The Children of Cain: On the “Old Craft”

I just got through reading Michael Howard’s Children of Cain: A Study of Modern Traditional Witches (Xoanon Limited, 2011*). Howard’s book is about the alleged Old Craft, sometimes also known as Traditional Craft, an organic Witchcraft that predates Gardner’s version of the same (or a similar) thing. Most of us have run into Traditional Crafters online and sometimes even in person. In my case some of those online interactions have turned into arguments (though that’s never been my intention). So while I’ve disagreed with many who claim to be of The Old Craft, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a pre-Gardner Witchcraft. Fascinated, but skeptical to some degree, perhaps even more so after reading Howard’s book.

I think it’s dishonest to simply dismiss every claim to Witchcraft pre-Gardner. I’m convinced that such groups most likely existed, but I’ve yet to see anything that makes me believe that they are any older than the coven Gardner was initiated into back in 1939. Aidan Kelly has written about several of the alleged pre-Gardner groups online over the last couple of years and those articles are definitely worth reading. My problem with a lot of these claims comes from how the words “Witch” and “Witchcraft” are used.

When I hear the words “Witch” or “Witchcraft” in a Contemporary Pagan setting, I immediately envision a system that’s a combination of the magical and the spiritual. Eclectic Wicca, British Traditional Witchcraft, the Feri Tradition, all of those paths contain both magical practice and direct interaction with the divine. Any sort of “Pagan Witchcraft” has to contain those two elements. Magic and religion are often separate strands of experience. One can practice magic completely free of a religious context, and one can even walk many paths within Pagandom and not necessarily believe in or utilize magical practice.

So when I read about Old Craft traditions being passed down in secret for hundreds years, it’s with a sense of both belief and disbelief. I believe that magical traditions may very well have been passed down for generations, but it’s hard for me to believe that there was much if any spiritual component attached to those traditions. Often times magical traditions can be so easily folded into a Modern Pagan worldview that it might feel as if they’ve been there all along. When someone says my family has been practicing Witchcraft and worshipping the Horned One for generations it’s not necessarily a lie, it becomes a kind of belief, because the spiritual elements end up feeling like they’ve always been there. (The true falsehoods over the years are usually the “grandmother initiation” stories, but that’s a different post.)

So one could have a core set of magical beliefs that have been passed down from the Renaissance and then later those practices are supplemented with Modern Paganism (and often again supplemented by more “complete” magical systems, like that used by Gardner or Robert Cochrane). That result is the creation of a tradition with very old foundations, but it’s not an “Ancient Witchcraft” because it’s a combination of an old strand and a new strand. Besides, it’s unlikely that anyone would have called themselves a practitioner of Witchcraft two or even a hundred years ago. A lot of traditional magical practice was directed against witches. So while many strands of Old Craft might contain magical practices that are hundreds of years old, I’m still not sure that makes any of them older than Gardner’s Witchcraft. It’s worth pointing out that Gardner was most likely initiated into a coven that had its own practitioners of handed-down-family-magic.

In just the first chapter of Children of Cain the argument for a pre-Gardner spiritual-Witchcraft begins to unravel. Howard titles his first chapter Traditional Witch Ways, but nearly all of those ways can be traced to late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century beliefs.

“The Old Craft is often exemplified by close contact with the spirit world, and acknowledgment of the bright and dark aspects of the witch god and goddess and (in some traditions) the role of the Horned One as both Lord of the Wildwood and Lord of the Wild Hunt. These two aspects are sometimes represented by the Oak King and the Holly King, the twin gods ruling the waxing (summer) year and waning (winter) year respectively, based on ancient Welsh legend.”

All kinds of Witch traditions have close contact with the spirit world, and every Witch I know is well aware of the “bright and dark” aspects of deity. Fifteenth Century witches were certainly alleged to have worshipped a sometimes horned god (the Christian Devil) but the Horned One as a “Lord of the Wildwood” owes far more to Nineteenth Century poetry and Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) than to medieval witch-hunts. The legend of the Oak and Holly Kings is even more modern, only dating back to Robert Graves and his 1948 book The White Goddess. Those are either incredible coincidences (and if they are, there are a lot of Modern Crafters who should be crafting a law-suit against Graves’s estate) or represent new ideas being folded into magical traditions.

Almost all of Howard’s examples as it pertains to deity reflect modern influences. Just a bit later in the chapter Howard writes:

“The witch god is also represented as the sacred king, the ancient vegetation god who suffers a sacrificial death at midsummer, descends into the underworld and is reborn at the winter solstice . . .”

The idea of the sacred king as the ancient sacrificial-vegetation god is old, but it’s old in that it dates back to the 1890’s and the publication of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. That doesn’t invalidate the ideas, just the idea that they might represent a centuries old Witch-tradition.

Even traditions that feel older because they are a little different from what many of us think of us as the norm can be traced to more contemporary sources. When Howard writes about the covine structure (and a different spelling for “coven” doesn’t necessarily mean much either) I was immediately struck by just how much that structure mirrors ideas found in Murray’s Witch Cult:

“In most traditional groups it is the Magister, ‘Devil’ or witch master who rules the covine and is the MC or ‘master of ceremonies’ presiding over the rituals.”

I feel like I’m being overly cruel to Howard’s book, and I don’t mean to be. There was a great deal in it that I truly enjoyed. Any time I can read a bit more about Robert Cochrane, (The Clan of Tubal Cain) I’m a pretty happy camper. I was also happy to learn more about groups like The Regency** and The Horseman’s Word. (Sadly there was a chapter on the “Pickingill Craft” a frequent topic in Howard’s writing, though there is really no evidence that “Pickingill Craft” has ever existed.) Howard has done Paganism and Modern Witchcraft a real service by documenting the groups in Cain, so while I don’t necessarily agree with all of his conclusions I appreciate the work.

I’m sure that more books on Old Craft will be released in the coming years, and when they are released I’ll buy them (regardless of price in most instances). While a skeptic to some degree, I hope with all my heart that I’m ultimately wrong on the subject of The Old Craft, nothing would make me happier. Proof will require some degree of documentation, and it has to be more than “it’s old because I say it’s old.” Ultimately it doesn’t really matter whether or not Traditional Craft is legitimately older than Gardner’s version. As long as its messages continue to resonate with practitioners it will remain a part of Modern Paganism, and as a result, influence many of us who call ourselves Witches.

*If you are interested in picking up a copy of Children of Cain and you live in the United States, all I can say is good luck. Copies are currently selling for about 75 bucks online. I got mine for 60 at Fields Bookstore while at PantheaCon.

**Sadly the history of The Regency is not quite as cool as the name The Regency. Seriously, The Regency might be the coolest name for a Witch-group in practically forever.

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  • Henry Buchy

    ah, I commented on one of your posts about this about two years ago( if my memory serves), during the last “Hutton huff”. I’ll reiterate.
    being first trained by old crafters in the mid to early 70’s, I’ll give you how they related the craft to me. First, it’s all about magic and working with the land. The only theology is simple animism, so yea no such thing as an ancient ‘witch’ religion in the manner ,say Murray suggested, or even the manner in which Hutton investigated. That avenue is like losing ones car keys and searching under a street light because that’s where the light is, not where you lost them.
    The other thing is old crafters don’t give a fig about historians or documentation or whether folks think they exist or not. One old saying ” what is unknown is ignored”. or they might give you a red herring or wild goose, or they might even just nod in agreement with everything said,lol.
    Like politics ‘all craft is local’, families have there own ancestral spirits which they might work with, but they won’t share them with non family, even though they might teach non family the basic aspects of craft.(my case) They will make contact and develop relations with local land/nature ‘spirits’ and work with those also.
    There won’t be any documentation because it isn’t needed. The methods used are pretty straightforward and not hard to memorize, and transmit orally through practice. There will also be ‘borrowing’ or making use of anything practical. The key being if it works. This also includes working within any other religious paradigm. Saying something is no longer “old” due to incorporating contemporary practices is like saying weaving cloth is modern because it’s done on machines now.

  • Are you familiar with Zan Fraser’s books? He digs deeply into Elizabethan literature and comes up with a lot of witch lore. I’m not saying that the TC folks are linked to that tradition, but there is a lot more information on pre-Murray, pre-Graves witchcraft than I had ever suspected.

    • I’ll have to take a look. The Horned God of Wytches will be on its way to me by the end of the day.

  • Hth

    Have you written anywhere about Carlo Ginzburg’s work? I’d be interested to hear your take.

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    I am convinced that there are remnants of pre Christian religious belief across Europe.

    On the one hand, you have the fuzzy memories of British folklore and tradition mingled into our culture landscape but, on the other hand, I have heard of those in Norway whose families are said to have never converted to the religion of the “Kvitekrist”. Somewhere in between are the folk beliefs still prevalent in many parts, such as the Icelandic belief in the Huldufolk or the Irish belief in the Sídhe.

    W.B Yeats wrote : “How many gods are there?” asked a priest, a little while ago, of a man from the Island of Innistor. “There is one on Innistor; but this seems a big place,” said the man, and the priest held up his hands in horror, as Giraldus had, just seven centuries before. Remember, I am not blaming the man; it is very much better to believe in a number of gods than in none at all, or think there is only one, but that he is a little sentimental and impracticable, and not constructed for the nineteenth century. (Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, 1888)

  • JanetteNash

    As a Brit, I disagree strongly with your premise. Please read Thomas Hardy. Research the Green Man figures carved into churches. Study British folkloric rituals going back centuries (mummers, morris dancers, well dressing, maypole, harvest rites, chalk man/horse rituals, etc, etc). Arthur and Herne are in the marrow of Brits. And that’s not to mention the rest of Europe. Witchcraft is magic. Associating it with religion is all well and good, but asserting that witchcraft was not practiced because it wasn’t “spiritual” like today is facile and unscholarly.

    • The heyday of the Greenman in English Churches was from the tenth to fifteenth centuries, long after most of Great Britain had been Christianized. The figure most likely represents a soul in purgatory, not some version of Frazer’s dying and resurrecting vegetation god. The first reference to Herne pops up in Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” written in perhaps 1596/1597. I’ve written extensively about the maypole in the past, and the earliest references to maypoles date from the fourteenth century. These are all customs which certainly feel “pagan” but there’s no evidence linking them to pre-Christian customs. (And I write this as someone who loves the Greenman!)

      Again, anytime I post these articles I feel the need to point out that I’m not arguing against the magical practices surviving for centuries, only the idea of magic and religion intermingling as something called witchcraft.

      • JanetteNash

        You were not talking about pre-Christian (the term is not mentioned once) but about pre-Gardner. You say, “when I read about Old Craft traditions being passed down in secret for hundreds years, it’s with a sense of both belief and disbelief” and “When someone says my family has been practicing Witchcraft and worshipping the Horned One for generations it’s not necessarily a lie…”, and “while many strands of Old Craft might contain magical practices that are hundreds of years old, I’m still not sure that makes any of them older than Gardner’s Witchcraft.” I suggest to you that you are wrong. Participating in rituals that have been practiced in the same place, in the same way, for centuries, is very powerful for many reasons. Maybe you haven’t experienced this for yourself? Have you been to Europe at all?
        And where on earth did you get the “soul in purgatory” interpretation of the Green Man? Please see , among others. Have you ever seen one of these carvings?
        And again with “the idea of magic and religion intermingling as something called witchcraft”. Witchcraft was and is magic. What you are talking about is Wicca, and its variants, and absent a time machine, of course it antedates Gardner. The fact that you do not recognise them does not nullify the witchcraft and magic practiced for centuries and millenia.

      • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

        We have Jacob Grimm to blame for the elevating to godhood the character of Herne. Which is one reason why I tend to reject him as a minor English curiosity, rather than an actual god.

        • JanetteNash

          I know him as Herne, god of the Wild Hunt, but I am aware of his aspect as the Celtic god Cernunnos. To me, he is immense, and is the Lord I worship – I am a little amazed that someone can dismiss him as “a minor English curiosity”

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Cernunnos and Herne were only conflated in 19th century. Prior to that, Herne was merely a ghost.

          • JanetteNash

            Again, the fact that they were only “conflated” relatively recently does not mean that Herne is not the Anglicisation of Cernunnos. You say “merely a ghost” – I say psychopomp. This “mere ghost” is very important to British monarchy. And as I stated earlier, the lack of written evidence does not confirm non-existence, merely a lack of written evidence…

          • Perhaps you should read Eric Fitch’s “In Search of Herne the Hunter.” If Herne has connections to an ancient pagan god it’s Woden and not Cernunnos.

            You can also just read my history of Herne

          • JanetteNash

            That depends if one feels drawn to Celts (as I do, due to my appearance), or to Scandinavians.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      There is a tradition that states there has always been a witch in the New Forest village of Burley. Of course, the earliest firm connection we have is Sybil Leek, who lived there in the late 50s.

      My point is that, until traditions are researched, we can’t be sure of their actual truth.

      The Victorians made up a lot of “traditions”, for example. This is not to say that they are without value, merely that they do not have the veneer of age that some would like.

      • JanetteNash

        “Made up”? Or adopted? For example, the Christmas traditions introduced to England by Albert were brought over from centuries-old traditions in Germany.

        • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

          A number were made up by whimsical Victorians. And there is a fine line between adoption and appropriation.

          • JanetteNash

            could you please explain which were “made up”? And adoption/appropriation/whatever – none of those mean invented…

          • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

            Not being a folklorist, I couldn’t give an exhaustive list.

            Such things as suspending mistletoe from the ceiling and kissing under it were Victorian inventions.

  • JanetteNash

    As to the Sacrificial King only dating back to the 1890s, please see . Also, of course The Fisher King from the 12th century, and Shakespeare’s account of the climate suffering due to the quarrel between Titania and Oberon. The idea of the wellbeing of a territory or clan being intimately connected to that of its leader, is ancient.
    The mistake I believe you are making, Jason Mankey, (and I can’t believe I need to spell this out) is assuming that what people write is newly sprung out of nowhere, and that because something was not published, it didn’t exist, which is absurd. That Frazer, or Grimm, or Gardner, write something down does not mean that the material was not around before their writing it. Shakespeare rewrote others’ stories in his own inimitable way, as did many other writers. If Frazer writes that in many old myths there is the common concept of a king being linked to the land, and the king’s well-being means the well-being of the land, and vice versa, why would you not take his word for it?

    • I don’t take Frazer seriously because much of his argument has been discredited by modern historians. He takes liberties with the mythologies he cites and in my opinion insults ancient pagans in a few places by treating them as rubes. (They were a lot smarter than he gives them credit for.) Frazer is a great source for ritual inspiration and lore. “The Golden Bough” is a fun read, I just don’t take it all literally.

      I’m never sure what gets people so riled up about these types of articles. No one is saying that “Old Craft” traditions are simply made up and I try and articulate the idea that it’s completely possible for them to have roots in ancient ideas and practices.