Witchcraft’s Origins in Shamanism, Wiccan, and the Cults

Alex de Borba
Alex de Borba

First, we must look at the true origins of witchcraft, those hidden in the mists of time. This is a subject that has been written about many times by many authors. This, of course, maybe quite repetitive to those who have been involved in the modern witchcraft movement for several years, but they must bear with us as this article is just as likely to be picked up by those who are making the first steps in the sometimes confusing world of the Neo-Pagan movement. It is our hope that we have given some different viewpoints to its origins that have not been covered before in our own or other literary works.

The first magical practices of humankind came about when the first Homo Sapiens began to move east and west from central Asia. Their magic was simple; it revolved around the most basic instinct of mankind — survival. Imagine the scene: In a fire-lit cave, a man dresses in deerskin and dons an antlered headdress. He begins to chant; the chant grows into a grunt; the grunt turns into the recognizable “hurnnn” call of the rutting stag.

He slowly circles the fire, and out of the darkness come the other male members of the tribe; each grasps a stick tightly as though it was a spear; and in a moment, they lunge on the figure in a frenzy, symbolically killing the stag. By doing this form of magic, they see themselves as successfully procuring meat for the tribe on the following day’s hunt.

A division of sexual roles was noticeable in these societies. It was not sexism, but came out the reality that men were more capable of defending and hunting due to physical build and strength. Men were therefore responsible for defending their communities and providing meat, while women cared for the young and the old. During the hunt, the women of the tribe gathered berries and nuts to supplement the tribe’s diet, and importantly, from a magical perspective, had the opportunity to gather herbs for the sick. As we have seen, the male mysteries revolved around their role in preparation for the hunt.

Here we see the female mysteries in the treatment of the sick, and for caring for other women during pregnancy. As they were healing the sick, they also found themselves dealing with the spirits that caused the illness. We still see this division between the sexes today in hunter-gatherer communities, such as the aboriginal people of Australia.

Within this culture, you see a strict division between “men’s business” and “women’s business” when it comes to the male and female mysteries. It is this division that was probably responsible for mistrust of the old feminine magical ways during the medieval period and the development of the feminine descriptive word witch.

It is in both male and female forms of magic that we see the roots of what we call Shamanism and its development into what we now call witchcraft. As humanity developed and settled into an agricultural way of life, the tribal magic-worker evolved. It became a family affair with the skills of one generation passed down to the next.

Here we see the idea of “hereditary witchcraft” first appearing, but it should be remembered that at this time, all trades and skills were passed down through the family. Within the village/tribe specific families would have been responsible for the skills handed down, such as metalworking, torch making, farming, etc. This is the origin of such descriptive surnames as “Baker” and “Smith.”

In a harsh world, specialization, with each member learning specific skills, is more conducive to survival than a strategy in which everyone is “a Jack of all trades but a master of none.” The magical worker became the Priest and Priestess of the village, and although they were not considered more important than any other trade, they were respected.

Their roles would forming the seasonal rites. This would have involved making offerings to the local gods and Spirits for good crops and good hunts. These were important rites in an agricultural society, and to do them the Priesthood had to understand the cyclical nature of the seasons and be the keepers of the mysteries of birth, death, and rebirth. They looked after the sick with the herb lore they had accumulated from generation to generation; they were responsible for the banishment of malign spirits, which caused disease.

Here again, we see the underlying reason for the existence of the magical practitioner — survival — but now the need was more important. The roles within the village/tribe had become more specialized, and the death of one of its members would threaten the well-being of the whole tribe. Here we see the idea of the witch at its purest, without any of the preconceptions put on it by Christianity and the twentieth-century.

With the spread of Celtic, Germanic, Italio-Etruscan, Greek, and other cultures across Europe, we see the next development within witchcraft, that of taking on cultural symbolism, including language.

We see the origins of the word witch in Anglo-Saxon culture, and other words evolved in other cultures to describe the tribal magical worker. The word witch in old English has its origins in the word wicce. It would be wrong to say that witchcraft is of purely Anglo-Saxon origin just because witch is an Anglo-Saxon word. Witch is a modern descriptive word that crosses cultural barriers, and this is important to remember.

It has several interpretations. It can mean “to bend and shape” (as in the forces of nature); others say it means “wise.” Of course, this is the feminine declension of the word. The male, being wicca, is the word that became adopted by the modern witchcraft movement in the early 1950s, but it is meaning is intrinsically no different than the word witch.

This is important to remember as in recent years some in the Neo-Pagan community have felt it necessary to define these words differently (more on this later in this chapter). It is Christianity that turned the word wicce into wych, then wytch, and finally into our modern word, witch. The use of the feminine word rather than the masculine came about because of the underlying misogyny of the early Christian Church.

Women were seen to be at the root of all evil ever since Eve took the apple of the Tree of Knowledge. The idea of women being in prominent responsible positions and dealing with spiritual forces was repugnant to the Church. It is not surprising that they adopted the feminine rather than the masculine word, as they considered all female mysteries to be inherently evil.

Similar words for witch exist in other cultures. The Old Norse used the word “vitki,” a word that obviously has similar etymological roots as the words wicce or Wicca. The Italians use the word strega.

According to Raven Grimassi, a noted author on the subject of Italian witchcraft, its origins are very different than those of the word witch: “The word Strega is derived from both lore and language. The cultural roots extend back to the Latin word strix, which indicates an owl (and particularly a screech owl). In archaic Roman religion there was a mythological creature called a striga.

The striga was a type of vampire woman that could transform into an owl. The death of infants in their sleep (as well as the disappearance of babies) was blamed on the striga. This brought a supernatural connection to both words, and so strix and striga came to be interchangeable.

In time the Latin word striga evolved into the Italian word stregare, which means to enchant. Then, over the course of time a female witch came to be called a Strega, literally an enchantress.”

He believes that the word strega may, in fact, have had its origins from this word rather than the word strix. This, of course, seems to link Italian witchcraft directly back with the origins we mentioned earlier in this chapter.

We once believed that there was no such thing as hereditary witchcraft, as we had seen no proof, but our contact with members of the Strega tradition have convinced us otherwise. The survivals of witchcraft into the modern era in the hereditary form are very much linked to the early days of Christianity and its absorption of three other cults in the Mediterranean.

Within the Roman Empire, during the early part of the first millennia, a new cult appeared in Rome: Mithraism. It has its origins in Persia and, ultimately, in Zoroastrianism.

Mithraism was a mystery religion that believed in an entity of Good and an entity of Evil who were in conflict with each other on the spiritual plane, and who manifest as the personalities of Mithras and Ahriman. It was widely adopted by Roman military officers and spread through the empire; a Mithraic temple has even been found and excavated in London. As the Roman officers settled in the new provinces of the far-flung empire, they became traders and the cult changed from being militaristic to one of business.

It is not surprising that many aspects of modern Freemasonry have similarities to Mithraism. The new, young, and open Christianity absorbed the idea of dualism from the older cult. This was achieved because many of the converts in Britain and mainland Europe were settled Roman officers who were already practising Mithraism. But the biggest challenge to early Christianity was from another cult that would be difficult to absorb.

This cult remained a thorn in the side of Christianity for four centuries. Women in Greek, Roman, and European culture generally refused to give up the worship of the Great Goddess, and there was no replacement within Christianity. The misogynistic views and teachings of St. Paul of Tarsus made it difficult for Christianity to absorb it.

The problem was finally resolved in 440 A.D. at the Council of Ephesus, when the doctrine of Panagia Theotokos — the All-Holy Virgin Mother of God — was declared, thereby incorporating the Great Goddess into Roman Catholicism and the Greek and Russian Orthodox Christian religions.

Unknowingly, they had planted a seed that allowed the survivals of goddess and Pagan practice under the very eyes of the Christian hierarchy right up until today, allowing the survival of hereditary witchcraft. Some authors and historians have pointed to the idea that witchcraft has its very origins in the Goddess cult of Artemis/Isis, and we would not argue this point with them.

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