| Have all the witches fled?
Common knowledge says that by 1736, when witchcraft bans were repealed, the rising influence of scientific explanations crowded out witches and other evil spirits. The people of England were liberated from the hag's hand of witchcraft, and the glories of rationality reigned.
Nice story. Problem is, it's a myth.
According to historian Davies, "The end of the witch trials normally gets mistaken for the decline of witchcraft, which is patently not true. The laws against witchcraft were rescinded while the majority of the population continued to believe in witchcraft." Indeed, says Davies, even well-known intellectuals like Daniel DeFoe continued to believe.
Instead, intellectuals began to claim that witches had, like dodo birds, once existed but were now extinct. The extensive evidence required to prove a witch's evil deeds was as scarce as a liberal in Texas. In effect, the establishment decided to rely on scientific evidence, says Davies, without denying that witches once existed.
Meanwhile, most people remained unwashed, undereducated, and overly convinced that witches continued to do-do their voodoo. In fact, Davies has found that "witch swimming" continued into the early 19th century in many rural locations. (In this Catch-22 test, the accused witch was tossed into a pond with feet and hands bound. If the accused was unfortunate enough to float, the judges believed God had rejected him or her. Sinking, on the other hand, showed God's acceptance, although it frequently lead to drowning -- only marginally more desirable.)
Still the witching hour
Yet witchcraft has metamorphosed rather than disappeared. On one level, it's become a source of Larry Ploddering fun, and on another, a religion: Wicca. "It changes, chameleon like, even though each stage [of its history] doesn't bear much resemblance to the others," says Davies.
Witchcraft emerged as a coherent religion in the 1930s courtesy of Gerald Gardner, a British civil servant. Wiccan contained old elements, in particular a mythology based on the seasons in which a God is born to the Mother Goddess (herself the center of many Wiccan covens) at Yule (Dec. 21st). This god matures and dies in the fall, allowing his rebirth and the cycle to continue.
Sociologist Helen Berger of West Chester University says Gardner claimed to have learned the details of his new religion from an elderly woman, but "Nobody has been able to track this claim down and many people believe he made it up."
Remember our argument that Wicca was a direct descendant of paganism? It turns out that the two have little in common, Berger, who started investigating witchcraft in the 1980s by spending time in various covens, says. "You can see elements of the religion that he put together coming from many areas. Freemasonry, the cult of the mother, and other folklore. He was very creative in making something new out of them."
way is up?
Although witchcraft was gradually rejected by the elite during the 18th century, that reversal is ricocheting. Berger says many witches "came into the religion because it spoke to other concerns: environmental, feminist, alternative science, alternative ways of looking at the world. The people who are interested in these things tend to be educated."
Unlike most mainstream religions, "People ... are really cognizant of the fact that they are creating the religion," Berger says. "There is no requirement that you actually believe in the gods and goddesses. It creates a more intellectual religious experience. It is based less on belief and more on experience."
Sadly, while some Wiccans do wear ceremonial robes, street clothes or outright nudity are often the norm at Wiccan Sabbaths. So, those pointy hats remain a figment of the fairy tale image -- the entertaining side of witchcraft that has captured the popular imagination.
But witchcraft is not just about fun and immensely profitable flicks. Jerry Falwell, for example, blamed pagans in his analysis of the September 11th attacks. So witchcraft may still serve its old function -- explaining the inexplicable.
You'll get more explanation in our bibliography.
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