The People of the Woods

Bide the Wiccan Law Ye Must,
in perfect Love, in perfect Trust,
Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill:
An ye harm none, do as ye will.
What ye send out comes back to thee,
So ever mind the rule of three.
Follow this with mind and heart,
and Merry ye Meet, and Merry ye Part.
Some History of The Old Ways

Before.... Before we are.... Before we were.... Before our ancestors could be called "human," then did it begin, and through ages untold have the Old Ways shaped humanity. They were not a thing apart, nor something added later, but part of the very creation of our race. Some anthropologists have speculated that learning of tools created the human race, led us to stand up on our hind feet and to learn language. Perhaps that was true, in part, but also true is that the Old Gods and ancient spirits have been with us from the very beginning. Anthropologists deal with stone tools, little more than broken rocks, not with theology, but the two have always been together - the one augmenting and giving reason for the other.

Since the beginning our people have gathered together in circles, lines without ends, places of magick. The word "church" comes from Old Gaelic, and means "circle." Even in modern English, the "c"s and "r"s are still in the same places, and by giving a more "k" sound to the "ch"s, its readily apparent that the two words are the same. Throughout Europe stone circles remain, enduring monuments to the sacred sites of our ancestors. Many of the old christian churches were built on top of the stone circles. The people continued to gather at their sacred places, circles, now called churches. Circles of stone endure, even from long forgotten ages of our most ancient ancestors.

They, the humanoids, went down by the ancient lake to a sacred place, in what is now Kenya, not far from what is described as their "living floor," at a time 2,030,000 years ago that is now called "Pleistocene." There, perhaps led by some prehuman mystic or shaman, they gathered stones together, and built a stone circle. "Perhaps for a windbreak," write the anthropologists.(cite below) It was about 9 feet in radius, the size still said to be ideal today, and certainly not the shaped megaliths of Stonehenge, for it was built by those who came before, by those called "humanoid," not "human." The process of change from one to the other was in part made possible by the discovery of tools, and maybe weapons, but though the anthropologists don't say much about it, I believe that the influence of the spiritual connections was also a large part of the creation of the race that we now call human. Through the millions of years of evolution, the sacred ways of our ancestors were called forth in a million ways in thousands of languages as our people spread across the Earth. And, always they celebrated the seasons of the Earth, the sacredness of all life, worked the ancient magicks, thanked the Gods for the food they ate, and encouraged fertility so that our race might not perish. The Old Ways are indeed much of what created our race as we know ourselves today. And time passed.

A couple of thousand millennia later, in the Aurignacine period of the upper Paleolithic, about 35,000 years ago we find archaeological evidence for the existence of a flourishing practice of the Old Ways. Thousands of crude, faceless stone statutes of heavy-breasted female figures are found, sometimes holding the crescent moon in one hand. Archaeologists refer to these statues as "Venuses" because they were obviously fertility symbols. Found in like numbers at the same sites are thousands of stone phalluses representing the male half of fertility. The function of the Venuses and phalluses was to insure the fertility of mortals by magickal analogy with the sources of fertility. They were found all over Europe, the type-site being Willendorf in Austria. It was to be many more ages before they achieved the refinements of Enlil and Nenlil of Sumeria, the tragic Demeter of Eleusis, or Isis and Osiris of Egypt; nevertheless the Goddesses and Gods were unmistakably present in the rock shelters of the upper Paleolithic, 35,000 years ago. And time passed.

Twenty thousand years later, in the Magdalenian period of the upper Paleolithic, we find further evidence for the magickal invocation of the Horned God and the Old Religion. The people of the Magdalenian period were great artists. In the depths of their caves they painted wonderful lifelike pictures of the animals they hunted and of the horned figure they invoked as master of the hunt. The type-site for these paintings of the Horned God is the Caverne des Trois Freres near Arriege in southern France. Archaeologists have dubbed the painting of the Horned God in this cave Le Sorcillier, The Sorcerer. He is the direct ancestor of the Greek Pan and the Horned God we know today by names such as Herrne and Cernunnos. What may be the oldest surviving painting shows a Priest wearing the robe and horns of a stag. Another shows women dancing around a circle, wearing pointed hats. And time passed.

Le Sorcillier, a Witch Priest in horned robe.
Le Sorcillier, A Witch Priest in horned robe painted on a cave.

Another aspect of the Old Religion which goes back before the stone age is the circle. Stone circles are still found all over Europe - and indeed throughout the world. At Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, the shrine of the Stone Lions is a Native American prehistoric stone circle - as are their Medicine Wheels. The classic site is, of course, Stonehenge, which was completed about 1500 BCE. It functioned as a religious center as well as a megalithic observatory for observing the solsticial sunrise and sunset and predicting eclipses of the sun and moon. Thus from the beginning of mankind, through the stone age to modern times, the circle has constituted the sacred precinct within which magick could be made, and into which evil could not enter.

Shortly after the completion of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, a new concept appeared among the people of the Near East, a concept that was eventually to shake the Pagan world to its foundations and almost destroy it. This was the idea of monotheism. It began innocuously enough in the second millennium BCE with the importation of a Hindu God named Dyaus Pitr or Sky Father into the Near East. Dyaus Pitr's name became slightly altered by the peoples among whom he settled. In Greece he became Zeus, in Italy Jupiter and Jove and in Israel Yahweh. In Greece and Italy his arrival accompanied cultural changes, and his cult displaced and augmented but did not destroy the primeval cult of the Mother Goddess and Horned God. Sky Father became the ruler of the Gods, but the other Gods continued to be worshiped. And time passed.

In Israel, Sky Father might have gone unnoticed altogether except for the Hebrews who happened to be in Egypt during the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaten who introduced a short-lived monotheism about 1370 BCE. The early Hebrews, like other peoples of the Near East, had been polytheists. The Hebrew word for God, Elohim, is plural, for the obvious reason that the Gods were plural. The Hebrew word for the "presence of God in the world" is "shekhinah" a feminine noun. Even through the time of Solomon, Goddess and God ruled together in Solomon's temple, Ashera and Yahweh. The sacred mountain from which Moses received the laws was called Sinai, which means "mountain of Sinn," the Babylonian Moon God. Moreover, their Gods as well as their altars had horns. The christian bible speaks of the "horns of the altar" and describes Moses, the Hebrew cultural hero as having horns. Michelangelo gave his statue of Moses horns because that was the traditional meaning.

But, by the time of Moses, centuries after Akhenaten, the Hebrews were badly in need of a strong God, and Sky Father in his guise of Jove or Yahweh was waiting. And Yahweh had what Jupiter did not, a strong priesthood, dedicated to him alone, and thus to the suppression of all other Gods. For reasons as much of politics as religion the Levite priests evicted Ashera from the temple, and set about to eliminate all other Gods from Israel. Polytheism died hard in Israel. The Hebrews worshiped the golden calf at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and the prophets had to rail constantly against backsliding. But when it died, it died more thoroughly than it ever did in any of Israel's daughter religions, leaving neither trinity nor saints to remind people of the Old Gods.

But the Hebrews were numerically insignificant, and despite the teachings of Jesus and the proselytism of St. Paul, monotheism did not make serious inroads against the Old Religion until Emperor Constantine in 306, for reasons military and political as much as religious, made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

If the new order was not immediately clear to the people, it was clear to the Gods. For two brief years the gallant emperor Julian tried to turn back the course of history, and restored Paganism as the religion of the empire. Seeking to find out what the future held, he sent to Delphi in 361 for an oracle, and received the message:

The fair-wrought house is fallen.
No shelter has Apollo
nor sacred laurel leaves,
The fountains all are silent,
and the voices still.

It was the last oracle the Pythia ever gave. Two years later the emperor was dead, and christianity restored.

Elsewhere in Europe Paganism continued to flourish more or less openly and in high places for several centuries. The English King William Rufus was a High Priest of the Old Religion and probably died as a sacrificial victim in 1100. As late as 1347, when Joan, countess of Salisbury, dropped her garter, then as now the emblem of a Witch High Priestess, King Edward III picked it up saying, "Honi soit qui mal y pense." -- Shame to them that think evil of it. To this day the phrase is the motto of the Order of the Garter, which Edward founded the following year.

But the darkness of the Inquisition was descending all over Europe. In 1199 Pope Innocent III declared that "heresy is the most unpardonable of treasons because it is a crime against God." Even loyal christians whose ideas differed ever so slightly from the monolithic dogma of the Roman church were included in the ban against heresy. The 13th century saw the persecution and destruction of the Albigensians and the Waldensians as heretics. The Jews fared equally badly. In 1290 King Edward I of England expelled the Jews from England. This event had the unexpected result of enriching the Old Religion. For the Jews, having nowhere to go, fled into the countryside where the Witches sheltered many. With them the Jews brought the Book of Zohar, written in the early 13th century. It contains the mystical teachings of the Cabbala, which found great favor among many Witches.

In 1318 a papal bull of John XXII declared Witchcraft a form of heresy. The terminology is significant, for Witchcraft or Wicca was the only viable form of Paganism left in Europe. Paganism arose in an age when it didn't need a name, since it was the only religion there was. As christianity spread, the urban population was the first to accept it, while the country people held fast to their old ways. When the words Pagan and Heathen arose, they meant merely "dwellers in the countryside," the Latin Pagus and the English Heath. Most of the country people were willing to join the new faith as long as they could continue those traditions which they were fondest. And this the christian church willingly did. Pagan Gods became saints, Pagan circles became christian churches, and Pagan holidays became christian holy days. The christian church converted the Pagans by incorporating Paganism into itself.

Only one group steadfastly resisted, the Witches, who had a consistent structured pattern of life in harmony with nature and the Gods, and who steadfastly refused to give it up. On the continent they called themselves Witches -- from the Sanskrit word meaning "to see" which gives us words as wit and wisdom. In England the also called themselves Wicce, probably from Anglo-Saxon word meaning "change" or possibly from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "war" relating to the Latin via and the German Weg. In any case, by 1318, there would have been no point in declaring Paganism to be heresy. The only Paganism left worth its salt was Wicca.

By then, prosecution of heretics was beginning in earnest. In 1307 the Roman church declared war on the Knights Templar. They were a semi-religious, semi-military order of the Crusader Knights. Founded in 1118 their order contained elements of ancient mysteries, such as the lofty concept of divinity and a code of personal conduct. In these they were the spiritual ancestors of Freemasons. But the 14th century was not ready for such ideas, and by 1313 the order had been completely destroyed.

A century later Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen for Witchcraft. The charge was probably valid. She heard voices; she refused to accept the medieval status of women. She was constantly referred to as La Pucelle, the Maiden, a title meaningful only in a coven. She commanded such respect from the common soldiers that in 1429 she was able to raise the siege of Orleans. An ordinary peasant girl could not easily command such allegiance, but a Priestess of the Old Religion could, for in the 15the century many of the common people still clung to the old faith. And when Joan was tried for Witchcraft in 1431 she refused to recant, crying out that she was responsible only to "our God" -- not "God," but "Our God."

In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal Bull loosing the forces of the Inquisition specifically against Witches. This was the beginning of the terrible age when the world went mad and millions of people were sent to the stake because they loved the old faith, or because they were rich and someone desired their property, or simply because one of their neighbors didn't like them.

In those unenlightened times an accusation was as good as a conviction, for in 1486 the inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger of the University of Cologne wrote a book called the Malleus Malificarum or Witch Hammer which outlined the procedures for determining whether the accused person was indeed a Witch, prescribed many torture methods to extract confessions, and prescribed the punishments to be inflicted once the accused was condemned. The method was foolproof, and very few were ever acquitted.

Even these few were too many for Matthew Hopkins, the infamous Witchfinder General from 1644 to 1646. He wrote a similar treatise entitled The Discovery of Witches in 1647 in which he described the famous swimming test, which he invented. Witches, he claimed, were lighter than water. Thus if an accused, bound hand and foot, floated when thrown into a river, he was surely guilty; if he sank he was innocent.

There were, of course, a few bright lights in all this darkness, a few gallant men who defended Witches and dared to speak the truth even though it cost them the terrible price extracted of heretics.

In 1486 Giovanni Pico della Mirandola published 900 theses declaring the truth of the ancient philosophers. For this he was declared a heretic by the Roman church. But he did not stop. He wrote a Cabalistic interpretation of Genesis and a thesis defending the literature of the Jews whose books were being burned as heretical. And finally he published a paper claiming that astrologers who published absolute and binding predictions were frauds and people who believed them were fools. In 1494, at the age of 30 he was murdered.

At about the same time in Germany flourished one of the most curious figures of the Renaissance, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim, who delved in all the hidden areas of art and science in an insatiable quest for knowledge. In his best known work De Occulta Philosophia he claimed that magic was the surest way to an understanding of God and Nature. He tried, as Pythagoras before him, to explain natural phenomena in terms of the arrangement and rearrangement of numbers. He ran afoul of the Inquisition on numerous occasions, being denounced at Metz for defending a Witch, and finally banned from Germany by the Inquisitor of Cologne. Agrippa was a typical Renaissance man. He passed easily in his search for knowledge from magic to science to religion, and he doubted them all. In 1530 he published his great statement of modern skepticism, Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Arts and Sciences. That was too much for the christian church. The salesmen of certainty could not allow a man of Agrippa's fame to go around doubting in public. And in the end, of course, the Inquisition won. Agrippa made a public denial of the validity of science and retired into the peace of biblical piety. Hardly anyone remembers him today -- except indirectly -- he was the original for Goethe's Faust.

In Protestant England in the 16th century, a magician could, if he were careful, fare a great deal better. Dr. John Dee 1527 - 1608 was both the astrologer and the physician of Queen Elizabeth. He was also a mathematician who justly deserved the title of "father of the English mathematical revival." He produced the first English translation of Euclid, and he taught navigation to the men who went across the uncharted ocean to wrest an empire for England.

But the brightest light in the dark night of persecution burned in Italy. In 1584 Giordano Bruno, already under ban of excommunication for his philosophical pantheism, published a dialogue Del Infinito in which he declared that Aristotle's reversed cosmology was totally false. The universe, he said, is infinite, and the earth is not its center. The Earth, he said, moves about the sun and is but one of many planets, and the sun one of many stars. All this he said 25 years before Galileo pointed his telescope at the moons of Jupiter, and unlike the great Galileo, he refused to take it back. In 1600 he was burned at the stake for heresy.

It would be wrong to conclude that all those who defied the Inquisition were followers of the Old Religion. Of course, they were not. But they were men who looked into the secrets of nature, as Witches do, and who, through their curiosity as much as through their courage, made it possible for men to think again.

The witch hunts of the Inquisition were not just a war on women as some modern feminists claim, they were a war on Witchcraft and all of its non-christian religious beliefs. Many men as well as women were accused and hanged for practicing Witchcraft. In some areas such as Western France more men than women were accused and convicted. The estimate of 9 million deaths due to the inquisition against witches is probably a great exaggeration, however the currently popular discounting of witch trials and wholesale reduction of estimated numbers is revisionist history.

The long dark age was ending, but the horror of it cannot be overstated. Between the Bull of John XXII in 1318 and the last recorded execution of a person for Witchcraft at Galarus, Switzerland in 1782, (Not counting Mexico in 1955.) it is estimated that several million men women, and children were convicted and burnt or hanged for Witchcraft. It was the enlightenment of the 18th century that finally put a stop to the massacre, and the enlightenment was due in no small measure to those few courageous men who dared to break the shackles that theology had thrown around the mind of man.

But the enlightenment was not an unmixed blessing. In fact, it almost succeeded, where the persecution had failed, in destroying the Old Religion. For the enlightenment said, in effect, "Witchcraft isn't a heresy because it doesn't exist! Stop burning and torturing these poor Witches; they are only ignorant people suffering from the delusion that they traffic with the Devil." That the christian church invented both the Devil and the confessions of the Witches never seems to have occurred to the logical thinkers of the enlightenment. Witches were not what the Inquisitors accused them of being; therefore, they were not anything at all! Witchcraft was a delusion of the Medieval mind.

By the time the persecutions ended, the Old Religion was in desperate need of new blood. What had always been the religion of the common folk had mostly become hidden cells of the Priesthood, called covens. The covens themselves had dwindled in number and size. They tended to be in remote areas of the countryside and had no contact with one another for centuries. The law of persecution and torture is that you cannot betray whom you do not know. And most people were ignorant of the Witches very existence. The Old Religion was almost forgotten. For a thousand years, their books had been burned (often along with the owners), and half remembered science decayed into meaningless phrases and superstition. And time passed.

But the old hunger for the hidden mysteries of nature and for the world order where man belonged in - and not over nature - remained, and gradually found new expression. The Freemasons taught a lofty code of ethics based on the Egyptian mysteries and the secret doctrines of the Knights Templar; carrying on a little of the magickal words and phrases. The Rosicrucians, founded in 1614, taught mysticism, Cabbala, reincarnation, oriental magick, and old Egyptian religion under a thin guise of christianity. In England the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn invoked the Gods of Egypt and delved deeply into ceremonial magick. And in America the Theosophical Society, founded in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky, devoted itself to the revelation of ancient and forgotten wisdom through the mediumship of Mme. Blavatsky.

But these organizations, although they expressed a deep human longing which could not be satisfied by the christian churches, were poor substitutes for the Old Religion. The Freemasons became a fraternal order of Protestants and Jews. The Rosicrucians never dared to throw off the stifling veil of christianity. The Golden Dawn degenerated into a purely magical order. The Theosophical Society became completely dominated by Vedanta philosophy and Buddhism, and Mme Blavatsky was declared a fraud by the British Society for Psychical Research.

Yet.... In remote villages all over Europe, in graveyards where the sacred groves once grew, among the old stones where once the temples stood, the faithful gathered still; reciting the ancient runes, performing the age-old rites, and calling on Gods who had watched over the world since time began. The world at last again was ready for the Pagans and the Old Gods. Weary of both the empty threats and the false promises of christianity, people were ready for a religion founded in nature and common sense. It only remained for the modern world to rediscover the Old Religion.

Modern rediscovery began in the closing years of the 19th century when an American folklorist met a peasant woman in Italy. The woman, Maddalena, recounted the doctrines of her religion as she remembered them, and in 1893 Charles Godfrey Leland published Aradia: Gospel of the Witches Aradia was the first document of the Pagan renaissance. It was the first written modern evidence that Witchcraft existed, and was indeed a survival of ancient pagan religion. But, Leland's work attracted little notice, and Aradia was soon out of print.

The torch of hidden knowledge fell to a scholarly Oxford anthropologist named Margaret Murray who proposed that the Witchcraft of the Middle Ages was a direct survival of the worship of the Horned God depicted in the Paleolithic caves of France. Witches, she maintained, were accused of worshipping the Devil because the Devil was invented by the christians in the image of the God of the Witches. In 1921 Murray published her thesis as Witch Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology She did not intend it as a popular work. She quoted long passages from medieval trials in archaic English, French, and German, and she did not bother to translate them. She wrote for scholars about a dead religion. Her professional reputation was sullied by her claims, and her books languished on the forgotten dusty shelves of University libraries.

The last of three great pioneers of the Witchcraft renaissance was Gerald Brousseau Gardner. He was a British civil servant who also was an amateur anthropologist. He studied native ways in tribal villages in other parts of the world while in his country's service. When he retired and returned to England, he became fascinated with Witchcraft - at first as history for he did not know that it was still alive. Finally in his inquiries, he discovered a real functioning coven in the New Forest area of England, and became an initiated Witch himself. Believing that the New Forest Coven might be the last in existence, and with its members all old, Gardner set about to write down their traditions, to preserve what remained before all had died. His first book was written as fiction because practice of the Old Religion was still illegal. Perhaps fueled by an era of tolerance and reaction to Nazi death camps, the anti-Witchcraft laws in England were repealed in 1951. At last, after a thousand years, the word Witch could be openly spoken, and the Old Ways practiced legally. With permission from Dorothy Cutterbuck, the last High Priestess of the New Forest Coven, to reveal the secrets so they wouldn't go to the grave with the aging members, and with the new legal freedom, in 1954 Gardner published Witchcraft Today. He described himself as a Witch and told some of the secrets of the Craft. Most importantly he revealed publicly that the Old Religion was not quite as dead as everyone thought, and its name is Witchcraft.

Gardner wrote in direct, understandable (if British) prose. His books did not gather dust on the shelves of scholars, but found their way into the bookstores of England and America. Others came forward, from other secret hidden covens all across Europe, each thinking that it had been the last and perhaps the only one left still practicing the Old Ways. A new generation of seekers found them, and read of the Old Religion, of our connections with the magick and with the Earth. Slowly, and still mostly secret at first, one by one new covens have sprung up, all across the English speaking world. Slowly they studied the magick and the Old Religion, and became knowledgeable. One by one they dedicated themselves to the Old Gods, received the magick, and were Initiated into the Priesthood.

As we move forward into the 21st century, the Old Ways have grown into a large and popular religious movement. Coven trained Priests and Priestesses go on to form new covens, each training more Priests and Priestess in the magick of the Old Ways of our ancestors. Out of the darkness, out of the broom closet, out of the ancient past we reincarnate and find ourselves once more. Book publishers now clamor for Wiccan titles as millions of readers push them into one of the fastest selling genres. TV producers compete to find witchy themes for sitcoms. Musicians feature music with pagan or witchcraft themes. Summer gatherings of pagans now attract thousands in every English speaking land. Again this year a hundred thousand young minds will read "101 Spells for a Teenage Witch," or some similar popular title and wonder if the Old Ways of the Witches is more in tune with their own lives than the destructive culture in which they were born. Again this year many more Elder Witches will take their initiations as High Priest or High Priestess, and branch off to start another coven, to teach the old ways, and to welcome true seekers on the ancient path.

From ancient circle, to Paleolithic cave painter, to ice age carver, to agrarian villager, to stone temple, and through the times of darkness has the Old Religion has been practiced and passed on. Increasingly today more and more people turn away from oppression and back to the wisdom of the Earth. One by one, new covens spring up as the teaching and Initiation are passed on, and passed on again. One by one, new links are being forged in the ancient chain, the living chain that stretches back across a thousand millennia and more - to before the very beginning of the human species.


Cite for ancient circle: Men of the Earth, An Introduction to World Prehistory, by Brian M. Fagan, P-73, published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1974. Adapted from: Olduvai Gorge, Excavations in Beds I & II, 1960-1963, by M. D. Leakey. 1971, Cambridge University Press.

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Revised Beltane 2013