Witches Past And Present: Barbara G. Walker

By Barbara G. Walker

During the last 50 years, scholars have established a very different view of our Stone Age ancestors from the one we used to imagine. It seems there weren’t all those women dragged off to caves by their hair by boorish male savages with clubs. Quite the contrary. Neolithic villages tended to describe themselves as motherhoods, to be organized primarily around the needs and activities of women and their offspring, to practice matrilineal property ownership, and to recognize males as sons, brothers, lovers, helpers, and maternal uncles, but not as husbands or fathers. “Woman,” says Briffault, “was the founder of the home, the originator of the arts, and the creator of the primordial elements of civilization.”1

Women’s power to create life, apparently out of their own substance, and to respond with fearful and mystical blood cycles to the phases of the moon, made them creatures of magic in the eyes of primitive men, who knew themselves unable to match such powers. Thus women took on the roles of intermediaries between humanity and spiritual powers. They became seers, priestesses, healers, oracles, lawmakers, judges, and agents of the Great Mother Goddess who gave birth to the universe.

Even after fatherhood was recognized, and hierarchies of kingships began to appear in the Bronze Age, women’s connections with the Goddess were given paramount importance. Early kings in Sumeria, Babylon, Egypt, Phoenicia and other ancient lands couldn’t rule unless they had a hieros gamos (“holy marriage”) with the Goddess incarnated in the queen.2 Similarly, when patriarchal gods first appeared, they and their priests were required to have female counterparts. The Mahanirvanatantra says gods can “avail nothing” unless they have their Shaktis, female soul mates. Brahmin priests could not perform ceremonies unless they were married.3

Similarly, early Israelites mated their god with the Goddess Asherah, a Canaanite version of Astarte, and believed that a priest’s invocations would be useless unless he was married. The high priest of Rome, the Flamen Dialis, was considered effective only as long as he was married to the Flaminia, the high priestess of Juno.4

Through the centuries, even during the growth of patriarchy, women were thought to keep intimate connections with the spiritual realm. The famous oracles at Delphi and Eleusis were always female, as were the Sybils of Rome. Even after the priests of Apollo took the Delphic shrine away from the Goddess and rededicated it to their god, they dared not revise the gender of the Pythian priestesses. No man could serve as the true oracle.5

The Greeks’ principal Goddess of oracular powers, magic, and midwifery was Hecate, derived from the Egyptian pre-dynastic term for a tribal matriarch, hek, which meant a wise-woman versed in the hekau or “words of power.”6 This was a woman having the authority of the logos, the creative word. She could make things happen just by speaking—as witches, centuries later, were supposed to make things happen by speaking their curses or spells. Logos power was later usurped by male gods such as Yahweh, who claimed to bring things into being by saying them. But long before the Bible, hekau were the material of all creative word magic, spells, charms, prayers, invocations, exorcisms, chants, liturgies, and every other mystic verbal practice of our ever-verbalizing species.

Hecate was one of the female trinities, often depicted with three faces, as the Moon Goddess in heaven, the Earth Goddess ruling earthly nature, and the Underworld Queen of the Dead, identified with Persephone.7 The trinitarian Goddesses were models for the Christian trinity, which early church fathers like St. Augustine condemned as blasphemous because it was a pagan concept of long standing. However, people favored triple deities, so the trinitarians won out and the Christian god became a somehow unified trio. Hecate, meanwhile, evolved into the medieval “Queen of Witches,” much feared by Christian clergymen, who were convinced that women continued to worship her in secret. Certainly women did continue to make use of the herbal lore, charms, potions, gynecological techniques, and many magical procedures devised long ago by pagan priestesses. Shakespeare’s three Weird Sisters in Macbeth are late versions of the northern Hecate, Wyrd, the Triple Goddess of Fate, whose name also meant “word” because she had the creative power of the logos. Like the Roman Fata Scribunda, the Goddess Wyrd wrote the fate of every person in her Book of Life; just as Kali Ma (another trinity) in India wrote every destiny in her holy Sanskrit Letters.8 The Weird Sisters chanted charms around their sacred cauldron, northern Europe’s chief symbol of the Primal Womb, in which all life forms were mingled.

The religious symbolism here was indeed opposed to the Christian notion of one life ending in heaven or hell. It meant that all lives return to the primordial molecular soup and become dissolved and reorganized into new life forms. This idea also underlay various theories of reincarnation, which the Catholic Church declared a virulent heresy.

However, the Catholic Church didn’t begin to view women’s folk remedies or magic charms as heretical witchcraft until the 14th century. Through the Middle Ages, the village witches or wise-women were the only healers available to ordinary people. Physicians usually treated only the rich, and clergymen were forbidden to learn anything about medicine, being taught that sickness is the work of demons and must be treated only with holy water and exorcisms.9 Medical knowledge, however crude, was to be found chiefly in the local witches who carried on the ancient traditions. Paracelsus wrote that everything he knew about medicine was taught to him by witches.10

In 500 C.E. the Salic Law recognized witches’ right to practice, and in 643 an edict declared it illegal to persecute witches.11 In 785, the Synod of Paderborn said anyone who killed a witch must be executed.12 Scriptures available at that time apparently did not contain what is possibly the bible’s bloodiest passage, Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” We are not sure just when that passage was written, but it seems not to have been regarded as God’s law until 1390 in France, when witchcraft was first declared a crime.13 The Hebrew word translated “witch,” kasaph, actually meant any seer or diviner.14

Up to the 14th century, European nobility and clergy alike employed the services of witches. Churchmen said witches could control the weather “with God’s permission,” and God didn’t turn against his earthly weathermakers until the beginning of the Renaissance.15 English law tolerated witches up to the reign of James I, the Renaissance equivalent of a “born again” national leader. The infamous Witchcraft Act was instituted in his time.

We have all heard of Europe’s 400 years of witch persecutions, from the 14th to the 18th centuries, but few are aware of the enormous extent of the holocaust. The church likes to pretend that “only a few hundred thousand” innocents were murdered, but secular sources estimate as many as nine million. (Four centuries of killing can dispose of a good many people.) Over 85% of them were female: grandmothers, mothers, maidens, even children, mostly illiterate peasants who couldn’t even understand the questions their torturers asked, and in their agony begged to be told what to confess to. Local chroniclers spoke of stakes set up as thick as a forest, and hundreds slaughtered in a single day. At the height of the frenzy, we read of villages in Germany and France where only one or two women were left alive. In some places, whole villages were destroyed altogether.16

The Inquisition was empowered by Pope John XXII to prosecute anyone who worked magic, as opposed to the heretics who had been largely exterminated by the Albigensian, Waldensian, and other crusades. In 1375, a French inquisitor lamented that all the rich heretics had been eliminated, their wealth having been appropriated by the church, and now it was “a pity that so salutary an institution” as the Inquisition should not have a future.17 The solution was found in declaring witchcraft a demonic heresy. The persecution became a major industry, resulting in great profits from seizure of the victims’ possessions. Each procedure of torture carried a fee. Victims were charged for their food and lodging in prison, for the ropes that bound them and the wood that burned them. After the execution of any comparatively affluent witch, officials would treat themselves to a banquet at the expense of the victim’s estate.18

A history of the Inquisition, written by a Catholic scholar in 1909, said the church “invented the crime of witchcraft and relied on torture as the means of proving it.”19 The official handbook of the Inquisition was the Malleus Maleficarum, “A Hammer for Witches,” written by two monks, minutely detailing the techniques of torture. I have read this book, and it is truly vile. In my opinion, no organization that ever produced such a book—and its consequences—deserves to call itself a religion.

Among the rules for inquisitorial trial were the following: All proceedings were kept secret. The accused was not allowed legal counsel or told of the nature of the charges. Hearsay evidence, called “common report,” was accepted as proof of guilt; this also included evidence taken from other victims during torture. Children as young as two years could give such evidence, because, as one inquisitor wrote, “those of tender age could easily be persuaded or forced to inform.” Torture was used without limit of duration of severity. Even after confession, more torture was applied to “validate” the confession. If the accused died under torture, the record stated that the devil broke her neck in prison. Every victim was forced to supply the names of so-called accomplices, and no one was ever declared innocent.20

Again and again, victims confessed to impossible crimes such as bringing storms or droughts, spoiling crops, copulating with devils, flying on broomsticks, wrecking ships, eating babies, causing impotence or sickness in their neighbors, transforming their demon lovers into cats and dogs, and such absurdities. Inquisitors from Spain also worked their evil among pagan peoples in the New World, and instituted deadly witch hunts among Native Americans.

Throughout the centuries, men have usually practiced magic without much disapproval. The church distinguished between witchcraft, perpetrated by women, and sorcery, a legitimate pursuit of men. Von Nettesheim’s books of sorcery were published under church auspices, with a statement of ecclesiastical approval.21 But female witches became the scapegoats for every disaster. Pope Innocent VIII “infallibly” declared in his bull Summis desiderantes that witches magically injure crops, domestic animals, and people, and in general “outrage the Divine Majesty.”22 Since the Divine Majesty seemed either unable or disinclined to do anything about it, churchmen took it upon themselves to decimate Europe’s female population. “The more women there are, the more witchcraft there will be,” one authority remarked.23

The Inquisition never took root in Scandinavia or the British Isles, though England and Scotland had their own style of witchhunting. Victims were usually hanged, not burned. The oncoming Age of Enlightenment eventually caused the persecutions to peter out, although the Catholic Church still retains its official Office of the Inquisition to this day.

In North America, there was one final twitch of witchcraft mania in Salem, Mass., in 1692. Some teenage girls began to prophesy and fall into fits under the influence of a West Indian slave devoted to obeah, the old African form of sorcery. The girls accused over a hundred of their neighbors of causing demonic possession, until the whole village was involved in the hysteria, and the famous Rev. Cotton Mather came to lend his credulity to the show. In the end, though, only 19 victims were hanged, and a year later the state governor pardoned the remaining accused. One of the girls finally admitted that they did the whole thing for “sport.”

Witchhunting didn’t become an obsession in North America as it had in Europe because many of the people who colonized the New World had fled from religious intolerance in the first place, and rightly feared its recurrence in their new country more than they feared superstitious witch tales.

Early in the 20th century, anthropologists began investigating the folk customs that grew out of Europe’s pagan religions, and realized that some of their “old wives’ tales” really did date back to antiquity. Sir James Frazer, Andrew D. White, and Robert Briffault demonstrated some fairly direct connections. Dr. Margaret Murray’s classic book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe, showed that what she called the Dianic religion had survived in the form of charms and rituals that their practitioners didn’t even recognize. Murray believed that the “fairy faith” preserved an attenuated form of worship of the Great Goddess and the Horned God, humanity’s primitive nature deities.

The English legislature finally officially repealed the Witchcraft Act in 1951—yes, as late as that! Three years later, Gerald Gardner, an English male witch, published a book claiming that many covens existed throughout the country, involving such practices as ritual nudity and sex orgies. Predictably, these details stimulated popular interest and Gardner suddenly found himself a celebrity at the age of 70.24 He died ten years later. Today there are still groups, both men and women, who call themselves “Gardnerian” witches, and practice similar rites. But much of modern witchcraft has moved on and applied the new learning to become a nature-oriented, life-affirming, female-centered faith.

Like medieval churchmen, modern journalists often confuse the term “witchcraft” with Satanism, claiming that witches worship the devil. But modern witches could hardly do that, since they say the devil doesn’t exist, and only Christians can be devil worshipers because only Christians believe in him. There are people who call themselves Satanists, such as the well-known Anton La Vey, who established his “First Church of Satan” in San Francisco in 1966. His book, The Satanic Bible, became a bestseller on college campuses.25 But La Vey doesn’t claim to be a witch, and those who do say that their Horned God is nothing like a devil, but rather a nature deity like Pan, Faunus, Dianus, or the Green Man of Celtic tradition.

Most modern witches call their religion Neo-paganism or Wicca, after the Anglo-Saxon wicce, a wise-woman or seer. The verb witan meant to see, to know; “Wit” and “wisdom” come from the same root. Modern research has given the Wiccans a rich background of pagan theology from which to draw their rites and customs. Among their many authors are Alex Sanders and Sybil Leek in England, and Starhawk and Margot Adler in the United States. Louise Huebner has been declared the Official Witch of Los Angeles, and Lori Cabot is regarded as the modern Witch of Salem.

The Wiccan version of the Golden Rule is “Do as you will, as long as you harm none.” Practitioners tend to be tree-huggers, vegetarians, and political liberals. Their so-called “charms and spells” are mostly serenity chants, formulae for focusing the mind, and private rituals of heightened awareness and self-improvement.

Witchcraft, and all its real or imaginary connections with prepatriarchal religion, actually constitutes a huge subject, with branches in every aspect of human culture. There are hundreds of different types of magic, divination, spiritualism, alternative healing, herbal and crystal lore, scrying, fortune-telling, spell casting, and all the other functions of witches prevalent among us still. Witchcraft has never gone away, even though the witch hunters have, to the considerable improvement of western society. It could even be said that witchcraft, with its connections to paganism, is an integral part of religion as a whole in western civilization. Wicca is now regarded as a “faith.” Pope Innocent VIII probably isn’t looking down from heaven, but if he were, wouldn’t he be peeved!


1. Briffault, Robert. The Mothers (3 vols.) New York: Macmillan, 1927, v. 1, p. 432
2. Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. HarperSanFrancisco, 1983, p. 501
3. Mahanirvanatantra, Sir John Woodroffe, trans. New York: Dover, 1972. p. xxiv. Bullough, Vein L. The Subordinate Sex. University of Illinois Press, 1973. p. 234
4. Briffault, op. cit., v. 3, p. 20
5. Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths (2 vols.) New York: Penguin Books, v.1, p. 80
6. Budge, Sir E.A. Wallis. Egyptian Magic. New York: Dover, 1971 p. 196; Gods of the Egyptians (2 vols.) New York Dover, 1969, v. 2, p. 300
7. Graves, op. cit., v. 2, p. 393
8. Goodrich, Norma Lorre. Medieval Myths. New York: New American Library, 1977, pp. 18, 32
9. White, Andrew D. A History .of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. (2 vols.) New York: George Braziller, 1955, v. 2, p. 36
10. Lederer, Wolfgang. The Fear of Women. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, p. 150
11. Tannahill, Reay. Flesh and Blood. New York: Stein & Day, 1975, pp. 96-97
12. Castiglioni, Arturo. Adventures of the Mind. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946, p. 233
13. Robbins, Rossell Hope. Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York: Crown Publishers, 1959, p. 209
14. Russell, J.B. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. New York: Cornell University Press, 1972, p. 54
15. Knight, Richard Payne. The Symbolical Language of Ancient Art and Mythology. New York: J.W. Bouton, 1892, p. 207
16. Robbins, op. cit., p. 219
17. Ibid., p. 8
18. Ibid., pp. 111, 113
19. Ibid., pp. 9, 271
20. Ibid., pp. 13014, 229, 554
21. Walker, op. cit., p. 1084
22. Masters, R.E.L. Eros and Evil. New York: Julian Press, 1962, p. Xxvi
23. Baroja, Julio Caro. The World of Witches. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965, p. 80
24. Kingston, Jeremy. Witches and Witchcraft. London: Aldus Books Ltd., 1976, p. 12
25.Ibid., p. 111

Barbara G. Walker is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebook The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her many other books, published by Harper & Row, include The Skeptical Feminist. An atheist, she has also specialized in debunking New Age assertions.


Freedom From Religion Foundation