Friday, May 6, 2011

Balthazar writes...

I was pleased to notice that DHr Balthazar, who writes the excellent Gnostic Conjure blog, had signed on as a reader of this blog. He probably did that when he posted this reply to my long screed on Traditional Witchcraft and Paganism. I finally noticed that post... duh.
My reply is too long for the comments section, so I'm going to post it here. 'Witchcraft' and its meanings remains one of the murkiest semantic corners of our occult times, in my opinion...

Balthazar writes: This is an interesting dissection Ian. But to play, er, the Devil's advocate for a moment:

Hey, thanks for writing, Balthazar! I enjoy your blog a lot! I’m gonna snip this for brevity…

I think the distinction between pagan and christian witchcraft is somewhat arbitrary in your argument.

To be real clear, I’d never really use the term ‘Christian witchcraft’ because I generally reserve the term ‘witchcraft’ for magic outside of Christian rules.
There has always been ‘Christian magic’ and ‘Christian sorcery’ – neither of those terms have the religious connotation of ‘witchcraft’. But to use ‘witchcraft’ as a synonym for either one adds to confusion, imo.

For instance, at first glance hoodoo is a form of Protestant folk-magic, but when studied more closely you find an african heart at it's core - alive and beating very strongly. Much of the apparently christian trappings in hoodoo are expressions of deeply african, specifically kongo derived, religious/magical ideas and techniques. They simply found a new host form.

Yep. Now, in England of, say 800 ce, I’d wager we might have found something quite similar. The oppressed and illegal previous religious system reworks itself in barely-permissible clothes. ATR in North America is, after all, no more than 200 or 300 years from its African Roots (less in the Caribbean).

But to consider what an early modern practitioner inherited, we’re talking 1500 more years of deliberate suppression of both pre-Christian religious practices and magic in general. While early modern grimoires *do* retain ritual elements and occasional snippets of mythic content, misremembered deities in the demon-lists, etc, that’s all pretty slim. Nowhere near what Palo remembers of its Congo mythic structure, for instance.

Just because Jesus and the saints are getting air time doesn't mean it isn't pagan! Look at Haiti, Cuba, Brazil...

Yes. Polytheist cultures can adopt Jesus and other Christian mythic figures as some of their spirits. Perhaps I’m too concerned with theology, but to me that doesn’t make them in any way Christian. In the same way a Christian can use PGM ritual forms to summon and converse with Christian-mythic spirit forms. I don’t think that makes what the Christian does Pagan.

However, by the witch-hunt period we don’t seem to be looking at blended-troth (as the Heathens say) at all. The indigenous mythic content has been almost entirely washed away in favor of the new regime’s system. That’s why I’m not a believer in pre-Christian survival witchcraft in later western Europe – I just don’t see enough evidence for it.

Witchcraft throughout history and culture seems to co-opt the dominant religious expression of the time and subvert it for its own ends. And here lies its true genius as a transcultural magical impulse.

I think the term ‘witchcraft’ is best reserved for western-European contra-christian magical practices. Such things certainly existed in the early Christian periods, as Pagans resisted the political advancement of the church. (As to whether or not ‘Satanic’ witchcraft really existed in, say, 1500, I’m undecided.) Other cultures have their own terms, and I think we’d do best not to translate ‘strega’ or ‘seidrkona’, but rather to describe them inside their own cultures.

*Magic* is transcultural. Methods, techniques etc pass from age to age and culture to culture and get reframed as needed for practical use.

I’d no more use ‘witchcraft’ to refer to a shaman than I’d use the term shaman to refer to a Catholic priest. I might use the term ‘magic’ to refer to the practices of either. A clean vocabulary is a happy vocabulary, and I prefer clarity to ambiguity every time. Nothing is more ambiguous in modern occult usage than ‘witchcraft’, and if we narrow it a bit we’ll do our understanding good, I think.

I think you are right to distinguish cunning-folk from the main thrust of neo-pagan witchcraft, and so-called 'traditional witchcraft' - which in my opinion seems exorbitantly atavistic in it's attempts to reconstruct something which at this point seems to owe more to a dark literary notion of witchcraft than anything historical.

I rather dig atavism as a method, and so I respond to so-called Trad Craft’s night-and-fire, bones and blood approach. My own primary spiritual work tends toward daytime community ceremony and blessing, and so a bit of night-and-fire naked dancing is a good thing.

I find no personal use for ‘Luciferian’ or gnostic spirituality. I do respond to an older vibe, of survival Pagans meeting by night to light the old fires and sing the old songs. Such things must surely have actually happened, way back in the first millennium…

In the end, aren’t we all making esthetic choices about in what cultural paradigm we enjoy doing magic?

This might well prove to be a valid and powerful expression of magical creativity, nonetheless - to call it 'traditional' seems a bit a disingenuous.

All a part of the ongoing “We’re real because we’re old” thing in western magic…


Dhr.Balthazar said...

Great that you noticed that comment. ;-)

Well, to be quite honest Ian to claim the term 'witchcraft' has a singular neo-paganized meaning (and seizing that as the only valid one which you ascribe to it) is a somewhat dubious rhetorical device. The truth is "witchcraft" has it's own meaning both in an academic and colloquial sense which extends much, much farther than you claim it does. Christian witchcraft did and does exist, and does so in spite of any romantic contemporary appropriations of the term. Generally, the term in most contexts refers to the sorcerous and usually harmful manipulation of occult forces. And to this end witchcraft as transcultural urge tends to co-opt any dominant religious symbolism for it's own purposes - which is what gives it its credence and power. It's to that urge that I am speaking.

Additionally, you somewhat neutered my argument by snipping about the bits which were the meat of my point and responding to the periphery of the theme rather than the actual point of my comment... the pith of my point was this:

That cunning-craft and other forms of European christian witchcraft carry a living current of 'pagan' sorcery and that these later forms of witchcraft have simply co-opted the dominant religious form for their own purposes. That by dismissing (as you did in you initial post) cunning craft as somehow being a late and irrelevant artefact due to its reliance on Christian symbolism , and therefore not truly 'pagan' enough you are inadvertently discarding the last vestige of that living current of 'pagan' magic. A foolish enterprise, in my opinion, if you are trying to revive that stream of magic in any authentic sense!

IanC said...

First I’ll apologize for the snips, if they prevented folks from getting the gist. That’s why I linked directly to the post and comment up front.

Despite the work for 20 years by Neopagan Witches to push the meaning of the term toward “survivals of Pagan religion and magic”, we haven’t gotten there.

I must admit that I have been in that camp a long time. Way back in the 1970s occultists in N America began making every effort to reclaim the word ‘witchcraft’ from its medieval and academic reference to illicit or even evil magic. I’m still interested in pushing the colloquial meaning away from “rebellious evil magic” toward “preserved (or restored) pre-Christian religion and magic”. That may or may not be a lost cause by now.

I do note that academics seem less willing to use the term to refer to ‘evil magic’ these days, being more interested in using the terms present in the culture that they are studying. To take a medieval European vocabulary term and apply it to non-Euro magical systems just isn’t very clarifying.

Now, as to the magic of the cunning folk, it may well preserve some pre-Christian elements. What it doesn’t seem to do is to preserve worship of pre-Christian deities or spirits – and *that’s* the sort of ‘witchcraft’ to which I find it less relevant than some Traditional Crafters seem to want to make it. AS to the history of magic, the cunning folk traditions are directly responsible for transmitting medieval magic to the modern world, and deserve plenty of attention in the history of magic. However as far as I can see, those magical practitioners weren’t witches in either definition – they weren’t worshippers of either the Old Gods or of Satan.

So I agree that the cunning-folk period of magical history deserves careful study, even for those who, like me, intend to revive and restore the worship of the Gods and Spirits. However, to link cunning-folk magic with ‘witchcraft’ still seems to be a grasp by revivalist witches at historical connection without much to support it.

I look forward to seeing more material from actual cunning-folk come into print. David Rankine has something coming in that regard. While the grimoire material in those sources may be repetitious for those of us who have been at it a while, there could well be snippets of folk stuff that does carry some European Pagan remnants.