John Holden 15th February 2018
It’s a tale as old as time. You’re on the way home from church minding your own business when you lock eyes with a flirtatious young seductress far out of your league. Clearly, she wants a piece of your action. You sidle over, your robe tantalisingly flicking open just a little. Perhaps this woman needs the word of the Lord.
You black out. You awake to the warm flicker of candlelight, a cauldron bubbling playfully in the background. You’re naked and strapped to a board, a withered hag sketching a pentagram on your chest. You cannot believe this has happened again.
For centuries this was the ultimate fear of the puritanical Christian, lashing out at the liberated and the uncouth, brazenly projecting their own fears and suppressed urges onto those they branded witches.
Practitioners of witchcraft have lived with the stigma ever since, and only in the last 50 years have perceptions begun to shift. They’ve always been among us and as their emergence continues, we would do well to pay them some attention.
Few events better illustrate the growing acceptance of witchcraft, nor the modern witch’s fondness for practical fleeces and boot-cut jeans, than Witchfest.
Marketed as the largest witchcraft festival held in the world in recorded history, this year Witchfest was in the remarkably unmagical setting of the Brighton Centre. Around 2,000 witches from a variety of pagan religions gathered to swap spells, drink mead and celebrate their burgeoning freedom.
This new found emancipation was not without its hiccups, however.
We deliberated dropping the ‘witch’ entirely, such was the stigma still associated with the word
Organiser Merlyn Hern, real name Dave, saw the festival picketed by protesters for the first five years after its launch in 2002. Only the last three have been completely protest-free.
“We deliberated dropping the ‘witch’ entirely, such was the stigma still associated with the word,” says Hern, whose ponytail/bald patch combination and genuine warmth typifies the common or garden witch.
“Ultimately we decided it was more important for us to reclaim the word, hopefully demystify it a bit and remove some of the stigma.”
Understandably, organisers were not keen on us taking pictures at the event.
Witchfest was comprised mostly of seminars from prominent witches and it was in the unflinching commitment behind some of these talks that the best viewing was to be found. A highlight was “Sea Witches and Siren Spells”, where we learned that cold extremities, emotional sensitivity and frequent thirst are all evidence of a previous life as a sea witch. A handy barb for scoring cheap points off an ex.
A wand workshop provided an oddly tangible element, but in reality, they are used to focus one’s mind and channel “the intent” — the core component of all spells — rather than blast out sparks or conjure spirit guardians.
Professionally made wands were on show on the many stalls and, with witchcraft being a folk tradition steeped in centuries of lore, the range of handcrafted curios was truly impressive. Intricately carved staffs made of twisted, knotted tree limbs, lavishly adorned headpieces, skulls, robes, dream-catchers, wooden panels ink-stained with erotic depictions – quality crafting which was very much ‘on brand’.
Despite these sporadic high points, for the bemused layman hoping to peek behind the curtain, there was a disappointing dearth of mystery at Witchfest and an abundance of middle-aged practicality.
Fundamentally, witchcraft is defined as the channelling of energy through a connection with nature and Witchfest’s core messages were of progressiveness, inclusivity and openness.
However, there were some murmurings that maybe a bit of mystery isn’t such a bad thing. That witches might be advised to “keep their teeth”.
Therein lies one of the great draws of witchcraft — that it can simultaneously combine fantasy and magic with timeless, common-sense teachings. It could be argued that is not much different from any other “mainstream” religion. One person’s prayer is another one’s spell.
The stigma is much less than it used to be
“Witchcraft is perceived differently across the board,” says Paul Pearson, a pagan veteran and editor of Greenmantle magazine. “On one hand you have the staunch Christians who will see witchcraft as Satanic, you have those who think witches are Halloween caricatures and others who see witches dancing naked in the woods.
“The stigma is much less than it used to be and much of this is because Paganism in general is a growing religious path.”
For many outsiders, it is surely the dancing naked in the woods and the potential to turn one’s enemies into goats which makes witchcraft such an enduring and compelling concept. It’s the classic idea of the debauched heathen, initiated into a clandestine society for moonlit orgies while the button-down Christian sits at home in his loveless marriage, dutifully flogging himself for staring too long at the milkmaid’s ankles.
It’s no wonder that many witches cite classic rockers like Ozzy Osbourne as their gateway to paganism. There is no denying the appeal of the taboo.
“A lot of people come to paganism tempted by the mystery and mystique it offers,” says Paul.
Witchfest was held in Brighton partly to honour “the mother of modern witchcraft”, former Brighton resident Doreen Valiente.
Born in Mitcham in 1922, Doreen would be drawn to the south coast and settled in Brighton until her death in 1999. She has since been honoured with a bus named after her, recognising her as a “notable resident”.
Through Doreen, there are tales of mystery and mystique which underpin European civilisation as we know it.
In July 1940, World War Two had been raging for almost a year. While persecuted minorities across Europe felt the force of the Nazis’ evil doctrine, Britain’s growing witch population was also driven into the shadows. The practice of witchcraft would remain a prisonable offence until 1951.
Nevertheless, the legend goes that on 31 July 1940 as Hitler prepared to invade Britain, bands of witches — known as covens — joined together in the south of England in a massive ritual aimed at blocking the Nazi advance. The power generated from the ritual — colloquially known as “The Magickal Battle of Britain” — is said to have been so intense that it killed five elderly witches in the process.
Some may point to the Spitfires as a more tangible symbol of British resistance but, either way, there is no denying the outcome. The witches’ thanks would be eleven more years of persecution.
The ritual was orchestrated by Gerald Gardner, the founding father of a strand of Wicca known as Gardnerism, and Doreen Valiente, one of Gardner’s high priestesses.
Wicca is a pagan religion with witchcraft at its core — all Wiccans are witches but not all witches are Wiccan.
Doreen herself played a part in the war which requires less of a stretch of the imagination to believe.
During the war Doreen worked at Bletchley Park, famous home of Britain’s codebreakers, in an “undefined” role.
Doreen was one of the first to physically write down Wiccan teachings in what Julia Belham-Payne, trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation, describes as a groundswell of witches following the decriminalisation of witchcraft.
“When she died she bequeathed her artefacts to my husband,” says Belham-Payne. “They were filled with a lot of codes, for secrecy, such as numerology, so it’s easy to see how her mind worked.”
Not only had Doreen contributed to cursing Hitler away from the white cliffs, she was also deciphering German messages and sending back her own red herrings in the process.
“She also had jobs in Barry in the Vale of Glamorgan during the war,” Belham-Payne continues.
“Her jobs only ever lasted a month or so, then she’d get a new job in the same area straight away, so it is believed she had a role in the war there.”
Doreen Valiente’s personal war efforts typify the modern witch. On one hand, there is the fantastical mega-ritual aimed at binding Hitler to the other side of the Channel. On the other, there is the very real pragmatism of codebreaking and espionage.
Therein lies the balance. The mystery and whisperings of the occult are at the same time attractive and stigmatising. Then again, there is a risk that, as the digital age removes the shroud of mystery from so many things, lessening the exclusivity of witchcraft and reducing the stigma could actually diminish its popularity.
Witchfest’s attendance fell so dramatically in 2017 that it cannot afford to put on an event in 2018.
Many witches still prefer anonymity for fear of social and professional backlash — but it’s an improvement on being dunked in a river and burned at the stake.
As with all religions, the fantastical elements are up for debate. For some observers of witchcraft, the concept of channelling the Earth’s energy into spells and incantations is a step too far. However, there is no denying the relevance of witchcraft’s core teachings.
Progressive ideas around community, acceptance and environmental responsibility take on greater importance as the Tory/Trump/Brexit Unholy Trinity tears at the fabric of society and the world melts around us. Say what you like about their bed knobs and broomsticks — your friendly neighbourhood witch might be what the modern world needs. Just ask the Nazis.
Original illustration by Elise Featherstone
John Holden 15th February 2018