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Spelling out history: transforming witchcraft past and present

Issue: Vol 11 No. 1 (2009)

Journal: Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies

Subject Areas: Religious Studies

DOI: 10.1558/pome.v11i1.14


History and heritage are often asserted as indicators of continuity. However, meaningful pasts are mobilized according to the needs of the present, and continually reinvented and transformed. This paper seeks to explore the dynamic and fluid ways that the past is continually under revision to meet such needs. Contemporary British witches are currently experiencing a radical shift in the ways they conceptualize, evidence and rationalize their history. Until recently, practitioners claimed that contemporary practices could be traced back to pre-Christian times: formal groups of witches (covens) had a continuous and unbroken religious tradition going back to antiquity. This position has recently been subjected to extensive critique which suggests a prevailing scepticism to the idea of continuity, and an alignment with recent interpretations from scholarly historians. However, while the ‘inventions’ of earlier writers are criticized, pagans continue to feel connected to the ancient past by privileging less specific ideas about rural traditions and the primacy of experience rather than explicitly historical arguments; the use of the past is a continually creative and ongoing process. Therefore, it is clear that dynamic ideas of what constitutes both the content and context of history are central concerns for practitioners today.

Author: Helen Cornish

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