Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Review of "Children of Cain: A Study of Modern Traditional Witches" by Michael Howard

A guest review from writer and historian Francis Young.

Michael Howard, who has been editor for many years of The Cauldron, the oldest journal of modern British witchcraft, is better placed than most to write a history of those strands in contemporary witchcraft that do not conform to the standard Gardnerian pattern.  The pages of The Cauldron have witnessed the emergence of most of the alternative claims to occult lineage that Howard’s book explores.  This book is in one way a supplement to Ronald Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon (1999), which understandably concentrated on the principal Gardnerian strand within modern British witchcraft.  Whilst Hutton did deal with other figures, such as Robert Cochrane and Bill Liddell’s Pickingill Papers, at the end of reading Triumph of the Moon I was left feeling that I still did not really understand the difference between a Gardnerian and a non-Gardnerian witch.  This may have been because I was insufficiently knowledgeable about modern witchcraft, but it may also have been because Hutton himself was not personally familiar with traditional witches in the way that Howard is.  For this reason, Children of Cain is a most welcome addition to the growing academic literature on contemporary witchcraft, not least because at the end of it, I felt that I finally had a good sense of what traditional witchcraft is, and how it differs from Gardnerian Wicca.

Howard tells the story of Robert Cochrane’s Clan of Tubal Cain, the Regency that developed in the aftermath of Cochrane’s suicide in 1966, and the American ‘1734’ tradition that was inspired by Cochrane. He also deals with Bill Liddell’s claims about George Pickingill, Robin Artisan’s ‘Old Tradition Crafte’, and Andrew Chumbley’s Cultus Sabbati. In the meantime, he also offers a new examination of the Society of the Horseman’s Word and related secret societies that, in Howard’s view, may have provided the pattern for later traditional covines (the spelling ‘covine’ is preferred to ‘coven’ by traditional witches).

What, then, are the defining features of traditional witchcraft?  In the first place, the evidence that traditional witches are in any way more ‘traditional’ than Gardnerian witches is shaky at best, and it would perhaps be more accurate to describe them as non-Gardnerian witches.  On the other hand, the ‘reconstructionist’ tendencies of traditional witches, who make a genuine effort to emulate the practices of cunning-folk, do perhaps entitle them to the appellation.  They are not ‘traditional’ in the sense that they can uncontroversially establish a better lineage for themselves than the Gardnerians, but they certainly respect the idea of an ongoing tradition of popular magic in a way that the Gardnerians, who are interested in re-establishing a supposedly Neolithic fertility religion, do not.  One of the most obvious differences between Gardnerian and traditional witches is that the latter do not accept the ethical principles of the ‘Wiccan Rede’, and are prepared to curse if necessary.  Another distinctive feature is what Howard calls ‘dual-faith observance’, the use of Christian names and ideas in magic alongside pagan ones.

The phrase ‘dual-faith observance’ does not altogether seem an accurate one, given that Howard is at pains to emphasize that traditional witches are not primarily interested in witchcraft as a religion. This was certainly Cochrane’s position, and more recently it was the view of Andrew Chumbley, founder of the Cultus Sabbati, who regarded witchcraft as something more akin to a spiritual discipline like yoga.  It is not so much that traditional witches make use of Christian language whilst observing a pagan religion, but that they do not regard witchcraft as a religion at all.  The members of the Regency in the 1970s leaned towards Christianity, whilst others have leaned towards paganism, but traditional witches are generally quite unspecific about deities.  The horned god, where worshipped, is sometimes equal to or greater than the Goddess, who enjoys a position of pre-eminence in Gardnerian Wicca, and some traditional witches invoke the idea of a deity behind both the god and the Goddess who is the origin of sorcery.  Traditional witchcraft, like other forms of modern paganism, defies traditional distinctions between ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’ and ‘magic’.

However, traditional witches are ultimately defined by their claims to be inheritors of an older tradition than that represented by Gardner’s original Bricket Wood Coven, and consequently most (but not all) traditional witchcraft movements have been founded on so-called ‘granny stories’, claims to initiation into pre-existing covines. Hutton has demonstrated that these stories are unverifiable at best, and whilst Howard is more open than Hutton to the possibility of their truth, he still maintains a healthy degree of scepticism. It seems to me that the concept of initiatic lineage to which so many modern witches are wedded, both Gardnerian and non-Gardnerian, is a hindrance rather than an advantage, because it imposes the need to invent these kind of stories.

The initiation obsession has its origins in the lodge structure of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Freemasons before that, and although there are isolated examples of organised groups practising ‘diabolical’ ceremonies, like the Society of the Horseman’s Word, the idea of witches working in groups is the weak link in the chain of modern witchcraft’s claims to historical authenticity.  All of the evidence for witchcraft and cunning-craft up to the mid-twentieth century points to the fact that English witches and cunning-folk worked alone.  By refusing to recognise this fact, contemporary witches choose to cut themselves off in a perverse manner from what was indeed a genuine tradition.  Initiation is an idea lifted from the salon occultism of the nineteenth century and superimposed uncomfortably on the more earthy traditions of witchcraft.  On the other hand, the concept of ‘witch-blood’ in Cochranian witchcraft, found today in the Cultus Sabbati, seems to have more spiritual mileage in it; the idea that certain individuals, perhaps because they are descended from witches or perhaps for more mysterious reasons, are predisposed to sorcery.

It is clear, from reading this book, why many people find traditional witchcraft a more compelling form of spirituality than Gardnerian Wicca.  It certainly seems more dangerous, less tame, and in less danger of collapsing into an organised religion.  Whether traditional witchcraft is more ‘authentic’ than Gardnerian is, perhaps, the wrong question to ask.  Gardnerian Wicca is the older tradition, but traditional witchcraft seems the more respectful of the voices of historical witches and cunning-folk.  I have only two quibbles with Howard’s book.  In the first place, it would have benefited from more extensive editorial attention, since the author’s tendency to construct long sentences without the use of commas makes his prose hard work at times.  Likewise, better proofreading might have eliminated a number of spelling errors.  Secondly, whilst Howard is to be commended for his inclusion of references, there are still times when he relies heavily on oblique hints and assumptions to a greater extent than an academic historian like Ronald Hutton would dare. Yet perhaps this is inevitable, given the nature of the subject-matter.