American Witchcraft

American Witchcraft

Author: Spirit Walk Ministry

The subject of Witchcraft in America is a confusing one, the concept being muddled primarily from a basic misunderstanding of what Witchcraft is, and what it is not.

Witchcraft is the name that was used by the Christian Church to stigmatize the pagan practitioners of “The Old Religions”, which was the continuation of the practices of the native spiritual and cultural beliefs of Europeans and others that existed prior to the advent of Christianity. Simply put, it is a descriptive (and demonizing) term for anyone who practices a pagan or nature based religion.

As in most areas of the world where Christian “civilizations” colonized the native peoples the term witchcraft, as we think we understand it today did not exist prior to the arrival of the Europeans to America. Even when the label “witch” was used it was exclusively applied to the European settlers and not the native people themselves. Those native people that practiced the Old ways were referred to as “heathens” and their religious leaders as either medicine men and women or “shamans”.

The word “shaman” originated in Siberia and it describes a specialized type of holy person who practices not only with prayer, ritual and offerings, but also through direct contact with the spirits themselves. Because trances were so important to the Native American people as a means of getting in touch with spiritual forces, the title “Pow-Wow”, (from the Algonquin word “pauwau”, meaning “one who has visions”) , was accorded to those who fulfilled this role in the tribe. The word, whose spelling was eventually settled in English as “pow-wow”, was also used as the name for ceremonies and councils, because of the important role played by the pauwau in both. Though the nature of the shaman and the pauwau is similar, many Native Americans find the word “shaman” offensive and one should not use the word to label Native American tribal vision seekers.

All pagan religions are local nature religions, meaning that although the principles are universal, local myths and legends predominate the culture, which the local ritual must embody, as the local tribal allegorical references. It was therefore, within the natural order, that when European settlers of tradition pagan beliefs immigrated to America that they adopt local myths, customs and into their pagan beliefs and rituals. While some wish to claim these traditions as Wiccan or neo-paganism the traditions of American Witchcraft are merely a communion of the European “Old Ways” with the spirits and energies of the land that is now their home.

The homeland is quite possibly the most important aspect of Traditional Witchcraft. The homeland is the home of the Gods, and in many beliefs the two are synonymous. The early inhabitants of Europe believed that the Gods they venerated inhabited the land itself. Many were migratory people, and so as they traveled across the continent they took their Gods with them. As they traveled, though, these people often looked toward the North Star, Polaris, for guidance. It was a fixed point in the night sky that they used as a reference point.
When these early Pagans wished to honor their Gods, they created a connection between their homeland, where their Gods resided, and the land where they stood. In this way, the new land became a part of the homeland. The elemental correspondences to the cardinal directions act as a way of aligning yourself with the homeland.

When a Witch is within the land that is within the boundaries of the homeland, they do not need to use the correspondences to make a connection. Instead, they evoke or invoke the land itself. The concept of the homeland is something that is very integral to the practice of Witchcraft, but completely missing from the Neo-Pagan movements.

The Pow-Wow Tradition is a classic example of this melding of “The Old Ways” of the Europeans and local native beliefs. Though some claim that the Pow-Wow Tradition is German in its origin, it is more an adoption of local Native American traditions by the early German and Dutch immigrants of pagan heritage who settled in the Pennsylvania region of the United States.

Observing the Algonquin’s powwows, the pagan immigrants discovered that like themselves, the Natives used charms and incantations for healing. Impressed with their methods of driving out evil spirits, they adopted the term “powwowing” to refer to their own magickal healings. As their practice of magick was also centered on herbs and healing, they learned from the local people about the native roots and herbs for use in charms and healing.

As stated earlier, the term Pow-Wow comes from the Algonquin word ‘pauwau’”, meaning ‘vision seeker’ and the Pow-Wow Witches encompass shamanic like rituals of healing through visions and the application of traditional medicines, which are often accompanied by prayers, incantations, songs, and dances. The Pow-Wow Tradition places great significance on the vision seeker as the nexus of group (coven) activities and rituals.

Perhaps the most fascinating of the European/American merging of pagan ritual and practices is the Appalachian Granny Magic Tradition. Dating back to the first settlers of the Appalachian Mountains who came to the United States from Scotland and Ireland in the 1700’s and who brought with them their “Old World” magical traditions. Those traditions were then blended with the local traditions of the Cherokee into a combination of folk remedies, faith healing, storytelling and magick.

The ‘Granny’ Witches call themselves ‘Doctor Witches’ or ‘Water Witches’ depending upon whether they are more gifted in healing and midwifery, or if they are more in tune with dowsing for water, lay lines and energy vortexes. This tradition is termed ‘Granny’ from the prominent role played by older women in the mountain communities. Which calls to mind the image of “Granny” or “Doctor Granny” from “The Beverly Hillbillies” who, though a comic parody, was a fairly realistic representation of an actual Appalachian “Granny Witch”.

Therefore, the traditions of American Witchcraft are not a “new witchcraft”. They are not Wiccan, nor neo-pagan. They are simply the ways that pagan immigrants have found to bring the native spirits of their new homeland into harmony with their traditional beliefs and practices in order to find their way around the new neighborhood.