A Brief History of Witchcraft
Sex, Lies, and the Devil
by P.T. Mistlberger
All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable.
—Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of the Witches’; published in 1487).1
As to what exactly a ‘Witch’ is, or what the word implies, there are a broad range of views; indeed, the word is probably one of the most loaded in the English language. This essay is not, however, a study of Witches or Witchcraft as a bona fide spiritual tradition (which it certainly is, at least in modern times),2 but is rather an examination of the Church’s persecution of ‘Witches’ and ‘Witchcraft’ during a gruesome phase of European history generally known as the ‘Burning Times’ (roughly from the mid-15th to the mid-18th century). This study is undertaken to understand more clearly the psychodynamics of the relationship between Church and Witchcraft, and between Inquisitor/priest/accuser and ‘Witch’. Further and arguably more important relationship dynamics, those of between Church and Satan, and Church and women, are also looked at.
The word ‘Witch’, when used herein, is often presented in quotation marks as scholarly research has demonstrated that many of those tried and executed, though convicted of being Witches, were not in fact that; there is a valid argument that a majority of them were everyday Christians who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That all of them, Witches or non-Witches, were falsely convicted, or at the least unjustly tried, certainly by modern judicial standards, is more or less accepted at face value here.
According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of English Etymology (1993 edition) the word ‘Witch’ derives from the Old English terms wicca (a male sorcerer or wizard) and wicce (a female sorcerer or wizard). These were related to the Old English terms wiccian, meaning to ‘practice magical arts’, and wiccecraeft (Witchcraft). The terms wicca or wicce are sometimes believed to derive from an older word meaning ‘wise’, although in fact it is the word ‘wizard’ that derives from the Old English wiseard (‘wise one’).3 The word wicce is believed by most linguist scholars to derive from the term ‘bend’ or ‘twist’. Some modern Pagans re-interpret this as a witch’s ‘shamanic ability’ to bend or twist reality,4 perhaps something along the lines of Dion Fortune’s definition of magic: ‘the act of causing changes in consciousness to occur in conformity with will.’ This interpretation, though reasonable, appears to be a modern contrivance.
Modern Witchcraft, or ‘Wicca’ as it is now more commonly called by its practitioners, has a clear recent history that can at least be traced back to the publication of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today (1954), and more significantly, to the Egyptologist and anthropologist Margaret Murray’s controversial landmark work The Witch-cult in Western Europe (1921). Beyond that the historical roots are obscure, and a subject of great debate amongst many. Indeed the ‘history of the attempted history’ of Witchcraft is almost as interesting as any consideration of its actual roots.
The Roots of Persecution
Before considering the more recent and known history of Witchcraft, and especially the Witch-craze persecutions of the 15th through 18th centuries, it helps to have some understanding of the roots of the conflict between Church and Witchcraft. Most believe this to begin with the infamous line from the Old Testament (Exodus, 22:18): Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live (King James Version). However, modern adherents of Neo-Pagan faiths sometimes forget that the word ‘Witch’ in current times implies something very different (at least for Pagans and other sympathizers) than it did in 1611 when the KJV Bible was produced, and more to the point, back when Exodus was written.
The Old Testament, of course, was not written in English, but Hebrew. Exodus 22:18 in Hebrew reads (transliterated with vowels), M'khashephah lo tichayyah. This means, essentially, ‘you will not allow a khashephah to live.’ A khashephah is a ‘spell-caster’; a more currently accurate English term for it is probably ‘sorcerer’ or ‘sorceress’. The ‘spell-caster’ referred to in the writing of Exodus was a hostile spell-caster, not the benign Goddess or Nature-worshipper of Neo-Pagan traditions. (And indeed, some recent editions of the Bible have replaced the Exodus 22:18 word ‘Witch’ with ‘sorceress’.) In older times, such malefic spell-casters were common, and found in many cultures (just as they are today, particularly in African or Caribbean nations). Just as commonly, their power was believed to be real and they were often hunted down.5 Contrary to some popular views, the practice of Witch-hunting, while largely eradicated from Western Europe by the late 18th century, still crops up occasionally in the world. As recently as 2008 eleven people in Kenya were accused of Witchcraft and burnt to death,6 and in Papua New Guinea, the execution of witches, often via burnings, is still done on occasion up to current times.7
The origin of the persecutions of Witches on a mass scale that began in the early 14th century in Europe appears to be, at first glance, a study of chiefly two phenomena: misogyny, and ‘magical thinking’. The first, hatred of women (deriving, presumably, from fear of them) was clearly one of the main underlying themes of the infamous polemic published in 1487 by two Dominicans, the German Inquisitor Heinrich Kramer and the Swiss priest Jacob Sprenger, called the Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of the Witches’). The book was commissioned by Pope Innocent VIII via his 1484 papal bull, and was heavily influential, going through dozens of editions, the last as recent as 1669.8 It is a lurid manual of instruction for would-be Witch hunters, describing Witches and their way of life, including vivid depictions of their ‘sabbats’ with the Devil, and how they are to be dealt with. It contains more than its share of sweeping critiques and condemnation of women in general, concluding that women are easier prey for Satan because they are weaker both intellectually and physically, more credulous, and more prone to gossip (thus naturally recruiting others into their ‘wickedness’).
The persecution of ‘heretics’ did not begin with 15th century witches, however; it had earlier roots, most notably with the Cathars, a large and powerful semi-Gnostic sect that was persecuted by Pope Innocent III, culminating in the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-29 in which tens of thousands of Cathars (including women and children), most in southeastern France, were massacred. From the ashes of this Crusade was born the ‘Holy Office of the Papal Inquisition’, initiated by Pope Gregory IX in 1239. The job of this Inquisition was to suppress heretics. (The word ‘heresy’ derives from the Greek hairetikos, meaning ‘able to choose’—a disturbing reminder of the Church’s powers at that time to limit free will, or at the least, make attempts to exercise it in the realm of ideas, dangerous). The destruction of the Cathars was followed by the persecution and destruction (in 1312) of the Knights Templar, the powerful (though ultimately corrupt) Christian military order suspected of heretical beliefs. It had been just prior to that, in 1252, that Pope Innocent IV issued a papal bull authorizing torture as an Inquisitional tool (which some Knights Templar were subjected to), although in general, torture was not seriously and regularly used until the beginning of the Witch persecutions in the late 15th century. (Torture did, however, remain outlawed in some countries, like England).
The main job of the Malleus Maleficarum was to refute arguments that Witches did not exist, and as mentioned, to petition the case for women being the main spawns of the Devil. Rossell Hope Robbins called the book, ‘The most important and most sinister work on demonology ever written…opening the floodgates to the inquisitorial hysteria.’9 The misogyny in the text is almost overwhelming, making any male philosophers throughout history who have been critical of the female mind (and there have been many) seem like feminists. This extract from the text is as good as any:
What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours! Therefore if it be a sin to divorce her when she ought to be kept, it is indeed a necessary torture; for either we commit adultery by divorcing her, or we must endure daily strife. Cicero in his second book of The Rhetorics says: The many lusts of men lead them into one sin, but the lust of women leads them into all sins; for the root of all woman’s vices is avarice. And Seneca says in his Tragedies: A woman either loves or hates; there is no third grade. And the tears of woman are a deception, for they may spring from true grief, or they may be a snare. When a woman thinks alone, she thinks evil… but because in these times this perfidy is more often found in women than in men, as we learn by actual experience, if anyone is curious as to the reason, we may add to what has already been said the following: that since they are feebler both in mind and body, it is not surprising that they should come more under the spell of witchcraft.10
And so on. Although it should be noted that while upward of 80% of tried and condemned Witches in Western Europe were women (and often women over the age of 50), this was not the case in some Scandinavian countries, where a majority of those persecuted and killed were men.
Added to the issue of misogyny, was that of ‘magical thinking’. By this is not meant some esoteric or occult art, but rather a specific type of faulty thinking known in logic as the post-hoc fallacy. This is a confusing of causal linkages of events—in this case, the observation that event A comes before event B, therefore event A must be the cause of event B. The following small example sheds immediate light on the potential dangers of this kind of thinking:
A woman in Scotland is burned as a witch for stroking a cat at an open window at the same time the householder finds his brew of beer turning sour.11
It was common for someone to make a casual observation of supposedly linked events (in the case above, the beer turning sour just as this poor woman happened to stroke her cat) and immediately assuming something sinister and linked by the events. Neighbors in areas that were prone to Witchcraft-accusations would commonly become involved in petty disputes (as neighbors in all times have) in which to blame something on Witchcraft was not an abnormal procedure. Such accusations, based in part on the post-hoc fallacy, become the basis of all superstition—most of which is harmless (such as the routines of many professional athletes)—but some of which occasionally deteriorates into the worst human folly and depravity. Most unjust persecutions and many wars were motivated by magical thinking, that is, by a failure to understand cause and effect at even a rudimentary level.
Additionally, there is a third apparent element; while not as significant as misogyny or magical thinking, it merits mention. It can be called the ‘German factor’. After decades of tedious work examining trial records and related documents, scholars now have a fairly good idea of some of the statistics associated with the Burning Times, from roughly 1300 to 1800. Current overall estimates run from approximately 35,000 to 65,000 ‘Witches’ killed, of whom around 22,000 were Germans—that is, about 44% of all those executed were German. No other nation comes close to this percentage; most have significantly smaller numbers, with France (around 5,500, or about 10%) coming next, followed closely by Poland and Switzerland. Many countries, such as England, lost less than a thousand. In the case of England this amounts to about one execution every four months, from 1450-1750, when most executions occurred—clearly lower than the average annual homicide rate for a large, modern European city.12 Other countries, like Italy and Spain, had relatively rare bouts of Witch-hysteria, and Eastern Europe was largely untouched by the Witch-craze. Modern scholarship, based on meticulous research, thus informs us of two things: the number of Witches killed during the Burning Times is much lower than was commonly assumed (as recently as in the 1970-80s); and Germans, followed distantly by the French, comprised the heavy majority. (Additionally, the term ‘Burning Times’ does not apply to England, where Witches were hung, not burned.13 The more primitive form of execution, burning, was exclusive to the Continent, and on occasion, Scotland).
Those who watched the popular documentary put out in 1990 by the reputable National Film Board of Canada (The Burning Times), which featured a panel of modern neo-Pagans and Wiccans such as Merlin Stone and Starhawk and other sympathizers like the renegade Christian priest Matthew Fox, heard mention in the film of 'an upper figure of nine million Witches' being killed during the Burning Times. That figure had been mentioned by Gerald Gardner in his Witchcraft Today.14 He in turn appeared to get this figure from Margaret Murray’s The Witch-cult in Western Europe. Back when Murray published her book (in 1921), scholarship on the matter of Witches and the Burning Times was scant. It appears that Murray got the ‘nine million’ figure from the 18th century German scholar Gottfried Voigt (1740-1791), who—starting from just forty-four confirmed executions in a small region of Germany—used a peculiar method of mathematical extrapolation to arrive at ‘nine million’ in a paper he published in 1784, a result now discredited as wildly inaccurate by a multiplication factor of over a hundred. That this figure has only been recently invalidated and the more accurate estimate of between 40,000 and 60,000 executed now widely accepted by scholars, is reflected in the number of neo-Pagans who still believe in a ‘women’s holocaust’ that wiped out women on a scale similar to the Holocaust of World War Two (in which approximately six million men, women, and children, mostly Jews, lost their lives).
Naturally, 40,000 to 60,000 executions—many of them accompanied by grotesque forms of torture and many dying in agonizing pain—does not somehow mitigate the horror and depravity of the various Inquisitions behind the executions. If there is any value in recognizing the difference between nine million and 60,000 or 40,000, it is solely in historical accuracy, not in some lesser depth of moral outrage, nor in any lesser need to understand how such things come to be in the first place.
Anyone seeking to examine the relationship between Church and Witchcraft ultimately ends up being faced with the realization that the deeper we look into the Church-Witchcraft dynamic, the more Witchcraft (real or not) vanishes. What is then revealed are three underlying relationships: the Church and Satan, and the Church (male clergy) and women, and a third—and perhaps most surprising—women and women.
The Church and Satan/The Church and Women
The first is essential to examine for the simple reason that the main argument behind the Church’s persecution of ‘Witches’ was that they were tools of the Devil—‘instruments of darkness’ as the historian James Sharpe put it. They were means to an end, simply pawns in the Devil’s plan to corrupt humanity. Accordingly, we need to take a look at the Church’s ideas around Satan, and in particular, the ways in which Satan was believed to manifest in physical reality.
In the most basic sense, the whole existence of Satan, especially as a shadowy, conspiratorial figure, has its roots, as alluded to above, in a deeply flawed grasp of cause and effect, namely the post-hoc fallacy. However, the delusions that gripped the Inquisitorial accusations against ‘Witches’ went further than this particular logical error. The ‘Devil’ became the sole causal factor behind all negative events—sickness, bad weather, ill fortune of all sorts. He was the ultimate scapegoat—‘Witches’ were used as vehicles to punish as they provided a tangible face for the Devil.
Part of the problem lay in the fact that the nature of Satan himself was a matter of endless dispute amongst theologians and Church authorities going back to the 1st century AD. There were many competing theories and assumptions, and this can be seen in the various different guises of Satan in the Bible itself. In the Old Testament, Satan appears to act purposefully, or as in the case of the Book of Job, as a ‘tester’ of humanity and an accomplice of God. But in the New Testament, he seems to be out of control, or as historian Gerard Messadie put it, ‘behaving like the demons of Oceania and Australia, doing everything willy-nilly. Everyone had come to believe himself threatened by a Devil who was as uncontrollable as a rabid dog.’15 It was in the New Testament that the Devil came to associated with such things as leprosy, blindness, paralysis, epilepsy—in short, with illness itself—and, to boot, with ugliness and physical deformities as well. The Devil became the chief personification of evil fortune, and accordingly, a highly useful tool to wield against enemies—be they theological, political, or psychological in nature. And more specifically, this sort of Devil was needed as a pure contrast to aid in highlighting the divine purity of Jesus. The ‘whiter’ Jesus is, the more a purely ‘blackened’ oppositional factor is required. (And indeed, the Devil in ‘Witches sabbats’ was usually depicted as being cloaked in black). As the idea of divine incarnation is introduced—pure goodness—so does its opposite naturally leap into existence, in accordance with the inescapable laws of duality.
Yahweh of the Old Testament carries within him darker strains than Jesus does. Not that Jesus is without occasional aggression (ejecting the money-changers from the temples, cursing a fig tree, condemning the Pharisees, etc.), but he embodies the teaching of forgiveness—‘love your enemies’—in a way that Yahweh certainly does not. In some ways Yahweh is a god of war. Because he is no example of stainless ‘goodness’, he does not require any counter-force of pure capricious evil, and this is why the Satan of the Old Testament does not have the nasty sting of Satan of the New Testament. As Jesus was introduced, so is evil enhanced and given a darker and more gratuitous shade of malice.
In the first few centuries after Christ there was much theological hair-splitting around the nature of Satan and his army of demons, and the belief that there was more than one kind of evil spirit. At the council of Constantinople in 543, a canon was introduced that proclaimed there was, essentially, only one kind of demon. This narrowed the focus and made it easier to ascribe all evil events to this singular force of evil. Even science, and especially mathematics, was until the late 17th century suspected by many of being the work of the Devil, which was why Copernicus did not publish his work demonstrating that the Earth is not the center of the universe until on his deathbed, and why Galileo, as late at 1615, was forced to recant his confirmation of Copernicus’s idea.
As the Dark Ages passed into the Middle Ages, the Devil took on an actual mythic form—generally that of a distorted version of the Greek god Pan, or the Roman god Faunus—complete with hooves, horns, general goat-like attributes, and a dark, wild, sexual look. The sexual element in his makeup was of major significance, not just because of the celibacy of many Catholic clergy, but also because of the purity and saintliness ascribed to Jesus. This purity always seemed to exclude his sexuality in such a way as to almost render him asexual. (Not to mention, he was held to have been brought into the world via a virgin birth). Accordingly, the Devil would naturally embody the polar opposite of all that, and this was exemplified in the belief in the existence of the notorious demonic ‘Incubi’, subordinates of the Devil, spirits that were alleged to visit women at night and make love to them in such a way as to incite wild orgasms. (The equivalent female demons, said to visit men at night, were called the ‘Succubi’).
In fact, when the historical records concerning the alleged gathering of ‘Witches’—typically called ‘sabbats’—is examined, it becomes clear that the entire thing was largely a simple inversion of Christian values—in effect, a type of religious psychopathology. Sabbats were reported to have generally involved ‘Witches’ gathering late at night in a wild place, in a meeting that was led by the Devil himself, generally in a black goat-like or dog-like form, dressed in black and seated on a black throne—perhaps best depicted by the famous Spanish painter Francisco Goya in his 1823 work El Aquelarre (‘the Witch’s Sabbat’). These meetings involved a great deal of sexuality, such as the ‘Witches’ being required to kiss the Devil’s genitals and anus, and the whole gathering concluding with the Devil copulating with everyone present.16 The blackness of the Devil, and rampant sexual energy, can all easily be seen as more of a direct peak into the contents of the repressed unconscious mind (of religious ‘authorities’, or of the common folk), than to any real ceremonies involving actual people. In that sense, Church and Witchcraft or Church and Women, becomes, more accurately, Church and Satan—or even more to the point, male clergy and the common folk and their own repressed sexuality. However, as we will see shortly, that dynamic was not the only one of import going on.
Women and Women
An important element to understand in the Church’s claimed rationale for the Witch-hunts was the idea of maleficia. This word (from the Latin malitia, ‘ill will’) was the Church’s term for the ‘evil spells’ and assumed ‘malefic influence’ of ‘Witches’. The whole argument around the need to hunt them down and be rid of them was based on the belief that not only did they exist, but that they were actively involved in causing evil fortune to those around them (which included such things are crops, animals, and so on).
One thing need always be born in mind when attempting to understand some of the motives behind the Witch-craze of the Burning Times, as well as far earlier examples of the persecution of those thought to possess occult powers (or ‘psychic’ powers, as the more common modern term has it), and it is this: despite the obvious irrationalism of the Witch-persecutions, it has been a long standing belief, found in almost all old cultures on Earth, that people possessing such powers—‘sorcerers’, for want of a better term—have always existed. Here in our modern era of ‘scientific enlightenment’ and sophisticated technology we may have a hard time realizing to what extent this was (and still is, in many places) true. The advent of weapons, especially handguns, altered much of this—after all, what need is there to place hexes on enemies when you can simply shoot them? (Although it is interesting to note that the early muskets first used in Europe in the 15th century were thought by some to be tools of the dark arts, owing not just to their deadly power, but also to the sulfurous smell following their discharge).17 James Frazer, in his The Golden Bough, describes many examples of how cultures prior to the Renaissance made regular practice of guarding against malefic sorcery.18 This is common in the East was well. Even Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, which traditionally (certainly prior to the mid-20th century annexation of Tibet by China) taught some of the most philosophically advanced material concerning the path of spiritual transformation, commonly have ‘protector deities’ called Dharmapalas, whose spiritual agency is involved in safeguarding the Dharma and the monks who practice it, from evil forces. The scholar Mircea Eliade also discusses the commonality of this practice within global shamanic tradition.19 Norman Cohn, in his exhaustive study of the European Witch-craze, provides many examples from direct historical records.20
The power of the mind in bringing about tangible effects from such beliefs—and especially for such beliefs to catch on, on a mass level—can never be underestimated. The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once wrote,
We understand more clearly the psycho-physiological mechanisms underlying the instances reported from many parts of the world by exorcism and the casting of spells. An individual who is aware that he is the object of sorcery is thoroughly convinced that he is doomed according to the most solemn traditions of his group. His friends and relatives share this certainty. From then on the community withdraws. Standing aloof from the accursed, it treats him not only as if he were already dead but as though he were a source of danger to the entire group.21
I include these mentions of the commonality of belief in ‘malefic occult power’ in this subsection on ‘Women and Women’, because what is not generally recognized is the extent to which women have been involved, historically, in not just being accused of using ‘evil occult powers’, but in accusing other women of evil occult powers.
A relatively recent, and uniquely Western, version of this unfolded with the infamous Salem Witch trials that took place on the east coast of the United States from 1692-93. Space does not permit for an in depth look at this event,22 but in brief, over a fourteen month span, twenty-nine people were convicted of Witchcraft in three counties of Massachusetts (Essex, Suffolk, and Middlesex), though mostly centered on the town of Salem, in Essex. Of those, nineteen were eventually executed (all by hanging)—fourteen women, five men. The entire matter began with two young girls (aged nine and eleven) undergoing spontaneous bouts of hysteria (that resembled epilepsy, but that appeared to have been psychosomatic or deliberately enacted). This behavior soon ‘spread’ to several other young women in the communities. A doctor then diagnosed ‘Witchcraft’ as the likely cause behind the strange behavior of the two young girls—that is, they had been ‘hexed’ by someone. The youngest of these girls, under pressure to point a finger, did so—first at a local black Caribbean slave girl who used to entertain them with stories—and then both young girls accused two other young women as well. All three of these women were then arrested (with the accusations of the young girls being backed up by others at this point). Under interrogation, the three ‘admitted’ to Witchcraft.
Just a few days after this, four more women began showing signs (so they believed) of being afflicted by Witchcraft. Over the next month, numerous other young women were accused, most by other women, of Witchcraft—including a four year old girl. What is more extraordinary, this small child, after being accused of being a Witch, was actually arrested, interrogated, and kept in prison for nine months. Although not ultimately executed, she went temporarily insane. In the end, dozens were accused, and a number of these were eventually hung. What was significant was that ‘spectral evidence’ was often used, this being ‘evidence’ gained via visions or dreams, almost all of which was coming from the women. Although men were involved in the Salem trials, and some men were even convicted and hung, the majority of the whole affair was precipitated by women (many young or teenage girls, although some older women were involved too) accusing other women.
Cases involving the factor of ‘women against women’ or exclusive female hysteria were not unique to Salem of 1692-93. Earlier cases abound, a spectacular example being sixteen Catholic nuns of Loudon, in western France, who in 1634 underwent spontaneous mass hysteria in such a fashion that all observing became convinced that they’d been possessed by demons. A local priest (Urbain Grandier) was eventually convicted of witchery, and accordingly tortured and burned alive. (His actual crime had been that he’d had sexual relations with some of the nuns). Both the Salem and Loudon events received 20th century literary and Hollywood treatments; Salem via Arthur Miller’s 1953 play, and the 1996 film (both called The Crucible); and Loudon via Aldous Huxley’s 1952 historical novel The Devils of Loudon, and Ken Russell’s 1971 film adaptation of Huxley’s novel, called The Devils.
Salem and Loudon were only the high profile cases, however. Perhaps more specifically, detailed historical records from small towns throughout Western Europe, mostly concerning the period of the 15th to 17th centuries, shows many examples of villagers caught up in petulant quarrels, accusations, and counter-accusations—in large part leveled by women against women—involving disputes over land, matrimonies, rents in arrear, and all the usual issues of conflict found in any small town. Many of these accusations inevitably involved maleficia—and with that, the accusation of ‘Witchcraft’. Many, if not most, ended in convictions and burnings.23 (An excellent representative case study, brought out in 2009 by the American historian Thomas Robisheaux, called The Last Witch of Langenburg, covers in exhaustive detail a drama that unfolded in the German town of Langenburg in 1672, in which the relations between villagers, and in specific, between women and women, was the actual driving force behind one of the last ‘Witch-panics’ of Europe).24
None of this is to propose that the Inquisitions behind the Witch-craze itself was not a male-perpetuated phenomena. It ultimately was. But when one studies the detailed histories compiled by such rigorous scholars as Diane Purkiss, Norman Cohn, Robin Briggs, or Thomas Robisheaux, one is left with the realization that women accused other women of Witchcraft far more commonly than is popularly realized today.
From all this arises a natural question, and one that has troubled historians for many years: Was there, in fact, any actual pre-20th century pagan tradition called ‘Witchcraft’? In answer to this, two extremes have arisen: the first, probably best exemplified by the fanatic priest Montague Summers (1880-1948), is that not only is Witchcraft both real and ancient, it is a tool of Satan and has only one purpose, that being to lead people astray from Christ and God. At the other end of the pole, we have scholars like Norman Cohn and Rossell Robbins, who after exhaustive research and admittedly persuasive argument, conclude that historical Witchcraft is purely fantasy, based mostly on forged documents, pathological delusions, and livelihoods (sanctioned Witch-hunters were, after all, paid for their services). Somewhere in the ‘middle’, we have many modern Wiccan and Neo-Pagans—perhaps best summarized by Margot Adler who wrote that ‘the truth probably lies somewhere in between’ the two poles just mentioned—most of whom subscribe to a version of Margaret Murray’s ideas (see below).
As mentioned above, much of contemporary Witchcraft, Wicca, or Neo-Pagan traditions and networks can, without difficulty, trace their roots at least back to the 1950s and Gerald Gardner (1884-1964). Gardner claimed actual direct influence from underground groups—in specific a coven in southern England, that he called the ‘New Forest coven’—that he said he had been initiated into in 1939. It was from this coven that Gardner claimed to derive authority to launch a modern day ‘revival’ of the Witchcraft faith. He further maintained that this coven was carrying on the tradition of an ancient Witch-cult that derived from pre-Christian times, a type of original European shamanism, only one that had a fair degree of organization.
For years serious researchers tended to dismiss Gardner’s ‘New Forest coven’—its existence never corroborated by anyone—as simply a device to legitimize his creation of a 20th century Pagan tradition. Many writers have used this device in the past—that is, to fabricate a legendary teacher or secret society of teachers, through which to propagate a group of ideas. Examples of this in more recent times, of varying degrees of legitimacy, have included H.P. Blavatsky (‘the Mahatmas’), William Wynn Wescott (‘Fraulein Anna Sprengel, Secret Chief’ for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn), G.I. Gurdjieff (the ‘Sarmoung Brotherhood’), T. Lobsang Rampa (‘Tibetan masters’), Carlos Castaneda (‘men of knowledge’ don Juan Matus, don Genaro, and others), Kyriacos Markides (‘Daskalos’ and his circle of Cypriot Greek mystics), and Gary Renard (‘ascended’ masters).25 The method, a type of deux ex machina, is clearly time-honored, and often works for how it is intended. It works in the same way that theatre, fictional literature, and the modern art form of cinema does, being based on the human ability to suspend disbelief and ascribe reality to something imaginary—a reality that easily goes beyond mere entertainment and can even become regarded as gospel truth that people will willingly kill or be killed for.
Gardner had been an English colonial bureaucrat and amateur anthropologist who spent many years in south-east Asia. In the late 1930s he made contact with a Rosicrucian order in southern England. It was from within this order that Gardner claimed he connected with a small group of people who in 1939 took him through an initiation that he identified as being of the tradition of Witchcraft, and in particular of the type that had managed to survive underground for many centuries. Gardner further claimed that the leader of this group was a woman name Dorothy Clutterbuck, that she was the ‘High Priestess’ of an actual coven of Witches in the New Forest area. Subsequent research has shown that Gardner was the sole source of the claim about Clutterbuck. Not only are there no corroborating sources, Clutterbuck’s own diaries from that time make no mention of any sort of occult, let alone Witchcraft-related, activities. Further, there was a problem with Gardner’s integrity concerning the matter of forgery. In 1946 he had claimed, to the members of the Folklore Society, to have doctorates from the universities of Singapore and Toulouse, claims later proven to be false.26
In May of 1947, Gardner, aged 62, met the controversial magus Aleister Crowley, himself 71 at the time and in the last year of his life. Gardner and Crowley became friends of sorts, and after several informal meetings, Crowley authorized Gardner to set up a branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) in England (the fraternity that Crowley was head of, although it had become temporarily defunct in England at that time).27 Crowley provided Gardner with papers containing information of specific rituals and teachings. Crowley gave Gardner the name ‘Brother Scire’ (which Gardner would later use as his ‘Craft name’) and initiated Gardner into the 7th degree of the OTO. Nothing however would come of this and Gardner never did begin an OTO lodge in England.
According to Wiccan lore, as first told by Raymond Buckland (one of the earliest initiates of Gardner’s Wicca), in the 1940s Gardner began pressing ‘Old Dorothy’ Clutterbuck and her fellow Witches for permission to write a book about their existence and activities. The Witches allegedly declined, presumably because Witchcraft at that time was still illegal in England (and remained so until 1951). Eventually the New Forest Witches allowed Gardner to write about them, but only in veiled terms. This he did by writing the novel High Magic’s Aid, which he published in 1949, under his OTO initiate name ‘Brother Scire’. After the repeal of the last Witchcraft laws two years later, Gardner claimed he again approached the coven and this time was granted, somewhat reluctantly, permission to write about them in a non-fictional form, which Gardner did with his 1954 book Witchcraft Today. Gardner felt it was important to write about the ‘authentic Craft’ before it disappeared altogether.28 This, incidentally, was the same sentiment that gripped Israel Regardie when he broke his vows and published the ‘knowledge lectures’ and full rituals of the Golden Dawn in 1939.
According to the scholar Richard Kaczynski (and others, such as Leo Ruickbie and Ronald Hutton), Aleister Crowley’s influence on Gardner and future Gardnerian Wicca had been considerable. Kaczynski remarks,
Gardnerian Witchcraft, particularly in its earliest forms, is clearly derivative of Crowley. The symbolic great rite comes from the OTO’s VIo ritual; the pagan catchphrase ‘Perfect love and perfect trust’ is drawn from ‘The Revival of Magick’ [a Crowley essay], and the Wiccan IIIo initiation—the highest in the Craft—is essentially a Gnostic Mass [a mystical rite written by Crowley in Moscow in 1913, based in part on the Eastern Orthodox Mass]. The pagan banishing [ritual] originates with the Golden Dawn [the organization that first trained Crowley], and the summoning of the Four Watchtowers [a Wiccan rite] is right out of John Dee’s Enochian magic [a 16th century system taught in the Golden Dawn in the 1890s and practiced by Crowley in Africa in 1909]. And, for all of its evocative beauty, the Charge of the Goddess is largely a paraphrase of The Book of the Law [Crowley’s main text, written in 1904]. Margot Adler reflects the prevalence of this opinion when she quotes a Wiccan priestess who wrote to her, ‘Fifty percent of modern Wicca is an invention bought and paid for by Gerald Gardner from Aleister Crowley. Ten percent was ‘borrowed’ from books and manuscripts like Leland’s text Aradia. The forty remaining percent was borrowed from Far Eastern religions and philosophies.’ 29
Gardner (as influenced by Crowley, the Golden Dawn, and others) may have been the practical force behind the creation of 20th century Wicca, and for this alone, many modern Wiccans hold him in considerable esteem. If nothing else he was resourceful and wise in a pragmatic fashion, in a way that allowed thousands to gain (or recover) a passion for some form of organized religion. However Gardner was not the main intellectual source of modern Wicca. That honor appears to go to Margaret Murray (1863-1963), and standing behind her, the figure of James Frazer (1854-1941) and in particular, his toweringly influential work The Golden Bough (first published in part in 1890, with additions from 1906-15, and then in full in 1922).
Murray was primarily an Egyptologist who spent eleven years as an assistant professor of Egyptology at the University College of London (1924-35). Her main accomplishment was developing her theory of a surviving Western European ‘Witch-cult’, one that for centuries had been persecuted by the Church, but that had managed to persist into the present day in a very low profile form. Over the decades since the publication of her work in 1921, she has been taken to task by numerous historians and scholars who cite her questionable scholarship, one practice of which involved Murray selectively deleting sections of records she was quoting in order to bolster her argument. The historian Norman Cohn, after a long study of her primary sources that she used for her thesis, concluded,
Margaret Murray’s knowledge of European history, even of English history, was superficial and her grasp of historical method was non-existent. In the special field of witchcraft studies, she seems never to have read any of the modern histories of the persecution…by the time she turned her attention to these matters she was nearly sixty, and her ideas were firmly set in an exaggerated and distorted version of the Frazerian mold.30
By ‘Frazerian mold’ Cohn was referring, of course, to James Frazer. Frazer’s work The Golden Bough
argued for the existence of a near universal ‘fertility cult’ involving
the deification of a sacred king—and on occasion, the sacrifice of such
a king.31 A main part of Frazer’s thesis was that age-old
fertility rites are ultimately about the need to kill off the old spirit
of Nature and then bring it back life—to resurrect it—in a form that
was commonly that of worshipping and then killing (sacrificing) a sacred
He argued that world mythologies tend to consistently reflect this legend, which generally involves a solar deity or king marrying an Earth goddess. The king then dies at harvest time, only to be reborn in the spring time. (Note the connection there with Easter and the ‘resurrection’ of Jesus). The old religions were, thus, deeply intertwined with agriculture and the timing of the seasons.
It was from this thesis that Margaret Murray developed her idea of an ancient, organized pagan faith that had survived the Witch-craze, and whose rites and ceremonies had been simply misinterpreted by Church authorities and the common folk. The problem with her idea is that historical research has unearthed no evidence of organized paganism, in particular in the form of meetings called ‘sabbats’. Moreover, all of the records used by Murray as evidence to support her thesis, contained fantastic imagery (Witches flying to sabbats, the Devil copulating with the Witches, babies being eaten, and so forth), the worst and most fantastic passages of which she was found to have selectively left out when quoting the records of them.32
And so the irony: Margaret Murray wrote a short Introduction to Gardner’s landmark Witchcraft Today, endorsing the author’s writings about an ancient and legitimate organized Witchcraft, when she herself (with unwitting help from James Frazer) is likely the true ‘High Priestess’ and unintentional founder of modern Wicca. Indeed, there is a strong probability that the New Forest coven that Gardner claimed to have been initiated in, did in fact exist in some form, but that it had come into being only in the 1920s, basing its ideas on Murray’s work. (The 1920s was an extraordinarily fertile decade for metaphysical teachings of all stripes, a sort of pre-WWII precursor of the ‘new age’ movement that blossomed in the 1970s and 80s).
Two other sources bear mentioning: the American journalist and folklorist Charles Leland (1824-1903), who made an extensive study of Gypsies and in 1899 published Aradia or the Gospel of the Witches, a book known to have influenced some of the Wiccan rites created by Gardner half a century later. The other important literary figure was Robert Graves, especially via his influential The White Goddess (1948), a poetic work that outlined the idea of an overarching Goddess tradition found throughout history, in which feminine deities are connected to the Moon. Graves claimed to take Frazer’s ideas outlined in The Golden Bough, and render them more detailed and explicit. The White Goddess has been panned by numerous critics for its questionable historical research—and Graves himself admitted it was primarily a poetic venture—but the book remained nonetheless a strong influence on many 20th century Pagans.
All valid historical criticism aside, there is bound to be some semblance of truth in the ideas best represented by Margaret Murray’s work, because loosely organized spiritual traditions have existed for millennia, most of which can be categorized by the term ‘shamanistic’. Medieval or Renaissance era sabbats and orgies involving ‘the Devil’ and thirteen ‘Witches’ is indeed likely the product of fantasy or religious agenda—and organized Witchcraft, along the lines of modern Wicca, in any form prior to the 1920s is indeed probably only wishful thinking—but the existence of shamanic spiritual teachings throughout history is indisputable, and this would naturally include European cultures as well.
However, the distinction between legitimate shamanistic practices, and the idea of an organized spiritual tradition such as modern Wicca stretching back into antiquity, needs to be carefully understood. It is all too tempting to dismiss out of hand the stark historical work of scholars like Norman Cohn who find absolutely no evidence for anything like a pre-20th century European Witchcraft, merely on the basis of what appears to be an egg headed approach lacking in experiential understanding. For example, in commenting on Cohn’s work Europe’s Inner Demons, the 20th century author and Pagan Margot Adler remarks,
One of the problems with Cohn’s argument is his limited conception of what is possible in reality. For example, he considers all reports of orgies to be fantasy…he is surprisingly ignorant of the history of sex and ritual. Orgiastic practices were a part in religious rites in many parts of the ancient world.33
That may be so, but it still does not prove the existence of organized Witchcraft prior to the 20th century. Adler’s only other significant criticism of Cohn, that he uses psychoanalysis in interpreting the possible roots of what he believes to be the fantasies at the heart of Renaissance ‘Witch sabbats’—a psychoanalysis that she calls ‘the most popular witchcraft religion of our day’—does not negate the meticulous historical research that he, and other scholars, undertook. The core issue remains: no historical evidence for an ancient organized faith like modern Witchcraft has yet been found. The modern version of Witchcraft (Wicca) bears almost entirely late 19th and early 20th century influences: Margaret Murray, James Frazer, Charles Leland, Aleister Crowley, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Robert Graves, and Gerald Gardner. To that, we can safely add Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry—the former an influence on both Gardner’s ‘New Forest coven’ as well as on the Golden Dawn, and the latter an influence on both the Golden Dawn and Crowley.
The relationship between the Church and Witchcraft was an extremely complicated phenomenon, involving religious, political, social, psychological, and economic elements. And these were only the large-scale factors. Added to that was the mix of human petulance and general capacity for mean-spiritedness of all sorts, as well as a depraved ‘appetite’ (there is no better word) for sadism, torture, and humiliation to unfathomable degrees.
What is striking to note is that of all the more recent primary influences on modern Wicca (mentioned above) all, with the exception of Murray, are male. The irony of this, and in particular of the patriarchal Freemasonry ancestral link with modern Wicca (via the Golden Dawn and Crowley), is marked, but perhaps understandable. When the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was founded in England in 1888, it was done so by three Freemasons (William Woodman, William Wynn Westcott, and Samuel Mathers), partly in order to investigate esoteric teachings more deeply, but also partly to break the traditional Masonic gender barrier and grant women admission. The Golden Dawn, at its height in the late 1890s, did comprise around 35% female membership; some of the more prominent women involved were stage actress Florence Farr, theatre producer Annie Horniman, future Rider-Waite Tarot deck artist Pamela Coleman-Smith, scholar and author Evelyn Underhill, actress Sarah Allgood, and author, feminist, and Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne. All these women practiced the Golden Dawn version of ceremonial magic, with its roots in much older ritual magic—and just as certainly all these women would have been accused of consorting and fornicating with the Devil only a century or two earlier. (Not that late 19th century England was of equal tolerance compared to the early 21st century Western world—as mentioned, Witchcraft remained illegal in England until 1951—but the ‘craze’ element involving Witchcraft accusations, resulting hysteria, and vicious persecutions, had long since gone, at least from Europe and North America).
In looking at psychological interpretations, arguments can be mounted in support of the idea that the Witchcraft persecutions were largely a matter of the repressed sexual energy of male religious authorities finding outlet in the depraved and licentious imagery of the Devil. And it is indeed reasonable to wonder, for example, at the sex lives of the two ‘authorities’ (Kramer and Spengler) who authored the lurid and influential Malleus Maleficarum. Arguments can also be mounted that the old occult idea that the female mind carries within it the seeds of chaos and the tendency toward interpersonal strife, and a far greater propensity toward the carnal, is valid; and that accordingly, women had a much greater hand in the Witch-craze than assumed. All these gender issues, however, would seem to be a matter impossible to unravel in this case because of the lack of consistent records. But more to the point, gender issue here is ultimately a secondary concern (unpopular as that idea may seem to some). What is more useful to look at is the entire nature of the conflict inherent in religion, in specific its often confused relationship with the carnal.
The very image of the Devil in the standard descriptions and depictions of him, as he consorts with his ‘Witches’ in sabbats that invariably involve kinky sexuality, bears looking closely at—for example, the tradition of Witches kissing the Devil’s anus. Why the anus? It is, in a sense, the part of the body that is the real ‘forbidden fruit’, more so than the genitals. The genitals may be feared, unconsciously, as the center of sexual power, but the anus is associated with elimination, waste, and dead matter (and thus, with death itself). It is the orifice of the body concerned with expelling the old and useless, and it is also the source of the worst smells. It is, in a sense, the ‘hidden portal’ and ‘final taboo’.
The slang expression ‘kiss my ass’ is generally recognized as an insult, but what kind of insult in specific? From the egocentric perspective, it is one that involves, above all, humiliation—the rendering of the ‘other’ into an object. (Pornography, in its lowest light, operates in a similar mode). However, the one humiliating is not necessarily ‘alone’ in actualizing their secret sadistic lusts—the one being humiliated may also be, to some degree, participating in a deeply repressed masochistic fantasy. And it is precisely this degree of repression that makes a ‘forbidden zone’ so potentially eroticized.
Caution, of course, is needed here—the violence against, and debasement of, women throughout the centuries cannot be blamed on some actualization of their dark masochistic fantasies. However in order to glean some manner of insight from the Witch-craze and in particular, to be able to apply this insight into our present lives, we need to look squarely into our more repressed desires—whether we be male or female. As Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, ‘We are all black magicians in our dreams, in our fantasies, perversions, and phobias…’34
Looking into repressed desires, however, means inner work, in the most real sense of that term. Such work is rarely easy, in part because most of us know that to honestly and deeply face our secret and hidden fantasies is to uncover potentially powerful energies. Such power always carries within it the potential for bringing about significant changes in our life—the proverbial ‘rocking the boat’. Most of us are creatures of habit, and most of us tend to equate significant changes with stress. Accordingly, most people fear looking within in a deeply honest fashion, and as a result never penetrate to any depth of self-honesty. The result is to live a life based more on superficial views, status quos, and accepting what is ‘traditionally’ held to be true. In the case of the Witch-craze, it is not hard to see how this type of psychological intransigence was a key element in keeping the whole (essentially crazy) matter going for centuries.
We live in an era where rationalism—at least as an ideal—rules, even if such rationalism amounts to little more than a need to demonstrate that one is not making false claims (as in the academic concern with citations). Much of the Witch-craze was based on false claims, with the worst example being the ‘spectral evidence’ (as for example, in the Salem case, where one could claim that one had seen a ghost or non-physical demon accost someone, and on that basis, accuse someone of Witchcraft). However what we tend to overlook, in this time of scientific materialism and high tech gadgetry, is that there is a great degree of vibrancy in living an embodied life, one in which all human subjective domains (for example, thinking, feeling, intuition, sensing) are in relative balance. In such a world, the unconscious mind may be said to interface more easily with the conscious mind, and thus myths, legends, superstitions, and even dreams potentially carry more reality. The gift of the so-called ‘Age of Reason’ (beginning in earnest roughly around 1700, initiated just prior to that by Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and others), has been to aid in dispensing with the more dangerous and troubling elements of an ‘enchanted’ life (and the ending of the Witch-craze, essentially by the late 1700s, testifies in part to that). But there has also been a cost, and that is that most people are now less ‘embodied’—that is, live more through their minds (and technology—just step into a modern Western café in current times, and see most young people lost in their laptops or smart phones).
My point here is not to suggest that life during the Witch-craze was somehow preferable to modern life; it certainly wasn’t, except perhaps for all but the most incurable romantic. Most will happily take modern technological obsession, depression, boredom, and global terrorism over plague, rampant disease, malnutrition, religious and racial intolerance, grinding poverty, high infant and child mortality rates, and an average lifespan of 40 or 50 years, any day. However it was not entirely worse back then—the lack of sophisticated technology, the stronger relationship with the raw environment, the greater degree of worldly innocence, the greater need to actually interact with people and make powerful efforts to accomplish even simple things, doubtless meant a world where people were, in the main, more ‘embodied’ than now in our softer, more virtual society. I stress this point because it is all too easy to dismiss the Burning Times as an example of a primitive society in which absurd and dangerous superstitions were granted free reign, with terrible consequences. The casual assumption is that we are now beyond such things. In reality, however, our various psycho-pathologies have just assumed more varied and subtle forms.
While the story lines of the dramas of spiritual conflict played out throughout history—be that between Osiris and Set, or Jesus and Judas, or the Church and Witchcraft—may be constantly changing, the underlying patterns basically remain. Executions of Witches may no longer occur (at least in Europe or North America), but the essence of the pattern is alive and well. Norman Cohn had hypothesized that part of the psychological roots of the more lurid aspects of the common beliefs about Witches and their orgiastic sabbats lay in Christianity ‘exalting spiritual values at the expense of the animal side of human nature’, resulting in ‘unconscious resentment against Christianity as too strict a religion and Christ as too stern a taskmaster.’35 That is likely so, but Cohn seems to apply this interpretation only to the common people (read: mostly women), and fails to include the religious clergy itself (read: mostly men).
The celibate priest or monk (of whatever tradition) is by definition an unnatural person, because he (and it is usually a he) is commonly in a kind of war with himself, living in a perpetual state of repression. This repression will naturally seek outlets, and the Christian image of the Devil—a dark, hoofed, horned, freakish creature who requires women to kiss his ass multiple times (as well as his genitals)—can hardly be more than the outer face of repressed sexual energy. He is, essentially, the celibate priest inverted, as much as he is the inversion of the plastic Jesus of perfect purity who entered the world via a virgin.
From this perspective, the priest and the Devil can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Cohn’s view that the Devil and his sabbat—including orgies and the strange legend of Witches ‘eating babies’, itself an echo of old Greek infanticide myths involving certain annoyed Gods (like Chronos/Saturn) attempting to eat their children—is a fantasy that is the product of the Christian-hating, God-hating, and Jesus-hating frustrated public, probably carries some truth. But almost certainly the ‘horny’ Devil and his harem of nympho-maniacal ‘Witches’ is equally so a product of male celibate ecclesiastical unconscious fantasy. Further, it is also reasonable to conjecture that the inclusion of the anus as part of the ‘diabolic’ ritual is a suggestion of repressed homosexual tendencies. That celibate priests and monks often become homosexually (or at the least, bisexually) oriented, is common knowledge.
The lesson we can glean from the Witch-craze tragedy is on many levels, but certainly the issue of integrating our loftier, spiritual impulse with our earthy, animal nature, is at the forefront. The Witch-craze was very much a sexual phenomenon—regardless of the many other realms of human concern it touched on (religious, social, economic). At a superficial look it may seem as if persecuting ‘Witches’ was a need of the Church to exert control over potentially dangerous usurpers, but looked at a bit closer the whole thing can be seen as both the Church’s, and common person’s, need to exert control over disowned ‘shadow’ elements from within. We generally seek to punish that which reminds us most uncomfortably about the part of ourselves that we have not come to terms with, and we often ‘see’ these disowned qualities in the world around us. That, ultimately, transcends the issue of gender. We all carry within us the seeds of an Inquisitor or torturer—the capacity for intolerance, for unreasoned judgment, for sadistic dominance. And we equally carry within the seeds of both Devil and the Church’s ‘Witch’—the former as a darkened, shadowy, furtive expression of guilt, and the latter as a primal expression of lust, power, and rebellion against authority. We also carry within us the ancient need to explain death, to assign cause to the unknown, to go on ‘Witch-hunts’ in order to relieve ourselves of the burden of not knowing the cause of unforeseen negative circumstances—in short, to be victims, and to be righteous in that stance.
It is perhaps fitting that the modern Wiccan (Witch) practices a religion that is innocuous and concerned with healing and spiritual awakening; and above all with being attuned to that which is natural. The Witch-craze and its shadowy archetypes was a manifestation of an unnatural internal split in the mind—the artificial disconnect between ‘angel’ and ‘devil’, between selflessness and self-centeredness. To be truly natural is to bring the two together, so as to move beyond both—beyond the limitations of being bloodless, self-sacrificing and self-loathing, and beyond the limitations of being crude, narcissistic, and driven by selfish impulse.
2. Modern Witchcraft (Wicca) and related neo-Pagan faiths are very popular here in the early 21st
century, and as such there are innumerable books available explaining
the tradition from the point of view of a modern Witch, neo-Pagan, or
sympathetic writer. Possibly the best of these was written by Margot
Adler (granddaughter of the famed psychologist Alfred Adler). The book
is Drawing Down the Moon (Boston: Beacon Press), originally published in 1979, appearing in revised editions in 1986, 1996, and 2006. There are many scholarly treatments of the subject, but by far the best and most comprehensive is Ronald Hutton's The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford University Press, 1999).
3. Oxford Concise Dictionary of English Etymology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 543.
4. See John Michael Greer, The New Encyclopedia of the Occult (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2005), pp. 516-517.
5. See http://www.proteuscoven.org/proteus/Suffer.htm, accessed June 30, 2010
6. www.reuters.com/article/idUSL21301127, accessed June 30, 2010.
7. www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/01/08/png.witchcraft/index.html, accessed July 6, 2010.
8. Rossell Hope Robbins, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (New York: Crown Publishers, 1959) p. 337.
9. Ibid., p. 337.
11. Robbins, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, p. 4.
12. These numbers are from an exhaustive work by Ronald Hutton of Bristol University, available online at www.summerlands.com/crossroads/remembrance/current.htm (accessed July 1, 2010).
13. James Sharpe, Instruments of Darkness: Witchcraft in England 1550-1750 (London: Penguin Books, 1997), p. 111.
14. Gerald Gardner, Witchcraft Today (New York: Magickal Childe Publishing, 1991), p. 35. (Originally published in England by Rider & Co., 1954).
15. Gerard Messadie, A History of the Devil (New York: Kodansha America Inc., 1997), p. 255.
16. Norman Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons (Frogmore: Paladin, 1976), pp. 101-102.
17. Jack Kelly, Gunpowder Alchemy, Bombards, & Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World (New York: Basic Books, 2004), p.32.
18. James Frazer, The Golden Bough (London: Papermac, 1991 edition), for example, pp. 194-195.
19. Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton University Press, 1974 edition), p. 508.
20. Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, pp. 239-252.
21. Claude Levi-Strauss, Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing (edited by John Middleton; Garden City: The Natural History Press, 1967), p. 23.
22. For an in depth article on the Salem Witch trials, see Robbins, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology, pp. 429-448. Credible sources can also be found online.
23. See Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, pp. 225-255.
24. Thomas Robisheaux, The Last Witch of Langenburg (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2009).
25. The jury remains out on some of these, especially Gurdjieff’s Sarmoung legend, Castaneda’s native shaman don Juan, and Markides’ Greek mystics, which some commentators grant may have had, or still have, some semblance of physical reality. Renard, the author of popular New Age works like The Disappearance of the Universe and Your Immortal Reality, is the most recent example. Much as with readers of Castaneda’s works in the 1970s and 80s, fans of Renard tend to care less about the veracity of his ‘ascended master’ teachers, as they value the teachings themselves, and the entertaining way in which they are conveyed.
26. Greer, The New Encyclopedia of the Occult (St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2005), pp. 108-109, and 188.
27. There appears to be some scholarly disagreement over the nature of this ‘empowerment’ bequeathed by Crowley to Gardner. Crowley’s biographer Richard Kaczynski claims that the empowerment was authentic, but John Michael Greer questions this, saying the ‘OTO Charter’ appears to have been written in Gardner’s hand, and contains a grammatical error—‘Do what thou wilt shall be the Law’ rather than the correct ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’—an error that Greer believes Crowley would never have made. (See Greer, Ibid., p. 188). That noted, it is possible, even likely, that Crowley was dictating to Gardner and the latter simply wrote Crowley’s words down inaccurately. Crowley frequently dictated to others—the entirety of his Diary of a Drug Fiend and large parts of his Confessions were dictated to his Scarlet Women at the time.
28. See Raymond Buckland’s Introduction to Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today (New York: Magickal Childe Publishing, 1991), p. v.
29. Richard Kaczynski, Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley (Tempe, New Falcon Publications, 2002), p. 448. As a long standing member of Crowley’s OTO organization and a Crowley biographer, we can grant Kaczynski a certain inevitable bias, but his research is hard to refute when the facts he mentions are chased down.
30. Cohn, Europe’s Inner Demons, p. 109. For Cohn’s entire (and convincing) deconstruction of Murray’s thesis, see pp. 108-120.
31. For Crowley aficionados, Frazer’s ideas around the ‘sacrificed’ or ‘dying king’ appear to have been a major influence on Crowley’s ideas around the ‘Osirian Age’, previous to what he believed to be the current ‘Aeon of Horus’, begun in 1904 as heralded by his The Book of the Law. Crowley was known to have made a serious study of Frazer.
32. Cohn, p. 117.
33. Adler, Drawing Down the Moon (1986 edition) p. 52.
34. Isaac Bashevis Singer, back cover blurb to Richard Cavendish’s The Black Arts (New York: A Perigee Book, 1983).
35. Cohn, p. 262.
Copyright 2010 by P.T. Mistlberger, all rights reserved.
Romeo and Juliet
Star-Crossed Lovers and Families at War
by P.T. Mistlberger
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross'd lovers take their life…
—Romeo and Juliet (Prologue)
The notion of the ‘star-crossed’ lovers is ancient and archetypal. It refers to a love relationship that is doomed from the beginning, predestined to tragedy, having an ending that is as fixed as the motions of the stars above. On one level the term ‘star-crossed’ alludes to astrology, an ancient art first practiced in Babylon over three thousand years ago (and possibly earlier in Sumeria), based largely on the premise that the positions of the stars overhead (which includes, in this sense, the planets) has a direct bearing on earthly events, and on an individual’s fate. As in the Hermetic maxim, as above, so below, the heavens were thought by the ancients to directly reflect and influence the affairs of men and women.
Shakespeare’s version of the fable of the star-crossed lovers is the most renowned—so much so that over four centuries later his young lovers remain cultural icons, quintessential symbols of both the longing heart and of a love fated to end in tragedy.1 But his rendition of the doomed lovers-theme is certainly not the oldest in world literature. The Arthurian romantic legend of Lancelot and Guinevere predates it by around four hundred years, first appearing in the poem Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart, written by the French poet Chretien de Troyes, around 1180 C.E. The legends of King Arthur and Guinevere—or ‘Gwenhwyfar’ as her original Celtic name was spelt—did not originate with Chretien de Troyes, but rather with the largely fictive efforts of earlier writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, especially via his History of the Kings of Britain (1136) and William of Malmesbury’s Acts of the Kings of England (1125). But it was Chretien de Troyes who first popularized the story of the doomed triangle of love between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.
Standing behind the Lancelot-Guinevere legend (and an influence on Chretien) were even older Celtic/Irish tales of love that often involved a woman who was actually originating from a non-human dimension (such as ‘fairies’) incarnating as a human mortal, marrying a human male (sometimes a king), and eventually being reclaimed by her non-human (‘fairy’) husband.2 This theme was partially echoed in J.R.R. Tolkien’s 20th century fantasy The Lord of the Rings, where the female ‘Elf’ Arwen, an immortal, falls in love with a mortal human king (Aragon). Other Celtic variations of this involved the wife of an important man (such as a king or other lord) being abducted by another man and taken to some mysterious alternate world or dimension, eventually to be rescued by her husband. These themes were reflected in Lancelot and Guinevere, particularly the motif of the ‘outsider’ breaching a marriage or other ‘forbidden’ arrangement in the name of unbridled passion.
The idea of ‘courtly love’ embodied in the Lancelot myth was based on the ideal of ‘special love’, a term that in current times we take for granted, if only because it has become such a fixture of popular culture (the number of songs, poems, films, and paintings dedicated to romantic or ‘special love’ are by now almost uncountable). However, courtly or romantic love, especially involving characters who consummate their passion, is a relatively recent ideal in history, findings its origins with the 12th century troubadours, particularly William IX, the duke of Aquitaine (1071-1127), who is recognized as composing the first troubadour love songs.3 Chretien de Troyes, in his Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart, expressed the typical passion and longing of this sort of love, in a scene where Lancelot and Guinevere are conversing at night in a clandestine fashion, through a window separated by iron bars:
Lancelot boasted with some pride
if the queen wanted him inside,
she should not have the slightest doubt:
no iron bars could keep him out…
'My lady, to be where you are,
I would not heed an iron bar.
All that can keep me out is you;
no entry then would I pursue.
If you allow me to come near,
the way to you is wholly clear,
and yet, if you do not consent,
that is such an impediment,
there is no way that I would proceed.’ 4
This sort of courtly passion from the strong, handsome, and fearless warrior-knight was found to be irresistible to the queen, and she relented. He broke through the bars (wounding his hands in the process), and made love to her, only to have to slip away in the morning before he was discovered in bed with the king’s wife. Inevitably of course, their romance was discovered, with disastrous consequences for all parties.
The story of Chretien de Troyes’ star-crossed lovers Lancelot and Guinevere was developed further by later authors, most notably by the English novelist Thomas Malory who in 1485 published his Le Morte d’Arthur (the book that became the main source for much of the modern world’s beliefs about King Arthur, Queen Guinevere, the twelve knights, and the quest for the Holy Grail). In addition to the Celtic/Irish precedents that Chretien drew from, he also had standing behind him the tale of Tristan and Isolde (by the poets Thomas of Britain and Beroul of Normandy). This was an earlier 12th century French work that involved a love triangle between an English knight (Tristan), an Irish princess (Isolde), and King Mark of Cornwall, who is Tristan’s uncle. In one of the versions of the tale, Tristan defeats an Irish knight in battle, and then takes the Irish princess to southwestern England so that his uncle (King Mark) can marry her. Along the way, Tristan and Isolde drink a magic potion that causes them to become deeply infatuated with each other. Isolde ends up marrying Mark, but carries on a clandestine and adulterous affair with Tristan. Eventually King Mark finds out, and decides to punish Tristan with death and Isolde by sending her to a leper colony. Tristan however thwarts his would-be executioners, escapes, rescues Isolde, and the two take hiding in a forest. They are eventually found by Mark, but this time he decides not to punish them, coming to an agreement instead in which Tristan will go to France and Isolde will stay with Mark. Once in France, Tristan marries another woman also named Isolde.
The common theme in these tales involves not just triangles and passionate adultery, but also a challenge to the whole institution of marriage, and in particular, arranged marriage. It was this theme that was echoed most strongly in Romeo and Juliet. Written about a hundred years after Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, it was first published in completed form in 1599 (though written a few years before, when Shakespeare was around 30). The play however does not draw on Malory or Chretien for inspiration; it rather borrowed from earlier 16th century Italian love fables, especially Arthur Brooke’s poem The Tragical Historie of Romeo and Juliet, first published in 1562 (Brooke himself said he was drawing from an older, unpublished poem based on these characters). Other influences stretched back at least fifteen centuries, to a 2nd century C.E. work called Anthia and Habrocomes, by the Greek author Xenophon, as well as portions of Ovid’s Metamorphosis (written in Rome shortly after the birth of Christ). All of these stories dealt with recurrent themes of idealized, romantic love vs. arranged marriage, conflicting would-be in-laws, untimely deaths, and ‘false deaths’ brought about by potions.5
Shakespeare used Brooke’s poem, and other sources, as a framework, but he greatly developed the story, adding new characters and injecting his own incomparable mastery of language and psychological and philosophic insight. Although most literary critics agree that Romeo and Juliet is not one of his more mature or philosophically complex works—his dramatic masterworks such as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth were yet to come—it is agreed that the reason Romeo and Juliet has remained his most popular work is not just because of the love story. The play contains rich insights on the ‘religion of love’, especially as delivered by the character of Juliet, all the more remarkable as she ‘hath not seen the change of fourteen years’—that is, she is a girl of thirteen.
To briefly summarize the plot: the story takes place in Verona, a town in northern Italy. At the center of the story are two families, the Montagues and the Capulets, who are hostile to each other, and have been for some time. (Romeo is a Montague, and Juliet is a Capulet). The play wastes no time in showing this conflict: after the brief prologue, a street fight ensues between some men of the rival clans. The Prince of Verona breaks up the fight with stern warnings to both sides about further breaches of the peace. This is then followed by Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio, telling Romeo’s mother, Lady Montague, about Romeo’s depression. Romeo is unhappy because he is in love with Rosaline, a young woman from the rival Capulet clan, but the love is not returned. (Rosaline has no actual lines in the play, being an ‘unseen’ character). At the behest of Benvolio and Mercutio (the latter a close friend of Romeo, and a character who is given some of the play’s wittiest lines), Romeo attends a ball at which a number of beautiful young women will be present, including Rosaline. While at this ball, looking for Rosaline, Romeo catches his first glimpse of Juliet. The two are smitten with each other. When Romeo first lays eyes on her, he says,
Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight.
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.
He then approaches her; the energy between them is electric. After some brief witty banter between the two of them, Romeo speaks of his desire to kiss her (in some adaptations of the play, Romeo does kiss her at this point). Juliet is then called away by her mother, at which point Romeo realizes that she is a Capulet (the sworn enemies of his family). He laments that he is now in love with the ‘enemy’. Juliet then finds out the same, that Romeo is the only son of her family’s enemy. She remarks,
My only love sprung from my only hate,
Too early seen unknown, and known too late.
Prodigious birth of love it is to me
That I must love a loathed enemy.
The ball ends and the guests leave, but Romeo, heartsick (and having thoroughly forgotten Rosaline), seeks to be near Juliet, and so climbs over her garden wall. His friends Mercutio and Benvolio look for him, to no avail (with Mercutio comically trying to conjure Romeo in a parody of a wizard summoning a spirit he can’t find). This is then followed by the famous scene with the balcony, with Juliet emerging as Romeo, unknown to her, watches her in the garden from below. After rhapsodizing over her beauty, but not feeling the courage to call out to her, he concludes with,
O that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!
Juliet, not realizing that Romeo is in the bushes and can hear her, utters some of literature’s most immortal lines, such as,
…Oh be some other name,
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet…
Oh Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name,
Or if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Romeo, able to bear it no longer, then reveals himself to Juliet. At first she is startled, and embarrassed, and backtracks a bit on her affections, but this does not last long. Soon she admits to her love for him, cautioning him to not think that she is giving herself to him too easily, but only because he has already heard her private thoughts. After exchanging all sorts of lover’s sweet nothings (although in Shakespeare’s language, they are anything but ‘nothings’), they agree to marriage, and then Juliet goes back into her house and Romeo leaves.
When dawn breaks, Romeo pays a visit to Friar Lawrence, a Franciscan monk, to confess what has happened and to request that the Friar marry him and Juliet. The Friar is at first shocked, and then kids Romeo for having so recently loved another woman (Rosaline); but he agrees to marry him and Juliet, seeing it as a good opportunity to heal a rift between their warring families.
Romeo then meets up with his buddies Mercutio and Benvolio, and exchanges a series of remarkable witticisms with Mercutio. Although normally Mercutio is the sharper wit, on this occasion Romeo at least matches him, because he is a man in love and so is firing on all cylinders. (Mercutio, like Falstaff or Bottom, is one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. There was a long repeated rumor that Shakespeare decided he had to kill off Mercutio later in the play, before Mercutio himself ruined the play with his cutting witticisms and endless satire). Shortly after, he conveys a message via Juliet’s nurse, to meet him at Friar Lawrence’s cell so that they can be married.
Violent conflict then enters the play. Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, offended that Romeo had snuck into a Capulet ball, challenges Romeo to a duel, which the latter refuses on account of the fact that his marriage to Juliet now makes him kin to Tybalt. Mercutio, outraged by both Tybalt’s audacity and Romeo’s refusal to fight—mistaking it for cowardice because he is unaware that Romeo has married Juliet in secret—decides to fight Tybalt himself. Romeo attempts to intervene, and while doing so, Tybalt uses him as a shield to stab Mercutio. As Mercutio lies dying, he continues to be dryly witty, but blames Romeo for intervening in the fight in such a way that allowed Tybalt to mortally wound him. Romeo than admits that his love for Juliet has softened him in a way that has not turned out well:
…O sweet Juliet,
Thy beauty hath made me effeminate
And in my temper softened valour’s steel.
Mercutio then dies. At that moment Tybalt, who had run off, returns. Romeo exchanges harsh words with him; they fight, and Romeo kills him. Convinced by Benvolio to flee, Romeo does so, at which point others show up, including Montague, Lady Capulet, and the Prince. Montague defends Romeo, saying his actions were justified, but the Prince banishes him from Verona, warning that if he is caught he will be executed.
The next scene finds Juliet’s bumbling nurse trying to tell Juliet about the death of Tybalt, but initially making it sound as if Romeo is dead. Eventually she gets her words out clearly, and informs Juliet that Romeo has killed Tybalt. At first Juliet is shocked, and utters some lines that memorably evoke the imagery of the angel/devil dichotomy that she momentarily perceives in Romeo:
O serpent heart, hid with a flowering face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant! fiend angelical!
Dove-feather'd raven! wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st,
A damned saint, an honourable villain!
O nature, what hadst thou to do in hell,
When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend
In moral paradise of such sweet flesh?
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound? O that deceit should dwell
In such a gorgeous palace!
After Juliet’s nurse complains about men in general and adds ‘Shame come to Romeo’, Juliet then comes back to herself, and becomes fiercely protective of Romeo, realizing that he probably killed Tybalt for just cause, remarking, ‘And Tybalt’s dead, that would have slain my husband’.
The scene shifts to Friar Lawrence’s cell, where he informs Romeo that the official verdict for his having slain Tybalt is banishment. Romeo laments that this is a fate worse than death, because he will be separated forever from Juliet and alive to know it. The scene shifts again, this time to the house of Capulet (Juliet’s father), where he agrees to marry his daughter to Count Paris, a young nobleman who has long loved her.
Romeo then furtively visits Juliet in her chamber, where they make love for the first (and last) time. As the morning comes, they part company in anguish. Juliet’s mother, Lady Capulet, then arrives, and mistakes Juliet’s grief as due to the loss of her cousin Tybalt. She then informs Juliet of her intention to have the ‘murderer’ Romeo poisoned. Juliet feigns agreement. Lady Capulet then tells Juliet about her father’s arrangement that Juliet will marry Count Paris the following week. Juliet protests angrily, at which point her father enters; seeing her distraught mix of emotions, he is at first baffled. As she protests the arrangement to marry Paris, her father grows angry, calling her things such as a ‘green-sickness carrion’, ‘tallow-face’, ‘disobedient wretch’, and ‘whining mammat’.6 He then threatens to physically drag her to the wedding. The nurse and Juliet’s mother protest his rough language to Juliet, but he responds with the typical father’s lament, that he has worked hard his whole life, has finally found his daughter a fine husband, that she is ungrateful, etc. He then ends his outburst by threatening to banish his daughter to the streets if she rejects Paris.
All this is then followed by the scenes for which the play is famous (in addition to the earlier balcony scene). Juliet, with no interest in marrying Paris, seeks out Friar Lawrence’s help. After telling him that she will kill herself rather than marry Paris, the friar then offers a plan: she is to drink a special potion that will cause her to seem to be dead for forty-two hours, enough time to avoid her marriage to Paris. During that time, not only will she avoid the marriage, but her family, thinking her dead, will entomb her in the family crypt. Romeo is then to come and retrieve her, and the two can escape together. Friar Lawrence agrees to inform Romeo of the plan via a messenger. Juliet, without hesitating, agrees to the plan. Juliet returns to her house, and the night before the wedding, she takes the potion, which works. The next morning she is discovered by her nurse, and then her parents; all three wail and lament Juliet’s apparent death. At the friar’s behest, the family shifts the wedding to a funeral.
However the friar’s plan has gone astray; the letter he sent to Romeo, informing him of the plan—the potion, the false death, and his need to fetch his wife when she awakes in the family crypt—never arrived. Romeo’s servant Balthazar, hearing of Juliet’s apparent death, finds Romeo and informs him of the grim news. Romeo is of course devastated. He then buys some poison, and takes it with him to the crypt where Juliet lies. Count Paris is there, grieving over his ‘dead’ fiancée; upon seeing Romeo, Paris is outraged, and challenges him to a fight. Romeo slays him. (Paris, of course knew nothing of Romeo’s marriage to Juliet, only knowing him as the man who had killed Tybalt).
Romeo then mourns the death that surrounds him: Paris, and Tybalt (whose body is also in the crypt), and last but not least, his beloved Juliet (whom he still thinks is dead). He says,
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
He then drinks the poison and dies. Friar Lawrence enters the crypt, and finds Romeo and Paris both dead. At that moment, Juliet awakens from her drug-induced coma. The friar, telling her what has happened, tries to get her to join him in a convent, but she refuses. As the constables are coming, the friar hastily leaves. Juliet then takes Romeo’s dagger, and in despair, kills herself.
The concluding scene has the two families convening in the crypt amongst all the death. The friar recounts the true story to them of what happened, including, most importantly, the secret marriage of Romeo and Juliet, which none of them knew about. Montague and Capulet, the fathers of Romeo and Juliet, agree to end their hostility, and to symbolize this both agree to build a gold statue of each other’s child, to commemorate their spirits. The Prince of Verona has the last lines:
A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.
All Shakespeare’s plays involve a certain need on the part of the audience to suspend disbelief. I recently watched the 1954 Hollywood version of Romeo and Juliet (with Lawrence Harvey and Susan Shentall in the leads) which although lavishly made, does require at times an effort to keep a straight face, if only because of the intensely effeminate quality of the men, dressed in ornate costumes, prancing around with stage swords, all the while spouting Shakespeare’s exquisitely complex Elizabethan English poetry. It is as far from realism as a modern science fiction film is from modern street life. People simply don’t talk like that.
And yet that is precisely Shakespeare’s power, much as it is the power of John’s Gospel to convey the ‘cosmic Christ’, a figure far beyond the wandering Jewish sage of the earlier Gospels. Shakespeare is not just an artist, he is a teacher, a conveyer of wisdom-teachings, and his characters are not regular people, they are instruments through which his transcendent music is played for us to hear.
It has been remarked more than once that romance generally lends itself better to comedy (as in the Hollywood fixture ‘the romantic comedy’), rather than to tragedy. And romantic comedy need not be forgettable ‘fluff’; Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written around the same time as Romeo and Juliet) is testament to that. But what makes those two iconic lovers, Romeo and Juliet, so memorable is the brief, bittersweet nature of their passion, like a flash of lightening through a dark night, illuminating a wondrous landscape, only to be shrouded quickly by impenetrable gloom and darkness.
That said the central ‘spiritual’ theme of the story is the healing that takes place at the end, between the two warring noble families. What brings it about is the love of two young people. Juliet is a child of thirteen, which in current times might seem bizarrely young; however in earlier centuries the average person lived only forty or fifty years (old age being a relative rarity), and children in general grew up faster (with Italian girls in particular rumored to mature fast).7 The love of these two adolescents epitomizes the ‘special, romantic love’ referred to at the beginning of this essay. It is, of course, easy to be cynical about such love, but the truth is it is the only type of love most know. It may seem to be the hallmark of youth, but most older adults never truly grow out of it; if they appear to ‘grow out of it’ it is more commonly a case of just giving up on love altogether and learning to cope and survive in relationship (or not, as the case may be). As the literary critic Harold Goddard once put it,
Cynics are fond of saying that if Romeo and Juliet had lived their love would not have ‘lasted’. Of course it wouldn’t—in the cynic’s sense. You can no more ask such love to last than you can ask April to last, or an apple blossom. Yet April and apple blossoms do last and have results that bear no resemblance to what they come from—results such as apples and October—and so does such love.8
Those sentiments are to the point. It is something of a commonplace view, in wisdom teachings, to regard romantic love as merely delusory, as doomed to failure, as fashioned and maintained largely by hormonal biochemistry, and thus largely a case of a person ‘falling in love’ with their own body chemistry response, rather than with the actual other person. And there is of course truth to that. The central idea of wisdom teachings is that fixation on one other person as a source of fulfillment—you complete me—is counter to the deeper reality that we have an ‘inner’ source of fulfillment that if we turn toward, can yield the maturity that helps us to be in relationship with the world around us, not just with one other personality and body. The main point of this view is that fixation on one other person places a tremendous burden on them, with the only possibility being a type of unspoken contract in which both sides agree to exclusively give their attention and energy to each other, in so doing making themselves largely unavailable to the world around them. If one or both ‘break’ this contract, then a heavy price is generally paid, as the one ‘betrayed’ is suddenly made aware of just how dependent they have become on the other.
In this view, ‘special, romantic love’ is an enemy to higher truth because it is based on a fundamental lie, that being that we have no inner source, and thus literally need the ‘special love’ to survive, let alone to experience any sense of fulfillment. If the special love is removed, or worse, betrays us, then we become acutely aware of the skeleton in our closet we have been attempting to avoid facing our whole lives—that is, of just how empty we actually are on the inside. More troublesome, in that place of pain it seems undeniable to us that the inner ‘sense’ of fulfillment we had before was itself created by the other person. This makes their loss all the more unbearable. It is this essential delusion that makes more people commit atrocities (whether against others, or against themselves) in the name of ‘love’ than in the name of any other ideal (with the possible exception of freedom—although that is more a collective, revolutionary issue, rather than an individual, interpersonal one).
All this holds truth, however there is a key point that many who communicate such ideas from the wisdom traditions often overlook, and it is this: in order to grow beyond something, we first have to know the terrain, so to speak. That is, we are going to have some difficulty realizing a universal, transpersonal love if we have not first felt and lived, to some extent, a very grounded and personal love. As Goddard wrote, April will not remain April, but will become October—but not until we have first lived through April.
Shakespeare’s most transcendent character in Romeo and Juliet is Juliet herself, she being given lines in which her thirteen year old virginal personality is rendered an oracle of poetic wisdom, a reincarnation of Aphrodite (or more to the point, the inner genius or higher nature of Aphrodite). These lines spoken by Juliet—often quoted—are a timeless echo of wisdom:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep: The more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.
Harold Bloom called the passage a ‘transcendently persuasive utterance of love’s reality, as rich as literature affords…’9 It is certainly that, and more: it stands at the very threshold of non-duality. Juliet’s urge to give unconditionally reflects the universal law of love, which is that it teaches us about infinite abundance, and yields such abundance to us—but only if we exercise it. More, it holds the keys to the gates of full inner illumination, and the realization that there is, ultimately, no-thing to love, because nothing is truly separate.
To embody non-duality is a tall order, however. To recognize the infinite unity of existence is one thing, to live it out in the gritty details of our life is entirely another. That is because our very forms—our bodies, our identities, our creative energies—cry out for expression and the impulse to share with others. Such a sharing is perhaps neither duality, nor non-duality, but simply what is, what remains when we live fully and love deeply, in a way that is free of manipulation and agenda. Arguably this 'love' is no longer love, but simply compassion.
The theme of much of historical romance—whether of Romeo and Juliet, or Lancelot and Guinevere, or Tristan and Isolde—is transcending arranged marriage by both knowing and following one’s heart. That this ‘heart’ is a mix of hormone, eroticized fantasy (such as wild attraction to the distant, dangerous, or unavailable lover, which is perhaps in some cases a deeply repressed fantasy of incestual longing), or even an Adam and Eve-type of rebellion against authority, is a given. Yet in a developmental framework, it can be seen as a necessary stage in the maturation of the heart and spirit. If arranged marriage is akin to a childhood in which all is fixed for us, in which individuality is muted, blunted, or almost non-existent, then romantic love can be likened to adolescence and youth, in which we get to exercise our personality and our very personal desires and longings in an honest fashion (rather than pretending to be agreeable to what has been put before us). When Juliet rebels angrily against her father’s attempt to arrange her marriage to Count Paris, she is exercising that first step beyond childhood, and not just because she is thirteen, but rather because she is alive, intelligent, and trusts her own individuality enough to stand up to her angry father. Needless to say, many ‘fully grown’ adults never reach such relative maturity of spirit.
There is a third stage, beyond arranged marriage and steamy romance: that of a ‘sacred love’, or a ‘healing love’ that leaves behind the sweet rush of romanticism, and arrives at a mature and manifestly kind acceptance of each other, warts and all. Not to be confused with mere resignation, survival, coping, or using children as buffers to avoid issues (or worse, as vehicles to dump unresolved issues onto), this type of love may be said to correspond to true adulthood. But it does not tend to be reached unless the heart has been allowed to venture into romance to at least some degree. Juliet’s recognition about love, ‘that the more I give to thee, the more I have’, is the time-honored creed of the awakened sage, the Bodhisattva of Buddhist legend who returns to humanity again and again owing to his having found the key to boundless compassion; or to the Jesus who exhorts us to ‘love our enemies’, and in so doing, discover a far greater well of love, infinite in its reach and possibilities.
However our heart does not reach such capacity without first having been broken, cracked open to allow for expansion and ventilation by the wind of spirit. To suffer a ‘broken heart’ need not necessitate venturing down hopeless alley ways, subjecting ourselves to impossible scenarios, or living through fantasy relationships. But it does mean to summon the courage to explore, because the heart, finally, is best likened to an adventure into the unknown, a realm where we have no control, where factors much greater are at play. If we somehow could know the outcome, we would not grow, because we would never be tested. To venture into personal love is to be tested by the fires of uncertainty, to be planted in the soils of insecurity. And yet this is exactly where we grow the most. As Emerson once said, ‘People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them’. We cannot be truly and wisely settled until we first taste what it is to be unsettled. As Romeo rightly comments about his clever friend Mercutio, ‘He jests at scars that never felt a wound’—that is, Mercutio mocks romantic love with such derision only because he has never really known it.
The key, however, is recognizing when one has had enough of such growing in the soils of insecurity. At that point it becomes possible to give up the quest for the Holy Grail of ‘true love’, to stop living by the mantra of ‘seek but never find’. For although the search may be necessary, valuable, and gloriously fascinating—as in Juliet’s cry on the balcony to Romeo…
Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow
That I shall say good night till it be morrow.
…it sooner or later loses steam, for it has served our purpose: to make us aware of a far deeper possibility, a love that no longer seeks its fulfillment in an ideal, but rather understands that the ground it has long been seeking is no longer on the horizon, but is the very earth upon which we already stand.
A final comment should be made about the healing between the warring noble families (the Montagues and the Capulets) that takes place at the end of Romeo and Juliet. We don’t know, of course, how profound this healing was, or whether it lasted any reasonable length of time (the play ends at that point, with the Prince of Verona’s mournful adieu to the young star-crossed lovers). But it is a highly significant element of the play, if only because families must indeed use misfortune to grow, else they will simply reinforce negativity and prejudice, passing it down generation after generation. The children of a family represent the ‘crown jewels’, the fruit and flowers of the tree. They are in potential the leading edge, and so their task always lies in growing beyond their ancestors, in venturing into new territory, standing on the shoulders of those before them, so they can see yet further, and accomplish ‘all this and more’. That Romeo and Juliet were members of families that were arch-enemies of each other, and yet loved each other under such a shadow and with such dangerous risk, is potent symbolism pointing toward the need to undue ancient hatred with love. In this case the lovers perished—at least in body—but the family tree reaped the sweetness of the fruit and the fragrance of the flowers.
1. The characters have even entered the world of justice: there is a ‘Romeo and Juliet law’ that relates to statutory rape.
2. Tom Peete Cross and William A. Nitze, Lancelot and Guinevere: A Study on the Origins of Courtly Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930), pp 57-59.
3. Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of Love (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 49.
4. Chretien de Troyes, translated by Ruth Harwood Cline, Lancelot: The Knight of the Cart (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1990), pp. 127-128.
5. For a concise summary of the influences behind Shakespeare’s working of Romeo and Juliet, see Frank Kermode’s chapter Introduction to Romeo and Juliet, from Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Harold Bloom editor (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2000).
6. ‘Mammat’ was a term for ‘cry-baby’.
7. Ackerman, A Natural History of Love, p. 72.
8. Harold Goddard, Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Harold Bloom editor, p. 48.
9. Harold Bloom, Ibid., p. 2.
Copyright 2010 by P.T. Mistlberger, all rights reserved.