"We are the daughters of the witches you didn't burn" is the latest popular phrase I've seen casually thrown around on social media - mostly shared on witchy groups in Facebook and emblazoned across T-Shirts and hoodies in sponsored Instagram posts.
Burning witches is not a phrase to be taken lightly. It has been estimated that around 50,000 people were executed as witches in Europe alone during the witch-hunt hysteria of the 15th to 18th centuries, with hundreds of thousands more in the US. Many of these victims were hanged or beheaded, or died in prison cells during the hysteria of the witch trials. Those that survived were horrifically tortured or put on trial only to force an accusation of another neighbour or villager. Many surviving witches and Pagans went into hiding. A lot of innocent people died.
If you're new to witchcraft, or curious to find out whether you're related to a witch, exploring your ancestral line is a fascinating place to start but, before delving into your family’s history, it is important to think about whether you believe these men and women were actually practising witches or not. Under conditions of torture, the majority of the accused would confess to being witches to lessen their sentence or to avoid further punishment. Their closest connection to witchcraft simply being the practise of using locally found herbs for healing.
I intentionally wrote 'practising' witches above because everybody has magickal connections in their family tree, if you go back far enough. European ancestors were Pagan before Christianity took over, Ancient Greeks encompassed a collection of beliefs and rituals and Hinduism, the oldest religion in existence and the third largest in the modern world, focuses on practises such as meditation, chants, yoga and burning incense for their deities. Practises may be called different things and techniques may differ slightly, but the magick has always been there. Everyone has at least one connection to a priest, priestesses, druid, shaman or witch doctor throughout ancient history.
Whether it's basic level nature magick or experienced witchcraft, humans have been using magick for as long as we have existed. Some witches are born knowing their abilities or born into a magickal household, while others learn and develop them throughout their life.
Witches harness their powers and practice witchcraft. Some do it openly, some only ever in their private space. You may never know if you have a witchy ancestor but, the first step to finding out is to identify your family tree. Beginning with your last name, write your father last name and mother’s maiden name above it, then branch out to her mother’s maiden name and her father's name (your grandmother and grandfather on your mother's side), and your father’s mother’s maiden name and his father's name (your grandmother and grandfather on your father's side) and so on. Identify as many surnames as you can, then compare those names against recognised witch bloodline names. It also helps if you mark where those family members lived to get an idea of where the names originated from. This will make finding your ancestors slightly easier.
The next step is to research the names. There is an enormous amount of information on the internet and you can use online tools such as Ancestry.com which has an enormous record collection. Some genealogy sites are free, some are pay-per-view and some require a subscription. It's also worthwhile speaking to your family members and visit your local records office if you have one. London's Wellcome Library recently published a seventeenth century manuscript online, available at Ancestry.com, containing the names of over 300 people accused of witchcraft during the Scottish witch panic of 1658-1662.
Honour your ancestors
If you find you are the descendant of a witch, research as much as you can about the life of that ancestor and record the information in your Book of Shadows. Many witches traditionally honour their ancestors during Samhain, when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest.
There are many rituals and practises that can be used to connect with spirit such as scrying or dream work and some witches are skilled in the use of divination tools such as tarot cards, ouija boards and pendulums.
Another way of connecting with your ancestors at Samhain is to cleanse and protect your space then set a place for them at your home. Offer a suitable meal or offer cake and tea (which is universally welcomed!) and, while sitting at the table, light a black candle and call out to invite your ancestor to come forward.
Before communicating with your ancestors, make sure you have the skills and experience in the craft, master your tools and protect yourself and your home. Always cleanse and protect your space before and after any magickal work and get help from an experienced psychic if you are unsure about what you're doing.
There is a common misconception that having a witch as an ancestor means you are a hereditary witch. Having a witch in your ancestral line does not make you a hereditary witch. Hereditary witches are raised and taught witchcraft by witches. Beliefs, techniques and practices are handed down from one generation to the next. It has nothing to do with your bloodline or ancestry and is not biologically inherited.
Being brought up in a magickal family and taught magick by a practising witch has many advantages - training begins at a young age and is usually more hands-on. However, you don't have to be born into a witch family to be a witch. You also don't have to be born with a natural ability to use your powers to be a witch. You can practice and learn the magickal arts at any stage of your life.
Practising ancestral witchcraft involves studying the culture, foods and day-to-day ways of your ancestors and incorporating it into your magickal path. Whether you manage to find your witch ancestors or not, you can still use the information from your family tree to honour your ancestors. Remember, everyone is connected to a least one ancient magickal person, whether you have found the document linking you him or her or not.