They call it magic...
The nights are getting darker, there's a sudden chill in the air and with Halloween just around the corner our thoughts turn to exploring the road less travelled...
We often associate Witches with Halloween (or Samhain) but living and working amongst us all there are estimated to be around 100,000 practitioners of what some describe as the “Dark Arts” (and that’s only those who complete the census each year!)
But what is the truth about these people? Do they all own black cats and dance naked with the Devil?
We asked for enlightenment from High Priest of the Craft Ashley Mortimer...
Would you begin by explaining whether or not there is a difference between Pagan, Wiccan and Druid?
Well “Pagan” is an old term taken from the Latin word “Paganus” meaning “man of the country” or “bumpkin”, used to describe anyone who follows a religious or spiritual path or belief system outside of the mainstream.
Many of the modern day Pagan faiths, including both Wicca and Druidism, claim to be modern interpretations of ancient religious faiths/practices, Druidism being based on Celtic paganism and Wicca claiming to have roots that are even older.
You have the very important title of ‘High Priest’!
What is a Wiccan High Priest and how did you become one?
High Priest in Wicca is a man who has been admitted to the second degree or higher of initiation in the Craft (which has three initiatory degrees). Likewise a High Priestess is a woman admitted to the second degree or higher.
When one is accepted for training in the Craft one studies for at least a year and a day under a mentor. If deemed suitable by the Coven they are eventually initiated into the first degree. In most Wiccan traditions second degree is considered a mark of someone competent and capable of running and leading a Coven.
A Coven? YIKES! So Covens really exist? Tell us more.
They very much do exist! Although tradition says they are made up of 13 members some have fewer and some more. They are groups of practitioners who work the Art and celebrate the seasonal cycles together, both the elders and the less experienced members. There may be related Covens (sometimes called Sister or Daughter Covens) and members do sometimes visit each other. Most Covens, by the nature of working the Craft together so closely have tight bonds within themselves, almost like families.
So tell us how many witches do we actually have here in the UK?
The 2011 census says there are just over 80,000 people who identify as “Pagan”. Of these just over 13,000 identified specifically as “Wicca” or selected “Witchcraft”. There are probably many more who did not want to take part in the census of course! Of these, however, I would guess that relatively few of those 13,000 would be able to describe themselves as initiated members of the Craft.
When did you realise that this was the path for you?
When I first became interested in Paganism and the Occult as a teenager, I was dissatisfied with how practising a mainstream religion felt to me in regard to my relationship with “God”. I think after that, although I spent many years in study and practice I probably always wanted to find someone willing to guide me on the path to initiation – they say that once the pupil is ready, the teacher somehow appears, likewise from the teacher’s perspective, when ready, the student appears – I’d never have guessed that for me it would be on the back of a late night bus in Nottingham!
Really? What an unexpected place! Have you ever encountered any negativity from your family or friends when it come to your beliefs?
My parents were, perhaps understandably, wary of me suddenly declaring interests in “the Occult” as a teenager – but they never forcibly imposed their beliefs on me and always encouraged me to grow in my own way. I think my mother, a committed Anglican Christian, came to acknowledge that the nature of faith itself brought us to a common bond of understanding and experience at least and that is something we both rather cherish now in our relationship.
Most people associate witches with Halloween but is this time of year significant to witches themselves?
Well Samhain (the original festival which Halloween is derived from) falls between the Solstices and equinoxes, its origins lie in the ancient Celtic fire festival that marks the beginning of winter.
Pagans see it as a time to connect between past and future and therefore features celebration of our connection to our ancestors, hence all the emphasis on the dead. Many Pagans celebrate with a ritual which has elements of honouring the dead.
Is Samhain the most important date in the Pagan calender?
Well really it’s ONE of the eight festivals celebrated by modern Pagans marking the journey of the Sun god through the so-called “wheel of the year”. But it’s true to say that for many it feels a bit special, some have dubbed it “Pagan New Year” and it does have a certain atmosphere to it, maybe its to do with the fact that the rest of society pays it attention too and Pagans perhaps feel “special” in some way about this.
What is the biggest misconception about witches?
There are many! I’ve been asked “do you sacrifice virgins?” “Do you drink blood?” and “Do you hold secret naked orgies?”.
These questions reflect a cultural misconception generally. As for picking the “biggest” that’s hard to say but the one that annoys me the most is probably the connection with Satan – but I know you’ll probably be coming to that question yourself later!
I can neither confirm nor deny!
Why are witches depicted with broomsticks and black cats – is there ANY relevance?
Witchcraft is essentially a fertility religion. Our ancestors made use of symbols to represent concepts. Without wishing to be crude, in terms of human reproduction the broomstick has characteristics in its shape that could be seen to represent both the male and female, shall we say? As for cats (black or otherwise) there is some debate over the ancient origins but I suspect it’s something to do with ancient Pagan moon goddesses having legends of them taking earthly form as cats. So to answer your question – YES there is relevance.
People often also associate Witches with magic spells and potions…do witches really have the ability to cast spells?
I think this depends on the definition of a “spell”. I’d suggest a simple definition might be “the art of affecting physical reality by non-physical means”. If that is so then there are lots of spells going on all the time and there are indeed techniques that those who learn the Craft are taught for how to do this.
You’re the Director of the Centre for Pagan Studies, can you tell us a bit about the organisation?
The CFPS was set up in Sussex in the 90’s by John Belham-Payne and his wife Julie with some of their Pagan friends, essentially to provide a platform to educate people accurately about Paganism and dispel some of the myths and misconceptions. It was patronised by the late Doreen Valiente (described widely as “the Mother of Modern Witchcraft”) and exists in much the same function today: to provide level-headed, factual, accurate and sensible representation of what Paganism is, does and means.
Do Pagans believe in the afterlife?
Well, with Paganism being so diverse, if you asked 100 Pagans a question you’d probably get about 200 different answers! But a belief in reincarnation (and therefore the afterlife) is one that is very common among Pagans. I think the underlying concepts of animism (the idea that all things have a non-physical aspect to their existence) fuels this idea that when the physical body “dies” the non-physical aspect – the Spirit or Soul - can continue to exist independently. So yes, I’d say that many Pagans do believe in the afterlife.
And finally...Ashley, can you set the record straight...do witches worship the Devil?
And here we are . . . I knew this was coming!
In short: No! Satan is a construct of the early Christian church. Pagans and Witches under persecution were accused of consorting with and worshipping the Devil and a number of prominent Pagan gods (like the Roman Pan) were artificially associated with him – this is perhaps where the Devil character gets his cloven hoofs. Many early male gods also had horns, again, perhaps this is how the Devil character was modelled.
Witches believe in a balanced and harmonious universe of forces (and forms) and not in the concept of an absolute good and evil. So no, witches don’t worship Satan! There we are, after 2,000 years or so, I’m sure I’ve now finally set the record straight . . . and no one will ever ask that question again, will they? Err….
A huge thank you to Ashley for his time.
You can learn more about his work and the work of both the Centre for Pagan Studies and The Doreen Valiente foundation by visiting their websites below: