Being A Witch in Britain Today

Written for the Newcastle University Conference; Encounters of Religion

James Pengelly

I am regional coordinator for the Pagan Federation (PF) for Humberside, North Yorkshire and the counties that form the northeast of England up to the Scottish Borders. The PF was founded in 1971 by a group of Gardnerian Witches, the object of it being to counter what was perceived as being popular misconceptions about Witchcraft.

The main reason for the existence of the PF remains largely unchanged, as the last few years have seen what can only be described as an onslaught by various fundamentalist Christian organizations who have latched on to the unfortunate and sad matter of child abuse to which they have added the word "Satanic' as a means by which they can attack and defame the occult in general, and Witchcraft in particular.

I will return to this matter elsewhere in this lecture, but I mention it now to illustrate the importance of our anti-defamation work. In addition, the Pagan Federation acts as a networking organization to put people who share views on religious and spiritual matters in touch with one another, to enable them to get together, discuss and learn, and experience further.

The third important aspect to our work is to increase awareness of the spiritual and cultural heritage of this country. Given that many, if not most, of our customs and traditions have their roots set deep in our Pagan past and that our countryside is rich in the physical remains of this we feel that a positive promotion of this inheritance is vital to a fuller understanding of who we are.

The topic of this lecture is Being A Witch In Britain Today. Now I think that when one mentions the word, "Witch" to the average member of the public, the image that is immediately conjured up is one of a wizened old hag boiling up an extremely noxious brew in some bubbling cauldron, probably on a windswept moor somewhere. This is of course Shakespearean in its perception, but unfortunately, whatever his intentions were at the time he wrote Macbeth, William Shakespeare did Witchcraft a considerable disservice, because this image has stuck. In addition, the public is very much subject to conditioning laid down in the Middle Ages by the Church, through historical accounts of Witch trials, which were heavily biased. Consequently it is hardly surprising that the image the general public has is of nasty, evil, thoroughly bad people riding around on broomsticks at dead of night creating havoc all over the place, poisoning people right left and center, doing unspeakable things with goats, not to mention chickens, frogs, toads, cats, and sundry other animals. All in all not very nice people!

It is interesting to note that even in this day and age, many people are still very superstitious when it comes to magic, the occult, Witchcraft and so on. In addition to the historical misconceptions about Witches and Witchcraft, I would go as far as saying that people still have a deeply rooted superstitious attitude, and that while some may automatically dismiss out of hand Witches having any sort of magical power, deep down, the majority of people still harbor deep rooted fears about this sort of thing being possible.

At a time when mankind has seemingly achieved so much in the field of science, when there is so little mystery left in life because everything has been rationalized and explained, and developed beyond that which our ancestors were able to comprehend, the fact that people do still harbor superstitions and worries about Witchcraft and the occult in general does not altogether surprise me. If one removes the mystery from life, one has nothing left with which to replace it, and one has to look to that which one cannot explain. The problem being that man has for countless generations been frightened by that which he cannot explain. And this is why we are now living in the scientific age, because man has purposely set out to explain that of which he is afraid. The thing being that there is very little left that man cannot explain. And one of the areas that he cannot explain is, of course, magic, Witchcraft and the occult.

Let us for a moment, examine the term, "occult". Occult simply means 'that which is hidden'. The term has been used for centuries to explain the general workings of the universe. The creation of fire would have, at some point in time, been regarded as magic. Why things moved when they were subject to certain power sources such as steam would have been deemed magic before the principles were understood. Illnesses were originally considered to be occult based. You could impose an illness on a neighbor or friend if you had the magical power to do it. But of course, none of these things were actually magical in any sense. The magic lay in the fact that a lot of people didn't understand what was going on. Those who did have an understanding of what was going on were perceived as having some sort of power. The biblical phrase, "Thou shalt not suffer a Witch to live", is in this context quite revealing because in its original format, the word, "Witch", did not actually translate as Witch, it translated as "poisoner". And there is no doubt that the original village Witch would have in her own way been a doctor of sorts, in that she or he would have understood the uses of various herbs for good purposes and for bad purposes. And could quite probably been paid to use that knowledge to achieve the results for which she was being paid, to either kill or cure. Consequently, the village Witch, was someone to be feared, and respected.

As the Christian Church took hold, the older Pagan ways were perceived as something to be got rid of. I do not think this was particularly a spiritual battle. It was a power battle. It was simply a matter of one religious-political system wishing to gain control over another. And as Christianity grew in strength, largely through fear and oppression, the old ways were presented as being evil and wicked, and not to be tolerated.

This situation remained largely extant until 1951, when the last laws remaining on the English statute book against Witchcraft were repealed, and what is now commonly referred to as the British Revivalist Craft came to light. The fact that it had, in some form or another, managed to survive over countless generations was, in itself, quite a surprising thing. But we now know that what are often referred to as the Hereditary Craft and the Traditional Craft were to a certain extent passed down from generation to generation either within specific families or small, invariably farming, communities. It was this that the late Dr. Gerald Gardener is thought to have discovered, and built up into what is today known as the Revivalist Craft. His work was later developed by others such as Alex Sanders who founded the Alexandrian Craft and, more recently, by Janet and Stewart Farrar. Their works are very well known, popular, and easily available, and they have created what is sometimes jokingly referred to as the Farrarian Craft; a hybrid mixture of Gardenerian, Alexandrian and their own methods of working.

Being a Witch today in this country is not necessarily a hard thing, but nor is necessarily an easy thing. There is still a great deal of superstitious prejudice and nonsense held against Witches. And this is fermented, and that is the only word I can think of, to a large extent by certain areas of our national media, in particular the more lurid tabloid press, and of course Christian fundamentalist groups, who have over the last few years started to expand at a rather alarming, and for many non-Christians, a rather frightening rate. The phenomena of Christian fundamentalism is something which has largely been imported to this country from America, where it has been a populist Christian movement for many, many years. One only has to look at the news over the last few years concerning some American fundamentalist leaders to realize that basically, they are like so many of us human beings, subject to all the little foibles that human beings are generally subject to, that they are just as easily led astray as any of us can be. The rising issue of fundamentalism is, as I say, quite a frightening thing because it seeks to impose a set of standards, a set of behavior, and a set of religious beliefs, on everyone, which no-one is permitted to question. This is one reason why we find so many people are now turning to Paganism in its broadest sense, and to Wicca in particular. (Wicca being the commonly used modern term for Witchcraft.) They turn to us because they are disillusioned with the level of dogma and the level of imposition they find within established Christian traditions, be they Church of England, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, or some of the more extreme fundamentalist sects.

People seem now to be dividing into groups. There are those who are 'the led' and they search for leaders. And when they find a leader who is prepared to tell them what to do, when to do it, how to think, how not to think and so on, they latch onto that and they go on quite happy in their own way because they want to be told. On the other hand there are an increasing number of people who are prepared to listen to what others have to say but then like to go away and make their own minds up about things, and work things out for themselves. And we are finding more and more that this is what Paganism in general and Wicca in particular is providing. It is providing people with the means by which they can form deeply personal relationships with their own particular perceptions of deity. They can work with that perception. They can utilize it within a framework that is, generally speaking, of a very high moral and ethical standard. And the idea that Witches are evil, nasty, wicked people who go around sticking pins in little lumps of wax shaped into the form of a person containing lumps of fingernail and pieces of hair and other sundry bodily parts, is being increasingly recognized as grossly untrue. We have to bear in mind that a lot of the popular perceptions of the Witch are, as I have already said, largely determined by historical records. Historical records written by people in whose interest it was to defame the Witch, and to register her, or him, as an evil person, but even these are now being challenged by more and more people.

So, as I've said, being a Witch in this country today is not always an easy thing. On the one hand, you can meet with extreme prejudice, on the other hand you can equally meet with extreme derision. A number of perfectly normal, sane, rational people that I know of think that the fact that I am a Witch is a huge joke. I am very used to people asking me "When can I come round to your house and take all my clothes off?." My usual response to which is "Any time you like providing I'm not having my tea at the time, or watching Coronation Street, but believe me pal, you're on your own." I personally find that this is the best way to approach this sort of thing. If you can turn the question into a joke aimed at yourself, people are happy with that and feel comfortable with that, and will go away thinking that basically you're a pretty decent sort of person with just some very strange ideas. If, on the other hand, you become intensely defensive, the opposite can be true because they will assume that you have something to hide, something which you don't wish to talk about. And we all know that faced with that sort of situation the human mind is capable of conjuring up all sorts of unpleasant images. So I stand before you today proclaiming myself to be a Witch. I do not particularly like using the term, but it is a term with which most people are familiar, so within the context of this lecture, I am happy to use it. And I stand before you here, not a wizened old crone, dressed in rags and tatters with a big wart on the end of her nose, but, I hope, a fairly presentable man in his early middle age, who has a very respectable job. I have a house, a mortgage, a small daughter, I am like many people of my generation, separated from my wife, for purely personal reasons. I am, to all intents and purposes an ordinary person. And yet I stand before you here, and tell you I am a Witch.

What does this mean for me personally? Basically, like most Witches, I am a Pagan. I believe in the Old Religion. The religion that was worldwide before Christianity or Hinduism, or Islam took a hold on large areas of the world. Once upon a time, whether people like to admit it or not, the whole world was Pagan. Paganism then was vastly different from Paganism today. There are those who go round saying that they are practicing pre-Christian Paganism. I would say, that while they are not necessarily deluding themselves, they are misleading themselves. What we are practicing today is the spirit of ancient Paganism. We cannot possibly practice ancient Paganism, because if we were doing so, we would be indulging in such things as blood sacrifice, and so on and so forth, which forms no part of modern Pagan tradition.

Witchcraft is a sub-system of broad Paganism. Most Witches regard it as the mystery aspect of Paganism. The mystery aspect being that one searches for the spark of the ultimate divine source, which is inherent in each one of us, in the hope that one can find it, come to terms with it, and accept it as part of ourselves.

Most Pagans believe in an ultimate creative source. Christians call it God. We believe that there exists, somewhere out there in the wider universe, the source of all creation. We do not give it a name, we do not give it a form. It is, to our way of thinking, entirely neutral. It is all things in one thing. It is all things and it is nothing. It is largely beyond our reach. Some people aspire to attain union with the ultimate, very, very few people ever reach it. Consequently, most Pagans will choose to leave it alone.

It is unreachable. And it is unaware of our existence, because it is neutral in form. What we do is we aspect it; we split it into the various components which form it. The ultimate split is gender, male and female. If the ultimate creative source is all things, then it must have male and female aspects. So the ultimate male aspect is 'The God', the ultimate female aspect is 'The Goddess'. Below this one can continue splitting into various other aspects as one chooses, until one gets down to a level of elementals, nature spirits, and so on and so forth. The idea being, that all natural things coming from the ultimate creative source contain a spark of that creative source, and consequently all things are inherently sacred. We reject entirely the Christian concept that man is born sinful, and has to spend the whole of his life begging forgiveness for sins real and imaginary. We believe that it is because of this attitude that mankind does a lot of the things he does. If you bring somebody up and condition them to believe that they are inherently bad, they are going to react in that way.

Pagans and Witches believe that man is born inherently sacred, and it is what he himself does with his life that makes him bad or good. It is nothing to do with God, the Gods, the Goddesses or anything else. Consequently, Paganism and Witchcraft are extremely responsible forms of religious practice in that they teach that we are responsible for what we do and the effect that it has for those around us, both immediately and out in the wider world. We believe in what is commonly referred to as 'the ripple effect'. Drop a stone in a pond, and it will create ripples which will go on and on until they reach the bank and are forced to stop. If you regard the universe as a very large ocean, every time one of us does something, we create a ripple effect. The ripples, on a universal scale, may be imperceptible, but they are there none the less. And if we regard life in that way, we need to immediately take stock of that which we do and act upon it. Now obviously it is not possible to take this sort of philosophy to an extreme, otherwise, one would literally do nothing. If one flushes the toilet one is potentially adding to sea pollution. If one turns an electric light on, one is potentially adding to air pollution. Whatever one does, somewhere along the line is likely to have a detrimental effect on someone.

The Witch or Pagan will judge what he or she is doing with his or her life and will try and determine the least harmful way of living. It requires a great deal of thought, it requires a great deal of honesty and self analysis and not a small amount of self-sacrifice. it forces one to look at how one relates to oneself, and life around us, because we believe that all natural things on this world are sacred, and therefore to be treated with respect.

So, what then, is our relationship with our perception of divinity? As 1 have already mentioned, we personalize aspects of the ultimate creative source. These personalizations can be drawn from one or another of the existing Pagan pantheons, such as Norse, Greek, Roman or Egyptian, or they can be done on a much more personal level where the individual will somehow personalize whatever aspect of divinity they wish to work with in that moment in time. Most Witches have the Great Goddess, and the Horned God. (The horns, incidentally have absolutely nothing to do with the concept of the devil having horns. And are usually, in this country, personified as being deer's antlers being simply symbols of power and strength.) The Great Goddess is seen as being the Mother of all things, the Horned God, her consort who is also frequently linked with the Sun as the All Father.

Below that, we have the Triple Goddess, whose symbol is the Moon, the Maid, the Mother, and the Crone. And then there are any number of other personifications largely based on the individual preference of the person or group, doing whatever it is they're doing. This may seem to be an immensely complicated system, and indeed it sometimes takes a great deal of understanding. But you have to relate it to the natural seasonal cycle, or festivals, that most Pagans, whatever their traditions, will follow.

The seasonal cycle basically follows the agricultural and solar cycle of the year. We have eight major festivals. The first, and possibly the most important, is Samhain, spelled S-A-M-H-A-I-N, commonly known as Hallowe'en, and is thought to have been the time when the ancient Celts celebrated the new year. It was the end of one agricultural year and the beginning of the next. It was the final onset of Winter. It was, as it is commonly regarded today, also a festival of the dead. The modern concept today of ghosts and ghoulies and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night, stemmed directly from the Celtic feast of the dead. This is not some necrophiliac intention of summoning up spirits for evil purposes, it was/is simply a time when one reflects on the memories of lost loved ones, lost friends, and hopes to gain some insight into one's own life from the lessons that we can learn from those who have gone before us. It is interesting to note that, even in its christianized form, Halloween, or All Hallows Eve is still a festival of the dead.

The mid-Winter Solstice is, of course, Yule, an Anglo-Saxon word so old its meaning is now completely forgotten. It has been suggested that that it could mean 'wheel', and within a Pagan or a Wiccan context the year is often referred to as "the wheel of the year", in that it turns on, and on. Yule celebrates the re-birth of the Sun. It is indeed interesting that Christians should have taken this festival to mark the birth of Christ, when what historical evidence we have seems to suggest that Christ was actually either born in March or September.

From then we move on to Imbolc, christianized as Candlemas, which represents the first stirring of Spring and the gradual return of light. We then have the Spring Equinox, which when the earth comes back fully to life, and has become largely associated with Easter. Many people today do not realize that Easter is a moveable feast because the date of Easter is set on the first Sunday after the first full Moon after the Spring Equinox. And if that isn't a Pagan concept, I really don't know what is. In fact, the very name "Easter" comes from the Anglo-Saxon fertility Goddess "Eostre" and many of the items traditionally associated with Easter such as eggs and rabbits are directly derived from Pagan ideas and symbols.

Then follows Beltane, which is interesting in that it is the only Pagan holiday which does not have a Christian counterpoint. This is probably because of its overtly sexual nature. It is interesting that children conceived at Beltane were invariably born on or around Imbolc, which is lambing time in the sheep farmers year. Ewe's milk would have been important in the past to strengthen children for the last part of Winter and to give them strength to grow through the Spring and Summer.

After Beltane we have of course the Summer Solstice, mid-Summer, which represents the Sun at its height. Solstices and Equinoxes all being solar festivals. The union of Sun and Earth to produce the harvest that is to come. Lugnassadh, commonly referred to as Lammas, which literally means loaf-mass from the Anglo-Saxon, is the start of the harvest. It is the time when we prepare to cut down that which the union of the Sun and the Earth Mother has provided for us. The Autumn equinox is the harvest festival. A time to rest and relax after the harvest has been collected. And then we come back again to Samhain, or Halloween.

So as you can see, we follow a very natural cycle. Rituals and ceremonies can vary immensely from group to group, or individual to individual. But each one, whenever it is done, will consist of some sort of symbolic, what I can only describe as 'drama', that reflects what we see going on in the world around us, and how we perceive the Gods and Goddesses of Paganism or Witchcraft as playing a part in that. There is a lot of talk about the use of spirit powers and so on and so forth, and many Christians perceive this as being inherently very, very dangerous. Spiritualism, as it is commonly perceived, plays very little part in Wicca. It is not something that we believe should be played around with. We will invoke on one another the spirit of a particular God or a particular Goddess dependent on what we are doing at the time. But all we are asking that particular God or Goddess to do is imbibe us with something of their power, something of their insight. It is basically an intensely psychological thing. Because, as we all know, if one stands in front of a mirror saying "every day and every way, I am getting better and better", then one is likely to grow in self-confidence. The concept is pretty much the same.

So, as we can see, Witches are not horrible evil people, but generally, quite ordinary nice decent people who have chosen to try and relate more to the natural things around us than some far distant imperceptible god-form. But what of magic? Witchcraft is obviously very closely associated with the use of magic. So what is magic?

Magic was once described as 'the art of causing change in conformity with will'. Put more basically, this simply means mind over matter. Causing something to happen simply by the strength of your own mind. This is perhaps a bit too far fetched for a great many people to accept, but when one considers the nature of prayer, one has a concept which is easier to understand. For most Witches, an act of magic is simply a form of prayer. You will seek the attention of a particular God or a particular Goddess, and you will ask her or him to assist you in something that you want done. Surely, this is no different from anyone going into a church or synagogue, kneeling down, and saying, "please God, help me".

It is true that Witches will dress that up in some way and use items of equipment and paraphernalia which are alien to a church, mosque, or synagogue. These are primarily nothing more than psychological props, means by which the individual can focus their attention on something. Using the appropriate equipment at the appropriate time aided by appropriate colors and scents are all means by which one can focus one's mind onto a specific point. Like anything, our acts of magic do not necessarily always produce the desired result. But we choose to believe that if it does not happen, it is because it is not meant to happen, rather than we are not worthy of it happening.

Many people talk of white and black magic. This is an entirely Christian concept; we do not accept the terms white or black magic. Magic is a neutral force which is used by the individual and it is what the individual does with it that makes it white or black. But most Witches, in using the powers that they have available to them will consider the implications of what they are doing, and will think very seriously about undertaking any act of magic which could prove detrimental to any-one or anything which cannot be justified morally and spiritually.

If the Craft has any "laws" as such they apply to the use of magic in a more obvious way than any-where else, and there are basically two such "laws".

The first is more of an ethic - "An it harm none-do what thou will". On the face of it this seems to offer carte-blanche to do what you want as long as no-one gets hurt but if regarded within the context of the "ripple effect" mentioned earlier the relevance and importance of it becomes clearer. In addition to this, most Wiccans subscribe to what is usually referred to as the "Law of Threefold Return" which basically means that the result of an act will reflect on the instigator times three. As you will possibly appreciate, this is worth serious consideration if what one is undertaking is potentially or deliberately harmful.

Between the clearly "white" or "black" areas of magic however lies the "grey" area. This is hard to define as it depends largely on the conscience of the individual but whatever the shade, a Witch will never undertake any act of magic without serious consideration of all the matters and questions surrounding it.

To go back to the matter of Satanic child-abuse, the suggestion that there exists some sort of organized conspiracy of Satanic based child abuse is nonsense. It is a myth created entirely by so-called Christian extremists whose intention is to ferment a modern Witchhunt in exactly the same way as the Nazis fermented action against the Jews. There is no question of that. Whilst I would not deny that there may be some sick, criminal perverts, who utilize the cover of the occult in general and Witchcraft in particular, to abuse children, these people are not Witches, they are sick and evil perverts who deserve the full weight of the law to fall upon them.

To specifically identify Wicca with child abuse is criminally irresponsible as it brands a huge number of totally innocent people as potential child abusers, and given that it is an intensely emotive issue, there is a real risk of a lynch mob mentality being provoked, with all the horror that it implies. If we are to judge a whole belief system on the strength of the activities of a few perverts, one could equally point the finger at the Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church, both of whom have suffered from the publicity of members of their own clergies being caught for this very crime. Recently, in this country alone, there have been several instances of Church of England and Roman Catholic clergy abusing children, and there is evidence to suggest that it is rife within the Roman Catholic church in America. I pass no judgment on the churches for that. This is down to individuals, and again, we come back to the concept of individual responsibility for one's own actions.

For a Witch to abuse a child is total anathema. It is contrary to everything that we hold close to our hearts. Our children are our future. If we abuse them, we run the risk of turning them into abusers. Apart from the fact that in abusing them, we abuse that which is part of the sacred, the ultimate divine source. Children born in love and unity are sacred and to be treated as such. There is no evidence, other than in the minds of those that make the allegations, that so-called Satanic abuse exists.

As to the future, and what we would like; basically all we seek is the acceptance of society to be what we are, and to practice what we choose to practice. We do not seek to impose ourselves on anybody, or anything. We wish more than anything else, to exist in harmony with members of other religions, who have the perfect right to believe what they choose to believe. All we ask is that they afford us that same right. Nobody has the right to impose their values on any other person, other than in a purely secular sociological situation where rules and regulations are necessary to avoid total anarchy.

On the spiritual level, the individual has the right to choose what form of religion he or she will follow, and how he or she will perceive his/her own God. When one looks around the world today, one can see that many of the conflicts going on in places like Yugoslavia, and Northern Ireland have a religious basis. They are based on one group of people trying to impose its religious form on another. This, we feel, is entirely wrong.

Since the onset of Christianity, it has been the fact that one religion has tried to impose itself on another. Millions of people have died in modern times for this very reason. And so much harm, and so much suffering, and so much pain could have been avoided if mankind only accepted that one person has no right to impose his religious will on another. We do not ask for converts. We do not actively seek converts. All we ask is that we be left alone in peace, to do that which we feel is right. We would dearly love to work in harmony with members of other religions, towards a greater good. Surely, although we walk along different paths, our ultimate aim should be the same - to achieve a world that can live in peace with itself. We believe that our way is one way to achieve that. We do not say that it is the only way, we say that it is one way. Our paths may not meet, they may certainly not cross, but they run in parallel, and if we can hold hands across the divides that exist between us, surely, the world will be a better place. We have a great deal in common. Each religion professes a love of humanity. Each religion professes a love of the world that surrounds us, and yet so few of those religions that profess those beliefs, do very much about it. We do not say, as I have already said, that ours is the only way, the one way, the true way. There is no one true way. The Arabs I think have a saying, and I may have this wrong, that there are a million ways to God, and it is for each one of us to find his or her own way. This, we feel, is a fundamental truth. We believe passionately, that the world could be a better place if half the people in it stopped trying to impose their will on the other half. We have no desire to do this. We wish to move forward with others who may or may not share our beliefs to a better world.

This paper may be freely copied or re-published providing it is copied or re-published in its entirety without changes, and authorship credited to James Pengelly, Pagan Federation.

James Pengelly
The Pagan Federation,
BM Box 7097,
London WCIN 3XX.
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