Getting to the Bones of Witchcraft Blog post #1 of 3

Looking in The Magic Mirror

I was spending some time thinking about how I started in the world of Witchcraft as well as on my Jewish background. I spent a long time ignoring Judaism as more pagan attitudes took over but as I got older I realised there was so much magic in Judaism that it was foolish to neglect it.

Witches Tea Party
Witches Tea Party

These are just some thoughts and reflections on Witchcraft, I am having to identify terms to some degree as this is very much my own experience, though I have discussed it with some other witches and found a lot of common ground and such conversations allowed me to explore these thoughts.

It’s worth noting I use the term witchcraft here and not magic for a reason. There is something wholly distinct and I feel it’s worth addressing; please note where I use the term distinct not difference. When I was studying philosophy I learned the importance of distinction.

I should start by saying I am not hung up on labels, I feel language is something that allows for description rather than hard definitions. I know to many Witchcraft is a religion and/or comes with a spirituality but I would have to say that whilst you can belong to a tradition that does, this is not what witchcraft is at its bones. That is not to denigrate traditions that add this only that these traditions can exist with or without it and we can see Witchcraft exists in many ways.

Talmud and Judaic Witchcraft

I come from a Jewish background and my academic background is in philosophy and theology. The Hebrew bible being full of magic and pagan beliefs, old gods, goddesses and spirits is given deeper meaning in its rabbinical context found in the Talmud.

“The Babylonian Talmud has been described as a book of spells, which is not far wrong.

There is a report of rabbis discussing witchcraft and whilst they may disapprove of it they also are aware that their wives engage in Witchcraft to some degree (Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:4, 7:11).

Witchcraft held a common place beyond official institutions.

it always interested me that whilst Christianity used The Hebrew bible to commit atrocities in the name of Exodus, yet they have The New Testament that could have tempered this, why didn’t Jews?

One of the main reasons is Talmud, the bible was never treated simply and was never meant to be, it was something worked with and interpreted.

In the Talmud there is one curse against witches (found in Tractate Pesachim) and one Story recounting that Rabbi Simeon  Ben Shetah executed a coven of eighty Witches in Ashkalon. The reality of this became a very sad story and it was not just the women who suffered.

 Whilst I am not condoning anything here, this is pretty much where the condemnation is at its worse and was not nearly as tragic as what we see in European Witch-hunts.

I was amused by this and intrigued by the earlier story of the Rabbis discussing witchcraft but acknowledging their wives practice it.

 It felt like an old pattern as well as something that clearly had to be tolerated to some degree even if people didn’t want too. We can see this in how folk magic changes to work within the dominating religion, such as seen in the spells of the cunning craft which add Christian prayers to ‘The Father, Son and Holy Ghost’.

Whilst Witches can be men of course I do think it’s a current that flows from women mostly. This is debatable and I would be open to saying this may vary regionally, as there are places where men are more associated with Witchcraft.

In witchcraft being female current of power, or at least associated with women, sexism has caused some of its disapproval from men.

In Talmud the rabbis practice magic and it’s largely based around information, knowledge and spiritual work. Witchcraft is something more organic and the two can blur. The famous Rabbi Rashi had a daughter who practiced magic and it was said she was powerful and could work the magic of men and women; some say she was a hermaphrodie thus working the magic of men and women. This leads to understanding of the power of LGBTQ people having a potent place in magic and how they can bridge these forces.

To end with the Judaic elements of witchcraft it appears that it comes in two forms:

  • Folk magic: magic used in common ways for common things, to protect and heal and find love as well as counter magic. Some might split these two up as many counter magical traditions specifically oppose ‘witchcraft’ but I think most of us know that Witches cover both.
  • Poisoning: This is not just to refer to actual poisons though they are included but malicious witchcraft. I am not looking to focus on value judgements and morality of this, just that its something that is known to be practiced.

There is an element to witchcraft that is generally beneficial or that was expected to go on which the rabbi ignored such as healing. Then there was magic to harm, mostly out of malice that vengeance,though this was rarely something discovered or punished this is where society would take issue.

I mentioned the Judaic elements simply because it’s what got me thinking of this subject but we see this is a common pattern elsewhere.

As a quick example, the word in ancient Greek for Witchcraft was Pharmakia and is distinct from Magos and Goes (magician and Sorcerer). It is of course where we get our modern word for Pharmacy due to its use and common associations with drugs, herbs and poisons. Witchcraft was seen an illicit religion of sorts and was an ancient power that even the Gods could be affected by its power.

I think any further discussion of Witchcraft in ancient Greece and Judaism would have to be in separate blogs but the concept that this shows is how distinct such practices can be and how language is used to show this.

Following the Thread

I think few people practicing magic just use one form of magic and some magicians will work with witchcraft and plenty of witches take a formal occult approach. In magic these things bridge and blur, but the reason I feel witchcraft being addressed at times this way is because in many ways the point is not too. It’s an unspoken magic, so I would not want to overdo it and yet I think there are times when we must as discussion produces its own magic.

But in terms of simply distinguishing witchcraft and so relatable to those who practice: I think you may agree and understand this though my words will largely fail to do what I mean justice.

Witchcraft does not need books and information, certainly it can help but ultimately it comes from”:

  • People: Our place in our community, with our families and those we meet, as though it passes between people physically and thought presence as well as states of mind through the presence, conversation and engagement with people.
  • Environment: our relationship with the land and on a regional level this can get interesting. It’s why magic changes by region and yet we can find common threads.
  • Ourselves: Witchcraft is within us, it works in our blood, mind and bone, how we live and how we treat ourselves and everything around us influences our relationship to it.

I should add that I am not trying to knock academia it allows us to speak about a branch of magic that is largely unspoken, witchcraft is the magic that people often do not think of as magic, it’s part of our everyday life and resources and also something between and beyond the hedge, eldritch and otherworldly yet familiar.

I have spoken to practitioners who eagerly try and find out more of the unspoken magic of their culture, I would not want to share that publicly as that’s not mine to share but also stories of women meeting in the evening, sitting on the porch with bottle of wine and getting out the tarot cards.

At its core it’s of the heart and blood and not something that happens in a cerebral way, yet the mind can be a tool in time. Witchcraft expresses itself in your ability to converse within yourself and the world around you, letting the plants tell you the magic they can work with you, the powers of others combining with your own, how the spirits around you will gift you in exchange for service or simply conversation or friendship and gifts of your own.

The spirituality or traditions that come from this and really all magic are by-products and helpful ways to develop a working vocabulary, they can also mean we lose the foundations beneath the structure and that balance can be hard.

“Witchcraft is the union of instinct, imagination, thought, intent and environment. It is where heart and mind meet and where the wisdom of your bones and the power of your blood awaken”

An easy way to see this is how you engage with the power of plants around you: some speak the language of plants naturally as an innate power, some learn the language of plants and develop this power power by learning from how they grow and look. They will call to your blood how they can work magic with you. You find you do not need to be a herbalist because the magic is there, equally you can be a herbalist and it will compliment your craft etc. but this comes from conversation and how your instincts guide you in correlation with the land you are on.

I recommend, get some drinks and tarot cards and candles and meet with friends and see what happens, what magic is produced from your conversation and your laughter echoing into the night.

What Next?

I plan to explore this subject more in two more blogs looking at:

  • The powers of a witches
  • The Craft of witches
  • Bridging the Gap: Exploring the Union of the Esoteric Magician and the Witch

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