By Andrew D. Chumbley, 1996
In a recent advertisement for specialist books available from the Atlantis Bookshop the newly published work The Witches Sabbath by Austin Osman Spare was described by its publisher Fulgur as a ‘Goddess inspired account of Wiccan worship’. The populist terminology of modern occultism may have led to this description raising a few eyebrows amongst both the would-be protagonists of the Zos Kia Cultus and the initiates of Gardnerian/Alexandrian Wicca. But to those initiates and good journeymen of the Crooked Path familiar with, or part of, witchcraft traditions pre-dating the initiatory lineages of Gardner and Sanders, such a description evoked a true smile of cunning!
It is refreshing to see a step towards the linguistic rectification of the terms bandied about in occultism with an apparent ease irrespective of their exact and meaningful usage by those to whom such terms are truly relevant, i.e. practising initiates of the Sabbatic Mysteries. (Such as ‘Wiccan’, pronounced ‘witchan’ from the Anglo-Saxon weica, pronounced ‘witcha’, meaning ‘wise’, thus ‘Wiccan’ = ‘Wise One’. Wicca = masculine. Wicce = feminine. Verb -to practise Wicca = to ‘wiccian’. The word also has a sense in which it means ‘to bend or to twist’, hence ‘The Old and Crooked Path.’
The reclamation of our magical language is a serious undertaking and is a rightful part of our spiritual and cultural inheritance: it is never an attempt to dictate to anyone whether or not they may rightfully call themselves a witch, but rather to show the value of these descriptions as ‘Words of Power’ and not merely as labels denoting a dabbler in spells. Certainly the operative fields and techniques inferred by such terms as ‘sorcery’ and ‘witchcraft’ do overlap and co-exist, but nonetheless possess distinct meaning in themselves.
Another example is ‘shaman’, a term covering a multitude of ‘sins’ abundant in New Age spirituality. In actuality the word has the following origins: Sram = the Vedic root meaning ‘to heat oneself from within, to practise austerities’. Samana = Prakit circa 300 CE, Sramana = Sanskrit,Saman = Tungusic. The word ‘sha-man’ is Chinese and first occurs in this recognisable form in the works of one Yuan Hung 328-376 CE. The subsequent migration of the word into European literature was presumably via anthropological research, although I cannot as yet clarify its transition into the modern vernacular terminology of this and other fields of practice and research.
By a linguistic virtue through countless links in the chain of language a word applied to one driven by vocation to practise the austere disciplines of ascesis/aesthesis, has come to denote an archetypal embodiment of someone who has literally become magick itself. Yet sadly on the other hand this noble term has been applied to the rather lacklustre and superficial practises of the so-called New Age. Certainly any occultist with genuine power may employ ‘shamanic’ techniques within his practical schemata of working, but the archetype of ‘The Great Shaman’ is forever an ideal, an eidos, and as such serves as an inspiration.
With regard to the witch cult, and to the distinctions and similarities; linguistic, technical, practical etc., between those traditions preceding the magical revival of the 20th century, there is certainly an issue afoot, namely the exact nature and validity of the older traditions of the cultus and their relationship with their resurgent counterparts Alexandrian, Gardnerian et al. To proceed in this line of inquiry I must presume the reader to be au fait with the works and terminology of certain authors upon these subjects: Carlos Ginzburg, Kenneth Grant, A.O. Spare, Doreen Valiente, Margaret Murray, etc. To my mind the issue may be viewed directly from an initiatory stance, and from such a point I must posit both inner and outer aspects to the Magical Current transmitted by the Books and initiatory lineages of the Witch-Cult.
The Sabbath of the Witches is the primitive and archetypal form of the Magical Rite. It is in this sense an eidolon in the Platonic sense of ‘form’; it is also glyphic in that its image of an Arcane Saturnalia ‘twixt Gods and humans encodes a complete body of occult lore. It is a vast and profound personification of the most primal states of entity and force, convergent within the accumulated iconography of untold eras of believing. Here I speak of ‘belief’ in a transmundane sense, a belief in the Otherness beyond our present ubiety. The inner aspect of the witch cult is a Gnosis of the Sabbatic Mysteries, transmitted both psychically and physically by the lineage of initiates and by oral and ritual means. This catena is preserved by a ritual act known as ‘the passing on of the power’, a gesture of contact between the initiator and initiate whereby the power is transmitted and channeled from person to person.
Where this line of initiatory heredity is broken the invisible thread ‘the Path of the Returning Dead’ -a covenant to perpetuate the cultus binds the chosen initiate to be reincarnated. Occultists and historians alike have all too frequently refused to accept the possible existence of a catena of initiates stretching back from the present to far antiquity: they doubt the existence of the Traditional Craft, perhaps asking such to step forward and be counted with due historicity.
Those with the eyes of historical acumen may cast their gaze over the ages and see the footsteps of the cultus in myth, folklore, symbol and icon —it is all there! This is almost grasped in Dr Carlos Ginzburg’s Ecstasies -Deciphering the Witches Sabbath, where the micro-historical analysis of folklore, cult survivals, Christian Inquisitorial stereotyping of witchcraft et al. provides an image of the Witches’ Sabbath as a collage of many different influences. From an initiatory stance this may seem like a disseminative preserve against the loss of the whole as would be chanced if the cultus were constant in form and rigidly organized as an orthodoxy.
Even when the knowledge possessed by an initiate is fragmentary he or she must look into folklore, old books and paintings to seek out that which has been lost. In my own experience of the Traditional Craft there seems to have been a consistent re-integration of those techniques, symbols and myths unearthed by the occult revival of the 20th century back into the original framework of the tradition. It is in this function of the ‘preservers of wisdom’ that the outer aspects of the witch cult have their value. The initiatory forms of the Craft which have become most accessible, i.e. Gardnerian and Alexandrian, have served, in a limited way, as a storehouse of images. Despite the ever-present problem of validating their historical integrity they contain key aspects of the Old Craft rites, such as the basic framework of the rites; exorcisms, salutations to the four quarters and a circle-casting chant.
Even in the pre-20th century literature of ritual magic the same preservative function may be observed in the phraseology of certain texts. Perhaps this is because the solitary ceremonial magician, often a ‘man of letters’, has served as the Man in Black for covens of the Traditional Craft — hence their methods of working have acted in a symbiotic manner and consequently the rituals used today are a sublimation of the most integral formulae of many paths.
Rumours abound in the shadowy historical mythos of the modern occult revival, especially when it comes to the origin of certain cultic groups. For instance, there is the story that Mr Aleister Crowley was introduced at a fairly young age into the witch cult perpetuated by Old George Pickingill, but due to some uncertain disenchantment went his own way only later to have a hand in the reconstruction of certain Wiccan rites with Gerald Gardner. Also, it should be noted that the late A.O. Spare, an exponent of the Sabbatic Mysteries, had contact with both Crowley and Gardner, but exactly which formulae were passed on and by whom I very much doubt if we will ever know. For those initiates of the Old Craft the emphasis is upon the preservation of a central body of principles and the constant refinement of the ways in which these principles are applied.
It is in this respect that the distinctions between inner and outer aspects become apparent. The outer forms of the witch cult are in the most part constituted from religious believers. The emphasis is strongly placed on the celebratory nature of the Mysteries and as such their rites are practised as the autotelic re-affirmations of religious beliefs. This is valuable as far as the traditionalist is concerned as it will ensure the preservation of the rites and symbols even when they are not fully understood by those practising them. Nonetheless it is diametrically opposed on one level with the deliberate and conscious use of humankind’s religiosity as a technique encoding the transmutability of belief rather than an emphatic dogmatizing of the Forms in which we believe. It is the power of believing itself rather than the power of icons in which we believe that is the key distinction.
The initiate of the Old Craft will believe to make a thing true rather than because he or she, might consider a thing to possess an inherent truth. This is not to say that he or she disbelieves in the innate power of certain facets of magical iconography; rather that he or she will be led to the realisation that all such facets are expressions of the pure form known as The Witches’ Sabbath.
Other important distinctions lie in the area of cultic organisation and the fundamental premises of intent and individuality. Even when the pagan faiths were those held by the majority of people in Britain it does not necessarily follow that the rites practised by the present day Wiccan or otherwise are the self-same rites practised by the orthodox priesthoods of antiquity. Perhaps the rites of seasonal celebration are very similar or are the cognate equivalents of rites practised for many centuries, but these were the rites practised by the pagan priesthoods in public for all to see. They were the rites of a religious faith held to bind our communities together. This same function is today perhaps aspired to by the Alexandrian form of the Craft.
The secret practices of the priesthoods were, and still are, quite distinct from (although interpenetrating with) the outer veils of religious symbology. It might even be said that the majority of the social figureheads in a pagan community, although perhaps seemingly orchestrating certain rites and festivals, were not actually of the initiatory lineage, but nonetheless fulfilled such roles as that of a judiciary. I say this because from my own experience of the Old Craft, traditions are few in number and always have been due to the specialised nature of the rites. For instance, in Essex the majority of initiates were, and still are, solitary practitioners of the Arte, some coming together periodically to practise the Mysteries, but others remaining separate, only joining the other initiates in the regional coven when really necessary. The nature of the coven’s rites often are a combination of traditional formulae with a working procedure/symbology dictated by the predilections of the male/female leader of the group.
Because of the tendency of each initiate to specialise in his or her own areas of the Arte, such as wortcunning, mediumship or enchantment (these specializations varying immensely from one village to the next, let alone from one county to another) it is difficult to present a picture of organization. To do so would be a superimposition of wishful thinking on the part of occultists with a penchant for romanticising about the past. In fact it is difficult to make accurate statements about the old witch cult since many teachings are passed on by word of mouth and each successive generation of initiates adds a little to the myth and manifests a little of the Sabbat’s Grand Dream.
It is because of this loosely knit organisation of the cult, so loose as to appear non-existent, that it has consistently slipped through the fingers of many historians. Since they look for the footsteps of the old cunning men in the dust of libraries, it is not likely that they will have much luck! Despite this self preservational elitism ensuring the longevity of the cult, it has meant that from time to time a degree of knowledge is lost when an initiate dies and fails to pass on either their knowledge or power. For instance, an entire body of lore relating to the reverential devotion of ancestral forms has been reduced to a single rite of remembrance, Samhain or ‘The Night of the Returning Dead’, but fortunately, thanks to a few people, this has been remedied.
Two examples of the outer expression of the Sabbatic current are presently in the public domain: namely the coincidental publication in the same year of The Witches Sabbath by A.O. Spare and my own book The Azoëtia: A Grimoire of Sabbatic Craft. It should also be said that there is a conscious intent to re-emphasise the techniques of Dream Reification, together with the reaffirmation of the vital ancestral and ophidian mysteries within the cultus. Spare’s book details the basic ritual procedures and litanies as used in his own resume of a tradition passed to him via psychic induction and inspiration of his “witch-mother”, Mrs Paterson. Because of immense creativity and psychic aptitude Spare acted as a true reposoire and oracle for this current. His book bears a strong distinction to almost every other account of the Sabbatic Mysteries; these other accounts being for the most part reflective solely of the outer aspects of the cult.
This particular work of Zos exemplifies another important aspect of the witch cult. This is its emphasis upon individual vision and most importantly the necessity upon the part of the individual initiate to attain a point of direct and personal contact with the initiating intelligences of the magical current. In Spiritualist terminology these are so-called ‘spirit guides’, being the ancestral and discarnate familiars of the practitioner. Critics of my own book and that of Spare have often remarked upon its subjectivity and thus limited relevance to others. They are missing the point. Anyone initiated into a genuine tradition will realise that although the path of the initiate is underpinned by certain guiding principles or ‘universals of sorcery’, it is nonetheless true that his or her progress will be determined by the power of personal vision. Each candidate must walk the path alone, until, his eyes being opened by the initiatory illumination of the Mysteries, will see about him his own subtle compatriots, a host of attendants each bearing an arcane truth of the Way.
In much the same manner as the inner point of contact between the entity Shaitan-Aiwaz and Crowley, Spare achieved an inner contact with a guiding spirit of the old Sabbatic Mysteries; and it might even be said that such praeterhuman intelligences are yet the ministers or mediators between humankind and the Gods of an anterior worship to that of the worship of clay gods by humans. For as both Crowley and Grant have stated, the true and honoured traditions of magick have their origins in and beyond the depths of Sumerian antiquity.
I would like to proffer an analogous point in regard to the origins of the Sabbatic Tradition, since the word ‘Sabbat’ is itself Sumerian in its root form: Sabat-tu meaning ‘The Day of the Heart’s Rest’ (Also Persian Azzabbat = the forceful occassion). A study of its contextual relevance in the religions of Ancient Sumer / Akkad shows that the word ‘Sabbat’ denoted a lunar rite of magical worship completely in accord although of certain obvious differences due to its time and place in history, with the inner Mysteries of the cultus today.
The methods whereby the ‘inner point of contact’ is obtained are numerous. In Crowley’s case it was via ceremonial magick and with Spare the means was that of an aesthetically-channeled mode of trance-mediumship. It is perhaps pertinent to point out that such techniques as trance mediumship originate in primal shamanism, but in the West are often classified as Spiritualism. Devoid of the romanticism imbued by a tribal ethnicity such methods are often looked upon as absurd by some ceremonial magicians although it is the practical effectiveness of any method that validates it.
To the initiates of the Sabbatic Tradition, the Sabbat is thus the very Sigil of Magick itself. By its corpora of rituals, contemplations and practices within the earthly cycle of the temporal compass, the cult reifies and obtains a state of circumincession with the eternal Cycle of Arte, patterned in the symbol of the Ouroboros. They step into the atemporal zones of boundless power, participating in that which for most is called ‘Myth’. Each manifests the Grand Dreaming of Spirit in the Vessel of individual mortal percipience, transmitting the lightning-bolt of arcane illumination unto the Now of the Present Flesh.
It is from such a point of contact with ‘Otherness’ of the Eternal, an interpenetration of the mundane and temporal vessel of the magus with the ancient and transmundane powers of witchdom and magistery, that creates such a fountainhead of wisdom within the initiate. This is a characteristic of the Inner Mysteries of Magick, but one which is somewhat difficult to reaffirm with the intellective processes of rationality. We must remember that we are dealing with the visionary experiences of the sum Body of Initiates, the individuals unto whom the custodianship of our Gnosis is entrusted for its inevitable inheritance by the future people of witch blood. This is a key point in the Traditional Witch-Cult, and is perhaps the reason for its immense veil of secrecy and reservation to all but the very few. Many may practise the outer rites, but few may penetrate their teachings, let alone refine and advance those teachings in accord with an inner sense of Passion and Vision.