individualistic, highly psychic and/or mediumistic and naturally suited to magical praxis.

You have spent a good deal of your life living in the country and worked on farms; has this close proximity to rural life and tradition affected your understanding of cunning-craft practices and traditions?

Living in the countryside has heavily influenced my approach to the Craft. My first personal contact with witchcraft was not from reading books, although that did come later as I tried to understand what it was I had encountered. It was through meeting a local agricultural worker when I was studying at an agricultural college in Somerset in the early 1960s. He told me about the “old ladies” he called witches and who could cure and curse. My experience is that a symbiotic relationship to the land and its genii loci is essential to any practice of traditional witchcraft. I’m not talking about some form of neo-pagan ‘nature worship’ because the traditional witch’s approach and relationship to their environment is very different from that.

Whenever possible, considering the vagaries of the British weather, it is always preferable to work your Craft outdoors. There is a definite interaction between the practitioner, their working site or space, the surrounding landscape and its attendant spirits and wildlife. While the Circle or Arte is very much a ‘space between the worlds’, in outdoor workings it provides the sacred and magical space where humans can also interact with the land and both its seen and unseen denizens.

For many traditional Crafters this interaction with the earth, the moon and the stars, the contact with the geni loci or spirit of the land, and the ritual acknowledgement of the seasonal Wheel of the Year and the agricultural cycle, is the essence and core of their Craft. They will sometimes represent or symbolize the spirits they revere in terms of the natural elemental forces and recognize and work with the magical properties and virtues of flora and fauna. However, this does not make traditional witches ‘nature worshippers’. Instead they see incarnated humanity, temporarily separated or divorced from the spiritual realm, as part of nature and the natural world – and they are not vain enough to worship themselves!

To your knowledge, how many Traditional Witchcraft groups are operative at the present time in Britain, and of these, how many have public faces?

It is almost impossible to guess or estimate how many genuine Old Craft groups or hereditary family traditions still survive in the British Isles. Despite my considerable experience I would not like to give a figure. Nowadays it is probably very few. My feeling is that the few publicly known groups and traditions described in my book, such as the Cultus Sabbati, Coven of Atho, Clan of Tubal Cain, Whitestone and Pickingill Craft, are the tip of a (small) iceberg. Others unknown still prefer to stay underground and in the shadows. Sometimes you can understand why!

What, in your experience, are the factors present in Traditional Witchcraft that give rise to its concealed, or secret nature?

The reason behind the secrecy inherent in traditional witchcraft can best be summarized in that old and trusted occult maxim ‘To Know, To Dare, To Will and to Keep Silent’. The most important of these is to keep silent. For practical magic to be successful a high degree of secrecy has to come into the equation. The old magical law – and lore – states that to talk to outsiders about magical workings dispels their power to achieve results.

Another important factor is that there are certain practices in Traditional Craft that if widely known to cowans could be misunderstood. In fact, it would be regarded by them with at best distaste and at worst disgust. One classic example is the use of a human skull as an oracle for spirit communication. Another would be rituals held in graveyards and a third might be the use of bodily fluids such as blood, semen and vaginal secretions in spells etc. The rite of cursing, although rarely and sparingly used, also does not correspond with the popular image promoted by Wiccan propaganda of the so-called ‘white witch’ who ‘harms none’. For these reasons the practical side of traditional witchcraft on an individual basis will, or should, be concealed and secretive in nature.

There is also the important question of personal privacy. What astonishes me is the modern trend by self-styled ‘traditional witches’ to describe their working sites, almost with map references and postcodes, and personal working tools etc. on Internet blogs and in chat-rooms and discussion forums for millions to see. Those who do this should not be surprised if the next time they meet for a ritual they have an audience of curious onlookers!

As a magical tradition, Traditional Witchcraft has been criticized for its elitism and exclusivity. Taking your knowledge of various lineal groups in sum, what are the rationales for this?

It has to be faced up to that the Traditional Craft is elitist. It is for the few, not the many and always will be. In some ways this is self-generated or self-created because not everyone who is interested in witchcraft per se will be drawn to the traditional side. Many are quite happy with what the more popular and easily accessible forms of modern neo-pagan witchcraft have to offer.

On an esoteric level the spiritual concept of the ‘elven blood’ or ‘witch blood’ descended from the Old Gods or the Watchers is a central belief in most forms of traditional witchcraft. We are not talking here about a physical continuity or some unique form of DNA. Instead it is souls who return to the Craft through the process of incarnation into ‘coats of flesh’. In that way it is the ultimate form of elitism and exclusivity.

Together with Paul Huson, you were one of the first occult writers to openly speak about the presence of Lucifer and Luciferian arcana in Traditional Witchcraft. What was your initial exposure to this strand of witch-lore, and how do you view the proliferation of “Luciferian’ claims in popular occultism?

I first contacted the Luciferian tradition it was in the context of the angelic magical tradition rather than witchcraft. This was in the 1960s when I was a student of the taromancer, astrologer and magus Madeline Montalban and a member of her Order of the Morning Star. It was not until I read Paul Huson’s classic magnum opus Mastering Witchcraft and an American reprint of Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia: Gospel of the Witches that I encountered the historical Luciferian tradition in witchcraft.

For a long time I regarded Lucifer as the witch-god and then this all came together in a Craft sense when I began corresponding with Andrew Chumbley of the Cultus Sabbati. That was in 1992 when he sent me a first edition of his grimoire of Sabbatic Craft Azoetia for review in my magazine The Cauldron. Madeline’s name for Lucifer was Lord Lumiel (Latin-Hebrew) or Lumial (Latin-Arabic), meaning ‘Light of God’. She claimed to have received this name directly from source during a vision she had in the early 1950s. Interestingly in similar circumstances Andrew had also independently received the same name, even though he had absolutely no knowledge of Madeline or her teachings. Since then the name Lumiel has been widely adopted worldwide as a more acceptable and less controversial name for rebel archangel and Lord of Light.

In the 1990s I came out of the Luciferian closet by writing a series of articles in The Cauldron under the nom-de-plume of ‘Frater Ashtan’. These articles were later incorporated into my book The Pillars of Tubal Cain published in 2000 by Capall Bann. In my articles and the book I used the name ‘Lumial’ for Lucifer and coined the term ‘Luciferian Craft’. This term was used to describe those forms of modern traditional witchcraft that recognized Lucifer as the witch-god and the savior and redeemer of humankind. Since then many people have jumped on the Luciferian bandwagon and they range from the genuine to the phony with a sprinkling of loonies as well. Genuine examples of Luciferian Craft groups that have appeared in the public eye and are featured in my book are the Cultus Sabbati, Whitestone, the Pickingill Craft, and the original Robert Cochrane covine.

What differences do you perceive in the Old Craft of the present-day, and that which was active in the late 60’s, shortly after the death of Robert Cochrane?

After Cochrane’s unfortunate suicide at midsummer 1966 one of the only public claimants to following a traditional path was the late Sybil Leek, and she had decamped to the United States after being driven out of her village by excessive media attention and local hostility. Leek claimed to have been initiated into the Horsa Coven in the New Forest dating back to Saxon times. She is not included in my book because I have always had grave doubts about her fantastic and contradictory claims. Two other traditional witches who were also prominent at the time were Charles and Mary Cardell of the Coven of Atho and they are mentioned. Unfortunately they became involved in a court case after a newspaper reporter spied on one of their rituals and published a sensational account of it. The Cardells lost the case, were forced to pay costs that bankrupted them and then disappeared from public view.

After Cochrane’s death two members of his covine, which had disbanded several months before his demise, founded The Regency, and this pioneering group does appear in the book as I have devoted a chapter to it. It had an inner circle that included several members of the old covine. However it also had a more neo-pagan ‘outer court’ that organized seasonal rituals at various outdoor locations that were open to the general public. This was totally unique at the time. They also attracted many Wiccan and occultists on the esoteric scene at the time. These open rituals went on until the late 1970s when The Regency became a private closed group again. Due to the age and health of the surviving members it has recently stopped convening.

It was not really until the late 1980s and early 1990s that other genuine traditional Crafters who are described in Children of Cain, like Andrew Chumbley of the Cultus Sabbati, Tony Newman of the Whitestone tradition and Evan John Jones of Cochrane’s former group, went public. They were followed by people like Bob Clay-Egerton, whose induction into an old covine at Alderley Edge in Cheshire during the Second World War is also described in the book.

As far as the Old Craft in general is concerned, in the 1960s and 1970s its members tended to keep a low profile. Many had objected to and indeed were horrified by Gerald Gardner’s publicity-seeking antics. They feared that by drawing attention to the continued existence of witchcraft today the persecution would be revived and they might be exposed and harmed. Indeed several sensational newspaper stories in the 1950s and 1960s about modern witchcraft led to aborted attempts by individual Members of Parliament to try and re-introduce an anti-witchcraft law. It has even been suggested that practitioners of the occult arts such as Tarot readers, mediums and clairvoyants should be registered and licensed!

Ironically the more positive media exposure that Wiccans received in the 1980s and 1990s actually encouraged some followers of the Elder Faith to take the risk of going public. Their motivation was to prove that other forms of witchcraft apart from Wicca existed and had a historical provenance and this is still an ongoing struggle. Also it was to meet a genuine need as some of those who had been initiated into popular Wicca had become disillusioned with it. They were now seeking something deeper and more authentic. The charge has been made, perhaps in some cases with justification, that in providing a public face the Traditional Craft was sanitized for general consumption. However this public face was often a mask that concealed more than it revealed. In that respect it still complied with the need for the degree of secrecy and concealment mentioned before.

Since 1999 you have been an initiate of the Traditional Witchcraft Order Cultus Sabbati. So much as you may speak of these matters, what features of this initiatic body have stood out, apart from other witch-lineages you are familiar with?

On a personal level my induction into the Cultus Sabbati felt very much as if I was ‘coming home’. When I first stepped into the circle with its other members my immediate feeling was one of a powerful spiritual, psychic and physical connection with something that was genuine and very ancient. That is something that cannot be faked, although numerous charlatans, poseurs and mountebanks have tried over the years.

Seekers often ask me how they can recognize what is authentic Traditional Craft. Increasingly I believe it is this connection with historical witchcraft, in both belief and praxis, which provides the necessary criteria for judging what is authentic and what is not. Different branches of the Old Craft of course have their similarities and their differences. However most genuine forms of traditional witchcraft share certain ‘keys’ that can be recognized and indicate they are genuine.

You have spent a good deal of time researching the Traditional Witch Robert Cochrane and his Clan of Tubal-Cain. You were also in contact with former Clan member Evan John Johns whilst he was alive, as well as others who knew or worked with Cochrane. What are your thoughts on the legacy of Robert Cochrane and its present-day influences on Traditional Witchcraft?

In a letter to one of his correspondents Robert Cochrane expressed his frustration with the other members of his covine. He intimated they did not fully understand what he was doing. When I met the late Evan John Jones at his home in Brighton and talked at length with him about the old covine I got the same impression. One incident in particular during my stay with him graphically illustrated this.

I showed John a letter written by Cochrane to the Oxfordshire cunning man Norman Gills in which Cochrane describes invoking Lucifer. John was not at all happy with the contents of this letter to the extent that he even denied that Cochrane had written it. He claimed that there was no Luciferian aspect to the old covine when he was a member of it. This situation has evidently changed as the official Clan of Tubal Cain in the UK, inherited from John Jones by Shani Oates in the late 1990s now publicly describes itself as a ‘Luciferian-Gnostic tradition’.

After Cochrane died the Clan of Tubal Cain in the form of the old covine virtually ceased to exist. John Jones withdrew from the Craft to deal with domestic issues and it was not until the mid-1980s, with the permission of Robert Cochrane’s widow, that he decided to revive the Clan and initiate an American couple – something he told me he later bitterly regretted. I think that break in continuity was very important and explains a lot of what followed – the way his tradition has changed since his death and the current dispute between rival claimants about the leadership of the Clan.

Overall Robert Cochrane’s tradition has had a powerful and important influence on the modern revival of traditional witchcraft. For example, his Craft system is also being worked and continued successfully by groups and individuals who are not publicly known and make no claims of physical initiatory descent from its founder. Cochrane may or may not have been economical with the truth about some of his claims to be a hereditary witch from a family tradition. The jury is still out on that matter.

If Cochrane was not a hereditary witch then he must have had contact with genuine members of the Old Craft. This is because his tradition contains many of the ‘keys’ mentioned before that can be used to identify traditional witchcraft. That is why it is ridiculous for his critics to claim that Cochrane ‘made it all up’. It is significant that those who make this claim have never worked his system. If they had done, they would change their minds — as it works and produces results. That is the ultimate test of any form of witchcraft or magic.

As a writer-publisher and initiate, you occupy a unique position, standing with one foot inside the Circle and one foot out. How has this access to both inner and outer aspects of Traditional Witchcraft affected your overall understanding of it?

I think it has probably made my life more difficult! It may have helped me to understand the Craft and its various forms but it would have been much easier to have been just an anonymous member of a covine. Having a public persona and a private magical inner life is a difficult juggling act. In my case however it probably suits my dual Gemini personality!

Though some modern practitioners claim to belong to Traditional Witchcraft lineages which are ‘pure’ in regional or cultural origin, we most often find that witch-sorcery is highly syncretic in nature, incorporating diverse elements of magical charm and folk belief. One example is the preponderance of Continental grimoires and Solomonic magic in British witchcraft and cunning-folk practice. In your opinion, what are the greatest original contributions that Old Craft has made to Western occultism?

While this may be a controversial view, I think it is difficult to completely separate the Old Craft from the Western magical tradition. The relationship between historical witchcraft and ceremonial magic is a complex and blurred one. Earlier in this interview there was a reference to occultists working with rural witches that illustrates this point. One example of this I’ve personally come across was the story of a Magister of a covine in Northern England in the nineteenth-century who was involved in Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn-type magic. As a result this was introduced into what formerly was a rural witch covine.

The other contribution by the Old Craft to the magical tradition relates to the survival of Solomonic magic. It was often witches who preserved the magical practices in the grimoire tradition. In her book Witchcraft and the Inquisition in Venice 1550-1650, Ruth Martin refers to a woman arrested for practicing witchcraft and a copy of the Key of Solomon was found in her house. She had evidently borrowed the grimoire and was copying material from it by hand into her personal ‘Black Book’.

Even Gerald Gardner inherited this tradition from the Elders of the old covine he was initiated into in the New Forest in 1939. In an article in the Illustrated magazine in 1952 it was said that the covine added material from the Key of Solomon to their rituals. In Gardner’s prototype Book of Shadows, Ye Bok of ye Arte Magical written in the 1940s, the circle casting ritual comes from the Key and it is the magus (sic) who casts it with a ceremonial sword and not the priestess as in later versions of the BoS. Elements from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley’s OTO and AA were also in introduced into modern neo-pagan witchcraft.

Bill Liddell of the Pickingill Craft told me that the old-time cunning men borrowed sigils and ‘barbarous words of power’ from the grimoires to use in charms to counter the power of malefic witchcraft. Their clients were duly impressed that this ‘superior magic’ could overcome curses. However, he added, the irony was that many cunning folk were themselves witches. Often the village cunning man was also the leader of the local witch covine.

Your book Children of Cain discusses in depth the controversial figure of George Pickingill. Bill Liddell, who you have mentioned, claims to be a hereditary member of the Pickingill witchcraft tradition. He has written a considerable amount of information on the subject, but much of it is contradictory. Considering your personal knowledge of Traditional Witchcraft in Essex, what are the greatest arguments that Pickingill was in fact a magical practitioner?

Having corresponded on and off with Bill Liddell since 1977 I am not, unlike his critics, willing to dismiss him as a liar and fantasist. I agree that the image of George Pickingill he presents does not fit in with the cunning man’s publicly known image. Perhaps this only proves how clever Old George was in hiding the truth. Some of the contradictions may arise from the fact that Bill was passing on information told to him by his Craft Elders and others and some of it may have been of a legendary nature. Because he wrote in the first person in his articles people did not realize that Bill’s information was coming from various different sources. Each of these sources had their own agenda to promote and were themselves contradictory.

The popular stories about Pickingill and his magical powers collected by the amateur folklorist Eric Maple in Canewdon in the late 1950s provide plenty of evidence connecting the cunning man’s practices with historical witchcraft. Also it tends to be overlooked that as a cunning man or witch Pickingill was not an isolated figure in the village. Maple collected many stories about other Canewdon residents who were reputed to be witches and may or may not have been associated with Old George and his alleged covine. This is why it was popularly known as the ‘witch village’ and the surrounding area was ‘witch country’.

Again the description of the popular beliefs about the Canewdon witches and wizards and their alleged powers and activities resonates with accounts of historical witchcraft and also the survival of the Old Craft in modern Essex and eastern England. One example is the widespread use by the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century witches in Canewdon of familiar spirits. These assumed the shape of white mice and white rabbits as well as hybrid creatures. Familiars also featured heavily in the East Anglian witch trials two hundred years before and this suggests a historical continuity of belief and praxis.

In modern occult circles, there is often a mutual animosity between practitioners of ceremonial magic and of witchcraft. However, ceremonial magic, angelic conjuration, control of elementals, and command of the goetic spirits was the stock-in-trade of the British cunning-man, and is also frequently found in Traditional Witchcraft. Where are the most important historical points of contact between practitioners of rural witchcraft and urban ceremonial magic?

As mentioned before, I have never quite understood this perceived dichotomy between witchcraft and ceremonial magic or the strong feelings it engenders today. The Gardnerian witch Doreen Valiente claimed that the Craft had nothing to do with medieval and later traditions of ritual magic. However, in her book Where Witchcraft Lives published in 1962, she described a witch rite for divining the future using a crystal ball. On the table beside the crystal she says there was a ritual knife, a censer, a box of incense and a pentacle made of white wax engraved with magical sigils. Of course the pentacle is one of the traditional working tools of the ceremonial magician!

Part of the problem is the projection of modern neo-pagan views and ideas back into a past that never existed and the theory that historical witchcraft was a direct survival of a pre-Christian religion. As Robert Cochrane said, elements of the pagan mystery cults survived in the historical witch-cult but it was not ‘pagan’ per se. Elements of old pre-Christian beliefs can also be found in popular faery lore, which was and is connected with the Craft, and in some seasonal folk customs.

Historians such as Carlo Ginzburg, Bengt Ankarloo and Gustav Henningsen have identified elements in historical witchcraft of the survival of the worship of a goddess-type figure that can be identified with either Diana or Frau Holda. Gustav Henningsen’s essay ‘Ladies From the Outside: An Archaic Pattern of the Witches’ Sabbath’ in Early Modern Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries, published by the Clarendon Press Oxford in 1993, is a useful resource relating to this theory. The essay deals with the prosecution of medieval Sicilian witches by the Spanish Inquisition when Sicily was an imperial colony of Spain. It describes accounts gathered by the inquisitors of contacts between witches and faeries and reverence for a female figure identified by her followers as the ‘queen of the faeries’. A similar ‘goddess’ is also known from English and Scottish witch trials and was called the ‘Queen of Elfhame’ or Faeryland.

To return to the subject of witchcraft and ritual magic. The evidence suggests that the Arabic forms of magical praxis and the material from the Greco-Egyptian papyri that were later incorporated into the grimoires and the Solomonic tradition entered southern Europe during the Moorish occupation of medieval Spain. This was also a crucial period in the history of the European witch-cult when ideas, concepts, beliefs and practices from the Middle East and North Africa influenced its development and evolution.

By the late Middle Ages it is difficult to see the differences between witches and practitioners of ceremonial magic. In fact they came together in the role played in folk magic by the cunning man and wise-woman. The perceived differences between the witch and the magician were very much based on the interpretation and categorization of magical practitioners by those who were persecuting alleged witches or by the popular beliefs held by the masses about witchcraft.

In fact the words ‘witchcraft’ and ‘witch’ were used by outsiders to identify and describe a wide range of magical practices. They were probably not used widely by the practitioners to describe themselves. Even today there are some traditionals who prefer not to use the ‘w’ word because of its popular connotations. Robert Cochrane for instance described himself as a pellar – a word from the old Cornish language meaning a healer or charmer. He also said that modern members of the Old Craft called themselves the ‘’Good People’, ‘Green Gowns’ (female), ‘wizards’ (male), ‘Horsemen’ and ‘Jack and Jills’.

Traditional Witchcraft, in some cases, appears to have derived some of its lore and ritual practice from the trade-guilds, whose influence greatly waned with the Industrial Revolution. Why is this so, and what features of trade-guilds or societies have particular resonance with bodies of witchcraft practice?

The link between traditional witchcraft and the old trade guilds of the Middle Ages and beyond is an interesting one that has been neglected in historical studies. There are certainly connections between the Old Craft and secretive organizations operating in country areas such as the Guild of Horsemen, the Miller’s Word and the Society of Ploughman. Witches were also to be found in such trades as smithing and metal-working, shoe-making, tailoring, saddle-making, stone and slate quarrying, and copper and tin mining.

A classic example of a trade guild connected with traditional witchcraft is the Horseman’s Word, whose members were more popularly known as horse-whisperers. This was a rural secret society once widespread in East Anglia, the West Country and Scotland and it was exclusively male. In most other aspects it conformed to a historical witchcraft framework. Initiations were carried out at midnight in remote places of the countryside and involved tests and ordeals, the taking of a solemn oath, the passing on of secret knowledge and a communal and quasi-sacramental meal of bread and whisky. The rituals were presided over by the chief horseman who wore a goat-head mask and animal skins. In Scotland he was called in Gaelic Auld Chiel or the Old Chief – a nickname for the Devil. Part of the initiation of the Word was the reciting of the story to the candidate of how the biblical first murderer and first magician Cain, the patron of the Horsemen, tamed the first wild horse.

There are also obvious connections between traditional witchcraft and Freemasonry, which originated in the medieval guilds of stonemasons with their operative lodges and was known as ‘the Craft’. The medieval Masonic legends traced it back to the building of King Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem and its construction allegedly using magical methods. Solomon was reputed to have been a powerful magician and he conjured up djinns or spirits to help the human workers build the temple. It was even said that the king was assisted by the first biblical smith Tubal Cain, one of the avatars of the witch-god in traditional witchcraft. Solomon’s reputation as a magical practitioner who could summon and control demons or spirits led to the most famous grimoire of all being named after him.

Considering the changes that the Old Craft has undergone, particularly in the past fifty years, do you continue to see it as a vital part of country life, and in what ways might it change?

We have to be careful not to encourage some sort of Wicker Man or Harvest Home fantasy, but, in the immortal words of the late Cecil Williamson, “It still goes on today”. Despite the widespread use of chemical fertilizers, super-tractors with air-conditioned cabs and industrial-scale farming it is amazing just what old beliefs and superstitions survive in rural areas. Country folk still put a bowl of honey and milk out at night saying it is “for the hedgehogs”, corn dollies are made from the last sheaf of the harvest and kept in the farmhouse for next year as a fertility charm, and pieces of cake buried in the first furrow of a ploughed field, while the plough itself is blessed, although it is now in church by the vicar. There are still gifted individuals who can charm warts, heal sick animals and have the Second Sight. A few even possess the malefic power of the Evil Eye.

Also there are covines in the countryside following the traditional Old Ways and avoiding the public gaze. Some of these are revivalist groups dating from modern times, but others claim older origins. One of the oldest rural covines in the country met in the picturesque village of Long Compton near the Rollright stone circle on the Oxfordshire-Warwickshire border. The cunning man Norman Gills, who is mentioned in my book, claimed to have contact with this old covine. A set of stag antlers they used ritually were owned by Gills and came into the possession of a friend of mine some years ago. They are now being used by a modern traditional covine in Shropshire and provide them with a physical and magical link with the Old Craft. The Long Compton covine was still active in the 1960s and, if the local rumors are true, it still exists today.

How do you see the role of ‘dual-faith observance’ in Traditional Witchcraft?

If one looks back at the accounts of the witch-trials there are numerous charms used by the accused that are of a Christian or semi-Christian nature. Most of these are Roman Catholic and pre-Reformation in origin calling on the Virgin Mary, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and the company of saints. Today some traditional witches use the psalms for magical purposes and subvert and invert Christian imagery, symbolism and beliefs in a heretical way. Other Crafters see the story of Jesus as a legitimate version of the ancient myth of the ‘sacrificed god’ or divine king. They see no problem with attending special church services such as Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, when the Lord of Light is born, or the Harvest Festival in September in celebration of the corn spirit John Barleycorn.

What is your opinion of the idea that the spirits or deities encountered in witchcraft and magic are merely aspects of the human psyche?

There is a trendy post-modern view based on psychology that spiritual beings have no real existence. In fact they are “all in the mind” or “the human psyche”. This idea is not to be confused with the ancient esoteric doctrine of the ‘god within’ or divine spark that every human being, clay-born or twice-born, has and which connects us to the spiritual realm while incarnated in the material world.

Speaking from my own personal experience, I have no doubt that spirits have an objective reality. While they are separate from human beings it is also true that individually and collectively practitioners of the Arte are drawn to particular spirits. In my opinion this is not because they are aspects of their own psyches. Instead there are attributes of these entities that correspond to the personality traits, magical emphasis and spiritual development of both practitioners and their groups and traditions. Certainly when spirits manifest in the Circle of Arte it is clear they are not just projections of the human mind.

If we believe in the reality of a multidimensional realm beyond the material world, and that is a core belief in witchcraft, then we have to accept that it is also inhabited by other beings, who are either formerly human or non-human. In the Otherworld these entities may not appear in a physical form we would recognize. It has been suggested that in fact they may appear in abstract forms as pure energy. For this reason when they interact with humans spirits may adopt archetypal images that are culturally and historically relevant to those experiencing them.

The ceremonial magician W.E. Butler once told me an interesting story in this respect. He and his wife, who was psychic but not a trained magician, were visiting an ancient site in the countryside near their home in Hampshire. While at the site they both independently experienced a visitation from an elemental or faery. When describing their experience to each other Ernest’s wife said it looked like a typical faery, small in size wearing a medieval type green tunic with a pointed cap and pointed shoes. In contrast to this popular image of the Good Folk seen by his wife, Ernest saw the entity as a small ball of green light.

In many forms of the Traditional Craft there is the myth of the Watchers or so-called ‘fallen angels’ incarnating in ‘cloaks of flesh’ in the material world. They did this as cultural exemplars so they could instruct humans in the arts of civilization and magic. Some Luciferian Crafters also believe that down through the ages Lumiel has incarnated in physical form in his role as the Lord of the World to accelerate the spiritual development of the human race. These earthly visits are allegedly recorded in the ancient myths relating to sacrificed savior gods such as Osiris, Tammuz, Adonis, Attis, Mithras, Baldur, Quetzalcoatl – and even Jesus. If the Old Gods and spirits were merely aspects of the human psyche or projections from our minds then these myths, and the corresponding beliefs associated with them, would not exist in world mythology.

Children of Cain features a chapter on Traditional Witchcraft in America. Could you talk a bit about the unique situation that gave rise to witchcraft and the various hybrid forms of folk magic in the States?

It is well known that religious dissenters and sectarians escaped persecution in Europe in the seventeenth-century and settled in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New England. What is less known is that alongside Christianity some of the early colonists were occultists who brought with them traditions of ceremonial and folk magic from the Old World. The infamous witch-trials in Salem and elsewhere have largely been dismissed by modern historians as products of moral hysteria and religious intolerance. Yet there were many genuine witches, cunning folk and magical practitioners operating in colonial America at the time.

Such folk magical practices as divination by the traditional ‘shears and sieve’ method, palmistry and reading the playing cards were widespread. There was also the use of rag dolls for cursing, witch-bottles for detecting and exposing suspected witches, herbal remedies for healing and even initiations into the Craft by the ‘Man inn Black’. In early American accounts he was sometimes described as a Native American, probably because the Puritans regarded the indigenous inhabitants of the country they had invaded as heathen ‘devil worshippers’.

A separate strand of popular magic emerged from the Diaspora of African slaves brought to America to work for the white plantation owners and as servants for wealthy families. They imported their own unique brand of magical praxis based on African spiritism and fetishism. In the New World these indigenous beliefs were influenced by Christianity, which provided a useful and acceptable ‘mask’. Other foreign influences came from the fusion of Spanish forms of magic and images of the European Witches’ Sabbath with Southwestern Native American sorcery.

Immigrants escaping extreme poverty and famine in Ireland also brought over their own folk traditions and the ‘faery faith’, as did the settlers from Scotland. The influx of people from Germany, Holland and Austria introduced grimoire magic and Christian forms of charming that eventually produced hexerei or so-called hexcraft. There is also evidence in the nineteenth-century of family traditions and ‘covens’ or magical groups that drew upon British historical witchcraft mixed with Spiritualism, Theosophy and ceremonial magic. All these different occult and magical influences helped create a rich tapestry of witchcraft and folk belief throughout North America.

For those who are unaware of the distinctions, what are some of the essential differences between Traditional Witchcraft and Wicca?

While Wiccans tend to work skyclad indoors traditional witches work robed outdoors whenever it is practical. Hence they are sometimes called ‘robed covens’. In Wicca the High Priestess is the leader of the coven accompanied by the High Priest as her consort and initiations are strictly male to female or female to male. There can be no deviation from that rule. However in most traditional covines there is a male leader, known as the Magister (Master) or Devil and he can initiate both men and women. Alternatively the Magister and Magistra (Mistress) may be of equal status and rule the coven together. In the Cochrane tradition although it is generally the Magister who is in charge he takes his power and authority from the clan’s Maid.

Likewise, while Traditionals may revere the witch-god and witch-goddess, who are specific deities or spirits not just any pagan god or goddess you fancy, equally as the Lord and Lady, some old covines are exclusively Horned God-orientated. Even where there is deity equality in Traditional Craft, the God is a far less emasculated figure than his counterpart in modern Wicca and has a larger role. Other traditional covines have an animistic belief system and are polytheistic in nature with a large retinue of male and female spirits.

On an operative and practical level trance-work, ‘magical dreaming’ and spirit possession are an important aspect of the Traditional Craft. Contact with the spirit world and the ancestral dead also occurs on a regular basis, and not just at Hallows or Halloween. In general the ambience of a traditional witch rite is very different from Wicca. Because of that it is very hard to describe the difference unless you have actually experienced it.

"Sounds like a book that I would really enjoy. Thanks for the review. I have ..."

Review: The Witch’s Book of Spirits
"It is great to see you back and writing more on here. I have found ..."

Going Through the Motions: Bodies in ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment