The Meaning of Witchcraft

Around two decades ago I moved from Brighton on the south coast of England to rural North Devon. I recall searching online in an effort to learn about the place where I’d decided to raise my family and put down roots. Through this research I discovered the tale of the ‘Bideford witches’. Their story, the tale of the last people of England to be executed for the crime of witchcraft, haunted me. The trial of 1682, in common with many others, was the result of a perfect storm of factors and, like most witch trials of the early modern period, was far from a rural mob lynching. Rather, the Bideford witch trial unfolds at a time when our modern society is beginning to take shape, one in which both the inception and execution of the witch-hunt are led by the then cultural elites. 

Soon after my arrival in North Devon I was among a group of occultists who performed a ritual in memory of those three executed women; Mary Trembles, Susannah Edwards and Temperance Lloyd. We processed through the town on a rainy day, laying flowers at places these ladies would have known; the steep lane in which the Devil was said to have appeared to one of them, and the medieval bridge which spans the turbulent river Torridge. Our ceremony is documented in my book Magick Works. The observant reader will notice that the cover of the book shows a red rose of the type we offered. The artwork also includes the seals of the Pomba Gira spirits, beings often associated with the outcast, the dispossessed and with ‘fallen’ women. One material result of this ritual was the painting that adorns my living room by Greg Humphries entitled ‘Southwestern Arrow’ also known as ‘Truth and Reconciliation’.

Many years later I found myself working alongside colleagues in the local museum installing a display about the Bideford trial. Our installation was opened to coincide with the publication of a new book The Last Witches of England: A tragedy of Sorcery and Superstition by John Callow of the University of Suffolk. At the end of this page there is a link to the interview I filmed with John on the occasion of his book launch at The Burton Art Gallery and Museum. I was pleased to assist John with his research and honoured to see a quote from Magick Works in a chapter where he discusses the legacy of the trial. The Last Witches of England is both an engaging page-turner of a read, as well as a landmark text in the study of the Bideford case and its wider implications.

Pondering an orb at The Burton Art Gallery & Museum with curator Nicole Hickin and author John Callow

The word ‘witch’ has a multiplicity of meanings, many of which are elegantly defined in Ronald Hutton’s masterfully and wide ranging book The Witch: A History of Fear from Ancient Times to the Present. As Ronald explains, for the vast majority of its history ‘witch’ meant a person who deployed malicious magic. This evil supernatural power might be enacted through the agency of the animal-shaped familiar spirits of English witch trials. Alternatively, on the European mainland, witches were believed to cast malevolent spells as agents of an underground satanic conspiracy, which met at blasphemous sabbats to plot the overthrow of the Christian State.

The narratives behind witch-hunting, such as who gets accused of being a witch, vary across time and culture. That’s the reason the Bideford museum installation includes a black mirror, beneath which visitors may read the following:

Black mirror
Black mirrors, crystal balls and other reflective surfaces are traditionally used for ‘scrying’; the practice of looking into an object in the hope of detecting significant messages or visions.
In many places witches are imagined as older women. However, in other locations people persecuted as witches may be predominantly male (Russia and Iceland), red-haired (medieval Europe), LGBTQ+ (Tanzania), albino (Southern Africa), or children (Nigeria).
Sometimes wealthy people are accused of being witches, more commonly the poor are singled out.
Our reflection in the black mirror might remind us that potentially anyone could be accused of being a dangerous witch.
Even you.

Black Mirror

The black mirror on the case was actually manufactured by a witch, but a witch in the modern sense of the word. Levannah Morgan is one of the most well-respected members of the witchcraft community in Britain. The depth of her practice is beautifully conveyed in her book A Witch’s Mirror: The Craft of Magic released by Nikki Wyrd’s publishing house The Universe Machine. This much sought after text, out of print since the first edition of 2013, will be a valuable addition to the library of experienced and aspiring witches alike. The new edition contains glorious full colour photographs of the magical objects that Levannah creates and an invitation for readers to discover their own creative approach to magic..

This modern conception of witchcraft is very different from its previous malign meanings. Levannah Morgan writes:

What is witchcraft? Witchcraft is worshipping the Old
Gods on a moonlit night, on a high tor on Dartmoor. Witchcraft
is tying nine knots in a red thread. Witchcraft is walking in the
spirit world. Witchcraft is catching the moon in a mirror.
Witchcraft is collecting rowan berries. Witchcraft is living with
familiar spirits. Witchcraft is making a circle of holed stones.
Witchcraft is dancing with the Horned God. Witchcraft is
sitting on a deserted beach as the tides ebb and flow. Witchcraft
is the oldest thing there is. Witchcraft is all of these things and
much more.

While the meaning of ‘witchcraft’ varies across time and culture, there are undoubtedly points of contact between the notion of witchcraft understood as malefica and witchcraft in the modern Pagan sense. One of these is the feminine or female quality of witchcraft; with women being understood, particularly in early modern European cultures, as inherently sinful; tainted with unruly wildness and sexuality, and therefore to be commonly excluded from religious office and temporal power. In contrast, modern forms of neopagan witchcraft often celebrate the dark, the mysterious, the feminine, and accordingly depict the sacred as a Goddess and in those circles women often take a leading role.

Another relationship is perhaps a sense of solidarity felt by modern witches for victims of ancient, historic and indeed modern witchcraft persecutions. The social processes whereby unfounded accusations, whether of impoverished, abandoned women (as in the Bideford case) or of modern Pagans (as in ‘Satanic Panic’ phenomena) in both cases can lead to exclusion, scapegoating and to violence.

These days, whilst witch-hunts may be framed in language other than of the Biblical injunction ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’, an identical process of false allegations and cultural othering is played out again and again. Certainly we need systems, services and cultures in place where actual harms can be disclosed, where people can be safeguarded and appropriate action taken, but we need also be mindful of the witch-hunting pattern, whatever new vocabulary it comes clothed in.

While witch-hunting seems common to many cultures (though by no means all, as Ronald Hutton’s book explores) there are are ways in which we might mitigate this behaviour. We might, for instance, insist on the requirement for verifiable evidence rather than relying only on hear-say or, as in the Salem trials, ‘spectral evidence’. (As an example of the importance of evidence in the legal process check out this early article on this blog to discover how this requirement changed the course of the witch-hunts in 17th century Spain.)

A second strategy is to consider the possibility that the vociferous accuser may be mentally unwell, deluded, or simply a bully attempting to bolster their social significance within society, often at the expense of a minority community. (Making false allegations against marginalised groups, and occasionally elites, is a common social process. The conflation of Jews with witches in early modern Europe is one example of this.)

A third, also important in relation to the Basque witch trials, is that it helps to involve someone from outside a community to evaluate what’s going on. (The relative absence of a functioning judiciary during the English Civil War was what gave Matthew Hopkins the opportunity to find and execute witches for money).

And perhaps one of the most important points; to realise that just because someone in authority asserts the reality of (malefic) witchcraft, or the ‘scientifically demonstrable’ sub-human nature of Jews or homosexuals, the inherent criminality of refugees, or whatever, that doesn’t mean they’re right. It’s wise to remember that cultural othering and dehumanization is just as likely to develop top down as bottom up, and that when it emerges from cultural elites that dehumanization can include legal and sometimes lethal force. (History is full of examples and pretty much every war between nations is dependant on the process of dehumanizing the enemy.)

There is perhaps no single strategy that might stop us from dehumanizing people and vilifying, imprisoning or even murdering ‘witches’ but certain measures – insisting on verifiable evidence, considering the intentions behind allegations, inviting impartial observers to be present, and being prepared to challenge authority – all play a role in putting the brakes on cultural othering. However, these strategies only work if we can also deeply remember our shared humanity, even with those whom we might perceive as ‘bad people’, and to cultivate our compassion and kindness. Perhaps if we can do this we might see the realisation of the aspiration engraved on a stone plaque in Exeter dedicated to the memory of those three Bideford women: ‘In the hope of an end to persecution & intolerance’.

Julian Vayne

One thought on “The Meaning of Witchcraft

  1. Dayonis says:

    Thank you!

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