Tuesday, June 26, 2007
There are some books which are influential without necessarily being credible. One of those books is The Witch Cult of Western Europe by Margaret Murray, first published in 1921.
The basic theory is that witchcraft is a modern survival of pre-Christian forms of worship, and that the persecution of the witches which took place throughout the middle ages was a Christian attempt to eradicate a rival religion.
The theory has since been discredited. But the reason the book has been so influential is that one person, at least, believed it, and set out to recreate what he imagined this religion to be.
That person was Gerald Gardiner, and the religion he founded was Wicca.
There is an irony here. Wicca is often referred to as “the Old Religion”, or “the Craft”, while making assertions about its link to an ancient tradition, and yet its one true claim to historical importance is that it is, in fact, a very successful new religion, born in the British Isles, which has since spread to many parts of the globe.
Where Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardiner might have been on to something is that, though there never was a religion which could be identified as witchcraft, there were certainly some odd magical practices which survived well into the last century, and which may have had their roots in some ancient belief system.
The people who practiced these beliefs were not usually called witches, however. Often they claimed to protect people from witches, who were understood to be people who used magic for evil ends. No: the general name they went under was “cunning-folk”.
I like that. Cunning-folk. Cunning-men and cunning-women. Folk who use cunning in the practice of the magical arts; which means that another word for “magic” might be “cunning”.
And looking the word up in my dictionary I can see that it is related to the Old Viking word kunna, to know, which is probably related to the Scottish word “canny”, meaning shrewd, astute or knowing, and to the English word “can”, as in “can do”, meaning the ability to do something. In other words, the cunning-folk are shrewd, clever or canny folk who know how to do things.
The activities of these mysterious people were made illegal under the same laws which banished witchcraft, in 1542, 1563 and 1604, and which outlawed "witchcraft, enchantment, charm, or sorcery, to tell or declare in what place any treasure of gold or silver might be found…. or practice any sorcery, enchantment, charm or witchcraft to the intent to provoke any person to unlawful love."
Which is a startling concept. The first part would make metal detecting illegal, while the second seems to imply that there can be such a thing as “unlawful love”. How can love, in any form, ever be made unlawful?
The reason that cunning-folk were rarely prosecuted is that people depended on them too much, and that they were too respected in their communities for anyone to inform on them. Also, they kept themselves to themselves and stayed quiet.
Later, in 1736, the laws were amended. Witchcraft became a lesser crime. Later again, in 1951, all the laws were finally repealed. It was then that Gardiner set out to create his new religion based, as he claimed, upon an old one.
Meanwhile cunning-folk continued their mysterious practices, making love-charms and casting spells, predicting the future, driving away evil spirits, and making sure that all was well with the world, well into the 20th century.
And who knows, maybe they are doing it still?
How do you know, in fact, that I’m not a cunning-man?