Whenever I hear the urban legend that anyone who declares themselves a witch and/or studies the mystical arts, particularly here in the USA, is a Neo Pagan, I think to myself; "nonsense".
The premise is that paganism and witchcraft somehow fell to the wayside until a particular individual and the religion that he created miraculously revived such beliefs.
However lets move on to reality.
Witchcraft in it's many forms has been amongst us since the first human took note of the many mysteries of life that abounded around them and wanted to both respect (perhaps out of a sense of fear) and develop a deeper understanding of such wonders.
Over the centuries, witchcraft both in function and perception has been manipulated by those with ulterior motives. And so the "Neo Pagan" stereotype is simply a new twist on a old concept. And that is the manipulation of the understanding and pursuit of witchcraft. One of the most well known manipulations of the concept of witchcraft for instance can be found within the history of the Catholic Church.
And this manipulation took form over a number of centuries.
For instance, prior to the ninth century, it was considered heresy to even believe in the existence of witchcraft. There is a synod which is erroneously contributed to St. Patrick, that states "'A Christian who believes that there is a vampire in the world, that is to say, a witch, is to be anathematized; whoever lays that reputation upon a living being shall not be received into the Church until he revokes with his own voice the crime that he has committed."
During the time of Charlemagne (775-790 CE) there can be found an ecclesiastical ordinance from Saxony that in part, states: "if anyone, deceived by the Devil, believes after the manner of the Pagans that any man or woman is a witch and eats men, and if on this account he burns [the alleged witch]... he shall be punished by capital sentence."
In 906 C.E., Regino of Prum, the Abbot of Treves, wrote the "Canon Episcopi". It's purpose was to reinforce the church's teaching that Witches did not exist. It stated that "some confused and deluded women thought that they flew through the air with the Pagan Goddess Diana, but this did not happen in reality." It was explained away as some form of hallucination.
Circa 975 C.E., one finds that the penalties for Witchcraft and the use of healing magic were relatively mild. The English "Confessional of Egbert" states in part: "If a woman works witchcraft and enchantment and [uses] magical philters, she shall fast for twelve months. If she kills anyone by her philters, she shall fast for seven years."
Fasting was understood to involve the consumption of bread and water only.
Moving on to 1227 C.E., Pope Gregory IX created the Inquisitional Courts to arrest, try, convict and execute heretics.
In 1252 C.E. Pope Innocent IV wrote a papal bull titled "Ad exstirpanda" which authorized the use of torture during inquisitional trials.
This was considered a turning point in the confessions of alleged heretics, though witches did not fall under the definition of heretics at this time.
In support of this, in 1258 C.E. Pope Alexander IV instructed the Inquisition to confine their investigations to cases of heresy. They were to not investigate charges of divination or sorcery "unless heresy" was also involved.
A turning point in regards to the manipulation of the concept of witchcraft came in 1326 C.E. when the Catholic Church authorized the Inquisition to investigate Witchcraft and to develop "demonology." Demonology was introduced as the theory of the diabolic origin and nature of Witchcraft.
Circa 1436, Johannes Nider wrote a book called "Formicarius". The premise of this book, which was the second book printed on the topic of witchcraft at the time, was that a witch was uneducated and most commonly female.
These revolutionary thoughts of the time were seen as a lead up the infamous "Malleus Maleficarum". And was included as an addendum to the Malleus Maleficarum.
The manipulation of the concept of witchcraft came to fulfillment in 1450 C.E. which is when the first major witch hunts began in many western European countries. The Roman Catholic Church, which up to this time denied the existence of witches now stated that Pagans who worshiped Diana and other Gods and Goddesses were evil Witches who kidnapped babies, killed and ate their victims, that they sold their souls to Satan, that they were in league with demons, caused male impotence and infertility and so on.
In support of this manipulation, in 1484 C.E. Pope Innocent VIII issued a papal bull "Summis desiderantes" which encouraged the tracking down, torturing and executing of Satan worshipers, a.k.a. witches.
And then as many of us are aware of, in 1486 C.E. Sprenger and Kramer published the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witches' Hammer). This infamous document brought the concept of witchcraft within the Catholic Church, full circle and resulted in the deaths of countless folks thought to be engaged in the practice of witchcraft.
However the transformation of witchcraft began to reverse course in 1563 C.E. when Johann Weyer anonymously published a book which was critical of the Witch trials. It was called "De Praestigiis Daemonum" (Shipwreck of souls), and it argued that Witches did not really exist, but that Satan promoted the belief that they did. He rejected confessions obtained through torture as useless. He recommended medical treatment in lieu of torture and execution.
And yet in an attempt to validate the on going transformation of the perception witchcraft by the Catholic Church, in 1580 C.E Jean Bodin wrote a rebuttal called "De la Demonomanie des Sorciers" (Of the punishments deserved by Witches) in which he stated that the punishment of Witches was required, both for the security of the state and to appease the wrath of God. No accused Witch should be set free if there is even a scrap of evidence that "she" might be guilty. Through the on going years this argument about the conception of witchcraft, both pro and con, continued.
For instance in 1584 C.E. Reginald Scot published a book, "In Discoverie of Witchcraft" in which he claimed that supernatural powers did not exist. Thus, there were no Witches.
Are you confused yet?
And then in contrast, in 1608 C.E. Francesco Maria Guazzo published the "Compendium Maleficarum."
In it he discusses Witches' pacts with Satan, the magic that Witches use to harm others, and so on.
The whole point of this treatise is that the concept and the manipulation of witchcraft has been used by various religions for their own ulterior motives.
Just to clarify, it is not just the Catholic Church, though they were used as the primary example here in this treatise.
And so getting back to the original intent of this treatise.
In my personal opinion, even though one may be new to witchcraft in general, they are entering a path that is most likely the oldest path on the planet. To me, the term "Neo Pagan" is a stereotype that insinuates that folks who are new to witchcraft automatically follow the basic concepts laid out by the fairly new religion which claims to be the learning curve for such an ancient discipline.
And while some folks may use that basic platform as a starting point, there are numerous belief systems tied into witchcraft that have actually been in existence for many generations. I personally believe that folks are becoming aware of this either consciously or subconsciously as evidenced by the many folks that break away from that particular religion.
We know such folks as eclectics, solitaires and so forth. And in further evidence of this belief are the many so called "traditions" that have formed over the last 30 or so years.
Witchcraft to my mind is not a religion, for a religion shackles the mind to a particular dogma or set of beliefs as envisioned by one or a few individuals.
Rather witchcraft is an attempt to understand truths greater than ourselves by way of trial and error.
It is an on going process that at times is stagnated by the personal egos of some and at other times is expanded on a personal level through enlightenment and free thinking.
To try and encapsulate the concept of witchcraft into a particular dogma is foolhardy and does the art of witchcraft a disservice.
And so if you have decided to step onto the path of witchcraft, be aware of the manipulations and at the end of the day, your contributions, by way of trial and error are welcome to the ongoing process known as witchcraft...