Folklore, Magic and Mysteries: Modern Witchcraft and Folk Culture in Britain

During the October half term, I visited Preston Manor in Brighton in order to see the temporary exhibition on Doreen Valiente, an English Witch who was responsible for writing much of the early religious liturgy within the tradition of Gardnerian Wicca. The exhibition showed a unique display of artifacts, manuscripts and documents from the Doreen Valiente Foundation, after the woman made posthumous history by being the first witch to be awarded a blue plaque on her home in Brighton in 2013 to commemorate her life and honour her achievements.

The exhibition featured possessions of Valiente and Gerald Gardner, another famous figure in Wicca, such as Books of Shadows, wands and other belongings that have been used and developed throughout the 20th century.

The Book of Shadows was especially interesting to see, as it was Valiente and Gardner who created a system for the practice of witchcraft by wring down their rites, rituals and teachings in a way that is still practiced today. This differed from the traditional Pagan teaching that traditions pass on their knowledge orally, but Gardner wrote many versions of the witchcraft rituals and maintained that these were not scripture, dogma or doctrine but were meant to be adapted and built upon by initiates of the mysteries who understood the meaning behind them. Modern practitioners often keep a ‘Book of Shadows’ which contains their written lore, very often adapted from the originals of Gardner and Valiente seen below:

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One of the main themes emphasised at the exhibition was the traditional and natural elements that are present in the world. A connection is shown between nature and humanity, and the religion looks back to the past to deem what is truly important: there are no deities as such, more archetypes and concepts of our world that are embodied for human understanding.

Witchcraft, like many pagan traditions, is called a ‘mystery religion.’ Unlike ‘revealed religions’, where the knowledge is made available to all and then interpreted by priests and leaders, mystery traditions initiate their followers individually into the secrets so that they experience a direct and personal spiritual journey and contact with the deities. Doreen Valiente was a pioneer of how witchcraft practices, beliefs and the symbology of the ‘working tools’ could be described to a wider public without breaking the oaths of secrecy that bind initiates of the Craft.

Many modern pagans celebrate significant points in the natural solar year- equinoxes and solstices and special days in between like May Day and Halloween. Witches also follow a lunar cycle holding rituals coinciding with the phases of the moon. Witchcraft rituals are held in a circle, a specially consecrated sacred space and an altar is used, much like the practices of other religions.

Salt, water, incense and candles represent the four elements of the ancient world: earth, water, air and fire. The five pointed star inside a circle (pentacle) can also represent these elements together with a fifth element (spirit). The ritual blade (called an ‘athame’) is a tool for directing and using energy as is the wand and the scourge. The other blade traditionally has white on the handle and has a more practical use, that of making the tools and equipment for rituals.

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These items held immense similarities with the tools and art of people from past civilizations. Early ancestors drew the natural world around them in art. They tried to symbolise the indivisible world of spirits, often showing the divine as a female, a great mother goddess. Her exaggerated hips and breaths emphasised her femininity and fertility:

Later they recognised the male role in natural fertility and began to show a male god as her companion with masculine features such as horns and a tail. Early cave art shows drawings of the animals that were hunted for food. Historians think this art was created in rituals, perhaps to connect with the animal spirits to make the men better hunters or to simply pay respect for the animal’s sacrifice.

Britain’s invaders and conquerors tried to impose their own beliefs, religion and culture on the population. The Romans called the people they conquered ‘pagans’, possibly from a Latin word meaning ‘country people’ and they renamed local Gods and Goddesses after their own deities. Britain became a rich mixture of different cultures and religions.

Early Christianity took its place in the mix for several hundred years before the Norman conquerors forced their own culture, including their religion, upon Britain often building churches on ancient sacred sites. As powerful leaders across Europe started wars and crusades ancient beliefs were suppressed and eventually outlawed, demonised and persecuted. For centuries people lived in fear and many were tortured and killed often on the mere suspicion of occult beliefs or practices.

But the ancient beliefs of our ancestors did not just die out under such oppression. Instead they went into hiding, becoming a living part of myth and legend, from the strange appearance of the ‘Green Man’ phenomenon in many Norman churches to the folklore and numerous customs surrounding the annual season celebrations like the coming of spring, the autumn harvest and the midwinter festivities. Many of our apparently strange customs have their roots in the simple concepts of ancient fertility religions and beliefs- examples include maypoles, wedding rings, birthday cakes and even our calendars.

Magic and witchcraft were not considered crimes in England until the first Witchcraft Act of 1542. By 1563 murder by witchcraft was punishable by execution. Growing social unease through plague, poverty and religious change along with over-zealous judges contributed to a rise in the number of witch trials. However, witchcraft and the number of witch-trails in England never reached the hysterical levels of the rest of Europe.

Later claims of millions being put to death across Europe were much confused and misunderstood, especially as they sometimes came respected historians of the day. Many (including Gerald Gardner) had no reason not to believe these numbers. Another common misconception is that witches were burned at the stake which, while true in Europe and even in Scotland, is incorrect in England where witches were most commonly hanged.

Under King James 1 and Elizabeth 1 new laws took witchcraft from the jurisdiction of the church to the courts. By the late 1600’s witch trials began to decline with increasing skepticism among both judges and clergy. The 1563 Witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1735 when a new Act made it a crime to claim to have supernatural powers but with much reduced penalties. This act itself was not finally repealed until 1951 when it was replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act finally making supernatural powers only illegal if used for fraudulent means.

The exhibition didn’t just show relevance to the past, but also a relation with the physical world in the past, present and future. Magic in various forms is one of human beings’ oldest practices, from the cave painting of our ancestors through the conjuring of spirits in the middle ages to modern day spells and divination. On display at the museum, there were a few examples of what Valiente used to act out her religion. Methods include ‘scrying’ using a mirror, and Tarot cards are a popular modern tool as is the casting of stones and the use of Runes.

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A useful part of the exhibition was undoubtedly the visitors’ book, which demonstrated the length people go to to visit such attractions: people had come from Australia, Turkey and various states in the USA such as Texas, Louisiana and Arizona.


Doreen Valiente was invited into the Craft in 1953 by Gardner, and re-wrote many of the rituals, rearranging his work more logically and setting it in context. She added her own knowledge and creativity to produce a system that made the Craft more accessible, more widely understood and allowed it to grow and spread, meaning that her ideas are still used and evolving in 21st century society.

I also manged to buy a few books that will serve as further reading into this topic.



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