Popular Witchcraft And Magic

Popular magic and witchcraft have been a major theme of this senes, and their history in modern Europe is treated in another part of this volume; it is necessary here only to look at those few aspects of the subject in England which have a direct bearing upon the ongms of modern pagan witchcraft. The first is the very large amount of data, most collected by folklorists between 1870 and 1930. Although none was gained from an actual practitioner, there is plenty to reflect the experience of clients, and as the process of collecting continued, the people who supplied the information were recorded increasingly in their own idiom. There can have been very few aspects of the activities of self-professed or suspected workers of magic which went wholly unobserved.

ft must be emphasized at once how numerous those workers were. Nineteenth-century England and Wales abounded with cunning folk, conjurers and magical healers, occupying a hierarchy ascending from the village charmer who had power over specific human and animal ailments to the regional magician, usually resident in a town, who countered hostile magic, predicted the future, and traced stolen goods, in 1816 the small Yorkshire seaport of Whitby had no less than eight 'wise women5 as permanent residents (Gutch, 1901: 208). This means that in England and Wales at the present day there must be thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people who are descended, relatively recendy, from workers of traditional magic. This figure would in turn be greatly expanded if it incorporated the different, and also substantial, category of individuals who did not offer such services but had none the less acquired well-established reputations for bemg witches.

Another specially pertinent feature of the subject is the total lack of a dividing line between popular and learned magic. Most Victorian 'cunning folk' and many of the charmers possessed books relevant to their craft, and often very important to it. Many were printed, and some m manuscript. The fete of these works is seldom recorded. Doubdess many were discarded and destroyed upon the deaths of the owners, but there remains the possibility that many more passed down through families, and that a large number of such texts were still owned and valued by people in early twentieth-century England. They still regularly come mto the possession of occult booksellers, and I am aware of several manuscript collections of spells preserved (and treasured) in private hands at the present day.

This situation was the more likely in that the world of English popular magic adapted rather than atrophied during the twentieth century. Charm-en of human and animal diseases were still practising in large numbers, known only to neighbours, in Devon and Cornwall during the 1950s and 1960s (Thomas, 1953; Brown, 1970). They probably still do, and there is no reason to suppose that these two counties are exceptional. The higher-grade cunning folk did disappear, but only to the extent that they metamorphosed into modem astrologers, Tarotreaders, and providers of a range of healing therapies grouped loosely under the name of 'natural medicine'. Many of these self-consciously linked themselves to the old tradition of popular magic. It is possible that there was a period in the early and mid-twentieth century in which the number of practitioners of occult remedies did contract absolutely, before a later revival; but this has yet to be proved.

It is also important in this context to consider the organisation of the traditional English witches and magicians. Apart from the very rare phenomenon of the cunmng-man-and-son, the avowed practitioners worked alone; indeed, they were mosdy in direct competition for clients, save in the occasional case that one would be paid for taking off curses supposedly directed by another. Individuals who were locally suspected of being malevolent witches, without making any formal profession of a connection with magic, seem generally to have been unusually isolated and antisocial people. There is a slight difference between accounts of real people and popular perceptions of the activities of the nameless and amorphous witch-figures upon whom general misfortunes could be projected. Some Sussex people had a belief that evil witches were all secretly in league with each other, although they would pretend no acquaintance in public (Simpson, 1973: 75—6). In Essex it was said that those on opposite sides of the river Crouch would visit each other, individually, sailing across m wash tubs or flying on hurdles (The Times, 27 January 1959). South of the river lay the isolated village of Canewdon, notorious m local opinion for always being the residence of six evil witches, whose identities were concealed. They were supposed to work separately, but to be subject to a single male wizard, a Master of the Witches (Maple, 1960a, b); such an arrangement was not thought to exist anywhere else.

Witches were reputed to be more sociable in the Celtic fringe. All those in westernmost Cornwall were said to feast together m the Trewa district every Midsummer Eve, m a counterpart to the bonfire parties traditionally held that night by the western Cornish (Hunt, 1881: 328). In the same area witches were rumoured to gather more irregularly at rocking stones, and a legend told of a hunter who happened upon a meeting of them in one of the enigmatic local Iron Age tunnels called fogous, and .. was driven mad (Bottrell, 1870: 1.245-7; Courtney, 1890: 145). The ^Jf^' ^' folklorist Mane Trevelyan likewise recorded that m Wales they were

reported to revel at prehistoric and Roman monuments, on rocky islets, and (above all) on mountain peaks; although there is litde trace of such stones in other Welsh collections, and her work lies generally under some suspicion of fabncation (Trevelyan, 1909: 207-9). Manx and Scottish lore, however, is famously full of accounts of sociable witches.

This all makes the contrast with England the more striking. There families which had a generally disreputable local reputation were sometimes suspected of witchcraft as well; a well-recorded example is the Harts at Latchingdon in eastern Essex (Maple, 1962: 178). The Shropshire folklonst Charlotte Burne thought that certain outcrops might have been regarded as meeting places for witches, but the stones might instead have referred to spmts (Burne, 1888: 157-8). A man at Willoughton, Lincolnshire, asserted that there were witch 'conventions' at certain local landmarks, but it is not clear how eccentnc his opinion was (Rudkin, 1934: 250), Leigh Common, at the north end of Dorset, was pointed out as such a meeting-place (Udal, 1922: 212). Finally, a millwnght in the Cambridgeshire Fens claimed that in his youth he had spied upon a meeting of six witches in a derelict cottage, and described their bizarre costumes m elaborate detail; but he may have been telling a tall story (Porter, 1969: 167). This seems to be all, among the enormous collections of Victorian and Edwardian witch-lore, and even in these few cases the supposition seems to be that the witches were solitary operators who met up for social reasons rather than to work ntuals. The Scottish word 'coven' was utterly unknown m nineteenth-century English popular culture.

Likewise, there is no sign among these records that witches of any kind venerated, or were believed to venerate, ancient deities. Cunning folk were usually assumed to be Chnstians, and many obviously were, with an unusual intensity of devotion. Where bad witches were reputedly associated with supernatural beings (which was m the minority of cases), these were usually imps in animal form (especially in East Anglia and Essex), larger demons, or the Devil himself. The images of these entities were thoroughly Christian, and there is no sign that pagan gods were hidden behind them. The sole possible exception consists of an identical story told of two different Shropshire witches, Pnss Morgan and Betty Chidley, who when forced to take off destructive spells by saying 'God bless allegedly tried to say 'My God bless. . The narrators of the tales, however, plainly identified this other god as Satan (Burne, 1888: 151-3)

There existed some traditions that witches and cunning folk passed on their powers, although these were localized and inconsistent. To an extent they were supposed to be hereditary, most famously by seventh children of seventh children, but this genealogical phenomenon rarely occurred (which was of course the whole point), and a talent for magic seems to have passed in blood no more securely than any other. The Hames or

Hams family of Cwrt y Cadno, Carmarthenshire, was an exceptional case where it did, for two generations Da vies, 1911: 232-58). The most famous of all Essex wizards, 'Cunning' Murrell, produced 20 children, not one of whom seems to have inherited or iearned his skill (Maple, 1960a: 36-43). The second most famous, George Pickmgill of Canewdon, did sire a younger George who manifested some of his powers, but did little to practise them (Maple, 1960b: 249). The greatest cunning man of nineteenth-century County Durham, Wrights on of Stokesiey, tried without success to transmit his craft to his own son, and eventually left his books to a nephew who seemed more promising but turned out to be a hopeless failure (Brockie, 1886: 21—7).: It seems possible, however, that the lowest grade of arcane specialist, the village charmers, had more success m transmitting skills down through families (Thomas, 1953; 304—5; Tongue, 1965; 76; Brown, 1970: 38-42;).

In south-eastern England, between the Wash and the Channel, there existed a strong tradition of a different sort, that dying witches had to pass on their power before they could be released from this life. In Sussex it was believed to transfer in spirit form from the old to the new owner's body, and there were tales told of the desperate efforts of witches m their death agony to find somebody willing to take it (Simpson, 1973: 76). An oudymg example of this idea is represented by the story of one at Burnley, Lancashire, who breathed it into the mouth of a friend (Hardwick, 1872: 122-3). Some in the Cambridgeshire chalklands were thought to pass on their familiars in the more tangible form of white mice (Porter, 1969: 161). A dying cunmng woman in an unnamed part of East Anglia was rumoured to have given her successor a kind of regalia, consisting of a fox-pelt collar, worn next to the skin with another pelt hanging from it in front (Newman, 1940: 36). The only thing resembling any sort of initiation ceremony of a new witch by an existing one occurs m a cautionary tale from Crosby, at; the north end of Lincolnshire, where the old witch made her apprentice bend over to touch her toes and recite 'Ail that I ;ave a-tween me finger-tips and me toes I give to thee5. The point of the tale was that the girl cunmngiy added 'God Almighty5, and so saved her soul (Rudkm, 1934: 262).

On Britain's western fringe there are traces of a tradition by which a hereditary magical power was passed more formally. Anglesey witches were supposed to hand on their skills from mother to daughter (Owen, 1887: 222-3). In the Isle of Man during the late nineteenth century, the famous Ceiticist Sir John Rhys found that the knowledge of charming ailments supposed to pass alternately between genders down generations; thus, father-daughter-grandson (Rhys, 1900: 1.300). The same custom obtained among charmers m Cornwall and Devon in the twentieth century, and may have been an old one there also; although it is not recorded before then, and could even have been inspired by Rhys's famous book (Thomas, 1953; Brown, 1970).

It will become obvious from all the above that in many major respects, modern pagan witchcraft would have very litde m common with the traditional magic to which its practitioners often looked as a precursor. The two would, however, be linked m two important ways. First, the old-style magical craft would bequeath to the new pagan religion a mass of natural lore, spells and charms, which would be incorporated into its operative functions. Second, the personnel of the new religion sometimes themselves belonged to families which had practised these techniques, and so represented a human bridge between the two. They would umte this operative magic with a Masonic system of organization and initiation, and a language and structure of religious belief which derived from yet another source, and which must now be considered in turn.

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