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                    Being A Witch in Britain Today 
                           by James Pengelly

Written for the Newcastle University Conference; Encounters of

I am regional co-ordinator 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
organisations 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 organisation 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

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

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 Shakespearian 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 centre,
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 harbour 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 rationalised and explained, and
developed beyond that which our ancestors were able to
comprehend, the fact that people do still harbour 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 neighbour 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 realise 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 behaviour, 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 utilise 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 recognised 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 practising
pre-Christian Paganism.  I would say, that while they are not
necessarily deluding themselves, they are mis-leading themselves.
What we are practising today is the spirit of ancient Paganism.
We cannot possibly practise 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

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, everytime
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

So, what then, is our relationship with our perception of
divinity? As 1 have already mentioned, we personalise aspects of
the ultimate creative source. These personalisations 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 personalise
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 christianised 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, christianised 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 realise 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 colours 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 organised 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 utilise 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 judgement 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 practise
what we choose to practise. 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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