Witchcraft had its beginnings in prehistoric times. Probably the first god to be worshipped was the god of the hunt. Early man depended on hunting in order to live. Often the hunt was successful and there was plenty of food. At other times things didn't go so well. Early man began to believe in a force greater than him in the world. He only needed to witness an electrical storm, earthquake, etc., to be convinced of this. This omnipotent force that controlled these things could also be called on to help him be success in hunting food. Hence was born not only the god of the hunt, but religion as a force in man's life. This early god was depicted with horns or antlers like the herd animals he provided for sustenance.
As time progressed, mankind developed farming. This was a second source of vital sustenance. Eventually the job of tending crops fell to the women, while the men hunted. Like hunting, crops were not always reliable. Some years there would be a bountiful harvest, and others the crops would fail due to drought or whatever. The women, who were in charge of the crops, would do rituals for a good harvest, while the men would pray to the horned god to bring back meat to feed their families. At some point, the deity the women invoked for agriculture became feminine like them. The men, who already were worshiping a horned deity of the hunt, further identified him as male.
This made things balanced. There was both a god and a goddess. Each had their own sphere of influence. Since children had both a mother and a father, why could not we be viewed as the children of the God and Goddess. This is probably how we got a Father God and a Mother Goddess. We still today refer to God as our Father in the three big religions of the West, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Today we still refer to Mother Nature and the Earth Mother. These are basically the God and Goddess of Witchcraft today.
As time rolled on, we refined our religious practices. Certain men and women had an affinity for worship and were put in charge of the rituals. They became priests and priestesses. The needs of the people changed as the seasons did. The rituals began to have set days during the year when they were performed. Each ritual was specialized for the particular needs during that season. These were determined by the movements of the Sun and the Moon. Most of these celebrations were on the solstices, Full and New Moon, and maybe even the equinoxes.
As man's thoughts evolved, he started to classify things as feminine and masculine. This helped him determine which deity would be responsible for certain things. The two bright luminaries in the sky could naturally mark time, and hence determine when holy days occurred. The Moon had feminine qualities to our ancestors and was associated with the Goddess. The Sun in like manner became associated with the God. The Horned God became a solar deity and the Goddess a lunar one. Eventually more gods and goddesses were added to have influence over every facet of their lives.
This is a generalized version of how religion developed. In different areas, the particulars varied, but the main premise remained the same. The names of the deities also changed from culture to culture. This was the state of things, when Christianity was a new fledgling religion. In fact, Christianity was just a minor cult for its first 300 years of existence. They suffered oppressions at the hands of the big boys on the block, namely the Romans. It wasn't until the 4th century, under Emperor Constantine, that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was because of the far reaches of the Roman army that Christianity rapidly moved across the continent.
As the Dark Ages gave way to the Middle Ages, Christianity continued to grow. This growth was accelerated by the use of missionaries. These robust churchmen would go into territories that were not yet converted and try to convert them. They would first work on the monarch, and if successful, would then turn their attentions to the populace in general. Many of these leaders would convert in order to have one more god to call on in time of need. They also used this opportunity to ally themselves with the Church and other Christian monarchs, who were becoming more numerous. This worshipping of Christ along side other gods would often appall the Church Fathers. They also took offense to Christian altars being set up in the same temples as pagan ones.
After the Monarch was converted to whatever degree, came the job of converting the people. This usually occurred in the cities and more populated areas. Since you had a limited number of missionaries, you would have them set up shop where they could reach the most people, the towns and cities. This meant that people who lived out in the country did not get converted to Christianity, and remained practicing the Old Religion. They were known as pagans. This word had not yet come to mean what it does today. 'Pagan' comes from the Latin word 'paganus', which meant someone who lived out in the country. As city and town folk converted to Christianity, country folk continued to practice the Old Religion. Someone who lived in the country, or a 'pagan', wasn't Christian. The meaning of 'pagan' soon shifted to non-believer and worse. The word 'heathen' in English is basically the same thing. The word originally meant someone who lived on the 'heath'. 'Heath' was a word that also meant country and can be found in some other modern version such as Heathrow Airport outside of London. The evolution happened to 'heathen' the sane as it did to 'pagan'.
This was basically the state of affairs during the Middle Ages. The Christian Church decided to up the ante. The Inquisition began in order to convert everyone to Christianity. The horned god of the Old Religion became associated with Satan. Using death and torture as their tools, the message was clear, convert or suffer the consequences. While some Church people may have believed that what they were doing was for the greater good, not all were so honorable. Any property belonging to a convicted witch would go to either the Church or often the witch hunter themselves. The incentive to convict was very high. Accusing people of witchcraft was also a good way to get back at an enemy.
There was little chance of escaping once you were accused. Torture was often so great that one would confess to anything. Many tests of witchcraft were so atrocious as to make one wonder how they were accept as legal proceedings by civilized people. One of these was 'swimming a witch'. A suspected witch would have their hands and feet bound. They would then be dropped into a pond, river or other body of water. If they floated, they were a witch and put to death. If they sank, and subsequently drowned, they were innocent, albeit dead. The theory was that water was cleansing and therefore good. It would not accept the body of the evil witch. There were other equally brutal methods, but this should be enough to make my point.
Once accused, there was little chance of escaping. The most you could hope for was a quick end, which seldom happened. One of the saddest facts is that most of the people tortured, found guilty, and put to death as witches, were innocent. Many in fact were good Christians. It was deemed better to kill many innocent people than let one witch escape. The cry of, "Kill them all, God will know his own!" went out all over the European Continent. In most European counties, witches were burned at the stake. A confession would get you strangled quickly before burning, so you wouldn't suffer. If you refused to confess, you went to the fire conscious. This made for a real slow and agonizing death. This is why these times are referred to as the 'Burning Times' by modern witches. Often true witches who went to the flames conscious, would receive drugs to help them. This was because the witches were so well networked. It also was incentive not to confess and possibly reveal others of the coven. Approximately 6 million Jews met their end at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. It is estimated that 9 million people lost their lives during the Burning Times at the hands of the Christian Church.
The Craft continued under ground during the Middle Ages. It was preserved mostly in the country by single practitioners and covens. However, we sometimes find mention in history of people who could be nothing else but practitioners of the old religion. Among these are William II (William Rufus) King of England. His disdain for the church is well recorded. Other things that have come to light about him point in this direction too. Joan of Arc is another. There has been much written lately about her relationship to Witchcraft. She was burned as a witch even though she was subsequently sainted.
King Edward III has an interesting anecdote. He was King of England during the 14th century. During a ball, he was dancing with the Duchess of Salisbury. While dancing, a garter fell from the lady's leg. He picked it up and put it around his own leg with words that basically translate as, "let no one think any evil of this." The garter is a well-known symbol of a High Priestess of Witchcraft. Why would the King feel he needed to pick it up and place it on his own leg? Was he saving her reputation? This only makes sense if we look at it in light of her as a High Priestess. There were probably many church officials present who would have found a ritual garter interesting to say the least. By King Edward placing it on himself, he was putting the countess and the witches under his protection. If the churchmen would have considered taking on the Duchess, they couldn't imagine taking on the King. The King founded the order of the Knights of the Garter soon after this. It is interesting to note that in founding this order, there were initially 24 knights, the Prince of Wales and the King Himself. This would make 2 covens of 13, each with a high-ranking leader.
When Europeans came to the New World, the Old Religion, and Christian attitudes towards it, came too. The witch hysteria reared its head one last time. In 1692 in a place called Salem, young girls throwing blind accusations led to the deaths of 24 people. The events of this time are well documented everywhere, so I need not repeat them here. Although they were the most famous, they were not the only cases in the early history of this country.
By the time the 1800's came to an end, it seemed the old religion of Witchcraft had died out. What was left in its place was a mass of lies and half-truths, with no one to speak on behalf of the witches. At the turn of the century, a man by the name of Charles Leland published a book called Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches. In this work he passed on information from a practicing Italian witch. Apparently the Craft had not disappeared completely.
As the 20th century progressed, a man entered the Craft who would change it forever. His name was Gerald Gardener and he became a member of a coven in the New Forest are of England. The New Forest witches, along with others, performed rituals to keep Hitler from crossing the English Channel. Obviously they were successful. As the last of the anti-witchcraft laws were repealed in England in 1951, he wrote a series of books. These told the story of Witchcraft from the eyes of one of its last practitioners. He started to get correspondence from other covens all over the world. Each thought that they may be the last. The fact was that the Craft was a lot healthier than anyone imagined. It had just gone really deeply under ground. Until his death in 1964, he help found many covens and did much to bring Witchcraft to a new generation of practitioners.
The true state of the Craft when Gardner came forward was not that good. There were many covens, but since they were all isolated from each other, they each evolved differently. Their rituals in no way resembled each other. Many made little sense, even to their own practitioners. Gardner began to straighten things out. Much of the current form of Wiccan Ritual was developed at this time. Many accused 'Old Gerald' of making the whole thing up. Evidence has been found by Doreen Valiente to prove the existence of Gardner's old High Priestess, Dorothy Clutterbuck. She obviously existed and so we can believe Mr. Gardner. He was chiefly responsible for rewriting portions, and beginning from scratch where rituals were inadequate. The Charge, as most covens use it today, was written by Valiente herself. This wasn't done haphazardly. Things were taken from tradition that worked, but much was written anew. Others have charged that Alister Crowley wrote the modern witch rites after Gardner paid him. I admit that Gardner and Crowley knew each other. I also believe that Crowley may have written some pieces. But Gardner was a trained witch and anthropologist. He put together, from whatever sources, rituals that had meaning and embodied the spirit of what our ancestors celebrated. He did a great service to the Craft. Without Gardner, the Craft probably would have died completely during the 20th century.
Other witches came forward and wrote books, such as Sybil Leek. In the wake of Gardner came other Craft leaders such as Alexander and Maxine Sanders and Robert Cochrane. One of Gardner's followers, Ray Buckland, came to America and did much to spread the Craft here. The Craft hadn't died out. It was experiencing a revival. People learned that Witchcraft had much to offer people in a modern society. Even though the rituals were not ancient, they embodied the spirit of the past. They were also meaningful to men and women today. The fact was, that as a witch you could write your own rituals. If someone comes to you claiming to have witch rituals handed down for centuries, I'd take this with a grain of salt. While it might be possible, many have made the claim only to be shown that their 'ancient' rituals go back to Gardner, Valiente, et. al. Witchcraft is a beautiful religion based on a bit of tradition and rebuilt using many disciplines such as archeology, anthropology, etc. It holds much for many people in modern society.
In 1974, the Council of American Witches came together and drew up a "Principles of Belief." Even though witches had many varied beliefs and traditions, these were deemed the core of wiccan belief. To read these principles, click here.
Since then many new leaders and authorities have emerged. Among these are Scott Cunningham, Laurie Cabot, Janet and Stewart Farrar, Silver Ravenwolf and many others. With the advent of the internet, witches now can exchange ideas with witches all over the world. Many refer to us as the fastest growing religion in the world. This can be both a boon and a curse. We don't have to worry about the Craft slipping away any time soon. On the other hand, many charlatans are jumping on the bandwagon. It is difficult for the beginner to tell the difference.