The Path of the Elder Faith

One concept was learned, but behind that was another hidden mystery. The lifting of one veil led to the finding of yet another.  At the same time, one was left knowing that behind all these veils was an inner core, a hidden truth that only the very few would ever find.  I have yet to reach that stage – if I ever do.  But the sureness of its being there, and the knowledge that it is, can be reward enough in itself.’ [Evan John Jones]

Back in the day when the world was young; when neo-paganism was a resurgence of interest in the Elder Faith, and Old Craft was a primal shamanic ability manifesting in only a few – things were less complicated.  Since then, however, the ‘witch’ has firmly entered the 21st-century zeitgeist as a figure akin to a synergetic composite of Burne-Jones in the terminal stages of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Guinevere of Arthurian romance, and Daenerys Stormborn from Game of Thrones – reflecting the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of the era. All of which appears to be an out-and-out attempt to make a statement and stand out from the crowd when our forebears would have done everything in their power to blend in with their neighbours!

And yet … in his book Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed, Evan John Jones warned that to refer to the witchcraft revival as merely a throwback to an ancient fertility cult totally avoids the mystical importance surrounding the belief, for this was never a simple rustic faith of peasants. The faithful still revered all aspects of nature, whether beautiful, bountiful or bloodstained; following the cycles of the seasons in the observation of birth, death and rebirth as represented by the turning of the year.  Of equal importance, however, was the recognition of the darker, more mystical side of life, receptive to hidden psychic forces and ‘the ability to understand that, behind the veil between the known and the unknown worlds of the natural and supernatural, there were powers which were once the birthright of humanity …’ It was this dark side that required the sacrifice of the Divine King in order that his followers might survive having eaten of his flesh; and the God-King sacrificing his own life so that his people may live was a recurring theme among ancient civilisations.

This Mystery aspect of witchcraft appears to be one that is assiduously avoided by all but a few of the more traditionally minded. The late Robert Cochrane was highly critical of the development of the modern Craft in an article written as long ago as 1964 for Pentagram (‘The Craft Today’); describing it as an attempt by 20th century man to deny the responsibilities of the 20th century. He felt that many witches had turned their backs on the reality of the outside world, pursuing a belief system that failed to recognise the needs of modern living, whilst repeating rituals by rote, rather than by understanding. In consequence, he believed that much of it had become ‘static and remote from its original purpose, which was to enlighten the follower spiritually’.

My old friend, Evan John Jones, who was a member of Cochrane’s coven, contends that behind the simplicity of it all was a deeper faith that called for a greater understanding than blind acceptance, which ably demonstrates that dedicated witches are not expected to accept ‘the Word’ in its fundamental context. Beneath the exterior of a simple nature worship and cosy sabbat ceremonies, there lies a deeper tradition through which the devotee ‘may perceive the beginnings of that ultimate in wisdom, knowledge of themselves, and of their motives’.

In a further article for Pentagram (‘The Faith of the Wise’) Cochrane also attacked the limited perception of the various ‘authorities’ on witchcraft, since being one of the oldest and most ‘potent’ of religions [sic] it was a way of life ‘different and distinct from any theory promulgated by the authorities or historians …’ According to Cochrane it brought ‘Man into contact with Gods, and Man into contact with Self. It creates within the human spirit a light that brightens all darkness, and which can never again be extinguished. It is never fully forgotten and never fully remembered.’  And I still have in my possession a letter from Evan dating from July 2000 in reply to a question of mine:

‘I wondered how long it will be before someone asked the question of where Robert [Cochrane] would have been led to in the next step of his magical argosy? I’ve a very shrewd suspicion having more or less followed in his footsteps and eventually finding myself in more or less the same position as he was. The surprising thing is, it can in many ways lead to a break with his traditional craft and eventually leads on to a highly individual form of devotional workings that in one sense, reverses everything Tubal Cain has to teach. In a sense, you belong yet not belong. You break away from being a member of the group as such and embark on a highly individual way of working yet at the same time, you remain rooted to the clan tradition and the other oddity is, you never actually pass on anything in the sense of the working techniques.

Instead, people have to eventually find their own way there and develop their own particular mystical bent and experiences. Roy once said that Tubal Cain should not be the be-all and end-all of a person’s craft experience as each one of us should be capable of reaching far beyond that. The more I think about it, the more I feel he was right, none of us should be led by the hand all our occult lives; we should be free to reach out and find our own spiritual reality without destroying our craft roots.’

Much of the source material for Traditional Witchcraft and the Path to the Mysteries was based on the teachings from the British-based Old Craft coven led by Aleister (Bob) and Mériém Clay-Egerton, that could trace its own recorded roots in Cheshire, back to the early 1800s. Their view was that it is not unreasonable to surmise that Old Craft probably retained features of the native shamanic practices of the ancient Pretanni, since the term ‘shamanism’ describes the supernatural powers practitioners channel from Otherworld for healing, divination and the conducting of souls – all of which are the natural province of an Old Craft witch where it is viewed as ‘an isolated or peripheral phenomenon’, rather than the overt devotional practices often found in contemporary paganism.

Contrary to what many so-called contemporary witches believe, it should also be understood that there is an older system of Craft that has never left the shadows.  There is little altruistic about Old Craft. It can best be described as having a tribal mentality in that it believes in protecting its own, but with no obligation to mankind in general. In view of the periodic backlashes, even in more modern times, this is not surprising. ‘Trust None!’ is the creed of Old Craft and it has preserved its secrecy by not divulging its rites and practices. No matter what a publisher’s blurb may claim, there are no authentic Old Craft rituals, rites of passages, spells, charms or path-workings in print for one simple reason …

Any Old Crafter committing any of these to paper for public scrutiny would be in breach of their own Initiatory Oath – and that still carries the ultimate penalty for treachery and betrayal. Admittedly, there are some excellent ‘smokescreens’ that may offer a parody of the genuine article – but the essence of the Sacred Order remains firmly in the shadows, where it has always been and where it will always belong. Nowadays, there are a lot of people now claiming their antecedents stem from an Old Craft rootstock but a few moments of conversation is enough to reveal that these roots are very shallow indeed!

There should, however, be no doubt about it – that although witchcraft is not a religion (and never has been), the Elder Faith does have an overriding spirituality that is extremely profound in its concepts and perceptions. Although there may be a variation in formulae from region to region, the underlying Mysteries remain the same and the only way to know about the Mysteries is to have experienced them first hand.  Occult teaching at this level is based on a vast variety of magical techniques, which enables the quester to use one or many of the various ‘astral doorways’ to connect with the Anima Mundi for the purpose of mystical or divinatory exploration. These techniques access the archetypal Elder Faith imagery of primal and powerful visionary experiences – both on the inner and outer planes – where kindred calls to kindred, blood calls to blood.

This means that whether the quester chooses the path of the shaman, Old Craft, heathenism, Asatru, Vanatrú, hedge-witchery, Druidry et al, the tools required to connect with the Anima Mundi are universal. By using the different means available, the quester can consciously establish contact through the application of path-working and meditation within the realms of what is often referred to as ‘inner court’ or ‘sabbatic’ witchcraft: an archaic embodiment of traditional Craft that embraces a higher form of spirituality akin to the mysteries of the ancient world, liberally laced with ceremonial magic.  It may also go a long way to explain why the archaic religious and spiritual influences of ancient beliefs persist into the 21st century when science tells us that religion and superstition should have long been rendered redundant.

It is, therefore, unimportant whether these ancient gods, angels, demons or the Faere Folk actually exist, the point is that the Anima Mundi behaves as though they do. In this way, the vodun priestess, the Celtic shaman, the Druid, the Norse Gothar and the Old Craft witch all employ their own individual or traditional techniques to bring the creative force of the Universe into their own lives and into the life of the world of which they form a part. They tap into this reservoir of cultural memory and what we must also accept is that this Collective Unconscious includes the ‘totality of human experience’, both good and evil. ‘In other words,’ writes Francis King, ‘the Anima Mundi is a rubbish heap as well as a gold mine; it contains not only beauty, wisdom and knowledge – but destruction, hatred and ignorance.’

These unconscious but powerful folk-memories of the Elder Faith are old but remain an important feature of many people’s lives. ‘Today more and more people are becoming interested in traditional witchcraft and it is a trend that would seem likely to increase in the future, although Old Craft will always be rather an elitist practice. It has always been for the few and not the many, and will remain so.’  The late Michael Howard also reminded us: ‘As Cochrane said (and few people understand what he meant), witchcraft is not pagan, but it does preserve elements of the pagan Mysteries. A subtle difference.’  MD

This extract has been taken from the limited edition of Inner Court Witchcraft currently in preparation for Ignotus Books UK by Melusine Draco and a companion volume to Round about the Cauldron Go … by Phillip Wright and Carrie West.

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