The Witches’ Devil. The name alone stirs a variety of different thoughts and emotions within people. Traditionally, many people would react with rejection, insisting that the Devil is a Christian concept and therefore has no place in Witchcraft. Yet, there seems to be a radical shift in thinking over the past couple of years in which some people are beginning to explore and even outwardly embrace the Devil within their Craft. I believe there are many reasons for this shift in thinking. For one, in more recent times people have seemingly stopped trying so hard to make Witchcraft socially acceptable. Which, in turn, has led to more freedom to explore practices that were once considered taboo. Secondly, with the increasing emphasis being placed on finding more ‘historically authentic’ Witchcraft practices people are turning to folklore and trial records where the concept of the Devil is rampant.
But who exactly is the Witches’ Devil?
It’s hard to say, really. As with most things in Witchcraft it truly depends on the individual, the specific culture/tradition, and even the natural landscape. Some people interpret the Devil as a demonized Pagan deity. Others take a more biblical approach and identify him with characters such as Azazel and the Watchers. He appears differently to all of us and I believe that there are truths in each interpretation. His complexities make it impossible to define or categorize him by one perspective alone. For he is the Master of the between places, of paradoxes, and of contradictions. He is nature itself, vast, primal, and chaotic. The Devil is a shapeshifter, a trickster, and a magician. He takes on many guises and roles and alternates between them with ease. He rules the wild places as the verdant Green Man, teaching us the lore of plants and animals. He takes to the sky as the fearsome leader of the Wild Hunt, a psychopomp gathering up the souls of the dead. Similarly, he is the Black Dog prowling the churchyard and the old trackways herding souls, foretelling doom, and even occasionally bringing death itself. He presides over the Fair Folk as the consort to the Queen of Elphame. At the Sabbat he appears as the Man in Black or the Cloven-Hoofed God, whipping the Witches into a wild frenzy and teaching him the ways of Witchcraft.
From some of these descriptions it may seem that the Devil is essentially a composite of different Pagan gods such a Cernunnos, Pan, Woden, and Herne. So is this all to say that the Devil is one in the same with these Gods? I would say yes and no.
I think how he appears has shifted greatly over time. It seems that with the rise of Christianity, any deity other than their God was branded as the Devil. Gemma Gary notes that “It may perhaps be the Church, in its keenness to eradicate adherence to Pagan divinity by grafting and projecting it onto the diabolical, that has, unwittingly, most thoroughly preserved the potency, liberation and illumination of the “Old One’ and handed him back to the Witches as the ‘Devil’.” It stands to reason then that the Devil the Witches came to work with was an amalgamation of earlier Pagan Gods. When you take a look at the ‘evils’ that this being presided over, they include things that are inherently ingrained in the practice of Witchcraft such as knowledge, free-thinking, and empowerment as well as acts of pleasure like sex, dancing, music, and feasting. As we’ve come into modern times, I think that just as Witches have been pressured to sanitize their Craft in order to be socially acceptable, so too has the Witches’ God has become tamed and domesticated. As I noted in the beginning of this post I think that many Witches are now moving away from this, and subsequently so is their God. Perhaps my words are harsh, and I should clarify that I’m not trying to disparage anyone’s Craft or their God(s). Personal relationship with deity is not something that can quantified and compared, therefore no one has the right to say whose relationship is more deep or authentic. The point I’m trying to make it that with the lessening concern over society’s perceptions of Witchcraft, new territories are being charted. The darker, wilder, and more unknown aspects of the God are beginning to be explored, aspects that are more in line with the historical and folkloric context of Witchcraft. He is less of the smiling white Jesus with horns and more of the truly wild Lord of Misrule.
On the surface I have adopted the name ‘Devil’ to describe my God because I view him as a mixture of all those aspects listed above. The name ‘Devil’ ties all those pieces together for me in a way that fits with the folkloric and historical context of Witchcraft that I’m drawn to. As an archetype the Devil represents the raw and wild aspects of nature that are mirrored within us as our desire to be liberated and to freely express our sexuality, emotions, creativity, and power. Therefore, to me at least, he is a God who does not demand the repression of our natural desires but instead encourages them. And while he is loving and kind he can also be cruel and fearsome. He tests and tricks me, pushes me to my limits, and will not hold back from tripping me up or slapping me down if need be. This may seem less than desirable but it’s important as a means of growth and empowerment, especially within Witchcraft. With him I can explore the deep, dark, scary place within myself and the world and emerge with a greater depth of knowledge, experience, and power. I’ve struggled over the years grappling with the masculine side of divinity and it wasn’t until I opened myself up to experiencing the Devil that I truly felt connected in a deep and meaningful way. My relationship with him is still new and I’m still developing and exploring my own ideas on the matter. I hope that this article provides some helpful insight and/or inspiration for others who are either exploring the topic or looking to establish their own relationship. I’d like to finish this post by sharing a nearly forgotten early experience that I’ve had with the Devil…
A few years back, on a whim, I decided to camp out in the woods next to my house. I really wanted to connect with nature on a deep level, more so than I had before. I planned on spending all day in the woods and then spend the night. I wanted to really rough it, so my only supplies were a book, a sleeping bag, water, and some snacks. Everything went swimmingly and I felt very much at peace, that is until night fell. Without a flashlight I couldn’t see anything, I was completely swallowed by the darkness. Without a tent I was forced to either overheat in my zipped-up sleeping bag or being eaten alive by bugs. Needless to say, sleep was nowhere near the horizon.
What seemed like several hours later I was lying awake, listening to the sounds of nature all around me.Then I heard it. A noise that I’m still not sure how to describe. It sounded like hooves beating on the ground but in an irregular pattern, almost like dancing. Immediately I saw the vivid image in my head of the Devil dancing around me. My heart pounded as fear took over my entire body. I tore out of my sleeping bag and began to run through the pitch black forest. I smacked into trees, tripped over branches, and scrambled on the dirt floor before finally making it out. I would go on to laugh off the experience and then forget about it.
I didn’t realize it then but my experience was eerily similar to folkloric examples of a Witch’s initiation.