Much has been said publicly about the Craft in recently years, in newspapers and magazines, in books and pamphlets, in workshops and classes, in newsgroups and online forums, on websites and blogs, even on television and on movies. In particular, much has been discussed about that “thing” now commonly called Traditional Witchcraft or Trad Craft.
This is a different thing from historical witchcraft as viewed in witch trial records, folk stories, and such academic sources as Owen Davies, Emma Wilby, and Jeffrey Russell. It is also a different thing from reconstructionist traditions or those descended from Gerald Gardner’s Wicca, or Alex Sander’s branch off of Gardner’s. But I hate defining a thing only by what it isn’t.
For a thing to exist, it must exist by what it is, not what it is not. Otherwise it is the catch-all Other that is everything that is not a given list, and that list must by necessity grow to keep that Other from becoming all things. When we get to something like, trad craft is that which isn’t Wicca, isn’t Ceremonial Magic, isn’t Abrahamic, isn’t Christian, isn’t Pagan, isn’t religion, isn’t New Age, isn’t Jewish, isn’t Islamic, isn’t solely Asian, isn’t solely African, isn’t solely New World, isn’t solely non-European, doesn’t make use of modern technology, doesn’t make use of modern ideas, wasn’t started after 1951, isn’t non-British, doesn’t work with deities, etc, etc, the more we add to that list, the more it approaches, trad craft is that that approaches the limit of non-existence, and the term becomes useless.
What is Traditional Witchcraft?
Okay, so what is trad craft, if we can’t define it by what it isn’t? That question is problematic, which is the whole reason for the tendency to define what it isn’t, not what it is.
The second problem is the disagreement able what is and isn’t trad craft.
Some call is gnostic and a mystery cult, the discovery and passing down via the mysteries, in the sense of the Arcadian or Eleusian or Dionysian Mysteries, but if the is the case, wouldn’t Roscrusian type traditions like the Freemasons, Golden Dawn, and the OTO be trad craft? But few would argue that.
Some say it’s witchcraft that is has been passed down at least three generations, that that constitutes a tradition. But that argument, which was use not that long ago to exclude Wicca no longer does, as it now stretches back longer than some of the trad craft traditions had at the time Wicca became known. And it still doesn’t define witchcraft, so still includes the Freemasons and Golden Dawn without further definition.
Some say witchcraft is only the producing of folk magic and contains no religious or gnostic aspects, purely pragmatic functional folk magic. But this would included the practices of the Pennsylvania Dutch and of hoodoo, the practitioners of each generally not considering what they do witchcraft, and using somewhat different methods in many cases from the more clearly trad craft traditions.
Maybe we should start there. What’s witchcraft? Ignoring the etymology, which has been argued into the ground and still isn’t probable, we need a functional definition, not an academic or historical one.
No argument can be made about it being a craft, both by name and function, that much is definite. What is a craft? Going by the first two definitions from Merriam-Webster, which are as good as any in this case, “skill in planning, making, or executing” or “an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill”, basically, it’s making something that requires skill and knowledge in how to make it.
For “witch”, rather than dive into theoretical etymology ad nauseum, let’s instead focus on the more functional use of it as a verb instead of a noun. In certain contexts, it is used in the sense of witching for water or witching for answers, basically, to search using divination. It is also used in the sense of, she witched him to do it, or he witched the cow not to produce milk, basically, to charm something or someone into doing one’s will.
If we go by this idea, which by no means is scientific or academic, and may be problematic if used for more than the current purposes, witchcraft is the use of certain skills and knowledge in order to draw forth information (hence the gnostic side of the house), and using the same skills and knowledge in order to charm someone or something, or make one’s will happen in the world (hence the folk magic side of the house). Then, what makes it witchcraft in particular, and not any of the similar traditions or crafts, must then lie in the skills and knowledge what is used to bring about these two categories.
“Traditional” proves problematic as well, as it is sometimes used to mean, that which has traditionally, or by custom, been done, and sometimes to mean, that which has been passed down orally from teacher/master to student/apprentice, at least twice (the three generations of the tradition side of the house). But a custom or tradition is such because it is passed down. So the divide between these is artificial, and not necessarily accurate. The real divide here is in if the skills and knowledge are passed down secretly and exclusively (within a tradition, basically), or more openly and publicly. Esoteric vs exoteric transmission. But this divide is only important in who someone who possesses the knowledge and skills should impart them to and how, not what the knowledge and skills are. So this divide also isn’t necessary for the current discussion.
So, then, trad craft, Traditional Witchcraft, is the using of certain skills and knowledge that has been passed down and taught (like all crafts, honestly) to get information or cause change desired by the practitioner. The only thing then relevant is, which skills and knowledge are these?
One thing that seems most common through the historical accounts, the trad craft traditions that extend into the early part of the 1900s and before, some before the Pagan Renaissance of the 1800s, and the trad craft practices of today is the idea of working with familiar spirits as allies or partners with agreements or pacts with them.
Additionally, the idea that items, plants, animals, humans, all have spirits, and that the Dead also have a remaining spirit in some sense. Which this part varies a bit more than the first point, the two tie together and are universal enough to be seen as key elements.
Neither of these, of course, are unique to trad craft, nor are most of the concepts readily employed, common to most folk practices and “primitive” cultures, like what has been in contact remaining in contact, outward form reflecting the nature or spirit of a thing, and similar things interacting or affecting each other due to their similarity.
Another thing in trad craft is the practice of leaving the body to cross over or visit a remote location. Whether in a trance type state or in dream, whether with substances or without, whether ecstatically or in a relaxed state, this appears to be a part of most if not all trad craft traditions as well as trad craft outside established traditions. This is less common in many of the traditions outside the trad craft context we’ve mentioned, though also not unique to the craft.
While these things don’t adequately define the skills and knowledge of the craft in contrast to other non-trad craft traditions, they give a start in the basic ideas. Those initiated into, having access to, or having encountered to a great enough degree, or having similar such contact or experiences with any of the streams of trad craft witchcraft, by whatever name, will have at least a general idea of what these skills and knowledge involve.
The use of the type of skills and knowledge listed or implied, plus those not listed as these are just examples, in order to gain desired information (divination) or create desired change (through glamour, charm, or curse), that is what witchcraft is. Or, to self-reference, witchcraft is the use of the skills and knowledge of the witchcraft craft in order to witch out information or witch something to happen. But I repeat myself.
What is Untraditional Witchcraft?
Our current context, though, is not to thoroughly and exhaustively define the Craft or lay out the skills and knowledge that it employs, and certainly not to teach it. I provide the above as a backdrop to understand what I’ve named Untraditional Witchcraft.
There is a tendency among those claiming the term “witchcraft” to either assume anything that makes use of “new” things or uses man-made or synthetic materials or technology can’t be part of witchcraft, or to reject the traditions and traditional methods, practices, and ideas in favour of newer ideas and methods. Both these tendencies are the result of the assumption that the Old Ways never change and only apply things used or understood at the time, and that any evolution, mutation, or expansion as time passes results in something new that is no longer the Old Ways, the Craft, or Traditional Witchcraft. Basically, that traditional part of trad craft precludes the use of modern materials or ideas or methods. You’ll note that this is not part of my description or definition of trad craft above.
While I don’t believe anything about the craft is so restricted, I use the term Untraditional Witchcraft or untraditional craft ironically and descriptively, to indicate I am talking about those things the proceeding tendency excludes that are not excluded in my discussion above.
Untraditional craft is not to be taken as a contrast to trad craft or as a separate thing. It is a division for discussion and investigation only, of how trad craft applies to those things that didn’t exist at the time most of the streams formulated into the form that has been passed down. It should be understood that each era or age, each generation, each teacher/master, each student/apprentice has changed the craft by their working the stream, that the craft is not stagnant or unchanging. It is pragmatic in its application, so as culture and technology changes, so must how the craft is worked, to a certain extent.
It is not a new thing for new technologies and new ways of thinking to came about. The printing press, to take an obvious example, changes all the known world, as it no longer took months or years to make a copy of a book, and price could go down, so more people gained access to books and pamphlets. Each generation has its technological advances, and most folk traditions, including craft traditions, didn’t have scruples about changing.
It’s the reconstructionist-type mindset that pushes for a return to old practice to the extent of excluding what more modern developments have to offer. And the reconstructionist mindset itself has manifested differently at different points in history and almost always if not always is based on an understanding over older times from a newer mindset, so not reflective of the time one is attempting to be true to.
In craft circles, this is no different, from the different perceptions shown by Margaret Murray which were first embraced, then rejected completely, to Robert Graves’ White Goddess and the way different times have perceived it since it was written, to newer works with the increasing divide between historical looks at witchcraft, reconstructionist looks at witchcraft, and what many call New Age or fluffy bunny looks at witchcraft. Each camp sees only itself, with all others as opposing and wrong, not that different from the divides between Catholic and Protestant, between Shiite and Sunni, between Buddhist and Hindu. And none of the camps consider the possibility that all three (or however many) contain truth and are wrong and right in different things.
Untraditional craft is a proposal that the craft, as I said, is not static and unchanging. It adapts as times change and should not be constrained by a previous time. Nor should it throw out the things of that earlier time. Untraditional craft is the craft of the past expanded into the present, not the replacement of the old with the new. It is like a building, where each period of time builds on the previous periods’ floors, resulting in a structure where each storey influences those built on top of it, and each storey uses the architectural of its own period. Except that with the craft, those storeys below stand up to the test of time, the parts not needed falling away before the new storey is started.
The practitioner should not pass on what doesn’t work, only what does. This should be obvious. If the things that don’t work are stripped away at the time of building, before the next storey above is built on it, the storey stands strong. Why teach what doesn’t work? Why continue to practice it? Why pass it on? Untraditional Witchcraft is pragmatic, it’s about looking at what your current situation, with the technology and culture and knowledge has to offer, determining what might work based on what you already know from what has been done in the past, seeing if it does work, and keeping what does work and is useful and worth something while throwing out what doesn’t work or is useless or is worthless.
Untraditional Witchcraft is not, as the name might imply, a different thing than Traditional Witchcraft, but a name to point out the dynamic, pragmatic, changing nature of trad craft itself.
So, now what?
In order to have a discussion, we need to first have a context. The above descriptions are that context, the framework we are discussing. And a discussion is ultimately what I’m looking for.
To that end, I’d like to list some topics, what I’d like to discuss or see discussion on in the future, be it with me or between members of the larger community, regardless of where it is discussed. This is, of course, just the beginning of a list, and is more a set of examples to spur thought and discussion than an exhaustive or all-inclusive list.
- Is the description above of Traditional Witchcraft sufficient and accurate?
- Is the premise that trad craft adapts with the time and place it finds itself in true?
- What physical materials or items weren’t around or available during the time we generally take as what trad craft looks back to? Should only natural substances and materials (wood, stone, bone, shell, feather, dirt, blood, etc) be used, or should crafted or worked substances and materials (iron, bronze, steel, paper, etc) be allowed, or should synthetic substances and materials (plastics, synthetic crystals, etc) be allowed? Do the spirits require restrictions in these, or respond badly to certain of them? Are these restrictions or responses a result of how far from natural the substance is, the methods used to create it, or some other reason?
- Is synthesis with or borrowing from other traditions or cultures a diluting of the craft or enhancing to it? Does it water down the craft (like adding water to wine) or help it grow (like adding flour to a sour dough culture)?
- How do your experiences, your cultural background, your upbringing, and the world views of your family or friends or subculture or the overculture influence how you see and relate to the craft? How subjective vs objective is the craft at its core? Does it change across cultures and experiences?
~Bethany “Lorekeeper” Davis