Lee Morgan, A Deed Without a Name: Unearthing the Legacy of Traditional Witchcraft
It could easily be said that one of the major differences between the modern revival referred to as ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ and the other modern revival known as ‘Wicca’, is that Traditional Witchcraft draws on ‘folkloric material’ and is largely ‘shamanic’ whereas Wicca is more of a fusion of Western Occult ceremonial and natural magic traditions. Whilst the term ‘shamanic’ is hotly debated both within scholarly and witchcraft circles it does at least seem clear that the term is cautiously embraced by the most influential scholars on the topic, the work of such people as Ginzburg and Wilby, texts that have greatly influenced the revival and self conception of ‘Traditional Witchcraft’ (especially Ginzburg but I anticipate the same for Wilby’s work as it becomes disseminated and assimilated into the occult group consciousness).
The exposition of the ‘shamanic’ dimension that Ginzburg worked so hard to establish in his books is what saves the study of the trial records from the excesses of ‘Murrayism’. And the realisation that these testimonies were often to things encountered during spirit flight rather than in normative waking consciousness helps to make sense of the elements of the seeming impossible that occur in them. Emma Wilby took this work still further via a detailed comparison between the maleficium practiced during spirit flight by a witch like Isobel Gowdie and the ‘dark shamans’ of the Amazon Basin.
I believe that to properly navigate the ‘deep myth’ of witchcraft, and unearth the legacy of its occult wisdom we need to understand its shamanic substrata. But we need to understand the term ‘shamanic’ or perhaps even better ‘ecstatic’ in terms of a latent but universal potential within human nature, rather than strictly in sociological or anthropological terms. An ‘ecstatic’ is a type of mystic who leaves or transcends the flesh in powerful visions and has congress with another world. But a ‘shaman’ is one who uses this ability to perform a service for their community. We can see as we go along that many of these witches from the past fell into the latter category and that nearly all of them at least fell into the former.
Whilst the state of ecstasy is usually described as ‘transcending the flesh’ it is important to note that the witches’ ecstatic vision grows out of the flesh as a plant does from soil. There may be visions of flying through the air, or going in through doors underground, but right from the beginning it will help us in our journey if we understand how rooted in biological experience vision is. Intensely sensual experiences (sensual as in ‘of the senses’) are involved in reaching trance for most people. Drumming, dance, sexual intercourse, imbibing helper plants and even being ‘lifted’ by spirits, all produce intense sensations and chemical releases in the body. Understanding these responses and how the bodily experience of our ancestors might have differed from our own can only help us in finding the keys to our own ecstasis. It will help us to remember the old maxim ‘as above so below, as within so without’, for it shows us a world where microcosm mirrors macrocosm.
Thus when we try to re-imagine a shamanic universe with an Upperworld above a Middleworld all around us and an Underworld below it is easier to get in touch with if we are aware that they also exist inside our bodies. Whilst the Underworld and Upperworld also exist outside of us, and reach beyond us we are each connected to them and reflect the structure of the universe. What all this means is that an ecstatic path is both a path of the body and of transcending the body, it is not a matter of either/or, but of both.
The Upperworld is reflected in our heads and the Underworld deep in out guts and pelvis, we each are made up of the substance of stars and of the dirt and water we drink daily and thus no part of the cosmos is foreign to us. We are part of the earth, our consciousness grows out of our flesh, and yet there is that within us that goes beyond it and joins the cosmos. It is to this mystery that I allude when I speak of ‘shamanic’ or ‘ecstatic’ witchcraft.