Over the October Half Term I contacted some local Pagans and Witches on social media, hoping to interview them about their beliefs. I was lucky enough to be contacted by Maggie, a local witch who, unbeknownst to me, only lived 2 minutes away from my house. I went to her home a few days before Halloween to interview her.
Verity: So a basic question to start off with: what religion or spirituality do you believe in/ identify with? And what terminology do you use for yourself?
Maggie : Right, well I’m a Pagan and witchcraft is a pagan religion, if you like. It’s the belief that everybody shared before the Christians took over. Before that, everyone celebrated festivals and concepts all based on farming and the agricultural year. I class myself as a Pagan, but I haven’t always been one- Since 2010 I’ve been part of this ideology and that’s when I truly understood what I believed in the world.
V: I travelled to Burley the other day, and went into the Coven of Witches shop where they explained to me that local vicars still don’t go in there to this day because they think it’s a social and religious taboo. It’s crazy to me!
M: There was a shop that sold witchy items in Hythe, Cheryl’s Closet, and the Christians from one of the local churches used to try and prevent customers from entering the shop. People do things like that just because they’re ignorant and an unwillingness to understand.
V: You mentioned you still partake in Pagan festivals- could you take me through them?
M: The witch calendar starts on the 31st October, which most people call Halloween but is traditionally the beginning of the New Year for Celtic and Pagan people. It’s when we remember our ancestors, relatives and friends who have died. I think the Christians call it All Hallows Eve and the Mexicans call it the Day of the Dead. It’s really for remembering people who have gone before us, as the veil between this world and the world where we go to after death is the thinnest. It’s not scary, it’s more that you reactive a connection with someone who’s passed- say you’re grandma’s died, you’ll be closer to them. I feel that with my parents. That’s what Halloween really is, but the Americans have the trick or treating tradition that’s come over the Britain. It only seems to be growing and growing. But traditionally, it’s called Samhain, and it’s an Irish or Gaelic word and tradition. I’m looking forward to celebrating that, and I’ll travel to somewhere near Burley to celebrate.
V: What other celebrations throughout the year do you celebrate?
M: Between the 19th and the 23rd December is Yule, which the Christians calls Christmas. When the Christians immigrated from Europe and Asia, they tried to make their festivals link in with the Pagan beliefs, so Jesus’s birth was celebrated around the time of Yule. Who knows when he was really born, but they thought if they celebrated it round about the time of Yule, then the Pagans would accept it. The Yule Log is a Pagan thing! So is the Christmas tree, which was banned but Queen Victoria brought it back in the 19th century. So we celebrate Yule and that is just a time when people enjoy themselves. It’s a time when the Holly King apparently battles the Oak King because the Holly King rules the winter and the Oak King rules the summer. It’s all for fun! But they have celebrations and rituals for all of these, which is a true stereotype about us witches. The witches have a Sabbat, which is the ritual they commit approximately every 8 weeks. The first one in the New Year is Samhain, then comes Yule (which is nice and festive). Then after that comes spring and the first event is round about February 2nd. It’s called Imbolc, and it’s the first sign of spring where all the snowdrops start to bloom. We celebrate that with a sabbat as well. After that comes Easter, which is called Ostara. It’s to do with rebirth and the beginning of the cycle of life for the land, the animals and the people. It’s all to do with agriculture- the seeds start to grow and trees start budding. After that comes May- Beltane. Everything is starting to bloom and blossom, and Beltane is then celebrated. The event uses Maypoles, which features young women dancing around the phallic symbol of the pole. They wanted to be fertile and produce new life into the world. That’s the celebration of fertility for the land, animals and people. After that comes the summer solstice, which they call Lammas around the 21st June. It’s the height of the summer and longest day in the year. The witches always do their ceremonies on night, except from Lammas when they watch the sun come up like all other Pagans and Druids in the country. Witches usually do all their rituals at night, however, perhaps in homes but they always try to go outside into their gardens or the woods. Sometimes they might even have a fire. After the Summer Solstice comes what they call Mabon, which is the Autumn Equinox. They celebrate the harvest and they celebrate its fruitfulness. They cut apples in half sideways to see the pips arranged in a five pointed star like the pentagram, which is commonly and annoyingly associated with Satanism. Witches, contrary to popular belief, don’t believe in Satan-he is a Christian concept and invention. The Pentagram itself represents the quarters of the earth (north, south, east and west) and the elements (air, earth, fire and water), and the top of the star is the Spirit. So we honour those quarters and they have guardians, what we call watchers of the quarters. We do believe that there is a spirit, but it’s not God, we just use archetypes and concepts to give these forces human aspects and features. After the Autumn Equinox we’re back to Samhain!
V: What first inspired your interest in witchcraft?
M: I was brought up as a Roman Catholic, but I left the religion as I found it very strict.
V: I went to Catholic school.
M: Did you? In my day it was shocking, absolutely terrible. The nuns were very frightening for me as a child. That put me off, so I went to the Church of England, Judaism and tried lots of other denominations and religions, seeking for something that I believe in. I’ve always been interested in stories about witchcraft and I never thought it was bad. Hollywood has it down as something ridiculous, but Paganism isn’t anything like it’s represented as in the movies. In the beginning of 2010 I thought I’d look into it- I don’t know what came upon me- I might’ve seen or read something that inspired my interest. I started looking online and started joining things, and I’m now the Southampton representative of the Pagan federation. Yes, we’ve got our own federation- there’s even a Police Pagan federation! There are Pagans in all walks of the life: solicitors, bankers, armed forces. They’re all over the place and it’s growing quite a lot amongst young people too because there’s no dogma. So once I started delving into it, I got really, really interested. It opened up a whole new world to me that I hadn’t considered before. It became clear to me that that’s what I’d been looking for, because with witchcraft you can’t do harm to anybody, but you can do what you want. Harm no-one, do what you want. That’s their ideology. It’s like all the 10 commandments in one. If you harm somebody it’ll come back to you three times worse, it’s called the law of three fold return. That’s fair enough, isn’t it?
V: How do people react to your beliefs? What do you family and friends think of it. Do you openly tell people about it or are you quite private?
M: I tell people, even the ones at work. Some people take the mick, but I can handle that. They don’t really understand it. In a funny way they’ll still ask all about it, though, because it’s an unusual belief they haven’t really come across before. Our office manager calls it ‘woo-woo’. I haven’t got many Christian friends anymore, but I did tell one and she immediately cut me out of her life and didn’t give me a chance to explain- her loss. Most people in England these days accept it. Normal secular people are fine with it, people who are very religious can be quite judgemental, however. Most people just think you’re bonkers! A lot of what witches do and have always done is healing, using herbs to heal. The wise women in the village used potions to help people recover from sickness and we still do that now! It’s just that it’s now not inherently linked to femininity and wisdom, therefore connoting debauchery and evil. Men just didn’t like seeing women with power and that’s really sad.
V: When I think of witchcraft, I always think of it being a female-dominated ideology. Do you think that falls to stereotypes and tradition? Do you know many male witches?
M: Yes. There are a lot of male witches- they’re not called warlocks, they’re just called witches. There are covens that usually have a High Priestess and a High Priest, and in all Pagan religions, there should be equality between the sexes, but they do place great emphasis on the female presence. She is the mother. We have the God and the Goddess that are the archetypes, but we don’t like particular dominance. We like equality.
V: The main question I’m answering is, ‘Who is the modern witch?’ What do they stand for?
M: The modern witch is an ordinary person from any walk of life. They could be a lady like me, I was a professional PA and office manager, now I do reception work for a bit of fun after my retirement. They could be anybody. A lot of them won’t make their faith known, especially if they’re in a high position. We’ve got one gentlemen in our group who is a teacher, and he doesn’t tell anyone at work what he believes in. In a university it wouldn’t matter, but because he teaches young people, it bothers the adults: the parents, his colleagues and his employers. There are still a lot of people who connote sexual behaviour with witchcraft, which isn’t the case. I don’t know anybody who partakes in that and it’s not condoned by modern witches. I’ve heard of covens who perform in the nude but they don’t do anything sexual. They think they’re closer to the elements. I’ve never been involved in anything like that because I don’t think it’s necessary. You’re also not permitted to join any coven until you’re 18 years old, so there’s no interfering with children, no brainwashing, no cult-like behaviour. I think in this world it’s got a space because ecology is so relevant. We need to look after the Earth. On a social level though, they don’t like racism, any kind of homophobia or sexism. A lot of people involved in these Pagan religions are just like anybody else. There are homosexual and transgender pagans for example. We believe in harming none, any living creature. If you want to read more about it, I’ve got some books for you to look through. There’s so much to witchcraft, it’s so fascinating. You never stop learning. What was your experience with Catholic School like?
V: I think my experience was probably better than yours. The school I went to was really ethnically diverse. Probably about a quarter of the students were Muslim, so even though it was a Catholic School it had to be really inclusive towards all students. I’m an Atheist, and there were many Hindus, Sikhs, different dominations of Christianity. It wasn’t that pressured, and even though we had to go to mass and learn religious studies, it’s fascinating to learn about different religions, no matter what you believe.
M: I’m interested in Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, it’s all fascinating! It’s interesting that you’re an atheist too as I was for quite a while. I still don’t believe in any God. I believe in something that’s making things happen, I don’t know what it is. I was so brainwashed by the way I was brought up that I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t believe it.
V: I understand the concept of religion, its just idea that followers of the religion are supposed to believe everything present in the holy books even if it was written thousands of years ago by prejudiced men. That seems ridiculous to me. It’s so extreme! People have hated gay people for years because of this one line in a massive book that has no author known to us. People have taken it and demonised it, focused on hate instead of love and that seems so sad. One thing I admire about witchcraft is that it doesn’t necessarily look towards a God, it involves looking into yourself and putting it out into the world. Whereas the Gods they paint in the Bible and Quran are cruel and inhumane.
M: Witches, druids and pagans do not try to draw people in. You have to come to us. We’re not missionaries or apostles, we try to be as respectful as possible. I wouldn’t dream of forcing my religion upon people. All I’d like to say to them is that it’s not what you seen in Hollywood. It’s not threatening.
V: When I went to Burley yesterday I brought my Mum and my Grandma with me, and my Grandma was quite confused when I said that I was doing a project on witchcraft. She’s very much a Christian. After we spoke to the helpful woman in the shop, however, she came out saying that she actually found it really interesting. She had no idea it was like that at all. It’s good to expose people to a truthful reality of an ideology, not expecting them to follow it, but just for them to gain enough knowledge to respect the religion instead of forcing it on them.
M: And realising that it’s nothing to be afraid of. There’s nothing funny going on- we don’t eat children, drink blood, kill cockerels et cetera. Witches just celebrate the seasons because in the past, agriculture was all the working class had. If they didn’t have a harvest, they starved in the winter.
V: I think it’s so funny when people get suspicious of it, because it’s the one religion that has foundation in Britain. Christianity came over with the Romans and it was a scary religion from the Middle East, and that’s exactly how we’re viewing Islam now. History is just repeating itself.
M: What a pessimistic topic to end on!
V: Thank you so much for doing this with me, Maggie, it’s much appreciated.
M: Thank you! It’s great getting to share my passion for witchcraft with young people and I thoroughly enjoyed it.