Witchcraft in America
NOTE: The following article is excerpted in its entirety from the March, 1988
issue of _Criminal Intelligence Report_ ("America's Only Professional Crime
News Magazine"), pages 4-7. The February and March issues include a
remarkably lengthy "enemies list" (which will eventually be scanned or re-
keyed as SUSPECTS.CIR); these lists are accompanied by articles entitled
"Satanism and Crime" (which will eventually be available here as S-CRIME.CIR)
and the following article.
- J. Brad Hicks
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W I T C H C R A F T I N A M E R I C A
Since our last isue, David Brom, 16, of Rochester, Minnesota who is
described as a serious Church going youth, killed four members of his family
with an axe. CIR has learned that teenagers in the Rochester area have been
frequenting caves where detailed drawings of satanic emblems adorn the walls.
Also, Brom had been reading satanic literature and had become so attracted to
hard rock that the day of the slayings he had shaved the sides of his head and
fashioned is hair into the spiked punk style.
According to Sandy Gallant of the San Francisco police department's
intelligence division, who is a recognized expert on Satanic crime, there is a
relationship between hard rock music and occult violence.
Because of what is obviously becoming a disturbing trend in our society,
we have collected the following background material for your examination.
The current growth of witchcraft (the craft of the _wicca_ or wise ones)
can be dated to 1951, when the last of the British witchcraft laws was
repealed, and to the subsequent publication in 1954 of _Witchcraft Today_ by
Gerald Gardner, a self-proclaimed witch from the Isle of Man in Britain.
Gardner's book signaled to the world that witches still existed. His work was
based upon the thesis of Margaret Murray that witchcraft had existed since
pre-Christian times in small, scattered occult groups practicing the old pagan
religion and hidden in fear of persecution. Most contemporary witches have
accepted Murray's historical thesis, but the legitimacy of her conclusions is
now a matter of intense debate in the occult community.
There can be little doubt that various, mostly agricultural religions
existed in Europe at the time that the Christian Church was in the process of
becoming the dominant religious form of Europe. There is also little doubt
that in the 1400's, the church turned its Inquisitional powers on something
called witchcraft. What was described as witchcraft was a mixture of the
local religions, a number of things the church wanted to supress, and some
things wholly in the imagination of the early inquisitors. It was during this
era that various new images of witchcraft, particularly the one connecting it
with Satan worship, were published.
Many men, women and even children died in the witch scare that gripped
Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the face of the myth of
satanic witchcraft, some genuine Satanists and even genuine witches arose.
The most famous incident was the Black Mass scandal which rocked the court of
Louis XIV and led to the arrest of more than three hundred persons. In the
1670's, Madame LaVoisin, one of Louis XIV's mistresses, suspected she was
losing Louis' affection and hired a priest to say Black Masses, hoping thereby
to win back the king. Some of the masses included the killing of babies; some
of the masses were offered on Madame LaVoisin's nude body. Louis imprisoned
or banished the participants in the heinous affairs.
Contemporary witchcraft bears little resemblance to the witchcraft
described in the literature of the witchcraft trials. Going beyond the
medieval image, modern witches try to separate themselves from any connection
with Satanism. Rather than reacting to Christianity (i.e., being anti-
Christians), they see themselves as an alternative faith (like Buddhism or
Islam). As magicians, they have selected the old faiths of Europe with which
Just what are the elements of wicaan [sic] faith? This question is not
an easy one to answer, there being a wide variety of definitions in the
literature. First, witchcraft is a religion. There is much more to the
adherents' faith than just magick. Witchcraft offers a world-view, a
relationship to deity and an ethical code. Of course, magick and psychic
development are a part of the religion; much of the ritual and energy of
witches is spent in their practice. "Witchcraft is the raising and
manipulation of psychic power," says one witch.
Wicca is polytheist, finding its pantheon in various European pre-
Christian nature religions. The prime deities ar the Goddess and God, usually
represented as the Triple Goddess and Horned God. The triple aspects of the
Goddess are maiden, mother, and crone. There are different explanations of
the origin of these gods, although most agree that the Goddess is ascendent in
modern cultic expressions. Psychic development, besides being training for
magick, is also for communion with the deity. (The Horned God was connected
with Satan by medieval witch-hunters, and Satan has been pictured since with a
goatee and cloven hoofs.)
The two essential books of the witch are the grimoire and the book of
shadows. The grimoire is the book of spells and magical procedures. The best
known grimoiries are medieval: the _Greater Key of Solomon the King_ and _The
Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage_. The book of shadows is the
traditional book of rituals. According to custom, it is copied by hand by
each individual witch, and thus no two copies are alike.
The basic organization of witches is the coven, though there is also an
associational tie between covens of like belief and practice, especially where
one coven has broken off from another and owes its initiation to the other.
Such a relationship exists in the Gardnerian covens. The coven consists of 13
people (an optimum number which may vary from four to twenty) who meet
regularly to practice witchcraft. The regular meeting of the coven is called
an esbat; but eight times a year there are seasonal festivals, sabbats. The
most famous festival is October 31, Halloween. Others include Candlemas or
Oimelc (February 2), May Eve or Beltane (April 30), August Eve or Lammas
(August 1), and the lesser sabbats - the two solstices (June 22 and December
22) and the equinoxes (March 21 and September 21). The eight festivals are
reflected in the common practice of publishing witch-oriented periodicals
eight times a year.
Most covens have both a basic initiation and higher initiations which are
reserved for potential and actual priests and priestesses, who are the coven
leaders. There are usually three degrees which require a year and a day
between each initiation. Work within the coven is done with the magick
circle, a circle nine feet in diameter, drawn on the floor or ground. Magick
is done within the circle, which functions both for protection and
concentration. Within the circle are placed the various magical items. They
include the _athame_, a ritual knife; the _pentacle_, a disc-shaped talisman;
a chalice; and a sword. These items vary from coven to coven. The _athame_
is the most ubiquitous. Many covens worship in the nude (i.e., skyclad); but
in most, street clothes or ritual robes are worn. When the robe is worn it is
bound with a cord, the color of which designates the degree of initiation.
The work of the coven covers all religious practices (psychic healing and
problem-solving playing a big part) and includes hand fasting (marriage).
Witches share with all magicians a belief in reincarnation and the
manipulative world-view. They also place belief in the power of spells. They
cast spells for themselves and others, for their own betterment (financially,
sexually) and, on rare occasions, against someone else. For most witches, the
magical world-view is tempered by a poetic-mystical appreciation of nature.
In their writings are numerous references to ecology, being natural and, in a
few cases, vegetarianism. For most, acceptance of the gods is a poetic
expression of attunement with the forces of life.
Voodoo, the major folk religion of Haiti, is an African form of magick
and witchcraft mixed with New World elements, complete with the ruling mother
goddess, a pantheon of lesser deities (correlated to specific human needs), a
psychic ritual and a manipulative world-view. Voodoo has a significant
history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries particularly in the Creole
country. In the nineteenth century, Dr. John and, later, Marie Laveau, the
voodoo queen of New Orleans, openly flaunted their magical powers in public.
They were followed by Dr. Alexander and Lou Johnson.
For a number of reasons, modern witchcraft practice has had little input
from voodooism, apart from the romantic aura of the word. This lack of
intercourse can be traced to a number of elements, the same that have
prevented many books on voodoo from appearing. Voodoo is not a literary
religion; this source material must be gathered directly from practitioners.
Practitioners are few in number and hard to find. The are mostly members of
the black community or recent immigrants from the Caribbean. The latter often
have a language problem.
As the term "voodoo" is found in popular American usage, it refers to at
least four distinct phenomena. The first, _voodoo_ proper, is the magical
religion brought from Haiti in the late 1700's. It is a mixture of French
Catholicism and the religion of the Ibos, Magos and Dahomeans. Its leading
god is Damballah, the serpent. the second, _Santeria_, is a mixture of Iberian
Catholicism and Yoruba religion. Its main god is Chango, god of fire and
stone. It is found throught most of Latin America, and in Brazil is called
Macumba. The third, the _Conjure Man_ or _Root Doctor_ in the Southern United
States, is an adoption by blacks of European magick but is associated with
voodoo because of the mystique of New Orleans. This phenomenon does not seem
to produce groups, as such. The fourth, the _Bruja_ or Latin American witch,
is often placed under the voodoo label, but is more closely related to the
folk witchcraft traditions. Besides the widespread practice of voodoo and
Santeria, as evidenced by the numerous botanicas (stores which sell magical
ingredients) in most urban centers, there are at least three public voodoo-
Voodoo and its relatives exist in America today; its outward
manifestations can be found in the black, Puerto Rican, and Cuban communities
of major cities of the United States and in the occult supply shops which sell
magical items. Such items include yerbabuena and perejil, herbs which, when
used properly, are assumed to have powers to keep away evil. Other items,
such as bat's blood and graveyard dust, are also available.
WITCHCRAFT IN AMERICA
The history of witchcraft in America begins with the first settlers. As
early as 1636, New England colonists felt a need to pass a law against
witchcraft. In 1648, the first execution under this law occurred. (There is
little similarity between witches as defined by seventeenth-century Puritans
and contemporary practitioners of the craft.) New England persecution of
witches reached a climax at Salem in 1692. Spurred by confessions of occult
practices by a Jamaican servant and the finding of voodoo dolls at the home of
Goodwife Nurse, the community launched a massive witch-hunt which led to the
death of a number of persons. In the wake of the killings, realization by the
community of what it had done led to reaction against any belief whatsoever in
the existence of witches. The history of American witchcraft then switches to
Among the Pennsyvania Dutch there is the survival of what seems to be a
genuine "witchcraft-like" practice, locally termed powwowing. One must call
it witchcraft-like because, while it involves magick and the psychic, it is
theologically a Christian derivative with Kabbalistic elements. The
practitioners are Bible believers, who feel themselves to be supernaturally
endowed with their powers. The most obvious manifestations of the powwow
power are the many colorful hex signs on the farmhouses in Eastern
Pennsylvania. Each sign is a circle; within the circle are birds, hexagonal
Powwowers are, in essence, Christianized witches working in the
agricultural society of the Pennsylvania Dutch. They have a grimoire (a book
of spells and magical procedures), _The Long Lost Friend_, by John Hohman and
they are as feared for their ability to hex as they are liked and sought after
for their ability to heal. _The Long Lost Friend_, first published in 1819,
is an ecclectic compilation from the Kabbalah, Albertus Magnus (a magician),
German folklore, folk medicine, etc.
No group of what could be called a powwow cult exists, but the power of
powwow belief is amply demonstrated by the sporadic trials of people for
murder and various lesser offenses because of "victims'" beliefs that they
The magical folklore which produced the powwow practices can be traced to
medieval Germany and seems to have been brought to America by immigrants in
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The lore included a belief in
astrology, amulets and charms, herbal medicine and the psychic powers of
Prior to the 1960's, there were only a few manifestations of witchcraft
in America apart from the powwow men. There were isolated areas that had the
equivalent of the powwower, but not in such strength or prominence. Such an
area was the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and Pennsylvania, where
practitioners had a German heritage. Occasionally there was a witchcraft
trial such as the one which occurred in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1939. A woman
accused a local "witch" of casting spells against her. The "witch" was found
guilty and expelled from the community.
THE GARDNERIAN REVIVAL
Many contemporary witches claim associations with witches, covens, and/or
a faith which they can trace backward for many generations. However, little
evidence to substantiate those claims has been brought forward and several
have proved to be without any basis in fact. Most witches are converts who
have come into the movement since 1960. While a few can trace their ancestry
to individuals accused of witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, ther is no evidence of any survival of the practice within the
families during the intervening centuries.
During the 1970's, a very few active covens with a history predating 1960
were located, but overwhelmingly, modern witchcraft can be traced to the work
of Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), a retired British civil servant. A sickly
child, Gardner had only a minimal amount of education and in his teen years
moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where he worked on a plantation. During the
next thirty-nine years he worked at various government and private jobs
throughout India and Southeast Asia. He became an accomplished amateur
anthropologist and authored the standard work on the kris, the Indonesian
ceremonial weapon. In Palestine, he participated in the excavation of a site
centered upon the worship of the goddess Astaroth.
Upon is return to England just before World War II, Gardner associated
himself with the Corona Fellowship of Rosicrucians, founded by Mabel Besant-
Scott, daughter of theosophist Annie Besant. Through the group, he met some
witches who introduced him to one Dorothy Clutterbuck. According to Gardner,
"Old Dorothy," as she was affectionately known, initiated him into witchcraft.
After the death of the priestess of the coven to which he belonged, he was
allowed to describe some of the life of the group in a novel, _High Magic's
Aid_ 1949, published under his magical name, "Scire." Then in 1954, following
the repeal of the Witchcraft Laws in England in 1951, he published _Witchcraft
Today_, which gave a more detailed picture of what Gardner described as a
dying religion. The book, however, initiated a revival of interest, and led
to a new generation of witches who turned to Gardner for inspiration.
Recent research has done much to discredit Gardner's account of the rise
of witchcraft. Examination of his papers sold to "Ripley's Believe It or Not"
by his daughter and the publication of several sets of rituals which he and
his associates gave to initiates, have disclosed a radically different account
of the origin of Gardnerian witchcraft. Rather than being initiated into a
pre-existing Wiccan religion, it appears the Gardner created the new religion
out of numerous pieces of Eastern religious and Western occult and magical
Basic rituals were adapted from ritual magic texts such as the _Greater
Key of Solomon_ and the writings of Aleister Crowley and upon Freemasonry
(into which Gardner had been initiated in Ceylon). Beginning with the eight
ancient Pagan agricultural festivals (called "sabbats") as major holy days, he
added regular biweekly gatherings at the full and new moon (esbats). From the
Malayan kris, he developed the athame, the witch's ritual knife. Having
become a practitioner of nudism as a result of sunbaths taken while recovering
from an illness, he ordained that rituals were to be done in the nude, or
skyclad (a term used to describe the nude sadhus of India). He also
incorporated several Eastern religious practices (ritual scourging) and
beliefs (karma and reincarnation).
By 1954 Gardner and the small group he had gathered around him had
created Wicca (or Wica), a religion more accomodating to a popular audience
than ritual magic could ever be. During the late 1950's and early 1960's,
Wiccan initiates took Gardner's rituals and formed separate covens, and slowly
the movement began to spread. One initiate, Alexander Sanders, revised the
rituals and began a new "Alexandrian" lineage of witchcraft. Though beginning
entirely from Gardnerian rituals, Sanders created a fictionalized story of his
having begun his career in witchcraft after being initiated as a child by his
grandmother, Sybil Leek, another witch who began her practice with Gardnerian
rituals, came to America in the late 1960's. Before becoming famous as a
professional occultist, she formed several covens in different locations
around the United States.
The Gardnerian origin of contemporary covens is often obscured by the
adoption of designations such as "traditional" and "hereditary" to indicate
their allegiance to a "non Gardnerian" form of witchcraft. However, while
covens will deviate at particular points, they tend to perpetuate Gardner's
original belief system and overall set of practices. In particular, numerous
variations of his original rituals have been developed and not a few entirely
new sets of rituals composed. Such rituals, however, almost always retain the
patterns he established in the 1950's.
Witches may practice alone, as solitaries, but most are organized into
covens, small groups which meet biweekly at the new and full moon and eight
times a year for the major holidays. Most covens have abandoned nudity and do
their rituals in robes, though strict Gardnerians and Alexandrians retain the
GARDNERIAN WICCA IN THE UNITED STATES
Gardnerian Wicca or Witchcraft was brought to the United States by
Raymond and Rosemary Buckland. Longtime students of the occult, they heard of
Gardner and traveled to the Isle of Man, where he operated a witchcraft and
magic museum. While there they went through an intensive program in Gardner's
witchcraft and were initiated into both the first and second degrees (which is
contrary to standard practice that requires a year and a day between
initiations). Upon their return, they formed a coven on Long Island and
became the center of a burgeoning movement. Much of the spread of the
movement was due to the Bucklands' availability to the media whose interest
was sparked both by the witchcraft museum they owned and their willingness to
be interviewed and photographed as witches.
Soon after Witchcraft spread across America, other people attracted to
the Goddess faith began to create variations on it. One set of variations
became known as "Neo-Paganism." Donna Cole, a Chicago witch who had received
her initiation in the late 1960's, composed a set of rituals, similar to
Gardner's, but much more worshipful and celebrative and less focused upon
magic. These rituals circulated through the witchcraft community in the
United States and became the basis of a set of "Pagan Way" temples, several of
wich served as outer courts for the more secretive and exclusive witchcraft
groupos. The term "Neo-Paganism" was actually coined by Tim Zell (now known
as Otter G'Zell) who also composed a set of alternative rituals and founded a
new group, the Church of All Worlds.
Neo-Pagan grups differ primarily from witchcraft groups by their
rejection of the designation "witch." They will also occasionally vary by
their adoption of a particular pre-Christian tradition (Druidic, Norse,
Egyptian) from which to draw the inspiration and symbology of their ritual
Often confused with witchcraft is the worship of Satan; witches, however,
are quick to protest such Identification and to assert the strong distinction
between the two. The basic distinction is the relation to Christianity.
Witchcraft logically (if not chronologically) "pre-dates" Christianity. That
is, it exists in its own right, much as other non-Christian religions. (There
is some doubt that any religion can grow up in Western culture without direct
reaction to Christianity, but witches are certainly articulating the
possibility.) Witchcraft exists as an alternative to the Christian faith,
much as do Buddhism and Hinduism.
Satanism, on the other hand, is logically subsequent to Christianity and
draws on it in representing an overthrow of the Christian deity in favor of
his adversary. It stands in polemical relation to Christianity and, in both
relief and ritual, uses Christian elements, which are changed and given new
meaning. The most famous element used by Satanists is the Black Mass, an
obvious corruption of Christian liturgies.
Apart from their allegiance to Satan and resultant dislike for the
Christian church, Satanists do share in common the magical world-view of
witches. Many Satanists openly claim witchcraft as their own. Their most
vocal exponent, Anton LaVey, has entitled one of his books, _The Compleat
Witch_. Satanists have as an unwitting ally the conservative Christian press,
which would like to brand witches as Satanists (and lump all psychics in with
them). They are also aided by a tradition stemming from the era of the great
witch trials, when witchcraft was defined as the worship of Satan. One could
easily make the case that contemporary Satanism is a produce of Christian
polemics. Paranoid perceptions of "the enemy" have led to irrational
accusations concerning beliefs, obscenities, profanities, rituals and behavior
patterns. These accusations merely gave people new ideas; the anti-witch
books became the textbooks for Satanic practices.
Contemporary Satanism seems to have little connection organizationally
with earlier Satanism. Books on black magick, Satanism, and the psychic in
general seem to provide the source, and the contemporary psychic scene, the
setting, from which Satanic practices could emerge. The magical writings of
Aleister Crowley have been influential in many areas.
Satanists do share a number of sumbols (and ritual practices) with all
magical religions, but several are unique and distinctive. The inverted
pentagram, the five-pointed star with the single point down, is the most
frequently used. The Horned God in the form of the Goat of Mendes is common.
The pentagram is often mixed with the goat, stamped upon the goat's forehead.
Not as often seen as some might think is the black inverted cross. With the
decline in power of the Roman Catholic Church (since the days of the Holy
Roman Empire), from which most Satanists come, the Black Mass is not practiced
As one studies the contemporary Satanist scene, two distinct realities
emerge. On the one hand are what are frequently termed the "sickies." These
are disconnected groups of occultists who employ Satan worship to cover a
variety of sexual, sado-masochistic, clandestine, psychopathic and illegal
activities. From these groups come grave-robberies, sexual assaults and blood
letting (both animal and human). These groups are characterized by lack of
theology, disconnectedness and short life, and informality of meetings.
Usually they are discovered only in the incident that destroys them.
On the other hand are the public groups which take Satanism as a religion
seriously and have developed articulate theologies which do not resemble in
many ways what one might expect. Their systems closely resemble liberal
Christian theologies with the addition of a powerful cultural symbol (Satan),
radically redefined. There is a wide gulf between the second type of Satanist
and his "sick" cousin. While, theologically, the Christian might find them
both reprehensible, their behavior is drastically different and the groups
should not be confused.
In the mid-1970's, Satanism as a whole waned in strength in the U.S.,
though several new Satanic groups appeared. These include the Temple of Set,
headquartered in San Francisco and the Fraternity of the Goat, headquartered
in Wheaton, Illinois.
Transcriber's postscript: According to one source, this article may have been
plagiarized in part or in whole from an article by Gordon Melton. Confirma-
tion of this rumor would be appreciated.