The phrase Traditional Witchcraft has gained a lot of traction over recent years. The abundance of information available since the dawning of the internet has made research superior than in previous eras. In terms of witchcraft, the resources for study that relate directly to the historic and folkloric currents of witchery are more advanced than any preceding. Indeed, the flourishing of literature on the subject, from both lay individuals and academics alike, has expanded the topic greatly.
Gone are the days of the theories of the survival of a pagan cult, which persisted perilously through the Middle Ages as the witch cult, championed by the likes of anthropologist and folklorist Margaret Murray 1863-1963). More precise scholarly work, however, has shown that there appears to have been a prevalence of feminine spiritual figures who often became broadly identified under the Latin clerical catch-all of Diana, or less frequently Herodias, both being mentioned in the Bible with evil connotations.1 This nuance is only widely available to those interested in the study of witchcraft, particularly with an historic bent, since the turn of the millennium when availability of information grew exponentially, permitting openminded historians to approach the subject more critically.
Where, then, is the place of tradition within the current witchcraft milieu, which has roundly discredited most if not all of the twentieth century "granny" stories of descent and initiation from aged wise women and cunning folk? It does, indeed, have a very particular and useful place within witchcraft, as I intend to demonstrate in this essay—and with all things witch adjacent, the suspension of disbelief will be prerequisite.
Foremost, it is imperative to define the term "tradition" and understand precisely to what it is we refer. This, it will be shown, is the crux of the issue itself, revealing much more contained within a simple identifier. "Tradition," according to the Cambridge Dictionary, denotes, "a belief, principle, or way of acting that people in a particular society or group have continued to follow for a long time…"2
Herein lies the first stumbling block that many have with Traditional Witchcraft, recognising that it is almost impossible to reliably assert with authority that a tradition has continued in such a manner. That being said, there are those folk traditions and customs that have remained in families for undetermined periods of time, such as rhymes, recipes, or patterns. These, however, rarely, if ever, can be identified as constituting a systematic collection of practices one might deem a framework for witchery beyond lingering folk charms or familial superstition.
British historian Eric Hobsbawm, together with Africanist Terence Ranger, edited a 1983 study, The Invention of Tradition, which examined the folklore, custom, and ceremonies recognised today as traditional in an historic sense, and which were, in fact, almost always recent developments or pure invention.3 The term "invented tradition" came to be used to identify those customs that lend authenticity to a subject, elevated by the notions of traditional pedigree, and yet have been purposefully arranged so. The topics discussed include the social and nationalistic tendency to attach importance to tradition through tying a body to an historic, and not necessarily truthful, past. Such examples in the book include Scottish nationalism, Welsh history in the Romantic Period, the tradition of colonial authority in Africa and India, and the British Monarchy. Indeed, this last is revealed to be steeped in hoary pomp and ceremony that reinforces its sense of authenticity and connection to historical truths and which were, in actuality, embellished and elaborated, or sometimes created wholesale, in the 19th and 20th centuries. National identity has often found itself within the fog of invented tradition, drawing from a romantic past such meagre threads as might become grandiose tapestries, informing custom and ritual. It is not a new pursuit either, with most nations existing today being fairly modern in their origin and identity, yet drawing from an idealistic past. Historic truth has never dissuaded nations or groups from plumbing the wellspring of antiquity to infer a direct line of pedigree from mythic, ancient, and historic fact to authenticate that identity. The reality, much more cosmopolitan and nuanced, is rarely accounted for amongst the masses of flag wavers who attend state ceremony, and the gravitas that tradition lends to an occasion can often make it sacrosanct. This is not to say that traditions around identity are necessarily bad, but can be vitally important in informing our understanding of who we are and where we come from. It is only in its more violent ideological forms that it becomes dangerous, warped and twisted to nefarious ends by those unscrupulous individuals who would divert attention from appalling views. The Nazi party of the mid-twentieth century is the most extreme example.
Symbols of Tradition
An example of invented tradition in national identity today can be found in the crown of the Queen of England, symbolised in the monogram of the Queen and used in royal insignia. The St. Edward's Crown is named for the medieval English monarch Edward the Confessor and has been used, according to tradition, to crown the heads of British royalty since the 13th Century.
However, England suffered a bloody civil war in the 17th Century that deposed the monarchy and the version of the St. Edward's Crown that was extant at the time was sold. For the Restoration of the monarchy, a new crown was fashioned, only to be stolen later by Captain Blood, and beaten with a mallet to facilitate quick escape. Indeed, the custom of crowning British monarchs with the St. Edward's Crown, by now a mere memory of its medieval original, was only reintroduced properly in 1911 with the coronation of George V, and has been used only twice since—George VI and Elizabeth II. This is a classic example of a sacred national tradition holding so much weight, despite its veracity being not quite as it seems.
Two other examples from British history are the Houses of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster, which were destroyed by fire in 1834 and almost entirely rebuilt—including the iconic Clock Tower, housing Big Ben, that was completed in 1859. The other example is Buckingham Palace, which was modified from a house into a palace by George IV during the 1820s, before becoming the monarch's official London residence at the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. These stalwart traditions of Great Britain, baked into the national psyche and venerated amongst those who revere such things, are demonstrably recent and invented traditions.
The Purpose of Tradition
The purpose, therefore, of tradition is not necessarily to be found in the factual nature, the historicity or authenticity surrounding the events, customs, and rituals. Rather, the tradition codifies the belief in a cohesive story that unifies a group, causes a bond to occur that adheres one to another in mutual identity. Traditions, in this case, are as authentic as we need them to be, and not dependent upon the timeworn past to deliver an unchanged truth. Indeed, much of the past is best left where it is, ossifying within the abject lessons afforded through time, to develop new traditions and understandings.
The practice of using historic foundation for traditions, which cohere groups together, is as old as human narratives themselves. Indeed, it is tradition among Anglo-Saxon monarchs, up until the present day, to trace a genealogy of descent back to Woden.This euhemerizing of the mythologies of the Anglo-Saxon peoples into the legitimacy of noble and royal ancestry is a tradition amongst European monarchy for centuries—ultimately centring the question of the divine right of kings to rule absolutely through direct authority from god. Of course, Classical precedent indicates that the apotheosis of pharaohs and Caesars assured this tradition in verifiable ancient roots as a custom. Nevertheless, it is a tradition that secured the feudal overlordship of several dynasties for millennia. Romantic notions of divinely descended Kings and Queens serves to reassure individuals within a social group, but in reality can be a harsh and unforgiving system of rulership.
Why Traditional Witchcraft
The unifying nature of tradition is at the heart of its meaning and purpose. Cohering a group around a central tenet, mythology, belief, ceremony, or ritual behaviours, then, is the necessary aspect of tradition. Its power and veracity lies less in its historical accuracy for authenticity, and more in its relevance, morality, strength, and usefulness to those within its fold.
Which brings this foray neatly back to Traditional Witchcraft. These fundamental principles, namely mythology, cohesive narrativising, ritualised behaviours, drawing from perceived or actual historical sources, are the foundation of Traditional Witchcraft. It is the glue that identifies the cohered with something recognisable, distinct from the more randomised, unsituated, eclectic forms otherwise predominant.
Traditions don't have to be old, or passed on from elders, to be valid. Indeed, one might argue that the purpose of tradition is less to prove historical transmission that it is to convey a group unity, or soul. In Traditional Witchcraft, it is this that is meant by tradition, the egregore of a group that unites its members through ritualised mythology, narrativised activity that mediates something intangible, a truth more ineffable than facts alone. Traditional Witchcraft is that witchcraft that is situated within tradition, being identifiable through, to paraphrase the Cambridge Dictionary, a unified "… belief, principle or way of acting that people in a particular group may have continued to follow for a long time…" Indeed, with witchcraft firmly established in collective psyche since the mid-twentieth century, there are several traditions who can now legitimately claim historic continuity, but that is not where the strength of the tradition lies. No; tradition's strength resides within the people who keep it alive, and what they do with it.