The influence of mythology and folklore in our culture is undeniable. To this day, we have certain traditions we can trace back thousands of years ago. Magic and witchcraft are two subjects that are very much alive today, and they stem from mythological stories and folklore tales. In this blog post, we’re going to explore how “forbidden” practices found their way from the Greek Goddess Hecate and the Polish Baba Yaga to Medieval Grimoires and finally, to the 21st century.
Who wouldn’t want magic to be real? The ability to levitate, throw fireballs at your enemies or perhaps ride your broom under the silver light of a full moon.
Well, today we find these stories fascinating – we’ve even made them a cultural phenomenon with Harry Potter!
But until very – very! – recently, magic and witchcraft were considered evil. And for most of human history, banned. We have evidence suggesting that even in prehistoric times, any sort of rumor about malevolent incantations would put you in serious trouble. Thousands upon thousands of books, a wealth of knowledge on botanology, chemistry, mathematics, spirituality has been lost or burned.
Religion nowadays rejects paraphysical phenomena at best or considers them “unholy.” But you might be surprised to find out that temples and priests, at one point, were the only socially acceptable entities allowed to perform magic. They even did a business out of selling totems and spells!
(We’ll talk about it more in a couple of minutes)
What makes witchcraft and magic such an integral part of our mythohistorical culture and folklore traditions?
Let’s start from the beginning. What is witchcraft?
Magic Cults and Mystery Schools
‘Mystery School’ sounds like something out of a novel. Yet, they existed in ancient Greece. They were part of the archaic religion but were eventually influenced by orphic traditions.
Even though they’ve been allegorized in the past, they taught operative rituals.
The most famous is perhaps the Eleusinian Mysteries. Much of the information about the content of this mystery has been lost – given not everyone was allowed to attend.
Scholars used to believe that there was only a symbolic meaning behind the initiation of the mystai, but there’s a clear connection of the mysteries with religion and offerings.
It is said that over 3000 initiates would take part, usually bringing their own sacrificial animals. A common theme was the purity of body and soul to receive blessings.
The actual ritual consisted of a dramatization of the kidnapping of Persephone by Hades, a mythological story part of the Homeric Hymns.
What’s interesting is that many of the participants experienced intense revelations. Some people believe that this occurred due to the use of entheogen like kykeon.
The purpose of the Eleusinian mystery had to do with fertility, agriculture, life, and death. You’ll notice that these themes are present in many of these proto-European traditions.
This is only an example of magic in ancient Greece. But as you can tell, it’s more about internal, psychological transformation than causing external changes.
Having said that, the other aspect of these magic cults was about creating tangible effects through their craft.
The Cult of Hecate
Hecate is considered the patroness of witchcraft and spells. She had dominion over crossroads, passages, doors, and liminal places. The mythology behind the Goddess links her to the Eleusinian mysteries. She aided Demeter with her search for Persephone in the underworld.
While she wasn’t part of the major dodekatheon, she was worshipped in the homes and public shrines, amassing a big following in the form of cults. The most notable ones being the Witches of Thessaly that operated from the 3rd to 1st century BCE.
There’s a stark difference between these large ceremonial rituals and mysteries and the practice of sympathetic magic by the common folk. The former was swallowed by religious institutes, and the latter thrived in the country – and named paganism.
In any case, much of the practices of these old cults and their magical pursuits didn’t survive. Even back then, sources were burned and practitioners were prosecuted. It’s ironic that we only have the information we do because either the orthodox religion adopted some of these beliefs or people kept buying and selling spells!
The Greek Papyri Magicae
Everything we know about folklore, traditions, and magic comes from this source. The Greek Magical Papyri are a collection of texts that mention potions, talismans, spells to catch thieves or cause misfortune.
You’ll quickly realize that these were written the same way traders pens down their orders if you read this. Indeed, selling these kinds of magical solutions was very popular in Greece and continued to be in the Roman Empire.
Egyptian, Babylonians, even Sumerian priests used to sell talismans and spells!
This sort of “merchandise magic” continued even after the fall of these great civilizations. Obviously, a lot has changed since then, but the “technology” remains the same. The pagan influences of Western Europe have shaped our image of wizards and witches.
Druids, Wise Women, and Magic
When someone hears the word “magic,” they immediately think of old men, with long beards – shouting “you shall not pass!” – wielding a staff and performing impossible feats!
But there’s a more grounded approach.
Before modernized medicine revolutionized the way we approach our health, people used to turn to wise women (or men) for help—women interested in botanology and the healing power of plants and other traditional cures.
Things like using raw honey on wounds or mugwort for better sleep were a few of their recipes. That had been going on for many years. In fact, every village hosted an individual possessing these kinds of abilities and usually living at the edge of the forest so they could pick up whatever ingredients they needed.
Some sources claim that the word “witch” is derived from the PIE word weird and the Old Engish wita, which means wise man.
In Celtic tradition, they called them druids. Although they were regarded as members of a high-ranking class with legal and political knowledge, Roman Mythology obfuscated their role, creating the image of an old man brewing potions.
Recent archaeological findings have given some currency to the view of the “tribal priest” or the “barbarian philosopher.”
These characterizations remind me of a mythological archetype.
The witch doctor, the village priest, the man who can communicate with animals and spirits.
The shaman is a controversial figure because it hints at primitive times when episteme and esotericism were the same. Using the power of plants, they’d induce a trance state, allowing them to peek behind the veil.
(Today, there’s a resurgence in native traditions, with psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca being used as spiritual medicine, administered the same way shamans consumed them.)
This tradition continued even after the Church condemned these practices. Witches used many different ingredients to create concoctions that helped them, supposedly, communicate with nature and the genius loci.
The claims some of these practitioners made – speaking with the dead, necromancy, clairvoyance – widened the gap between the Old Religion and Christianity, leading to the prosecution of all things magic.
Malleus Maleficarum and the Prosecution of Witches
The Hammer of Witches is a treatise on witchcraft, pushing for the prosecution of all its practitioners. The historical context is interesting since Heinrich Kramer was expelled after his first attempt to burn a woman on the stake, citing her sexual history.
Later on, after Malleus Maleficarum was published, the document had a tremendous influence on our culture until very recently. It found prime grounds in the fear and ignorance of poor serfs and countrymen. Also, even though it recognized supernatural phenomena, Christian mythology has rejected the use of witchcraft as a satanic act since 900 AD.
Until the late 18th century, Kramer’s work caused millions of men and women to die – in most cases, people with medical and botanical knowledge who helped others.
Unbeknownst to them, the inquisitors managed to collect a wealth of folklore and traditions. From their perspective, they were documenting satanic practices. Nowadays, we can use trial procedures, texts, and verdicts to understand the myths and legends of these people.
What has become childhood stories and superstitions were once real beliefs. This Disney-like picture of witches stems from Malleus Maleficarum! Women on brooms, trick or treat, big cauldrons, black cats, etc.
Witchcraft and folklore in the 21st Century
Two hundred years after the death of Anna Goldi, the last person to be executed in Europe for witchcraft, Wicca was recognized as a legitimate religion.
But what is Wicca?
Well, I can’t answer this question in a few paragraphs, and it’s beyond the scope of this blog post. However, you should know that Wicca is an attempt to reconstruct the pagan beliefs that were once banned.
Although a modern religion, it seeks to connect the dots and create an interpretation of old traditions and folklore stories.
The initiates – remember when we talked about the Eleusinian Mystery? – follow certain rules, the Wiccan Rede, and obey the Wheel of Time.
The latter being a “pagan” calendar, with the name and celebration of each season stemming from Norse, Celtic, Roman, and Greek Mythology.
Some of the Major Ones are:
- Yule – Winter Solstice
- Ostara – Spring Equinox
- Beltane – May Eve
- Samhain – Hallowe’en
But there are many more festivals and celebrations throughout the year, corresponding with changes in weather and agricultural seasons.
Members of Wicca practice witchcraft with the intention to heal. It doesn’t matter if you believe it’s real or not. The significance lies in the fact that we now understand the role of mythology and legends in the way religions are formed and spread.
Wicca is doing with magic and other practices what major religions did by adopting allegorical stories and myths into their teachings.
How to Cast a Spell?
Oh, it’s quite easy. First, you’ll need rabbit feet and fresh sage. Then, a wooden pot and a sharp knife. Fire and water next to you.
The purpose of this spellwork is to help you understand the meaning of traditions! But if you can’t gather these tools, read these next few paragraphs.
I always found it interesting that the celebrations and festivals of Christianity (and the rest of the Abrahamic religions) took place during the same time pagan celebrations and festivals.
The celebration of Yule, for example, happens during Christmas. When I grew older, I realized that this was on purpose!
According to the position of the stars back then, it is more likely for Jesus Christ to have been born during spring, not winter. But since Yule was such a significant celebration for the indigenous population of Europe, it was easier to spread the new religion by adopting their customs.
The key takeaway is that we should look past dogmatism and fear. We should embrace our roots and not throw them away.
Because in reality, we never stopped believing in the Old Religion. We’re still celebrating Halloween, we’re still celebrating Yule. We still tell folklore bedtime stories and “knock on wood” to cast off evil.
You might think it’s all superstition. These traditions are our eccentric way of articulating the passing of time and our perception of the unseen.
P.S – How are you going to celebrate Halloween this year?
Writer. Seeking to discover my private mythology through dreams.