After my last post, I have been asked about my ethics as a witch because apparently the thought of being heretical, as opposed to following a different religion, is not what people expect and don’t necessarily like. So, I thought I would explain a little about being a cunning person or traditional witch and why it is different to being a Wiccan and following the Wiccan ethos or crede.
Firstly, let me define what I mean by the term traditional witch. I mean it in its definition of “an old custom or institution, handed down from one person to another. A statement, belief or practice transmitted from one generation to another.” In other words, a time honoured way of doing things and a plethora of knowledge learned over many years and practiced by many generations who, in turn, pass that knowledge down to the next generation.
In the past, cunning people quite often followed a dual faith and it is still found that some do today. They believe in and honour the land wights or earth spirits, the Genii Loci or spirits of place, the Good Folk and the Sacred Landscape is very important to them. But they will also utilise Christian symbols and writings to make charms, talismans and amulets. They will use the Psalms within their spells and call upon the company of saints. To the majority of Wiccans, this is abhorrent as they are so anti-church that they are almost fanatical in their avoidance and hatred of it. But here in Britain, it historically became a way of survival; if you didn’t go to church and it was noticed, it was enough to get you accused of witchcraft. It also became more acceptable to practice your arte if the charms and spells you used appeared to be coming from the Christian god and because a good many of the cunning folk relied upon using their magic to make a living, they needed to find a way to do so without it landing them before the magistrate accused of witchcraft. It was by no means a fool-proof method of avoiding trouble but it might lessen the sentence if you were found to be acting within a Christian ethos. It could also save your life.
The cunning folk could also see that Christian items such as the Host, holy water and saints medallions had a magical virtue inherent in them because of all the worshipful intent, desire and belief that had been poured into them. This they recognised as a potent mixture for the making of powerful and truly magical charms and spells. However, their use of such Christian imagery and liturgy was heretical, they gave the saints the attributes of earlier gods and goddesses, when they gathered water from Christianised holy wells, they were mindful of who the well was dedicated to beforehand and made sure that they left offerings that were more acceptable to the older deity of the well. When calling on Mary within the prayers over their charms, they were very aware that in reality they were addressing a much older Goddess; nothing was as it seemed.
And so the addition of Christian imagery, liturgy, saints and angels became part of the magical way and was passed down amongst all the other magical practices.
Another striking difference is that we tend not to go about in cloaks and certainly not skyclad. The reasons being ones of practicality; we work an awful lot out of doors and the British climate isn’t that conducive to being outdoors naked for the vast part of the year! It’s no fun trying to do a working while the temperature is minus five, your healing waters are turning to ice in their chalices and your teeth are chattering so violently that you think they’ll break. No, much better to be in thick clothes, a damn good outdoor coat, hats, scarves and boots. Some of us do wear cloaks for specific occasions but again, they are not that practical if the ground is wet and the hem is dragging in the mud and the damp starts to rise up the cloak causing you to become waterlogged!
Another difference is that because we work very intimately with the spirits of the land and the sacred landscape that we are in, there is no “one size fits all” pattern of working. We all have different methods and differing practices brought about by our differences in locality; it would have not have the same resonance and therefore result, if we tried to do things the same way as someone else over in the next shire, for instance or someone from a large town or city. It is very much rooted in our place of being. But we are not so “fluffy” about nature and the earth as Wiccans either. We know that nature is both red in tooth and claw and we have great respect for it but we are not as sentimental about it and don’t see ourselves as a “nature religion” at all. Yes we commune with the indwelling spirits of the trees and plants in a respectful and courteous way but we do not worship them.
In fact, although many have their primary God and Goddess that they call upon, many do not see witchcraft as a religion at all; it is a tool for enhancing their lives, for making things happen in accordance with the practitioners will.
Traditional witches are also able to heal and harm, curse and cure; they see no problem with throwing a curse when it is justified within their personal ethical code and will take full responsibility for it but a Wiccan will generally have no truck with cursing and will stand firmly to the tenet of “Do what thy will and it harm none”, regardless of the situation. But again, historically it was part of our magical repertoire. Clients would seek out the cunning person to find out who was doing them harm and then request the witch do something about it. The cunning person themselves might have been so seriously wronged that they were left no choice but to curse the perpetrator in the absence of the support of the law of the land. We see both sides, whether it be those of nature or those of healing and cursing and we recognise that you cannot effectively have one without the other and that you must know both sides intimately to be able to be proficient at either.
Another difference is that we tend not to draw attention to ourselves. Yes we let it be known that we are here as it’s the only way to enable people to seek us out but we do not draw attention for the sake of our ego, or for drama or in pursuit of self-importance (not that all Wiccans do this!). We may well wear a small and discrete piece of jewellery that signifies something to us but we do not go in for pagan bling, we do not go shopping in a cloak or walk through the town with everything about us screaming “witch!” We would most probably not be noticed at all and that is how it’s meant to be; it enables us to go about our business unhindered and to be a part of the lives of people but not of it and therefore the current constantly runs unimpeded.
These are the main differences but there others too. I am not trying to set one up to be better than another, just to explain why we do things the way we do and why we don’t appear to have a strict and public “law” of behaviour or ethics as Wiccans do.