Book review: Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival. Image from the Book Depository.

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival. Image from the Book Depository.

Melusine Draco, Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival: A Magical Anthropology. Moon Books, 2013

I’m not a witch, and witchcraft has never been my spiritual path, although I know that for many people Wicca is their first exposure to Paganism. However, I have always seen Druidry and witchcraft as cousins, or as different branches on the same tree, and I have a passing interest in the practices and history of witchcraft, ancient and modern. So when my amazing wife came back from a trip to the library with a copy of Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival, I knew I was in for a treat.

The back-cover blurb of the book says:

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival takes us on a journey int the past, along the highways and byways of our pagan heritage to discover when the different aspects of magical influence entered traditional witchcraft. It will appeal to everyone with an interest in magic, witchcraft and paganism – from grass roots to the more advanced levels of Wicca – who wish to learn more about the different traditions and their antecedents.

In just under 200 pages, Melusine Draco, herself a traditional witch, takes us from stone age pre-history through the Celts and Druids, the Romans and the imposition of Christianity, to the witch-hunts, the Elizabethan revival of Ceremonial Magic and the construction (or reconstruction) of modern Wicca and Paganism.

While there is a lot of misinformation out there about the history of witchcraft, Draco admirably uses real scholarship, real history and real archaeology to piece together what we actually know or can infer about how practices we now know as “witchcraft” may have developed over the centuries. She is bluntly (and rightly) dismissive of what she refers to as “fake-lore and fantasy” in modern Paganism and takes a refreshingly factual approach to figuring out what is real history, what is folklore and what is modern invention.

Where Draco does tend to speculation, for instance about the survival of “Old Craft” practices through to the modern age, or the intriguing proposal that faery legends “may have evolved from far-off memories of a Stone Age race that once lived in these [British] islands”, she is clear in letting the reader know that this is one possible interpretation and that the evidence is ambiguous at best.

Traditional Witchcraft and the Pagan Revival is a well-structured book, not only in that it proceeds chronologically but each chapter is also connected thematically, and one nice device which ties the different themes and time periods together is a summary at the end of each chapter showing the “Story so Far”, which recaps what we have learned and connects ideas across chapters.

Draco does argue for some survivals of ancient Pagan practices, but makes no grand claims about modern witchcraft being transmitted unchanged for thousands of years.She writes that we should not be “fooled by a tradition that claims to trace its antecedents back to medieval or even pre-historic times…In all reality, the tracing of any genuine Old Craft coven back more than 150 years is a challenge in itself.”

The book’s style is easy to read and, while clearly well-researched, wears its scholarship lightly, never becoming “dry” as some history books can tend to be. For me personally, Draco’s discussion of the Druids was obviously of interest, and the way that Druidry both connects to and is independent of witchcraft practices is probably worthy of a book in itself.

I found one comment in Draco’s introductory chapter very interesting. After a discussion of animism, syncretism and eclecticism she writes about the various Pagan gods, saying:

“It is also important to accept that Names of Power do not represent real people, semi-divine or otherwise: this is a Christian concept that God is sitting there just waiting for our call. It is also detrimental to effective magical thinking. In magic, we use these mind-pictures, or correspondences, as a means of invoking (or evoking) the conceptualised power of individual energy-sources. In ancient times the priesthood understood this – even if the common man did not.” (Emphasis in the original).

This seems very close to a non-theistic, archetypal, understanding of the Pagan gods, which ties in with Draco’s repeated references to the Jungian idea of the “collective unconscious” throughout the book and hints at a non-literal form of Paganism as being not a modern abberation, but one line of thought that may have ancient roots.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism and want to tease out the real history from the “fake-lore and fantasy” out there. Draco also has a range of books on practicing traditional witchcraft in different locations, from forests to cities, and I am definitely planning on giving some of those a read too.