Dancing To The Hidden Music

30th October 2015

It’s Hallowe’en, and supernatural spirits are out by night… but forget the Disney stereotypes of cackling old crones. Modern witches come in all shapes and sizes and their belief in magic is often profoundly spiritual, with its roots in pre-Christian paganism.

Lisa Botwright meets some contemporary witches and finds out what drew them to follow this ancient path...

The woman in front of me is attractive and well-groomed. She is nicely spoken with a North London accent that reflects her expensive, independent education. Her demeanour is warm and smiley; when she first welcomes me, she immediately puts me at ease. She speaks glowingly about her new part-time job in the film industry and her role in the shop where we meet*. Only the large and luminous crystal in her necklace might give away the fact that Annabelle is also a witch.  

Professor Ronald Hutton, who specialises in the study of pre-Christian religions in the UK and contemporary paganism, estimates that there are around 250,000 pagans in the UK. This is where it gets complicated. Witchcraft is a branch of paganism, meaning that all witches are pagan (though not all pagans are witches). Some witches (but not all) identify with the Wicca religion, which is, surprisingly, a relatively modern religion, just sixty years old, although it claims to revive an ancient heritage.

Annabelle grew up in a traditionally religious household, and says that she always felt different. She describes a lifelong connection with nature – she talks about her love for tending her herb garden when she was young, for example; a pretty unusual hobby for a teenager. It was on reading Paulo Coehlo’s Brida in her twenties, that something inside her just ‘clicked’. “I identified so strongly with the character of the witch,” she tells me. I later discover that, in his novel, Coelho describes the witch as someone who teaches the main protagonist, Brida, ‘to dance to the hidden music of the world’ – and that seems such a poetic way to illustrate how Annabelle conveys her own spirituality.

“Growing numbers of people today are dissatisfied with traditional religious structures,” argues Scott Cunningham, a prominent Wiccan who has written nearly thirty books about witchcraft. He finds it unsurprising that paganism is one of the fastest growing religions in the UK. “Many are searching for a personally involving religion, one that celebrates both physical and spiritual realities. Wicca, with its spiritual roots in antiquity, acceptance of magic and mysterious nature have made it particularly appealing.”

A belief in a universal energy – or life force – is central to a witch’s religious beliefs, and because of their reverence for nature, this manifests as a male and female energy from which all life springs. The male god is often linked with the sun, and the female with the moon – the reason why solar and lunar cycles play such an important part in pagan festivals. Annabelle tells me how she meditates every day to connect with her gods, and how she feels their “spirit around her all the time.” 

Richard Hearnden-Webb is a male witch (yes: witch – “warlock or wizard is far too Hollywood or Harry Potter-like”) and echoes Annabelle’s sentiment: “It’s a connection to the world around you and feeling the energies around us that go unnoticed by most.” Richard had also felt the same pull from a very young age. “Ever since I was very small I had a fascination for anything to do with witchcraft. Only later when I studied the genealogy of my family, I discovered that witchcraft had run through my family for generations.” 

It is by drawing on and directing this natural energy that witches find their power to cast spells and perform magic. It is also the power behind any kind of divination such as tarot reading. Cunningham defines magic as “the projection of natural energies to produce needed effects”. Annabelle, in fact, sees magic as a way to bring happiness to people and casts herself in the role of healer or counsellor. “People who come to me for a (tarot) reading or to cast spells for them are really seeking advice and reassurance. I might also recommend a book or crystals, or maybe Reiki healing.” Her ‘powers’ are wide-ranging. One client was particularly distressed by the behaviour of her neighbours, who were noisy and abusive. “She initially asked for a spell to persuade them to move away, but this worried me and instead, together, we created a spell to ‘soften their hearts’. My client later emailed me to let me know that her neighbours had popped round to apologise and they are now on very friendly terms.”  
This is all very well, but is Annabelle’s natural altruism really representative? Phoebe Stevens is a practising witch who has appeared on TV and radio, and is a regular on Sky TV’s Psychic Today. “If someone wants a spell, they need to tell me their requirements,” she says. “I then decide if I want to take them on as a client or not. I do not sell spells to hurt anyone and I do not sell curses. I see no problem in selling good spells if they genuinely help someone. Why be a witch if we can’t help people?”   

Thinking of the cackling megalomaniac witch of popular fiction, I’m wondering if there isn’t there a temptation to use this power to seek advantage or profit? Wiccans believe in the Law of Threefold Return: the belief, similar to karma, that any intention to harm will rebound far more powerfully upon the instigator. However, some witches reject Wicca and speak mysteriously of the ‘old ways’. Richard is a ‘traditional witch’  who believes in “no rede or code” and sees karma as a “new idea linked to the coming of Buddhism and Hinduism.” When asked if he would ever use his powers in a negative way, he says, “All too often I am asked if I am a white witch, which I find absurd. To say a person is light or dark is unrealistic… we all have both within us. When I cast [spells] I like to do so with good intentions; however, in the past, I have cast with ill-intent and have felt terrible for doing so afterwards. Perhaps that is karma – one’s own conscience.”  

Just like their acceptance of light and dark as intrinsic to human nature, the cycle of birth and death is integral to a witch’s belief system. Their biggest festivals mark the seasons – as the sun appears to die, then is re-born again in the spring. Samhain (pronounced So-wain), which coincides with Hallowe’en, marks the beginning of the winter, and is a festival of darkness, in contrast to spring’s Beltane which is celebrated as a festival of light and fertility. I’m intrigued to learn that, in ceremonies to celebrate Samhain and other festivals, known as sabbats, those other stereotypical trappings of a witch – the broomstick, the bubbling cauldron and the black cloak – do play a genuine role.

In a typical outdoor ritual, the witches will first define a sacred space or ‘magic circle’, which will be marked by objects from nature in tune with the season: quartz crystals or autumn fruit perhaps. The four natural elements will also be represented – candle for light, salt for earth, incense to represent air and a cup of water. The broomstick is used to metaphorically purify the space, before the ceremony begins. In the cauldron a fire may be lit, and specially chosen herbs will be added; the witches may or may not wear simple robes, with a cloak to keep them warm. The lack of prescription in paganism means that everyone is free to celebrate as they please; as Annabelle says: “The ceremonies are uplifting and positive, they are all about honouring nature.”  

There is a quote in witch circles which says: “Educate people so that ‘witch’ is not evil, but ancient and positive.” Richard is confident that society’s perceptions are changing, that “tolerance is far more infectious that intolerance,” and says “I have many friends of different religions; they all know I am a witch and have no problem with it at all.” He sums it up with good-humour: “life is for living and doing whatever makes you happy without influencing or disrupting the choice of others. The more we show that to be a witch is the most natural thing in the world, the faster the world will no longer see us as unusual or ‘spooky’…”

*Annabelle (not her real name) works at Destiny Rising, a holistic shop and therapy centre based at Battlers Green Farm, Radlett • www.destinyrisingshop.com 

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