Final Thoughts

I’ve now officially finished writing the EPQ. I can’t express how much I’ve learned during this process and how much it’s taught me about academic investment into a passion project. While I’m not completely satisfied with the literary quality of the essay, everything I’ve written about has come from a place of fascination, interest and an incredibly detailed research investigation. It has helped my love of literature and its diverging structures (plays, poems, political and religous texts, novels and children’s literature) as well as introducing me to media texts that I may otherwise not have been exposed to (The Witch, The Craft, Bewitched etc.). Doing this project has fortified my decision to study English Literature as university, but also made me realise that I don’t want to limit myself to canonical texts and ideologies – comparing Beyonce to Shakespeare really was a highlight of this project! Being creative with this project was one of my favourite aspects about it. If I saw a connection between witch representations, there was nothing stopping me linking then in innovative ways that connotes cultural meanings and demonstrates similarities and differences between time periods.

Similarly, whilst I thought that this project would open me up to academic thinking, it did a lot more than intended. Witchcraft has fascinated me and while I have no religous or spiritual ties to its contemporary place in society, I have garnered a huge level of respect and interest for Neo-Pagans in the world today. Getting to speak to people whose lives are affected by witchcraft has opened my eyes to diversity in the world. It has become more than an acedemic project for me as I’ve realised how lucky I am to live in a part of the world where places such as Burley and Brighton share a history of folklore and mythology. Speaking to Maggie, Sylvie and Beryl was so interesting as not only did it bring the issue of witchcraft to life, but it helped my confidence in conversing with others.

I hope that I can utilise this project in my future, as part of an academic task or a personal activity, as witches remain fascinating characters in a modern society that is still conflicted with gender and cultural issues that demonise the foregin unknown. It is only by turning back to history and stories that have affected our society that we can recognise those same illusions haunting us. It may have been about the niche character of the witch, but it can be applied to so much more – I’m now inspired to read about monstrous women, even through women’s own portrayals that further explores how women see themselves in a society that projects their own archetypes upon them.

 

A Conversation with a Witch: Maggie

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.

Burley: New Forest Witchcraft

Over the October half-term, I visited Burley in the New Forest in order to gain some idea of the consumerist culture that witchcraft invites in modern society. Burley was home to the New Forest coven of the 20th century, home to notorious Wiccan, Gerald Gardner. The village is more typically known, however, for its association with Sybil Leek, an English witch and occult author who wrote more than 60 books on esoteric subjects. Dubbed “Britain’s most famous witch” by the BBC, she was a colourful character who walked through Burley village wearing her trademark cape, gown, and with her pet jackdaw named Mr. Hotfoot Jackson perched on her shoulders. The village was suspicious of her alternative lifestyle and experience, and she left England in the 1980s in order to make a living in America. When in Burley, I visited a shop called ‘A Coven of Witches’ that was owned by Sybil Leek and is still open today.

The shop staff were more than happy to help me, guiding me around the shop and informing me about the still active coven that met in the New Forest today. I was surprised to hear that that wasn’t the only tradition kept alive in Burley: many religious people and vicars still refuse to enter the shop due to its apparent connection with the devil and satanist acts, despite Satan being a Christian creation.

The shop stocked many traditional books and herbal remedies used for spells and meditation but also had Harry Potter memorabilia and Halloween gifts that would appease the many children in the shop. It was popular, brimming with people who were fascinated by witchcraft, no matter whether they thought it a Halloween craze or believed in the ideology.

I was lucky enough to speak to the shop owner about her experience with witchcraft, and I listened to her explain about witchcraft’s healing benefits that have been passed down from Pagan times. For her, it was all about connecting with and respecting the Earth that we live upon. I also collected postcards, leaflets and books that will undoubtedly help me with my research to come.

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.

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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.