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Wiccans and Fairy Shamans: Priority? January 23, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

witches fairies

In the last thirty years there have been growing numbers of men and women who have expressed a belief in fairies: for a minority of these communion with fairies has come to take on the outlines of a of religious system. We even read of ‘fairy shamanism’ and special ‘congresses’ where believers experiment with contact out in the wilds. It would be bad manners to start asking whether these individuals are correct or not in their surmises: de gustibus non disputandum. But a book that Beach is presently reading – soon to be reviewed in this place: Running with the Fairies by Dennis Gaffin – brought a second question to mind. Is modern fairyism an invented religion or does it have some kind of link with medieval European fairy beliefs?

To make this problem as clear as possible, let’s take a parallel. Modern witches follow rituals and acts of magic that have no genetic connection with the witchcraft carried out in the European countryside in the Middle Ages. This has been well established many times, perhaps best by Ronald Hutton in his The Triumph of the Moon. None of this, of course, is to say that contemporary witches are fakes. Only to say that the occasional claims that they belong to an ancient religion are based on a misunderstanding. After all, it is a moot question whether medieval witchcraft was a religion in any meaningful sense: the vast majority of scholars would say that it was not. And even were we to concede that there was some kind of spiritual system we know virtually nothing about said system.

The last witches in northern Europe were dying out in the nineteenth century before the modern interest in paganism began: so there was no contact between the last practitioners of this ‘religion’ and Gerald Gardner and other founders of Wicca. Perhaps only in southern Europe was there any overlap between ancient practice and modern revival: but even there the evidence is flimsy, some would say contemptible. None of this means that Wiccans have not created a way to worship that works for them. But note ‘create’ instead of ‘inherit’.  (For some striking modern examples of supposed diabolical witchcraft investigate these recent cases of witchcraft from Wales: with special thanks to Wade who sent the article in.)

When we turn to fairies and fairy belief the question is more difficult to answer. After all, fairy belief remained strong in many parts of northern Europe well into modern times. There are some areas – e.g. western Ireland, Iceland – where fairy belief (admittedly a diluted version) has survived into the contemporary world. Certainly, anyone wanting to know what our early modern ancestors thought about fairies, the fairy taboos they followed and the like would quickly be able to discover the outlines of, if not a religion, a spiritual system with its own ecology and rules. Put crudely if a modern ‘fairy shaman’ met a practicing witch and they had an argument about the antiquity of their two belief systems the ‘fairy shaman’ would come out on top.

Of course, the simple fact that these belief systems are traceable and even that they have survived does not mean that modern fairy shamans and their ilk have necessarily taken them on. It is interesting that modern fairies are by the reckoning of those who commune with them friendly and helpful, whereas our ancestors were terrified of the little critters. In fact, modern fairy belief – and for that matter the Disney Tinkerbell cartoons – show signs of heavy borrowing from theosophy and spiritualism more generally and, indirectly, through these, from the great eastern religions. Given a choice any adherent of an ‘ancient’ religion is more likely to just come up with their own details rather than fill up a volume of nineteenth-century folklore with sticky notes. This isn’t laziness, it is pragmatism. We know better than our Victorian or our eighteenth-century or our medieval ancestors what we need.

A final radical thought. Is it possible that the fairy beliefs handed down to us are the closest we come to medieval witch beliefs? There are a hundred arguments worth raising against this and yet… and yet… drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


26 Jan 2013: KR writes in: Your statements regarding the unlikely relationship of Wicca to old known forms of “European witchcraft” may be true, though I must say I disagree with mooting an idea altogether based on the opinions of today’s experts. After all, it was yesterday’s experts who decided witches existed and must be hunted down and destroyed, and it was yesterday’s experts that decided that witches did not exist after all!  Here, I think, one needs to make a few distinctions. “Wicca” as it is known today is a religion begun in the 20th century, perhaps informed in some aspects by what could be gleaned of earlier practices in some few cases, perhaps not. But “Wiccan” and “witch” are not synonyms. Witching was more a folk-practice than a religion, although it might have had traces of very old religious beliefs in it. “Witchcraft” as defined and prosecuted by 16th-17th century church and legal authorities certainly did NOT die out. Their definition was really rather broad. It covered most anything that the church disapproved regarding beliefs and practices of the (mostly) common folk, and labeled any disapproved practice as “the Devil’s work.” Note that I did not say “superstitions of the common folk,” because those who caused the most death and damage through superstitious belief in magical diabolical practices were not the prosecuted, but the prosecutors: the belief in diabolical magic were shared by the educated and uneducated alike. What ended in the eighteenth century was not the “witchcraft” practices amongst common folk, but their prosecutions by the elites. Educated people became embarrassed to admit to any superstitious belief that witches existed at all, to the point that accusations of witching by peasants were ignored. Eventually accusers of witchcraft were more likely to be prosecuted than accused. So the remaining “cunning women,” “cunning men,” “magical healers,” “water witchers” and rural herbalists kept right on doing what they did. Neighbors still blamed a run of bad luck on some neighbor they did not like or trust. Poor people still payed for good herbal remedies that helped, and also for magical ones that probably did not. I say “probably” because a cunning woman’s magical-cure placebo-effect would have been a better and safer treatment for a minor illness than the then-accepted quackery of the 19th to early 20th century educated physician! (Indeed, it would likely still have a better long-term treatment outcome than can be had with many dangerous modern prescriptions even today!) And any person, made angry enough, still might have given “the evil eye” to his or her neighbor, or  muttered a curse under his or her breath. As the article you mention about Welsh witches indicates, the old practices that were known, and for which many were accused as witches, are still extant. Mentioned were poppet-pinning and evil-eye. So in deciding whether witches still exist, or “died out in the eighteenth century” one must look  at what “a witch” actually did, not what they imagined she did, in order to be accused.  Let us see whether “witch behaviors” are still extant in our modern world: Are any people still nervous about walking under ladders, and black cat path-crossings; and if so, does superstition still exist? Yes. Are there any today who might use herbal medicines rather than go to a physician? Yes. Do people still use forked branches to find water? Yes. Is anyone ever suspicious of a weird character in the neighborhood? Yes. Does anyone ever curse another person in our modern society? Yes. Nowadays curses are yelled out loud, over the most minor aggravations: traffic, ball games, you-name-it. Perhaps no longer taken seriously, but “go to hell,” a “finger wave,” pointing a finger at another in anger, saying “damn”  are certainly forms of old curses that would have been taken quite seriously in the days of condemning witches! Ask yourself: Has no one ever given you a “dirty look?” Have you ever “shot daggers from your eyes” at someone who made you furious?  (Well, that’s the “evil eye,” you know.) Ever danced under a romantic moon? Ever been with friends to a bonfire party? What about Guy Fawkes’ celebrations: ever participated in an effigy-burning? Throwing darts at a target at the pub whilst thinking of an enemy is not so much different than sticking pins in a poppet, now is it? So we may say conclusively that witches and their witchy behaviors still exist! Indeed, their numbers have greatly increased!  Anyone, male or female, who self-identifies with any of my examples above need only look in the mirror to see one!’ Thanks, KR. I’m reminded of a comment of Keith Thomas, the great British historian where Thomas says that there is a fundamental difference between the cunning men and women of the sixteenth and the nineteenth century. I suspect he is right but neither he nor I could hope to prove this. B.