Faery Wicca and Witta
a review by Jenny Gibbons
_Witta: An Irish Pagan Tradition_ (Edain McCoy) and _Faery Wicca_ (Kisma Stepanich) offer two radically different views of the Witch trials of Ireland.
_Faery Wicca_ basically gets the story right. Stepanich found a good source (Seymour's _Irish Witchcraft and Demonology_) and summarized it. She recognizes that the persecution in Ireland was much more low key than on the continent, and that academics believe that only four Irish Witches died. Her account contains a sizeable amount of evidence and data, including direct quotes from laws against Witchcraft. Overall, Stepanich's history of Irish Witchcraft is one of the beter Neo-Pagan descriptions of the Burning Times.
So it's a big shock to see that when she turns her attention to the Continent, Stepanich loses it completely. Her sections on Continental Witchcraft are every bit as inaccurate and stereotypical as the "average" Pagan history.
All the standard errors are there. There's the inflated death toll (100,000 to several million). The Good Guys and the Bad Guys, the healer Witches, and the evil Inquisition ("the hellish approach taken by inquisitors toward the accused can only be described as the appalling work of demons...highlighting the more charitable work of that of the cunning women and men who helped heal the sick and assist the birthing of life"). The book is dedicated to the Pagan cunning men and wise women who lost their lives defending the Old Religion -- which I presume means Stepanich believes that most Witches were Pagan. The problem probably stems from Stepanich's research. She used a good source on Ireland, but none for Europe.
_Witta_ is an entirely different story. _Witta_ is, to be blunt, one of the most poorly researched bits of nonsense on the market. And the sections on the Burning Times live "up" to the book's general quality.
According to McCoy, the Irish persecution began in 1155 CE, when the Normans imposed their harsh anti-Witchcraft laws on the Irish. Now, that was very clever of the Normans. One, they didn't invade Ireland until 1169 CE. Two, it took them 400 years to gain control of most of the country. Three, the harsh anti-Witchcraft laws that they imposed were written in the 16th century. I have the highest regard for conquerors who can force a country they've never seen and don't control to accept laws that won't be written for another 400 years. Models of foresight and ingenuity, those Normans.
McCoy never comes out and says how many Irish Witches died, but she insinuates that it was hordes and hordes. They were killed by the Church of course. For centuries, the weak Church had been forced to tolerate open Goddess-worship by Irish Pagans. (Why didn't they ever mention this open Goddess-worship in any of their writings? I don't know -- maybe they were really scared of us...) Finally, in the 12th century, the Church became strong enough to attack Paganism directly, and so they launched the Burning Times. This forced the True Believers -- the Wittans -- into hiding, where they've remained to the present day, carefully preserving their unadulterated faith.
OK, we can quickly run through the usual mantra of errors: inflated death toll, Good Girls and Bad Guys, the Evil Church, and Pagan Witches. McCoy's unique contribution is the ahistorical element -- the timelessness of her tale. I mean, reading her book you're hard pressed to say when the Burning Times began and ended. She says they began in the 12th century (and ascribes 16th century laws and panics to the 12th century to "prove" this). But her fantastic tales of how Irish monks slaughtered the priestesses of the Goddess makes it sound like the Burning Times were in full swing in the 4th century. And if the Normans already had harsh anti-Witchcraft laws in 1155, surely the Burning Times must have begun going on for some time over in the "Norman" lands.
(Incidentally, McCoy's chronology is unique. No historian dates the Burning Times from the 12th century. Most say it starts in the early 14th (when the Inquisition defined Witchcraft as a heresy), others begin it in the 16th (when wide-spread panics arose). The Norman conquest of Ireland had no immediate impact on Irish Witchcraft. "Norman" Witchcraft laws weren't any harsher than Ireland's -- both countries punished baneful magick. And the Normans didn't completely destroy Irish traditions. As a matter of fact, the Normans enthusiastically embraced Irish culture and became great patrons of poetry and traditional lore. Within a few decades they had become "more Irish than the Irish themselves", as William Butler Yeats said.)
McCoy's discussion highlights another common theme in Pagan history: the Faithful Remnant. This myth maintains that a handful of True Believers managed to preserve the pristine, unpolluted faith of the Good Old Days, despite centuries of intense persecution from the forces of evil. Many Pagan traditions boast that they're Faithful Remnants, and that their teachings have thus remained untouched by centuries of Christianity.
Interestingly, the myth of the Faithful Remnant is also a key part of fundamentalist Christian history. According to many fundamentalist churches, Satan tried to destroy Christianity by creating Catholicism. Catholics accepted aspects of Pagan religion, introduced non-Biblical theories (like the sanctity of the Virgin Mary), and re-wrote the Bible (yes, the Catholic Bible has more books than the Protestant one...). But a Faithful Remnant kept the old, pure Faith alive, despite intense persecution by Catholics. Martin Luther discovered the old, true Bible (hidden under a rock, according to Chick Publications) and re-established the unsullied ancient form of Christianity (ie., Protestantism).
We're not used to seeing common grounds between ourselves and fundamentalists, but we're both revivalist religions. We both claim to be re-establishing ancient faiths (pre-Christian Paganism and Biblical Christianity). Faiths, I might add, that no one knows a great deal about. Faiths that seem to have disappeared during the Middle Ages.
Our Faithful Remnant myths serve several purposes. 1) They're sure. We don't know what books the earliest "Bible" contained; we don't know what Druidic rites were like. Rather than admitting our ignorance and allowing modern creativity to fill in the gaps, the FR theory lets us pretend that there is clear evidence of ancient religion: the teachings of the FR. 2) They're simple. We don't have to study the "muddy", syncretistic religion of the Middle Ages, or wonder how centuries of contact with other religions altered our teachings. We can insist that once the religion was "pure", the FR kept it "pure", and we can now re-establish the "pure" faith. 3) They purge the "neo" label. Our society generally believes that "older is better". Nobody makes up true religions -- I mean, if it was true, why didn't somebody notice it years ago? The FR theory allows new religions to claim ancient lineages. Why is there no evidence of our religions in the Middle Ages? Because the Faithful Remnant had been driven underground by persecution.