A Case of Witchcraft

This blog is an extension of the book of the same name: a novel published by MX, available on the Net and through bookshops.

Tag: witchcraft

Aleister Crowley’s Witchcraft Connexion.

It is generally accepted that the writings of Aleister Crowley were a major influence on the Witchcraft Revival which began soon after his death in 1947. Gerald Gardner, the founding father of that Revival, had four long meetings with Crowley in the last months of his life, and used many extracts from his works in the rituals of what came to be known as Wicca.

There is a certain appropriateness in this, since ancient Witchcraft was essentially Goddess-worship, and Crowley was one of the most enthusiastic Goddess-worshippers of recent times. But was he actually a Witch? That is, did he learn his Goddess-worship from members of a shadowy cult which could trace its lineage back to pre-history? It would be very surprising if this were so, since all the evidence would suggest that the ancient cult of the Goddess became extinct in England in the fourteenth century (although it may have lasted a little longer in Scotland). Nevertheless, there are some stories which suggest that Crowley may have been personally acquainted with at least one Witch in the days of his youth.

The learned historian of the occult, Francis King, records in Chapter 21 of his Ritual Magic in England (1970), a conversation that he had had in 1953 with Louis Umfraville Wilkinson, a close friend of Crowley’s (and one of his literary executors).

“… he said that Crowley had told him that, as a young man, he had been offered initiation into the witch-cult, but had refused it because he didn’t want to be ‘bossed around by women.’”

In a footnote, King tells us that he had heard the same story about Crowley from “two independent sources” (which unfortunately he does not name).

Professor Ronald Hutton has found evidence in unpublished documents that Gerald Yorke heard a similar story in December 1953, from a member of Gerald Gardner’s coven (probably Doreen Valiente); in this version, however, Crowley had actually been initiated, and spent a short time as a member of a coven, but left because he “would not be ruled by women.” [The Triumph of the Moon, Chapter 11.] The ultimate source of this story was almost certainly Gerald Gardner himself, for in his book Witchcraft Today, published in 1954, he tells us:

“The only man I can think of who could have invented the rites was the late Aleister Crowley. When I met him he was most interested to hear that I was a member [of the Witch-cult], and said he had been inside when he was very young…”

(Some of my readers may be familiar with the more elaborate version of the story told by Bill Liddell, in the articles collected as The Pickingill Papers; but as Mr. Liddell’s work is generally recognized to be fanciful, I shall say no more of it here.)

So is there any truth in these stories? The chief objection would appear to be that in Crowley’s very frank autobiography, written in the late 1920’s, he says nothing about such a youthful encounter with Witchcraft. But perhaps he kept silent in order to protect the reputation of someone still alive; or perhaps (if he had been initiated) he considered himself still bound by an oath of secrecy taken thirty or so years earlier. It is noteworthy that he seems to have spoken about the incident only when he was very old, and even then did not specify the names of the people involved, or the place where they had lived.

It is of course entirely possible that if Crowley told this story he was (as Francis King suggests) “indulging in a gentle leg-pull”; yet the tantalizing possibility remains that young Aleister did encounter, somewhere in late-Victorian Britain, people who were coming together to practice the rites of Witchcraft – either as a genuine survival of the ancient cult, or as a modern revival, something like Gardner’s Wicca. When and where might such a meeting have taken place? What form might late-Victorian Witchcraft have taken, and how might it have affected Crowley?

In my novel, A Case of Witchcraft, I supply fictional answers to these questions. I do not assert that the things in my story happened, but that they are the kind of thing that might have happened — which is all that one can ask of fiction!

Don’t forget, dear readers, that the paperback of “A Case of Witchcraft” is available here on the British Amazon site; and the Kindle version here.

Our American cousins may buy the paperback here, and the Kindle version here.

Witchcraft and the Victorians.

In my novel, Sherlock Holmes sets out to investigate an apparent case of witchcraft in the year 1899, and naturally seeks to discover what scholarship can tell him about what is, to him, a rather obscure subject. What exactly would he have found in the writings of the period?

The Victorian age had seen a re-evaluation of witchcraft. Charles McKay’s famous book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”, published in 1841, followed the standard Enlightenment line that the whole thing had been nothing but “a cruel and absurd delusion”; but, as early as 1866, the great antiquarian Thomas Wright was arguing that there had been a real witch-cult among the mediæval peasantry, and that its origins could be traced far back into pagan times, in what the title of his book described as “The Worship of the Generative Powers.”

“It seems” (he wrote) “that Priapic orgies and the other periodical assemblies for Priapic worship were continued long after the fall of the Roman power and the introduction of the Christian religion. The rustic population, mostly servile, whose morals or private practices were little heeded by the other classes of society, might, in a country so thinly peopled, assemble by night in retired places without any fear of observation. There they perhaps indulged in Priapic rites, followed by the old Priapic orgies, which would become more and more debased in form, but through the effects of exciting potions… would have become wilder than ever.”

In 1891, Professor Karl Pearson gave a remarkable lecture, “Woman as Witch“, putting forward the argument that mediæval witches had worshipped, not a male Devil, but a female Goddess; and that this and other features of their worship suggested that it had originated in Neolithic times, before the rise of Patriarchy. In the following year, the President of the Folklore Society, George Laurence Gomme, published his “Ethnology in Folklore“, in which he suggested that, just as in India, it was possible in Britain to discern two main strata of popular antiquities: one derived from the Aryans, a relatively advanced conquering race; and the other tracing its origins to the more primitive pre-Aryan population whom these conquerors had subjugated. Witchcraft, he maintained, was essentially the old religion of the pre-Aryan people, surviving into historic times as a secret cult.

In 1893, the American Matilda Joslyn Gage, in her “Woman, Church and State”, took a line still popular with feminists, that witches had been wise women and healers, persecuted by a misogynist Church jealous of female power.

Most remarkably of all, the eminent folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland published, in 1899, a book called “Aradia: or the Gospel of the Witches“, in which he claimed to have found the witch-cult still flourishing in northern Italy, and to have obtained first-hand accounts of its beliefs and practices. His witches were poor peasants, criminals and prostitutes; they worshipped the Goddess Diana and her daughter Aradia with feasts and orgies at the time of the full moon. Exactly how much of Leland’s work is true, and how much is fantasy, is still the subject of scholarly debate.

Sigmund Freud, the father of Psychoanalysis, was also at this time inclined to believe in the reality of witchcraft. In January of 1897 he wrote to his friend Fliess, saying that he was “toying with the idea that in the perversions… we may have the remains of a primitive sexual cult, which in the Semitic East may once have been a religion (Moloch, Astarte). I am beginning to dream of an extremely primitive devil-religion, the rites of which continue to be performed secretly; and I now understand the stern therapy of the witches’ judges.”

Based on the scholarship of his time, Holmes would have formed the impression that witchcraft was a real and very ancient religion, which had involved the worship of a pagan Goddess with orgiastic rites; and which might (as both Freud and Leland suggested) have survived into his own day, among the lower orders of society. In my novel we see him going in search of such a cult. If you want to know whether or not he finds it, you will have to read the book!

Don’t forget, dear readers, that the paperback of “A Case of Witchcraft” is available here on the British Amazon site; and the Kindle version here.

Our American cousins may buy the paperback here, and the Kindle version here.