Witchcraft – Bats and Broomsticks

A brief history of Witchcraft, complicated by misunderstanding and later revision

The father of Witchcraft is widely acknowledged as Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), who in 1954 published Witchcraft Today, claiming the existence of an unbroken traditional practice of Witchcraft surviving from pre-christian to contemporary times. In this he was heavily influenced by the work of Dr. Margaret Murray, whose book, The God of the Witches, was published in 1931, following her earlier work, The Witch Cult in Western Europe in 1921. Gardner also claimed initiation into a traditional coven of such practising witches.

These claims – an unbroken tradition, and Gardner’s initiation into it – have both been the subjects of intense scholarly debate, and I refer anyone interested in the myriad layers of this debate to the excellent and impeccably-researched Triumph of the Moon (1999) by Professor Ronald Hutton of Bristol University. Other research in this area has been done by Philip Heselton; Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival and Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration.

The popular myths of Witchcraft are all more complex or misleading than they first appear – the associations of Witches with Bats, Broomsticks, Cauldrons and Pointed Hats all have different stories to tell. The first known depiction of a witch flying is on a cleft stick, not a broom, for example.

Another common myth is of the “burning times” in which Gardner stated that perhaps nine million practitioners of Witchcraft had been persecuted and burnt. This figure is a gross exaggeration based on little evidence or research; the most commonly accepted figure is now closer to 40,000 victims over a 250 year period, with the majority of those executions in Germany – and most of these victims of persecution would have identified themselves as Christian. And not all were women, nor were the majority of victims mid-wives or poor. In England, those accused of Witchcraft were hung and not burnt.

There were no real comparisons between the accusations of witchcraft during this period – which involved cursing, blasphemy, causing ruin, and consorting with the Devil – and the Witchcraft revival since 1950. The idea of a coven of thirteen was not even a common factor in most of the trials, and first appeared in the trial of Isobel Gowdie, in 1662, disappearing until revived and popularised as a common element of Witchcraft by Margaret Murray in 1921.

However, this period of witch-hunts did provide the link between the worship of the Devil and the practice of Witchcraft. Many victims of the persecutions between 1450 and 1700 were tortured and confessed to consorting with the Devil. As Witches since the 1950 revival have no reason to identify themselves with Christian belief, the concept of worshipping the Devil or practising Satanism has no real validity to those practitioners.

Having briefly touched on some areas of fact and fallacy in the history and popular conception of Witchcraft, tomorrow we will look at the present state and future of Witchcraft as a developing pagan religion.

Marcus Katz is an MA student of Western Esotericism at Exeter University. He is a teacher of Witchcraft, Tarot and Ritual Magick in the Lake District at the Far Away Centre
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How a dark night for Paris was made easier by British messages of support

The French Ambassador to the UK reflects on the Paris attacks, and how Britain's response helped make the aftermath more bearable.

I was at a dinner with members of London’s French community when news of the 13 November attacks in Paris first reached me. Our initial reaction – one that I think was shared the world over – was of shock. Young people, out on a Friday night, doing normal things that young people do: chatting, laughing, drinking, dancing. Enjoying the pleasures that are their right, in a city that lives and breathes music, conversation and, above all, liberty.

I felt a tragic sense of déjà vu as I followed the events unfolding on television. Less than a year ago, our country was attacked by murderers and fanatics who wanted to destroy the values that we hold dear. And again on 13 November, I watched as France fell victim to another cowardly and barbaric attack on its way of life.


Fraternité, solidarité

The grief that was shared by the French community here in London was made easier to bear by the messages of support that flooded in from around the country – if anything, even more than after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. I received countless phone calls, emails and letters from British friends, dignitaries, members of the public and faith groups, all conveying sympathy and friendship. I was particularly touched by a statement presented to me by representatives of 140 leaders of the Muslim community.

None was more powerful than the football match between England and France at Wembley, just four days after three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the Stade de France in Paris. Never has the word “friendly” taken on such a literal meaning. It wasn’t about the football that night; it was about coming together and showing that we won’t live in terror. There have been so many stirring renditions of the French national anthem these past weeks – not least that of the French bass Nicolas Courjal following my appearance on The Andrew Marr Show – but the singing of La Marseillaise by the whole stadium, including the Prime Minister and Prince William, really did move me. I think the front cover of the Metro the next morning summed it up best: “England. France. United.”


Fitting tributes

The embassy in London was a focal point for many who wanted to show their support in the wake of the attacks. A sea of flowers and candles quickly formed outside, with a constant stream of people coming to sign the book of condolence that has now been sent to Paris. Once again, the British people showed that we can count on them in difficult times. I led a minute’s silence alongside the Home Secretary, Theresa May, which was observed all around the country in memory of the victims of the attacks.

Her presence was fitting, given the close relationship that our respective home secretaries have built. There are constant exchanges between the French and British security services, for the threat of terrorism is not faced by France alone. The whole of Europe must ensure that stronger security measures are put in place. We wish to preserve Schengen and the border checks are only temporary measures. But the external border needs to be much more secure and European border guards need to be present.


Beyond Calais

I’m glad that, after a tough summer, our message that Calais is only one part of a Europe-wide migrant crisis seems to have got through. The kind of criticism I heard in July, when I was asked time and again by the press why France wasn’t doing more to prevent migrants crossing the tunnel, is now much rarer. Indeed, Franco-British co-operation has been effective in Calais. But the “Jungle” is still there, inhabited partly by people who would qualify for refugee status and who will need to be taken care of. France is already doing a lot in that regard.


Current climate

Migration was on the agenda last week at the London School of Economics, where I opened a conference on its link with climate change, the last in a series of Franco-British events that the embassy has held in the run-up to the UN climate summit in Paris, which starts on 30 November. Life has to go on as normally as possible after the atrocities. Any­thing else would be a victory for the terrorists. The sense of momentum ahead of the summit is strong and hasn’t been diminished by the attacks. If anything, the sense of urgency is greater than ever. This summit is about securing the future of humanity – what could be more important than that?

Nuclear energy is one of the ways we can reduce CO2 emissions. President Xi Jinping of China’s recent visit to the UK resulted in decisive steps being taken towards the building of a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point by the French company EDF. This project will provide secure, low-carbon energy to UK homes and reinforce the alliance between France and Britain for decades to come.


Old alliances

On Monday I attended a breakfast in Paris between David Cameron and François Hollande. Witnessing this new testimony to the strength of the century-old Entente Cordiale, I could not help but think, bemused, of those commentators who claim that to ensure the success of the British renegotiation, there will have to be a highly visible Franco-
British spat at a forthcoming European council . . . Speaking of friendship in times of crisis, two days before the Paris attacks, I presented 19 British veterans with the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honour, in recognition of their role in securing France’s liberation during the Second World War. Over 1,000 have received their medals so far and many more will get them in the months to come. I’ve received a number of poignant letters from them as a result. In the midst of the grief and despair, it will be all the more moving to honour these veterans. They are a reminder that courage, determination and, above all, solidarity will triumph.

Sylvie Bermann is the French ambassador to the UK 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State