A Can of Worms…

What follows is a supplement to ‘Village Witch’ that was omitted as it was considered to be possibly too controversial for publication at this point.

These are my thoughts and feelings around the subject of Traditional Witchcraft, bearing in mind that I am not a Traditional Witch in the generally accepted sense.  It is simply my opinion which folks are free to agree or disagree with as they choose.

A Can of Worms
Taken at Zennor by Angie Latham

An Addendum

aka A Can of Worms

Having always been a curious and avid observer of life and people, I have watched how society has changed in a myriad of ways and not all of them good. I am fully aware of the fact that I have become a grumpy old witch and feel entitled to moan about some things I mourn the loss of – like common sense that appears to be rarer and less common as the years go by.

I have also been somewhat bewildered by some of the changing trends, certainly within witchcraft in particular.  When I first put pen to paper in my book over ten years ago, there was a popular trend of shamanism that I alluded to, along with an eclectic style of Wicca.  This has subsequently been rejected by the more serious magical practitioners following academic scrutiny by historians and anthropologists who have more than adequately revealed that there is no line of continuity of organised witchcraft within Wiccan tradition.  What appears to have replaced this instead is something called Traditional Witchcraft.

Traditional Witchcraft means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, depending on your point of view and where you live.  If for instance you use the term Traditional Witch in the USA you probably would be referring to a British Wiccan from ‘The Old Country’ who adheres to what they conceive to be a British witchcraft tradition.  When I was younger, a Traditional Witch would be a person who claimed a direct hereditary link within the family – later on that term was utilised by Wiccans to describe a direct coven link to either Alex Sanders (Alexandrian) or Gerald Gardner (Gardnerian).

As the years went by the demand for historical accuracy was increasing – and rightly so in my opinion.  I’ve always recognised that there is a tendency to romanticise the past in some people, along with the feeling that ancientness and historicity somehow validates things.  Alas, it certainly is not always the case with others as there seems to be an active dislike of any academic enquiry into their practices and claims, and they baulk at any scrutiny by historians and anthropologists.  What is usually trotted out is the clichéd “Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence’ or claim that oral tradition accounts for any discrepancies.  All well and good, but it must be backed up with documented evidence.  Oral traditions aside, we all know what happens when a story is passed on – with each re-telling the tale is embellished even more until sometimes what remains bears very little resemblance to what was there in the first place!

However, there is an area that has been well documented and that is within the folk magic practices of the cunning folk, and this is where the next movement within witchcraft began to emerge.

“Given the current climate of debates that argue against Gardnerian orthodoxies and state that there is no historical evidence for organized, religious witchcraft, it appears that one way of reconceptualizing continuity is through claims to the professional and craft-based practices of cunning folk.”[1]


“In the face of increasingly intractable doubts concerning Gardner’s Wiccan origins, modern pagans have been forced to reconsider the historicity of their beliefs; many abandoned Gardner’s account and alighted on another: upon a spiritual ancestry and praxis focused around the historically certain low-magic practitioners known as cunning-folk.” [2]

I think it is fair to say that in general the practices of cunning folk were confined to the peasant or working class, mainly due to the fact that they couldn’t afford the services of doctors and vets.  This is not to say that the gentry and/or middle classes did not consult these practitioners because on occasion they did, but the majority of their clients could be found amongst ordinary townsfolk, the farming community and villagers.  This is why it is surprising for me to see how, what can only be termed as a somewhat elitist approach, seems to be developing within some branches of Traditional Witchcraft nowadays.

This can show itself within a style of language that is peppered with Latin phrases and deliberately obscure words, which unfortunately runs the risk of sounding very pretentious.  I know the importance of Latin in certain specific situations, for instance it is very useful to have these terms within say, medicine or botany where they are used to classify and identify different species.  However, its use in communicating about what used to be called ‘peasant magic’ is at best condescending and at worst pompous and arrogant.  Upon enquiring about this tendency to some ‘Trad’ witches, I have been informed that if people don’t understand what is being said, then they are not meant to!  There are many revered books, grimoires and publications out there which come from this point of view, and I am left bemused as to why on earth anyone would attempt to write anything that the average person didn’t have a hope of understanding without the help of a good dictionary!

Now, although I know that in the past cunning folk did rely a lot on impressing clients with their apparent book knowledge and openly referring to occult books in their presence, I really don’t think they would have got very far if they were unable to communicate in a language that their clients understood.  Maybe this movement of Traditional Witchcraft isn’t so concerned with the needs of the community anymore?  Perhaps it is all ‘talk’ and no ‘walk’?  I know that when I first started on my crooked path towards witchcraft and began to understand more about how simple magic can work, I wanted to share that by helping others – I’ve always had a strong vocational streak within me.  I needed my clients to easily understand me so that I could help them find solutions to their problems.  However, not everyone is like this and all too often overblown egos step in and try to take over, turning a pragmatic service to the community into some sort of secret fraternity with an arcane language that only true followers will understand!

I don’t want the Reader to get the wrong idea – I have nothing against others’ beliefs and practices, as mentioned before, I fully support diversity.  I’d also like to state here for the record, that I have met and communicated with many wise and experienced folk who consider that their work, or to use the latest buzz word ‘praxis’, is called Traditional Witchcraft, and who welcome stringent examination of anything to do with the ‘Old Ways’.  They’ve also managed to do this without falling into the trap of fantasising and thereby fabricating the past.

However, I have a very strong adverse response to those who claim that their way, or in this case tradition, has authenticity without any evidence of historical precedence.  Given the way I am, you can imagine my reaction when I found out that there was just such a movement created, not only down here in West Cornwall, but within my own village calling itself Traditional Cornish Witchcraft (TCW)!

Whilst I would agree that there are a lot of Cornish traditions within our local folklore and indeed many tales of witchcraft, there has never been anything before called Traditional Cornish Witchcraft.  This is in essence a modern invention that, if the accompanying publications are anything to go by, claims continuity and ancientness but has no historical references within the text to back this up.  The occasional passing reference to the 19th century folklorists William Bottrell and Robert Hunt’s literature does not carry sufficient academic weight to be considered proof of historical tradition.  It’s really not good enough on one hand to write disclaimers that point towards the idiosyncratic approach of the many and varied magical practitioners in Cornwall; and then affirm and state with authority on practically every page that TCW is what Cornish witches do, and by inference have always done.  A perfect example of this is where reference is made to one isolated incidence of witch bottles being found buried by a stone cross in North Cornwall.  This has been extrapolated and elaborated upon to become a West Country Tradition.  TCW statements referring to the way the ‘Old Cornish’ used to do this and that are not only vague but as irritating as that smokescreen term ‘Lost in the Mists of Time….’  What is wrong with writing things like “I would like to believe” or “Maybe this was the way that practitioners in the past worked”?  At least then readers are clear about what is being said or imagined and can make their own minds up, which is infinitely better than a rather woolly subterfuge.

I have absolutely no problem with anyone who wants to start their own traditions – choosing local spirits as their deities, creating their own liturgy and vocabulary for their magical gatherings and building a body of knowledge that is inspired by the local environment.  There is much within the self proclaimed TCW to commend it from an aesthetic, evocative and creative point of view, but however beautifully embroidered, it cannot in all honesty be referred to as Traditional Cornish Witchcraft and be viewed as a specific Craft that has evolved from the past.  This basically is style over substance.  The word Traditional is misleading by intimating that it is something that has been handed down from one practitioner to another, and the use of the term Cornish in this context is purely geographical as there is very little in this practice of folk magic that makes it essentially Cornish, or indeed different from folklore magic anywhere else in Britain.

“As the congruence of ethnic and ‘outsider’ approaches … has recently found its strongest statement within the modern pagan community in Cornwall with the emergence in this last decade of a self-styled ‘Traditional Cornish Witchcraft which claims for itself the continuation of pre-modern, vernacular witch beliefs and practices…Its progenitor having been born in Kent, moving to Cornwall only in the late 1990s.”[3]

It appears that Traditional Cornish Witchcraft was specifically set up to fill a void noticed by the founder of this term.

“She had made contact and entered into friendship with Traditional Witches in other areas of Britain and worked as a solitary Witch in Cornwall with a view to reviving the ways of the Cornish Craft.  She researched Cornish folklore, traditions and seasonal customs, looking for clues to the practices and beliefs of Cornish Paganism and Witchcraft…Through her contact with practitioners elsewhere in Britain saw how the Traditional, regional Crafts were maintained with much more enthusiasm than was the case in Cornwall.  Whilst Cornwall had a rich heritage of Craft lore, there were very few Pagan and magical folk in Cornwall with an interest in, or awareness of, Cornish Witchcraft traditions.”[4]

Although I think I have said enough on this subject for now, I may well continue my exploration of the strange and ever shifting world between facts, folklore and fantasy…now there’s a potential title for future writing methinks!

[1] Helen Cornish, “Cunning Histories: Privileging Narrative in the Present”

[2] Jason Semmens, “Bucca Redivivus: History, Folklore and the Construction of Ethnic Identity within Modern Pagan Witchcraft in Cornwall

[3] Jason Semmens, “Bucca Redivivus”


15 thoughts on “A Can of Worms…

Add yours

  1. I really enjoyed your post. Thank you for your honesty and integrity. For those of us that depend on others for information that would otherwise elude our reach, it is a welcome and appreciated thread of knowledge. –KS Whitten, Shannon, GA, USA

  2. Hear, hear! It’s about time this was said and it needed to come from someone within the same ‘profession’ . Well said.

  3. Hi Cassandra….. Couldn’t agree more! Something Kelvin and I have long felt to be true! Good luck with the op!. Debbie.

  4. Interesting! Claiming heritage is a risky business. That’s why I have found myself avoiding groups on the whole as ego tends to bubble under the surface and then jump up and bite people on the bottom!

  5. As a novice Hedgewitch it is nice to find someone who is not afraid to tell it how it is as sometimes the things one might read can get a bit confusing thankyou..

  6. What a relief it is to read ‘Can of Worms’, Cassandra! I moved away from Wicca early on because I got a distinct impression that that’s what was happening there and now in TCW I see veins of it even among the well intentioned, too. It’s almost like ‘High Magic’ with its use of hebrew and incredibly complex correspondences in that, while claiming to educate by challenging (which often works very well as I can attest!), its practitioners can come across as arrogant (even if they’re not).
    I see a little of a similar attitude appearing in TCW. At the moment it’s present only in individual beliefs and posts but I’m certain that it will become cast in stone for the whole movement before too long. ‘Eclectic’ is a term that is already being derided and discouraged (and misused). Whenever something becomes a ‘buzz’ word it’s either because it’s completely appropriate or, at the other extreme, used to distract.
    I don’t express myself well so don’t post too much on the forums in case I accidentally light the blue touchpaper of something i don’t mean to so I generally read more than I post. But it’s a relief to be able to make the attempt here and I’m very grateful that you’ve put it so much better than I could. Always a pleasure to read your thoughts! All the best, love to you both, Chris.

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