Most covens and styles of Paganism and Witchcraft/Wicca like to think they are practising an art directly connected to ancient roots in a time of peace and plenty when their rituals and spells were revered along with their practitioners. This worldview was particularly popular in the 1970’s and 1990’s as part of the rise of the “New Age” movement which itself was a reincarnation of the 1960’s rise in interest in ecology and the spiritual systems connected with honouring nature. These included Shamanism, Druidry, and the various spiritual systems of the Middle and Far East. Witchcraft, which had been publicised by Gerald Gardiner after the replacement of the 1735 Witchcraft act with the Fraudulent Mediums act in 1951 was very much overlooked until the 1970’s when the Feminist Movement ‘discovered’ it and promoted it as an ideal spiritual path for women. The Gardnarian system was particularly popular as it stressed the Priestess role in ritual as the key one and, using Gardener’s works as a base, dozens of covens sprang up to be followed shortly by others using ritual magic, Freemasonry, and mystery school teachings as their guides.
In this sudden mushrooming of different styles, traditional Craft was overlooked. Which, frankly, they preferred. After one or two groups gained unwanted publicity via the newspapers they moved well away from the mainstream and kept the teachings and practices within family groups, or only shared with people who had passed a strict selection test. So strict in fact that many of those selected only knew about it after they had passed and were invited to join the coven! Only when they met their fellow members did a lot of the strange people they had been meeting, and the weird things that had been happening, over the last weeks or months suddenly all make sense.
The teachings and practices of these groups differ greatly from the Paganism most people are familiar with today. Contrary to the Margaret Murray school of thought, which says that Witchcraft was a religion practised from Neolithic to Medieval times before being almost destroyed by the Christian church, most are remnants of various religions and spiritual practices from all over the world. Lots of them have Celtic and Norse origins, with some classical Greek and Roman influences. This is because of the maritime heritage of the UK combined with the Roman invasion which brought people from all over the world to pass though, and settle, in Britain.
The furthest you can be from the sea in the UK is 70 miles making it more common than the European continent for people from other lands, cultures, and traditions to trade and exchange ideas and goods with people all over the country at a local level. Then when the Romans arrived they brought their spiritual practices with them. In later times when the Roman practice of making troops from one area serve as far away from it as possible to avoid trained soldiers leading rebellions, they brought their beliefs with them. Considering that there is written evidence of Chinese acrobats performing in front of Roman emperors it’s not surprising that many different practices and sects took root here.
As time passed these practices developed in their own way and combined with other similar traditions. Some of the names of the Deities changed in accordance with the local dialect, as did the enunciation of the chants and the words of the rituals. Fortunately intent is more important than pronunciation to Gods, Goddesses and thoughtforms. More significant was the loss of practices, meanings and traditions through key people in the group dying suddenly or not having anyone to pass the skills and liturgy on to. This meant that over time whole sections of the sect’s practices disappeared.
When Gardner discovered the traditional Craft practiced in the New Forest he quickly worked out that whole sections of their practices were missing, distorted, or ineffective. His reaction was to contact the Mage Alistair Crowley and have him help ‘fill in the blanks’ at “Three guineas a page with double spacing”. This was the basis of the first “Book of Shadows”. Before this handwritten grimoirs were known as redes, books of rite, or recipetes and were very rare due to the attention that someone non-Church educated could attract if they were literate and numerate.
From Victorian times on traditional Craft people did start writing their practices down, but more as insurance if anything happened. This usually meant they were in code and hidden where only the intended recipient would think to look. Every so often you hear of these being found during house demolitions, building work, or industrial archaeology digs. They usually end up in local museum storage but, with the number of Pagans becoming archaeologists and the easy availability of small digital cameras and the like, there is a chance of the information in them seeing the light of day again in the future.
Training in a Craft coven usually begins young, both with practical exercises and learning from the elders of the craft which is strongly stressed. “Just twenty five generations separate you from the Roman conquest” explained one Craft practitioner to me “If a ten year old hears the stories and memories of a ninety year old they acquire eighty years of memory. If that child reaches 90 themselves and tells what they know to another ten year old then that child has 160 years of memories. Do that 25 times and you have a child with 2,000 years of memories”. I don’t say this is objectively accurate, but it gives some idea of the mind-set of many traditional groups
“All material things are held together by a network of paths, knowing or experiencing one thing immediately connects you with everything else” They continued. “As soon as our kids are able to concentrate – at the age of about five or six – they are taught how to disperse small clouds by visualization and will. When they can do that consistently they learn how to form a cloud by the same process, then they are ready to move on to more complex magick”.
Many people think that Traditional Craft vanished with the rise of science in the 20th Century, but the groups are still around. They are nearly impossible to find, even if you have an idea of their working area. However, some are still keeping a lookout for good candidates to join their group so there is a chance that if your Pagan practice harmonises with theirs they will contact you.