What is Traditional Witchcraft: An Introduction

What is Traditional Witchcraft: An Introduction



If you're new to Witchcraft or merely curious about craft practices, you'll immediately find several craft traditions open for exploration. If you do a bit of comparing with such traditions, you'll eventually find defining a term like "Traditional Witchcraft" is a thorny process. Like craft practices, the answer seems shrouded in mystery, with the answer changing depending upon the sources you consult. Here's a breakdown of the different views on Traditional Witchcraft and what it means to be a practitioner of the arcane arts in a traditional sense.



Traditional Witchcraft Vs Wicca: What's the Difference?

Wicca is a system of belief based on much of the writings by Gerald Brousseau Gardner (craftname of Scire). Gardner was a well-traveled, well-read archaeologist and anthropologist who played a significant role in bringing the practice of Wicca into the public eye. He is considered the Forefather of Witchcraft since he started the Gardnerian movement. Much of his work comes from folklore, his experiences in the Order of Cortona: a Rosicrucian group, and the New Forest Coven, of which he claimed to be an initiate. He also drew his understandings about the magickal arts from his background in Freemasonry, his study of ceremonial magick, and the works of Aleister Crowley.

After the last laws in England against practicing Witchcraft were repealed in the early 1950s, Gardner authored the book "Witchcraft Today." A second book soon followed, entitled "The Meaning of Witchcraft." "The Gardnerian Book of Shadows" is another one of his writings that includes information he draws from his time in the New Forest Coven, and his experiences with Crowley, since Gardner found the initial Book of Shadows sorely lacking in accessible material.



Before delving further into the meaning of Traditional Witchcraft, at this point it's important to note that a Witch is a practitioner of magic and someone who may or may not practice the magickal arts within a religious framework. A Witch can be Wiccan but doesn't have to adhere to the principles of Wicca to be a Witch. There are many other traditions outside of Gardnerian Wicca, with some adherents of the latter considering Gardnerian practices as a form of Traditional Witchcraft.


Other Forms of British Traditional Wicca

Gardnerian Wicca is just one form of British Traditional Witchcraft, which describes practices originating in England and the New Forest area. When thinking about traditional witchcraft vs Wicca, it's important to keep in mind that traditional Wicca is said to have a lineage that's traceable back to its original British roots. Central Valley Wicca, Blue Star Wicca, Chthonioi Wicca, Algard Wicca, and Alexandrian Wicca are also forms of British Traditional Witchcraft.

Alexander Sanders, often called the "King of Witches," along with Maxine Sanders, his wife, are the founders of the Alexandrian Tradition of Witchcraft. Sander's established the tradition in the 1960s in the United Kingdom. His system is based on what he learned from his studies of Gardnerian practices. Alexandrian Witchcraft also mingles the teachings of the Qabalah and ceremonial magick with Gardnerian practices.

Raymond Buckland (craftname Robat) was a practitioner of Gardnerian Wicca and a writer on both the occult and Wicca. He also plays a large role in Wicca's history after he introduced Wicca to the United States in the early 1960s. He was a high priest in a Gardnerian coven who later created a new tradition, Seax Wica, which focused on Anglo-Saxon pagan practices and symbolism. Some of his writings include Buckland's "Complete Book of Witchcraft,""Wicca for One: The Path of Solitary Witchcraft," and Buckland'sBook of Gypsy Magic: Travelers' Stories, Spells & Healings," among many others.


Opposing Views of Traditional Witchcraft

According to Ethan Doyle White, an archeologist, and established pagan scholar, Traditional Witchcraft embodies any practicing group or individual who does not embrace Gardnerian Wicca. Instead, the group or practitioner has practices stemming from more ancient origins. Under this definition, "Traditional Witchcraft" defines those who adhere to a wide variety of pagan paths, providing the practices and traditions that have roots far older than Wicca.

Michael Howard, a Traditional Witch, suggests that the term "traditional" describes anyone who is not practicing Alexandrian or Gardnerian Witchcraft. Rather, "Traditional" references practices deeply rooted in folk magic, lore, and historical forms of the art. Per such a definition, Traditional Witchcraft references Cochranianism and the Feri Tradition, among others.

Cochranianism is a branch of traditional Witchcraft established in the early 1950s. The founder is Robert Cochrane, who drew his knowledge from family members who taught him the Craft.



Cochrane's approach is a lot like Gardnerian Wicca but focuses on attaining wisdom. Interestingly, Cochrane also argues Witchcraft has nothing to do with Paganism. Meanwhile, the founders of the Feri Tradition is Victor Henry Anderson and Cora Anderson, who established the tradition in the 1960s: The tradition mingles Gnosticism, Tantric practices, and Hoodoo beliefs Qabalah, Vodou, and Faery lore.


Traditional Witchcraft versus Techno Witches

Tiktok is an app some modern witches use to share video information about witchcraft practices, traditions, and real-world experiences working with the magickal arts. The online community is mostly eclectic, meaning they don't necessarily focus on a single tradition. Instead, they pull information and beliefs from a variety of magickal traditions and practices. The videos are sixty seconds in length, focusing on offering one another support, healing, and tips. The video method for sharing of information on the arcane arts may seem like the opposite extreme of Traditional Witchcraft. But the practice can indeed be merged into a modernized, syncretic type of practice. Here witches share information about the ancient arts and how to revive the old ways. In doing so, they attempt to work with the most unadulterated forms of the practice as possible.


How to Practice Traditional Wicca

If you're interested in learning more about Traditional Wiccan practices, consider checking out the work of Thorn Mooney. She's a priestess in the Raleigh-based, Foxfire Coven that consists of a traditional Gardnerian inner and outer court. Mooney's background is rich, influenced by extensive academic and religious studies focusing on evangelical Christianity, American religions, and contemporary Paganism. She is the author of "Traditional Wicca: A Seeker's Guide," published by Llewellyn Worldwide.

Witchcraft in West Virginia

Witchcraft in West Virginia


One of the most intriguing aspects of the occult in America is that it truly has enjoyed a regional expression. New England witchcraft, for example, looks very different from West Coast witchcraft which looks very different from Midwest witchcraft. This trend also applies inter-regionally as well. Tennessean witchcraft looks different than Georgian witchcraft which looks different from West Virginia witchcraft and on and on it goes.

But a personal favorite of mine is Appalachian witchcraft. Perhaps that's due to the fact that I'm from the mid-south originally or maybe it's because this particular strain of the esoteric still lingers somewhat in obscurity, even to me.





So today I'd like to explore one of the more emblematic and representative states of Appalachian folk magic: West Virginia. First, some background.

The Early Days of West Virginia

West Virginia has always been a bit of an oddball in the cultural fabric of the United States. It's location alone seems to beg for paradoxes. It's not quite southern and not quite northern. But it's situated against some of the more representative states of these respective cultures (Kentucky and Maryland, for example). And this tension between opposing ideologies is actually a part of what led West Virginia to break way from Virginia in the first place. In the lead-up to the Civil War (1861 to be precise), West Virginia became the only state to form by breaking from the Confederacy and was also one of only two states admitted to the Union during the conflict (Nevada was the second).

So, from the early days of West Virginia being West Virginia there was a rugged individualism which will become very important to the rest of this story. And the tension between exactly where West Virginia's ideology falls extends even to the state's regional positioning (the Census Bureau designates it as being a southern state, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics places it in the mid-Atlantic region). But the story of witchcraft in West Virginia extends back even further in time than the state's official formation.


The First Stirrings of Witchcraft in West Virginia

The region's earliest settlers were just as concerned with the threat of witchcraft as their New England cousins. In the same era of the Salem Witch Trials, accusations also flung in the burgeoning Virginia hills. Crucially though, they never escalated to the same degree as those in Salem or elsewhere in New England. Actually, Virginia has those trials beat, in terms of chronological placement, by some decades. In 1626 (only 19 years after the founding of Jamestown, but 66 years before the outbreak of the Salem Witch Trials), a grand jury attempted to determine if a woman named Joan Wright was indeed a witch. While the outcome of the trial has been lost to the ages, one could relatively safely hazard a guess that the verdict was in Wright's favor.



Because, even though the threat of witchcraft was as ever-present in Virginia as it was on every other front of the early American settlements, there are actually a number of key differences that kept any Salem-esque, hysterical outbreaks from occurring in early Virginia.




Separation of Church and State

For starters, early Virginians maintained a much more distinct separation between ministers and the legal processing of accused witches than their New England counterparts. In Salem, for example, one could make the argument (and plenty have) that you can really lay the entirety of the Salem Witch Trials at the feet of over-zealous, ambitious ministers (Samuel Parris, and Cotton/Increase Mather spring to mind, but they're not alone). But in Virginia, congregation leaders rarely participated in witchcraft hearings. Perhaps this is due to the fact that one of the key differences between New England and early Virginian witchcraft is that while 1692's Salemites viewed witchcraft as inextricably linked with Christianity (the actual offense latent in witchcraft to the Puritans wasn't the practice of magic, it was being in league with the devil), Virginians viewed it as much more rooted in folklore and therefor essentially outside the realm of organizaed religion.


Distanced Ministers

So, with the possibility of salvation or damnation not on the table, the ministers rarely got involved. But it wasn't only this religious separation that kept the tide of hysteria at bay. The courts themselves were also hesitant to even hear cases of witchcraft. A perfect illustration of just how true this is can be found in the fact that only 19 known cases of witchcraft were brought to the Virginian courts in the 17th century and all but one ended in acquittal. The final case of witchcraft in Virginia took place in 1802 and was also dismissed.

But what accounts for this hesitation on the part of the courts and the religious leaders of Virginia? Well, the answer to that question leads us to a giant, looming, key player in this story that has yet to appear: The Appalachian Mountains.


Those Dark Hills

To the degree that West Virginia is, "southern," a whole lot of that cultural relation comes from the secluded mountain-dwellers. Some of these mountaineers have been in those dark hills since the very beginning. As someone who grew up in Tennessee, I'm intimately aware of the folklore that still comes from those Appalachian peaks. This is the land of moonshine and outhouses, completely secluded communities out of reach of the law or government. The early settlers in what became West Virginia were a rugged people. They farmed what they could around the mountains (the state is actually entirely mountainous). They fended for themselves outside of the emergent American government. And this spirit led to a state motto that perfectly captures the essence of the people it canonizes. It reads, "Montani Semper Liberi" (Mountaineers are always free).



The practitioners of witchcraft that emerged from this way of life were different than many others outside of Appalachia. West Virginian communities and religious leaders didn't despise these "Granny Witches.". In fact, it was the exact opposite.


Sole Practitioners

The mountain state's witches tended to be sole practitioners. These typically older women were sometimes alone themselves, sometimes not. But they maintained by in large a coveted spot in their communities. In regions where medical care was harder to come by (due to geographical isolation), West Virginia's witches were healers. They oversaw the physical, mental, and spiritual health of their communities. And they did it all with near total support from their churches and community members. In West Virginia, witches aren't a threat to Christianity.



While I can't find too much proof of this off-hand, I believe that the First Nations peoples of the region are a huge part of the reason why there was such a positive reaction to witchcraft in West Virginia. The state contains a large population of Shawnee descendants. And their ancestors were among the first people that Virginia's European settlers encountered. The Cherokee (who may have used southern Virginia largely as hunting ground) are also still quite present to this day.


While I can only offer anecdotal evidence to support this claim, I heard many tales growing up of peaceful interaction and sharing between the secluded mountain communities of European and First Nation descendants. Perhaps it's the case that a bit of the First Nation ethic in regards to what Europeans might deem, "satanic" rubbed off on the settlers. Maybe this is part of why witchcraft in West Virginia doesn't carry the religious or social baggage it does in other parts of the country.




Granny Witches and Pagan Integration

Regardless, West Virginia offers one of the most successful examples of the integration of witchcraft into the cultural fabric of a state. To this day the, "Granny Witches" are doing their good work in the mountain state. They offer the communities they serve a shoulder to cry on when times are tough. They offer a plethora of folk remedies to help community members avoid the crushing downward spiral of the pharmaceutical industry. And they offer and a through-line for the region's distinct cultural heritage.


The witches of West Virginia are vital members of their respective communities. And those interested in the craft could do far worse than to look to West Virginia's witches to learn how to provide occult value to their own communities.


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