The ranks of modern witches are being swollen by new converts, but Diane Purkiss finds they are more likely to be concerned with green issues than black arts.
As today, December 22, marks the winter solstice, readers will be aware that it was once a pagan festival. Few may know that for thousands of people in Britain, it still is. The revival of paganism, or modern witchcraft, may come to be seen as one of the most significant events in the history of religion this century, but it has not yet attracted a great deal of academic attention.
The novelty value of the topic in journalistic circles should not disguise its possible significance. There is some hard evidence to suggest that it may be one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States, and one of the most widely influential. Numbers are hard to estimate, especially since many are reluctant to "come out of the broom closet" and others are only involved for short periods. One expert suggests a figure of 83,000 pagans in the United States, and much larger numbers have been suggested worldwide.
The revival in paganism offers an unusual opportunity to see religion being born before your eyes, which is why we should be wary of any tendency to trivialise its creators. As a corrective to the image of modern witches as Mystic Megs with brains offered up by the Sunday supplements, we might consider the intriguing mix of politics and rights discourses in this new religious movement. In general people are increasingly disaffected by traditional politics and parties. Yet modern witches have been able to use the figure of the witch to create new and significant political alliances between environmental and civil rights issues. Modern witches see environmental issues as civil rights issues, as about the right to breathe clean air and to bring up children in a green countryside rather than in a grey urban wasteland.
Moreover, many pagans increasingly see paganism itself as a civil rights issue because of the importance nature assumes in it. Witches believe (not without reason) that their attitude to nature as a sacred space accessible to everyone threatens powerful interests. They also know that they are likely to be misunderstood, and regale listeners with depressing stories of children taken into care and of charges of Satanic abuse.
However, witches are particularly perturbed about the impact of the Criminal Justice Act on their freedom. The parts of the act directed against travellers address anxieties about illicit use of the "countryside" and especially of ancient sites, infringements of property rights, and the movement of people about the nation. The accompanying rhetoric about raves, smells, noise, dirty and unkempt children and sheer weirdness pits middle England, rural style, against its untidy other. The bottom line of this rhetoric is not property or privacy, but the assumption that the undeserving poor will stay in the cities, leaving the countryside as an unchanging refuge from them.
Ironically, the middle-class equation of the country with a cosy, idealised escape from city life has now ensured that the countryside is filling up with exactly the people the middle classes left the city to evade. In an exactly similar fashion, the tourist buses beloved of Stonehenge's curators and New Age buses abhorred by them are drawn to the site by the same discourses. Pagans, committed to nature, see no special reason why their children should grow up looking at concrete overpasses instead of woods just because they may not be able to afford a barn conversion.
There is a battle going on about different models of the countryside: one model consists of an orderly and property-owning society valued for its orderliness, and the other of communal ownership of nature valued for its wildness. These views cannot inhabit the same country without conflict, and the Criminal Justice Act lets everyone know whose side the Government is on.
Yet the middle-class owner of the country kitchen and the traveller in the van have allied around other issues, such as opposition to roadbuilding. Feelings on this subject run very deep among modern witches. One witch even says that black magicians are trying to destroy Britain's sacred sites by roadbuilding, re-zoning and housing developments to strengthen their hand in their occult battles with white witches. This indicates the spiritual significance of what is being destroyed for pagans. Daffy as this may sound, such motives connect with more orthodox concerns about preserving the countryside, and with modern witches' belief that nature belongs to everyone.
Paganism allows "ordinary" people (that is, not landowners) to feel that the whole of the countryside is their concern. It makes the dispossessed feel rich and included. The branch of the "heritage" industry that has grown up around pagan interpretations of the past fosters a sense of connection with ancient monuments for people who may feel excluded from more orthodox discourses of the preservation of great houses or small ones. The same idea, a kind of green common ownership, is expressed in the Twyford Downs protests, which drew a wide range of pagan groups such as Earth Saboteurs for the Liberation Front. Similarly, the Oxlease Wood protests, which succeeded in preventing the extension of the road system, involved the active participation of Dragon, an ecopagan campaigning group that casts spells to help the environment.
Occult forces are part of the campaigning process. Some members of Dragon believe that their campaign was aided by the natural forces and earth-spirits that still live in Oxlease Wood. Others were inspired by the evidence of sacred burial uncovered at Twyford. "I saw ancient graves containing seven-foot skeletons," says one member. Such finds create new opportunities for magical protests that recall the Yippies' famous attempt to levitate the Pentagon in 1968. Unlike those of the Yippies, however, the pagans' spells are seriously intended, combining the theatricality characteristic of environmental protests with the scandal of magic against the machines of the developers.
At Oxlease, one angry pagan remarked to a journalist that nobody would put a motorway through a cathedral, so why put one through a wood? In his statement, discourses of freedom of religion that date back to the Enlightenment rub shoulders with a newer rhetoric of the value of the whole of nature as sacred. It is this new coalition of discourses that is helping to produce a new religion with a new politics.
Diane Purkiss is a lecturer in English at the University of Reading. She has just completed a book on modern witchcraft.