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Contemporary witchcraft is largely a subset of greater Modern Paganism. Its practice involves varying degrees of magic, shamanism, folk medicine, spiritual healing, calling on elementals and spirits, veneration of ancient deities and archetypes, and attunement with the forces of nature.
- 1 History
- 2 Demographics
- 3 Growth in recent years
- 4 Estimates of Contemporary Witchcraft practitioners populations
- 5 Currents and traditions
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Sources
- 9 External links
In the years following the witch-hunts of early modern Europe and North America, little information of Witches trickled into the public space (from Witches nor from those who claimed to know of Witches). However, this began changing in the early to mid-20th century. In the 1920s, the long-standing witch-cult hypothesis gained increasing attention in occult circles. Though the hypothesis itself was largely falsifiable, it spurred renewed interest in witchcraft - this time with new eyes and free of the panicked bias of years past.
However, the same can not be said for the rest of the world. While the witch-hunts of Europe and North America are for the most part non-existent, the fear and persecution of witchcraft is still present in "countries that have suffered years of conflict where traditional social structures have disappeared and where child soldiers have often emerged as a threat". The report from the United Nations Human Rights Council continues to state that elderly women and children are most often the targets of accusation and are "often abused, cast out of their families and communities and in many cases murdered".
While something such as this is difficult to prevent as it is still very much widespread, certain cases help provide possible solutions for dealing with the issue. Dasmani Laary states that the "government of Ghana, in a historical move, has closed down one of the many witches' camps at Bonyasi, a community in Central Gonja District in the northern part of the country, housing suspected witches for years without trial." While the result is a step in the right direction, much of the world still holds deeply rooted cultural fears of witchcraft and its constituents.
Following the repeal of the UK's 1736 Witchcraft Act in 1951, Witches were able to practice openly without fear of legal prosecution. This paved the way for a revival of "the Craft". Occult author and founder of the tradition now known as Gardnerian Wicca, English occultist Gerald Gardner was a figure at the forefront of this early revival and popularization. He was instrumental in bringing Contemporary Paganism to public attention. After Gardner's initiation in the New Forest coven, he began supplementing their ritual with borrowings from Freemasonry, Western ceremonial magic, the Golden Dawn, and the writings of Aleister Crowley. However, he claimed his tradition was a faithful continuation of pre-Christian religion in Europe. Gardnerian Wicca revolved around the veneration of both a Horned God and a Mother Goddess, the celebration of eight seasonally-based festivals in a Wheel of the Year, and the practice of magical rituals in groups known as covens. Gardnerian Wicca served as the ultimate ancestor, in terms of lineage, for all "British Traditional Wicca".
Gerald Gardner was not the only person claiming to be a member of a surviving remnant of old European witchcraft. Others such as Sybil Leek, Charles Cardell, Raymond Howard, Rolla Nordic and Robert Cochrane also claimed to have been initiated by their ancestors and to be following "Hereditary" or "Traditional" forms of witchcraft. They alleged Gardner was propagating a modern, less true form of witchcraft. For a time, there were attempts to reconcile and unite all the emerging traditions of the 1950s.
Following its establishment abroad, Gardnerianism was brought to the U.S. in the early 1960s by English initiate Raymond Buckland and his then-wife Rosemary, who together founded a coven in Long Island. In the U.S., numerous new variants of Wicca then developed.
Due to the secrecy prevalent among Witches (and Pagans as a whole), establishing exact numbers pertaining to witchcraft is difficult. Nevertheless, there is a slow growing body of data on the subject.
Note: the nature of the community makes it impossible to fully separate Witches from non-Witch Pagans in most statistics, thus the entire Pagan community is the most basic group of consideration when looking at the whole community.
Based on the most recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, there an estimated 1.2 million Pagans in the US. Six per mill of respondents answered "Pagan" or "Wiccan" when polled.
Growth in recent years
Contemporary witchcraft has been extremely difficult to pinpoint due to many religious surveys grouping it with general Paganism, stigmatization from much of the outside world, and poor public opinion. This causes the demographics to fluctuate drastically and become difficult to track. All that can be said accurately of Contemporary Witchcraft growth rate is that “as of 2001 the ARIS organization reports that contemporary witchcraft saw a 1.575% growth rate between 1990 to 2001, effectively a doubling of adherents every two years.”  Additionally according to the limited tracking that the ARIS has kept Contemporary Witchcraft has kept it from being continually and accurately tracked. However Contemporary Witchcraft has seen many spikes in recent years. These spikes can be attributed to growth, an increase in practitioner’s willingness to report, and increasingly positive views of Contemporary Witchcraft in America.
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High estimates of practitioners
Currents and traditions
There are numerous traditions present in contemporary witchcraft. Traditions may be defined by the systems and practices within or simply by initiatory lineage. Some are based in specific cultural belief systems; others are more diverse. Currents or movements are broader approaches which may be incorporated in other traditions or individual Witches' practice. However, while many do, not all Witches follow any specific tradition or movement. Many are solitary and/or eclectic practitioners.
Wicca English pronunciation: // is a modern pagan religion that draws on a diverse set of ancient pagan religious motifs for its theological structure and ritual practice. The religion usually incorporates the practice of witchcraft. Developed in England in the first half of the 20th century, Wicca was later popularised in the 1950s and early 1960s by Gerald Gardner. Gardner was a retired British civil servant, and an amateur anthropologist and historian who had a broad familiarity with pagan religions, esoteric societies and occultism in general. At the time Gardner called it the "witch cult" and "witchcraft", and referred to its adherents as "the Wica". From the 1960s onward, the name of the religion was normalised to "Wicca".
Wicca is traditionally and primarily a duotheistic religion centred upon the idea of gender polarity and the worship of a Moon Goddess and a Horned God. (This core theology was originally described by Gerald Gardner, the founder of the religion; and Doreen Valiente, who wrote most of the original liturgical materials.) The Goddess and the God may be regarded as the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine. They are complementary opposites, similar to the ideas of yin and yang in Taoism. The God and Goddess are generally seen as lovers and equals, the Divine Couple who together co-create the cosmos. (See Wiccan views of divinity.)
Wicca also involves the ritual practice of magic, ranging from the "low magic" or "folk magic" of shamanism and witchcraft to more elaborate and complex rites influenced by the ceremonial magic of Western Hermetic Tradition. Wiccans frequently subscribe to a broad code of morality known as the Wiccan Rede. Another characteristic of Wiccan religion is the ritual celebration of the lunar and solar cycles. Lunar rites known as esbats are usually held around the time of the full moon; but they may also be held at the new moon, or the waxing or waning moon. The solar or seasonal festivals known as sabbats take place eight times a year, in regular intervals known as the Wheel of the Year. While both the God and the Goddess are usually honoured at both kinds of rituals, the Goddess is mainly associated with the Moon, and the God is mainly associated with the Sun.
Wicca is primarily an initiatory mystery religion, with only initiates of legitimate Wiccan covens being able to fully practice. While there are numerous traditions (denominations) within Wicca, this is the norm throughout Traditional Wicca—such as with the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions. Within the general Pagan community, people who practice Wicca without being formally and traditionally initiated are called "ecletic Wiccans".
Wicca does not have an equivalent concept to the Christian Devil nor moral sin. Individuals are believed to be responsible for their actions, with no external force truly capable of violating their free will.
Gardnerian Wicca, or Gardnerian witchcraft, is the oldest tradition of Wicca. The tradition is itself named after Gerald Gardner (1884–1964). Gardner formed the Bricket Wood coven and in turn initiated many Witches who founded further covens, continuing the initiation of more Wiccans in the tradition. The term "Gardnerian" was probably coined by the founder of Cochranian Witchcraft, Robert Cochrane in the 1950s or 60s, who himself left that tradition to found his own.
Alexandrian Wicca is the tradition founded by Alex Sanders (also known as "King of the Witches") who, with his wife Maxine Sanders, established it in Britain in the 1960s. Alexandrian Wicca is similar in many ways to and largely based upon Gardnerian Wicca, in which Sanders was trained to the first degree of initiation. It also contains elements of ceremonial magic and Qabalah, which Sanders studied independently. It is considered one of Wicca's most widely recognized traditions. The name of the tradition is a reference both to Alex Sanders and to the ancient occult library of Alexandria.
While the origins of modern Wiccan practice lie in coven activity and the careful handing on of practices to a small number of initiates, since the 1970s a widening public appetite made this unsustainable. From about that time, larger, more informal, often publicly advertised camps and workshops began to take place and it has been argued that this more informal but more accessible method of passing on the tradition is responsible for the rise of eclectic Wicca. Eclectic Wiccans are more often than not solitary practitioners. Some of these solitaries do, however, attend gatherings and other community events, but reserve their spiritual practices (Sabbats, Esbats, spell-casting, worship, magical work, etc.) for when they are alone. Eclectic Wicca is the most popular variety of Wicca in America and eclectic Wiccans now significantly outnumber lineaged Wiccans; their beliefs and practices tend to be much more varied.
Stregheria is an Italian American based form of witchcraft, claimed to be rooted in Etruscan religion. Just as the term "Wicca" is rooted in the Old English for "Witch", the word stregheria is an archaic Italian word for "witchcraft". The most used word in the past and in modern Italian is in fact stregoneria. Stregheria is also referred to as La Vecchia Religione ("the Old Religion"); however, its most frequent contemporary usage indicates a form of ethnic Italian Italian witchcraft originating in the United States as popularized by Raven Grimassi since the 1980s. Grimassi formerly taught what he called the Aridian tradition. He openly incorporated elements of Gardnerian Wicca into this tradition, with elements of Italian witchcraft and lore.
Stregheria honors a pantheon centred on the Roman Diana, her twin brother Apollo, and their daughter Aradia. Other practitioners worship the god aspect as Lucifer/Hesperus, a benevolent god of the Sun and Moon in no way connected to the Christian Satan. Stregheria also celebrates a series of eight festivals in the Wheel of the Year, though most commonly with Roman leanings and practises.
The Feri Tradition (referred to also as Vicia, Faery, or Anderson Feri) is an initiatory tradition of contemporary traditional witchcraft. It is an ecstatic (rather than fertility) tradition stemming from the experience of Cora and Victor Anderson. Strong emphasis is placed on sensual experience and awareness, including sexual mysticism, which is not limited to heterosexual expression. The Feri Tradition has very diverse influences, such as Huna, Vodou, Faery lore, Kabbalah, Hoodoo, Tantra, and Gnosticism.
Among the distinguishing features of the Feri tradition is the use of a specific Feri power or energetic current. Feri witches often see themselves as "fey": outside social definitions and intentionally living within paradox. They believe that much of reality is unseen, or at least has uncertain boundaries. Within the tradition there is a deep respect for the wisdom of nature, a love of beauty, and an appreciation of bardic and mantic creativity.
Core teachings acknowledged by most branches of the tradition include the concepts of the Three Souls and the Black Heart of Innocence, the tools of the Iron and Pearl Pentacle (now also used by the Reclaiming community), as well as an awareness of "energy ecology", which admonishes practitioners to never give away or waste their personal power. Trance experiences and personal connection to the Divine are at the heart of this path, leading to a wide variety of practices throughout the larger body of the tradition.
Despite many similarities to Wicca, especially in the ritual structures and tools used, members of Feri do not consider Feri a tradition of Wicca. There are Wiccan groups and traditions who call themselves "Fairy" (Faerie, Faery, etc.), but adherents of Feri consider these to be distinct from the Feri Tradition.
Roy Bowers, a.k.a. Robert Cochrane (1931–1966), founded "Cochrane's Craft", a form of traditional witchcraft, in opposition to Gardnerian Wicca. Cochrane's Clan of Tubal Cain worshipped a Horned God and a Triple Goddess, much akin to Gerald Gardner's Bricket Wood Coven. Cochrane himself disliked Gardner and his take on Wicca, and often ridiculed him and his Craft. While the Cochran Tradition uses ritual tools, they differ somewhat from those used by Gardnerians, some being the ritual knife (known as an athamé), a staff (known as a stang), a cup (or commonly a chalice), a stone (used as a whetstone to sharpen the athame), and a ritual cord worn by coven members.
At a gathering at Glastonbury Tor held by the Brotherhood of the Essenes in 1964, Cochrane met Doreen Valiente, who had formerly been a High Priestess of Gardner's Bricket Wood Coven. The two became friends, and Valiente joined the Clan of Tubal Cain. Cochrane often insulted and mocked Gardnerian witches, which annoyed Valiente. This reached an extreme in that even at one point in 1966 he called for "a Night of the Long Knives of the Gardnerians", at which point Doreen "rose up and challenged him in the presence of the rest of the coven". Shortly after Valiente's departure, Cochrane's wife Jean also left, and the Coven soon ceased to function.
Some were inspired by Cochrane's work and from the many letters he wrote to fellow occultists, to form traditions such as Roebuck, Tubal Cain, and 1734. Some practitioners of hedgecraft also follow a Cochrane-based practice.
Hedge witchcraft, hedgecraft, or hedge-riding is an approach to witchcraft focusing on shamanic experience and varying degrees of herbalism. It is said to be derived from the Old English term Haegtesse, which translates to "hedge rider".
The "hedge" in hedgecraft signifies the boundary between this world and the Otherworlds. Hedge-riding is the act of crossing this "hedge" or boundary en trance and interacting with the spirits of the other side.
Reclaiming is a tradition of modern, feminist witchcraft. It is made of an international community of women and men working to combine witchcraft, the Goddess movement, earth-based spirituality, and political activism. The tradition developed in the classes and rituals of its predecessor, the Reclaiming Collective (1978-1997). It was founded in 1979, amidst the peace and anti-nuclear movements, by two Neopagan women of Jewish descent, Starhawk (Miriam Simos) and Diane Baker, in order to explore and develop feminist Neopagan emancipatory rituals. Today, the organization focuses on progressive social, political, environmental and economic activism. Reclaiming's spiritual approach is based in a blending of influences from Victor and Cora Anderson's Feri Tradition, Zsuzsanna Budapest's Dianic witchcraft, and the feminist and anarchist movements. The author Starhawk has been its most prominent spokesperson and her book The Spiral Dance inspired many new covens to practice along similar lines.
Sabbatic craft, a term coined by Andrew D. Chumbley, is described as "an initiatory line of spirit-power that can inform all who are receptive to its impetus, and which – when engaged with beyond names – may be understood as a Key unto the Hidden Design of Arte." Chumbley sometimes referred to the Nameless Faith, Crooked Path, and Via Tortuosa. He reserved "Sabbatic Craft" as a unifying term to refer to the "convergent lineages" of the "Cultus Sabbati," a body of traditional witchcraft initiates. The Sabbatic craft is a path of traditional witchcraft.
Chumbley's works and those of Daniel Schulke on the Cultus Sabbati's "ongoing tradition of sorcerous wisdom" continue to serve as the prototypical reference works. The craft is not an ancient, pre-Christian tradition surviving into the modern age. It is a tradition rooted in "cunning-craft," a patchwork of older magical practice and later Christian mythology.
‘Sabbatic Craft’ describes a corpus of magical practices which self-consciously utilize the imagery and mythos of the "Witches' Sabbath" as a cipher of ritual, teaching and gnosis. This is not the same as saying that one practises the self-same rituals in the self-same manner as the purported early modern "witches" or historically attested cunning folk, rather it points toward the fact that the very mythos which had been generated about both "witches" and their "ritual gatherings" has been appropriated and re-orientated by contemporary successors of cunning-craft observance, and then knowingly applied for their own purposes.
In his grimoire Azoëtia, Chumbley incorporated diverse iconography from ancient Sumerian, Egyptian, Yezidi, and Aztec cultures. He spoke of a patchwork of ancestral and tutelary spirit folklore which he perceived amidst diverse "Old Craft" traditions in Britain as "a gnostic faith in the Divine Serpent of Light, in the Host of the Gregori, in the Children of Earth sired by the Watchers, in the lineage of descent via Lilith, Mahazael, Cain, Tubal-cain, Naamah, and the Clans of the Wanderers." Schulke believed that folk and cunning-crafts of Britain absorbed multicultural elements from "Freemasonry, Bible divination, Romany charms, and other diverse streams," what Chumbley called "dual-faith observance," referring to a "co-mingling of ‘native’ forms of British magic and Christianity".
Kitchen witchcraft, kitchen witchery, or sometimes hearth witchery (a term popularised by Anna Franklin in her book Hearth Witch), is a form of witchcraft practiced concurrently with tasks centred around the kitchen, such as cooking and baking. Like other forms of witchcraft, kitchen witchcraft concerns the practice of magic which may or may not be combined with other forms of spirituality.
Witchcraft and the LGBT Community
Some people within the LGBT community, like author Christopher Penczak, have found witchcraft to be not only tied to their history, but also empowering. Penczak claims “Witches honor the masculine and the feminine within all beings, regardless of physical gender, sexual orientation, or identity.” Sexuality is sacred in witchcraft, and while sometimes ritualized as a part of worship, it is often viewed as part of a healthy life. The Charge of the Goddess, one of the holy texts in Wicca, states that “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals”.
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