I will be looking at magic in prehistoric Europe and the part it played in pre-Neolithic/Neolithic cultures. From this, I hope to reach an understanding of the part magic played in this time and how it progressed into later cultures. As there is no literary evidence for this time frame we must rely on the archaeological finds, in particular various phallic imagery, statuettes, cave art and monuments. These elements all point in one way or another towards an involvement with the religious beliefs of the time.
It is hard to draw ‘definite conclusions’ about the people of this era as the relevant evidence does not exist in sufficient quantities to validate any claim to ‘definite fact’. However, with the evidence mentioned above I intend to provide a possible religious background to prehistoric magic. The contributions of the Anglo-Saxons and Roman-Britons to the development of magic are important. However, with the introduction of Christianity in the seventh century much of these traditions have been lost to obscurity. For the sake of thoroughness however, the ‘word’ of the Anglo-Saxon culture and its tributaries will be discussed as will its surviving qualities in Roman Britain. The modern Wicca religion in all its forms shows the current stage of magic in its continuing development.
With this area of the study it is possible to look at the effect magic has had on the public after being thrust into the media in the 1950’s. Looking at modern ‘pop’ culture as well as the reactions it has had on the public, I will be able to look at the effect magic has had on our culture as well as its current role in our society compared with its previous functions throughout British history. By its conclusion, I hope to have shown how magic has developed over the centuries and how its continual evolution has effected not only our culture, but society and attitudes towards Paganism. The British Isles has a long history of magic, affiliated with religion or otherwise. The evidence for this topic of history goes all the way back to the people that first inhabited this island. Different forms of burial practice have always existed, whether by an innate human spiritual nature or pure practicality.
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A rough dating of a grave in the Gower peninsula places it before the last period of glaciation, so approximately 25, 000 BCE. After the Ice Age that follows the date above dissipates more grave sites from the Palaeolithic era have been found. One burial in Gough’s Cave had the flesh stripped from its bones; although this immediately gives the idea of cannibalism within the history of the British Isles, the likelihood that this was a burial rite is also, if not more so, quite probable. Without the aid of any form of literary evidence, we are left with very little data to clarify the archaeological remains. Due to this lack of diversity with the evidence we have, the many theories behind the burials and ceremonies are backed only by this sphere of evidence and are thus quite numerous. Surprisingly, there is a significant quantity of evidence for this time frame in Europe; unfortunately, this evidence is scattered in the north of the continent, excluding Britain.
This lack of evidence in itself gives us something to make conclusions from, as it would be quite difficult for any civilization to have inhabited a place such as the British Isles and leave no trace for archaeologists to find. The easiest and most sensible conclusion is to say that as of yet, England was yet to become a permanent settlement. With an Ice Age having just come to an end, England was still covered in Ice sheets, meaning that England was still too hostile an environment for permanent settlers This evidence in the north of Europe mentioned above includes small statuettes along with other forms of cave art. These finds allude to practices later on present in the British Isles. The figures mentioned which have been dubbed Venuses appear all over Europe roughly dated between 25, 000 and 23, 000. Cave art does not appear until about 1000 years after the appearance of the Venus figurines.
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The appearance of these figures is quite common in this time frame, with the distance between finds not providing enough differences in style to protest coincidence. These figures generally sported enlarged breasts, bottom and / or abdomen, they have no faces and some were fat or pregnant. These ‘Venuses’, found from Pyrenees to Siberia, push the idea of some form of Old Stone Age religion. They give the idea of a religion that pushed for a divine personification of a woman or maybe even women.
Whether as deities or spirits one can only guess at their function. With the harsh demands of such civilisations they could have been called upon for many purposes, help in childbirth or protection. Although this is the most common idea for the appearance of the statuettes, there is a little more information that can be gathered from where they were found and what the exact differences between the sites where they were found. In the west of modern day Europe, around Russia, the Venuses were often found in groups. In Kostienki, along the river Don, three of these figures were hidden in a niche in a hut wall.
This in itself suggests a number of other possible ideas. They could have been part of a family shrine, prayed to for easy weather, health, and other things that would have been instinctively necessary for a Palaeolithic people. However, they could have also been discarded, left to rot after they had been broken when a playing child got a little too rough with their toys. The niche the statuettes were found in would be unusual for such discarded items however. Many finds from this period believed to be thrown away or ritual rubbish lie in ditches away from the settlement.
The fact that these items occupy a niche is more in keeping with them being the centre of attention. There is also the link with later phenomenology, such as the alcoves in Catholicism and the Roman lara ria. Although these are links covering thousands of years, the similarities and common psychology behind religions is worthy of consideration. A suggestion that they were being hidden would not be uncalled for, however, with no evidence existing for a rival religion there would have been little reason for such an act of secrecy.
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Until the spread of Christianity, Pagan religions were mainly open-minded about each other. While this is not possible to prove in this time period due to the availability of evidence, we can site other periods in which the adoption of Gods from different pantheons was a practice engaged in by many civilisations. It is more likely that the statuettes were put aside for a religious purpose, respect or power perhaps. At Yeliseevici, again near a river this time the De sna, a single figurine was found. This figurine was central to a display of mammoth skulls that surrounded it. This scene, perhaps from a ritual, provides more reasons to speculate about the customs of the forgotten people.
Almost certainly a religious outlet, it could be that the Earth Mother was called to increase the size of the herd, or perhaps to aid in the tribes hunting. Clive Gumbel has suggested that they were more tokens than anything else, exchanged between tribes after an inter-tribal marriage. If this was so then the imagery of the exchanged pieces needs to be explained; a task that would be deserving of a work in itself. This tributary of evidence of the Palaeolithic era has a variety of problems. With the limited finds of grave goods from this time frame we can only guess at little parts of the societies that buried there dead there.
With the, what we are assuming to be religious icons found across Europe, the lack of varying evidence but repeating presence of the same figure in different incarnations of ritual has created a frightening amount of ideas and possibilities, but irritatingly, there is no denominating evidence which could give us some form of direction. One thousand years later, cave art begins to appear. It commonly depicts animals in different forms of hunting scenes. Many queries have arisen from the type of animals, one of the most common suggestions being a form of hunting magic.
This idea is quiet unlikely as the animals depicted do not match the diet of the people in the areas where they are found. If not evidence of magic, perhaps then a totem animal; an animal spirit that would give strength to the members of the tribe that honoured it? Again, this is unlikely as totem animals are generally chosen for their strength and power. The Bear, Hyena and Wolf would have been animals that shared the Palaeolithic landscape, but only make up a minute amount of the periods art work. There is also the problem that no one animal within the artwork is dominant in any one place. Once again, the uses and possible origins behind the art work art many.
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Only three percent of discovered art work depicts humans and there dealings. That said the female statues found over Europe have yet to disappear. With these female statues, it would not be illogical to expect the occurrence of male figurines. The male counterparts do actually occur, although in a much smaller number. In the British Isles, art work for this time frame is obviously rare, although one piece of artwork does exist, and features a carving of a man on a piece of bone. This artefact, found in modern Derbyshire, is a man assumed to be dressed as a bison with pronounced genitalia, a style he shares with his female counterparts.
As the engraving is made on a bone and features what could be a hunter camouflaged as its prey, it could well be that this good luck charm was being carried by a hunter who ventured into the inhospitable lands of the time. Whether for fame or in the name of exploration, this expedition would easier explain what it is doing in such a harsh climate than a native Eskimo styled tribe would. The existence of a Goddess centred cult on main land Europe, if indeed that is what it was, may have a place when researching the development of the modern day equivalent. Looking into the following periods, the burial practices of the British Isles develop to become more complex with the differences between the tribes of different areas becoming more noticeable. Great tombs began to appear over what is now modern day England, Wales and Scotland along with all over Ireland.
There were two main types of construction. The first was circular, with an inclination of group burial; the second was of the more common Long Barrow. Unfortunately, there is very little that we know for definite about the tombs themselves. Who built them, how many, any signs of status, all these topics completely allude us, even knowing if the structures were built so majestically out of respect for the dead or for signs of power and wealth would be of great help.
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We are not completely stranded in ignorance however, as traces of meaning behind the ancient ceremonies may be built into the tombs that still decorate our landscape. Many of the tombs face some form of heavenly body, a majority of the Wiltshire Barrows for example face the sun’s arc, while a few others faced the moon. There are a minority that face no particular direction at all and although the option of another celestial body is open, there is no guarantee that the tomb was built in such a way as to shield its forecourt from the harshest weather. It could be possible that the minority of the tombs that face no obvious point could be much larger than we thought. With the arc of the sun and moon to go by, some of the tombs could face them out of happenstance.
Nevertheless, there are tombs which exist (albeit from a later period) that were painstakingly created so as to face the rising or setting sun. A majority of the evidence set out suggests a sky cult or deity (is) of some description. With the importance that a preliterate society generally places on the sun and moon, this is unsurprising. Not only did the sun and the moon provide them with the calendar by which they would have marked the passing of the seasons, but the limited understanding of these celestial bodies would have called for some celestial explanation. There are echoes of this in cultures across the world, such as the sky being a male deity in Greek myth, itself being the creation of other heavenly creatures. What we are seeing less of in this time frame is the ‘Mother Goddess’ figure so prevalent in the past thousands of years in mainland Europe.
Indeed, in the British Isles there seems to have been a turn-around on the gender of the preferred deity with phallic symbols being more common. While this development could not have been predicted, it is interesting when thinking back to the only piece of British Palaeolithic art work being a man dressed as a bison of some kind. With the onset of the mid-Neolithic, causeway ed enclosures started to become more common, with ‘ritual rubbish’s how ing them as centres for ritual more than settlement. There is also evidence for sacred sites continuation of use with a notable link between a circle and the later tomb on Windmill Hill (Wiltshire).
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The Stone Age periods, abundant in evidence that ‘wets the appetite’ but frustratingly lacking in anything definitive, has nonetheless provided us with some interesting pieces of information.
The ‘cult of the Goddess’ prevalent in the early Stone Age never really took hold in Britain. Britain itself seemed to go for a more sky-bound focus for its religious practices. With the peoples’ link with nature being expressed through the numerous animal bones and antler picks found across the ancient sights of England, Scotland and Wales it shows that this Ancient British cultures link to the Earth has not dissolved entirely. The importance of circles in architecture of the British Isles overlaps into the history of magic in Britain.
Whether this happens most effectively by foreign influence rather than isolated evolution will become clear. A religious background is evident with the various statuettes suggesting at the belief in a higher power, whether spirit or deity. This is even more evident when you see the frequent ritualistic layout, seen in Kostienki and Yeliseevici. Although these finds are not located in the British Isles, the lack of diversity in the finds over such a large area suggests at a uniformity which allows us to speculate a connection between the religions of the time and the function of magic within its ritual practices. Modern Paganism Although the history of the British Isles is rich in the developments and intrigues of the magical world both religious and ‘word’ the developments made towards what is known today as ‘modern Pagan witchcraft’ began a lot closer to present day than many people believe. The history of modern witchcraft starts in the ancient world, however, it is the reworking of these ideas from the old cultures that begins the creation of modern witchcraft and its subsequent religion…
Quoting the ancient authors was very common in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was the citing of these authors and the ancient myths that led to the rebirth of ancient mythology during the Romantic literary movement. The classical references that were made in the medieval ages were often directed at the most popular divinities featured in the Ancient texts. With the female divinities, Venus the Goddess of love, Diana, the Lady of chastity and Minerva, Goddess of wisdom made the most frequent appearances in the literature of this period. As time progressed and the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came about, the attitude toward the old cultures changed along with the use and language of poetry. Classical Gods were still quoted in the works of the Romantic poets, although many changed in priority, some even being ousted for new ones.
Instead of the deities usually cited by the medieval authors, the Goddess’s that represented nature and the side of the human psyche based more so in emotion than logic became more common. Venus retained her position in the works of the new styled writers. Diana’s role of chastity became forgotten, replaced with hunting and a greater emphasis placed on her link with the moon. Minerva, Goddess of wisdom was completely ousted, to be replaced with the younger divinity Perspherone. In Greek myth, Perspherone was the daughter of Demeter and due to an unfortunate exchange in the Underworld, linked with the changing of the seasons. The new role given to the moon later becomes rather important; although at this time this is understated, it is still noticeable in the all important literature of the time.
What is there in thee, Moon! That thou shouldst move my heart so potently… (145-46) With all my ardour’s: thou wast the deep glen; Thou wast the mountain top – the sage’s pen – (166-67) Keats, John. Endymion bk. III lines 145 to 146 and 166 to 167. Worthy of note here, is the development of ideas by one George Meredith (1828 to 1909. Although a relatively unknown figure in recorded history, it was him that began creating an idea that Goddess formed different aspects of a Divine Feminine.
Perhaps an idea taken from the Christian ‘Father, Son and the Holy Ghost’, as George’s idea, with the aid of other academics, evolves into something quite similar. In Germany, a Classicist called Eduard Gerhard pushed forward the theory that behind all the Greek Goddesses stood a single one in his work ‘Uber Metro en und Potter-Mutter’ (Berlin, 1849), As the twentieth century came closer, other classicists and academics such as Ernst K roker and M. J. Meant started to argue the theory. A turn of events for the divine feminine happened in 1901 when Sir Arthur Evans discovered what was believed to be prehistoric figurines of a single Divine Feminine with her male subordinate.
While he had found such items before, it was only now that he started pay to pay attention to the theory that Crete may have worshipped a single, female divine. From here, he began interpreting all aspects of divine woman as this single Goddess. This gave the Cambridge classicist Jane Ellen Harrison the evidence she needed to create an idea of a tri-fold aspect to the modern recreation of this Cretan Divine. The idea of this single Goddess developing into the polytheistic religions of the East only added fire to the quickly growing blaze of popularity this idea was gaining with those interested in this field. Eventually, the idea of a single Divine Feminine became popular among the general public. Even when it was noticed that the figurines were dated to an era after those found in the East, it was not enough to quench the popularity of the Goddess had gained.
This is shown with Robert Graves adding another element to Her ever developing persona in his own poetic mythology. With the multi-faceted Goddess being trained into the tri-fold theory of Harrison, Robert Graves matched this changing face with the three different segments of the twenty eight day lunar cycle. The male divinities of the Greek and Roman cultures were also revived so they would fit in better with the emergence of the naturist attitude of the modern day writers. Taking place a few years after the change of the Goddesses in Romantic poetry it, suggests that the feminine deities captured the interest of the modern writers more so than their counterparts. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the developments with this set of Gods follows the same lines as that of the female. The most frequently mentioned Gods in the medieval literature were Jupiter, Neptune, Mercury and Vulcan, all Gods of power, commerce or industry.
Whilst very in keeping with the developments of industry, they had very little place in a culture where the literature was focusing more on the purist form of the natural world that it could find. Jupiter, Mercury, Vulcan and Neptune were replaced with the Gods of poetry, imagination and most importantly, nature in its most purist form. Apollo’s name graced the pens of many poets’ of the nineteenth century, whilst Pan found a secure and powerful place within the imagery created by the same said poets. Apollo’s appearance in the poetry of this time is quiet understandable, Pan’s however, is not. Compared with some of the other Gods, it is unusual that he should suddenly develop such an audience in modern day. Then again, it may not be so unusual, as his association with the untamed wilderness is not something that can be likened to many other deities.
This would certainly have given him an appeal for the poets of that time as his domain fits in perfectly with the desires of those poets. His penchant for liberation and freedom made him an excellent foe to pit against the industry of the developing world. These elements coupled with Pan’s shocking appearance made him a wonderful object with which to front their campaign of Pagan imagery and of the natural world. As with the developments that led to the current culmination of the singe Goddess, Pan also seemed to gain different features that allowed him to evolve.
One of these was the placement into being allied with the Goddess. The figures found in Crete mentioned above were located in conjunction with a male counterpart deemed subordinate to the Goddess as her son and / or consort. This is the role that Pan seems to take on as the years progressed. With the onset of World War One, Pan’s popularity waned, as did much of the excessive Pagan imagery. However in true Pagan form, the deities given life and tended by the nineteenth century poets may well have lived on in other forms, or simply brought back to life at a later point. From 1840, the two Single Divines, both Male and Female were and still are (in their modern form), declared as joint sovereigns.
With the onset of the nineteenth century, there is still no solid group spearheading the campaign for a religion about, or centred upon witchcraft. Despite this however, two different Deities have been created and presented for use along with a recorded history of magical practice throughout the whole of Europe. These histories are kept and tended by various magical societies that have popped up across Europe over the past few hundred years. The ‘Secret Society’ phenomenon has meant that the magical recordings that later develop into a main part of the witchcraft religions were already wide spread, although available to a restricted few. Variations of magic have been present since the beginnings of recorded history, evidence existing for it even before that. It has survived through every era of history constantly changing to meet the tastes and requirements of the people who practice it.
The ancient world developed the basics that would still be in use thousands of years later, with circles being shapes of power, amulets and rituals being common place. As time progressed, elements of science were added, ritual being focused and changed to meet the expectations of the advancing sciences of the world. Around the same time as the poets revival of Pan and the Divine Feminine came the concentration upon the inner self and the workings and Enlightenment of the mind. With the practice of magic in modern day, the focus has split of into nearly every area of development practiced up until now.
Different traditions have arisen which specialise in ritualistic magic, solitary, focus of the mind and so on. The records kept by the various secret societies was what allowed for the development of magic in this fashion. As stated above however, the effects of the scientific world were quiet noticeable. The establishment of the Rosicrucian Society is a prime example of the recordings and practice of magic. Its members (all Stonecutters of the highest rank) were also professed Christians. This was allowed because magic was in itself, a science.
Although many people, especially the clergy had reservations about, there was very little known about it or its practitioners that meant that the church as a whole could direct its attention to any single source. Also, with the argument that magic was just another skill with which to do Gods work, there was not really enough of an incentive for the clergy to seek it out despite the history attached to it. The secret societies that adopted witchcraft in its many forms into their society were many. Each society had its own origin myth and sets of rituals that the followers practiced. This is really the first time that any formal structure has been applied to magic on such a large scale. Tribes across the world had appointed Shaman’s to defend their fellows from evil spirits or to help in healing a wound.
These Medicine Men, although often in a position of power had no hierarchy or communication abilities that were then being applied to their speciality. The secret society’s taking up magic as part of their internal structure not only enforced its continued development, but subjected it to the influences of modern invention. The printing press now meant that ideas could not only be recorded, but spread from person to person, society to society, and country to country. The secret society phenomenon holds at least a small part for witchcraft’s survival into a modern religion. The survival of witchcraft and its development into a belief structure depended oddly enough, upon its outward appearance of something completely opposite, a definable science.
Witchcraft transformed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from this methodological practice into a new ‘enlightened’ form. Signposted by the poetic forerunners, their developments and aid in Witchcraft metamorphosis created the basis for the religion now seen around Britain and indeed the rest of the Western world and to some degree, parts of the Eastern too. First however, a catalyst was needed to begin this transformation into an enlightened religion; one was found in Gerald Gardner. It is difficult to touch upon the development of witchcraft in the twentieth century without coming across Gardner and his deeds. Whether accurate or not, Gardner is attributed with the creation of witchcraft in its modern form, from his coven in the New Forest to his contacts with other reputed occult figures such as Aleister Crowley and his friend and confidant ‘Dafo’. The history behind who created which rituals and is responsible for what is clouded behind a mass of names, false personas and unfortunately largely confused data.
What is clear however is that most of the responsibility for witchcraft’s transformation and survival in its present form can be attributed to Gardner and his influence. Gerald Gardner was a member of a secret society known as the Ordo Temple Orient is. Initiated into the Order in May of 1947 by Aleister Crowley, copies of The Book of Law were presented to him bearing the inscription ‘from… Baphomet Xo O. T. O on his affiliation.’ It is easy to see how his affiliation with the O.
T. O along with his experience of other secret societies affected his published works. The secret societies of the time all had some basis in rituals that commonly derived from the old Masonic tradition. The rituals that he had experience with coupled with those he heard about influenced the development of his own personal ideas.
The creation of Gardner’s witchcraft can be traced through the written works, letters and interviews with Gardner along with those of his contemporaries. In 1949, Gardner published High Magic’s Aid. It was a fictional story that contained the non-fictional rights of witches cloaked with a fictional storyline along with other made up rituals. Permission for these rituals to be published was apparently granted by a group of witches or a singular person, or possibly a group simply identified as ‘she’.
The details about the permission for its publication are still unclear, but it has been suggested that one Edith Woodford-Grimes, a member of the Southern Coven was responsible for most of the imposed editing. The imposed editing caused a large amount of necessary ‘filler’ to be drawn from other sources, most notably Macgregor Mathers’s translation of The Key of Solomon. With the lines between what Gardner deemed fictional and non-fictional witchcraft so unclear, the perseverance of the witchcraft rituals being undiluted by the ritualistic magic of MacGregor’s Key of Solomon is quiet unlikely. However, with very little similar works preceding it, High Magic’s Aid presents ‘a genuine early form of Wicca. High Magic’s Aid although perhaps the most well known of Gardner’s published works is not the only notable piece that pertains to modern witchcraft, far from it. What Hutton describes as the ‘earliest version of the witch liturgy’ Gardner called ‘Ye Bok of ye Magical Art’.
Designed to be a notebook, it was in itself a gri moire in its own right. It contained extracts from Mathers’s Key of Solomon, along with Biblical references, excerpts from a modern work on Cabbala titled Goe tia and other lesser known works. Bound in leather with most of its contents on large sheets of paper, the image of grandeur makes it sound like a medieval tome. Coupled with the misspelled entries it sounds more convincing that this misleading image was what they were aiming for. The entries focus on many different aspects of the Occult, with witchcraft making an appearance roughly halfway into the book with a large amount of the work being collected around 1947-8. Although many of the rituals within this work are not of Gardner’s creation, they certainly bare his mark.
The predominance of the black handled at hame for instance, does not appear in any of Crowley’s works, those of the Golden Dawn or The Key of Solomon, yet within ‘Ye Bok’ it is the ritual tool of choice. With Gardner being fascinated with ritual knives and having a massive collection of his own it is easy to see his influence upon the works contained within ‘Ye Bok’. A study of Gardner’s influence upon the collections of occult articles that he recorded would be a study in itself. What is important is that we note that it was Gardner’s influence upon articles that he had gathered that became the foundation for what was to become the Wicca religion.
With ‘Ye Bok of ye Magical Art’, Gardner had taken a big step towards creating a tangible religion, but he was not done yet. Later developments of ‘Ye Bok’ included outlines of ‘Sabbats’, seasonal rituals to be practiced at points throughout the year. These rituals venerated divine figures that he linked with times of the year. The God (referred to as Cernunnos) and the divine feminine A radia (spelled in ‘Ye Bok’ Airdia) were a divine pair that could not be safely linked to anything in the better established religions of the time.
Taking advantage of the provocative imagery of the poems of the Pagan inspired poets, Cernunnos easily donned Pan’s image, hooves antlers and all with ‘Airdia’ taking Artemis’s mantle which firmly established her link with the moon. This imagery certainly made a strong impression and is still evident today in the Pagan literature that has developed over the past fifty years. The two deities present in Gardner’s witchcraft up to this point seem to have an equal share of power. A slight edge was granted to the Goddess as only she was given dialogue in ‘Ye Bok’ to be recited by the High Priestess.
However, in ‘Ye Bok’s’s uccessor, ‘The book of Shadows’, the Priestess was allowed to represent both Lord and Lady if no man ‘of suitable rank’ was present. This brings us to the 1950’s, the decade when Wicca was introduced to the world. In the summer of 1951 Wicca was broadcast through the media and let loose on the general populace. The publics’ reaction was diverse, and shall be discussed in depth at a later point. What is important however is that from the collections of occult texts and hearsay that he had pieced together and adapted Gerald Gardner had created a new religion.
In spite of having this religion shown to the world, he presented it as best as he could as something much, much older. Following the idea behind the creation myths of the secret societies, he attempted to give this new faith more credibility. By basing Wicca’s beginnings in the Palaeolithic it gave the faith a more solid grounding when compared to the established, popular religions currently prevalent in society. Despite the fact that this historical basis is somewhat flawed with the rituals employed in Gardner’s witchcraft being of other quiet recent texts and his own input (explained by Gardner as filling in the gaps of the fragmentary sources so they would be suitable for revival) and the documented accounts of ‘Ye Bok of Ye Magical Art’ and the ‘Book of Shadows’ creation, the idea of this grand background has certainly flourished into our culture and media. While we cannot say that Gardner created the Wicca religion, it was through his hard work that led to the publicizing and incredible spread of his particular form of religious, ritualistic witchcraft. The selected rituals and texts gathered from his knowledge in the field coupled with the creations of the ‘renaissance’ poets finally created in Wicca the liberating freedom of the poets united with the defined rituals of witchcraft which in turn linked back to the seasons and the turning of the year.
Magic in modern culture With witchcraft’s sudden emergence in the early twentieth century, it was greeted with hostility from many sources, especially the media. Articles about black magic and Satanism filled the headlines, even decades after its initial release, the News of the World were printing a series of articles on ‘black magic’ in 1963 (1 st September).
The Manchester Evening Chronicle and News even purposefully misinterpreted an interview with Alexander Sanders, founder of the Alexandrian Wicca tradition, once again running it under title of ‘black magic’. However, with these negative reports, there was always a quiet voice of support, the Daily Mail for example, in 1958 (3 rd November) recording an interview with Dayonis accurately and fairly.
These reports shaped the public opinion of witchcraft and the part magic played in the religion. However, the British public has had decades to adjust to the Wiccan phenomenon, and over these decades, the media had taken advantage of the opportunity that this new religion has presented with them. In looking at the effect that magic has had on the public via the modern media, the productions of American television companies is unavoidable. With the massive audiences that these shows have, they are an important method of transportation for the social concepts of magic in our society. Through these shows, the public are being exposed to another step of development in magic’s extensive history. By being subjected to the public in this medium it is being presented in a way that the public will find entertaining.
As magic is being shown in an entertaining light, it is not always in-keeping with the religious developments up to this time, although the idea of magic and Witches is now virtually inseparable. A massive majority of shows that include magic as a main theme almost undoubtedly include Witches. The idea of magic has become so intertwined with a religious background that witchcraft and magic are synonymous. Although the Wicca religion might not be elaborated upon, the use of witchcraft in such media to present magic to the public is certainly something worth noting.
Magic has not always been related with witchcraft especially in the religious manner it is now. With such a wide range of different sources now showing the public that magic and witchcraft are one and the same, the place of modern media in the development of magic is certainly one of importance. Just one year after the News of the World began its articles on black magic, ‘Bewitched’ appeared on our television screens. With the years so close together it would be expected that the reaction from the News of the World would have something in common with that of the audiences watching this new television show. However, with the show running for eight years (1964-72), winning nineteen Emmy Awards, the popularity of the show does not fit with the public opinion. It is certainly possible that the opinion of America differed with that of the British public, yet the show did exert some pull on the British audiences of the 1960’s with reruns still being quite common even today.
Firstly, the excellent script writers, Elizabeth Montgomery and the advertising campaigns along with an obvious detachment from reality made ‘Bewitched’ a popular television show, nothing more and definitely not a ‘stand alone’ testament to social views regarding the acceptance of witchcraft, . Secondly, essayists such as Steve Bruce claim that a ‘process of social mutation’ is pushing for the acceptance of a more ‘new age’s ystem of beliefs, not for a religious reason, but a physiological and social one. With the shining success of ‘Bewitched’, similar programs were quick to follow. More modern shows include ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’ and ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. Do these shows really have an effect on the population of England however? In an interview with John Macintyre, the head of the Pagan Federation in Scotland, he dismisses the link between a rise in numbers and popular television culture. “‘Like most Pagans I find pop culture references embarrassing…
.’ The religion has grown because there is more ecological awareness.” Professor Ronald Hutton suggested that the number is rising because ‘It’s a religion that meets modern needs’, agreeing with Steve Bruce’s sociological essay featured in book. In an interview with Reuters, Professor Hutton also says that numbers have been steadily rising since the 1950’s with 10, 000 Pagan witches and 6, 000 Pagan Druids at the last count in 1996. Including what he called the ‘non-attached Pagans’ with this, the numbers may reach up to 100, 000 to 120, 000 in the UK alone. A record of the growth is partly visible by looking at the members of the Order of Bards Oates and Druids (OBOD).
With its members being a few hundred in the 1980’s to 7, 000 strong worldwide today. Professor Hutton also mentions that the feminism linked with Wicca has been quiet important with its attraction, especially with the younger generations.
In the same article, the head of OBOD, Matt McCabe said that “Anything that makes teenage girls feel powerful is bound to go down well.” With the elements of empowerment, environmental concern and a belief structure free from the rigours of many other mainstream faiths, Paganism, Wicca and witchcraft have become as popular as they are. While this is certainly true, it is unlikely that the trendy television shows such as ‘Charmed’ and ‘Buffy’ have had no effect on the young population of England and their interpretation of magic. For many, these shows will be the first introduction to witchcraft and so must leave some kind of impression upon the viewer. These popular television shows present the protagonists as the ‘good guys’ using magic to fight evil creatures and demons. In general, the ‘Hollywood-isatin’ of magic makes it generally ‘unreal’ but nonetheless an interesting set of fictional programs. They are also an interesting opposite to the negative press that witchcraft / magic has received throughout history.
‘Charmed’ and ‘Buffy’ are two of the most popular shows that feature magic as a part of witchcraft. Its depiction of magic is a tool used by witches that enables them to throw fireballs. Whilst ‘Charmed’ makes these abilities exclusive to born Witches, ‘Buffy’ portrays witchcraft in a way much closer to reality (despite the fireballs), with anybody being able to learn the craft. A great deal of these popular television shows follows the old idea that Witches are woman. While this is certainly true it is by no means exclusive. However, in ‘Charmed’ the three sisters are all Witches, a tradition which runs down their family line with no mention of a male Witch.
In ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, feminism is commonly presented alongside magic. Whether this is a bi-product of the religious development of witchcraft from the feminist movement that has leaked into the show by accident is unclear, what is clear to the audience is that the magic in the show is represented largely by woman, in two cases, Lesbians. As the show holds the ties between magic and Wicca quite clearly, this has contributed to the stereotype of feminism within Wicca, and therefore, within magic. Despite the Pagan Federation stating that Wicca is a religion that ‘transcends gender’ the idea that encourages strong feminist ideals is quiet a strong one. With the Dian ic Wicca tradition emerging out of the feminist movement, Z suzanna Budapest’s book The Feminist Book of Lights and Shadows (1975) forming its basis, is easy to see why the feminist conceptions of Wicca are so predominant.
Along with the veneration of a female divine and the rituals focused upon a Mother Earth these impressions would have more than likely emerged on their own without the media assisting them. The success of television shows like those mentioned above are complimented by the films that were being produced around the same time. Perhaps the most notable, mainly for its name, is the ‘Witches of Eastwick’ (1987) featuring three Witches who accidentally summon the Devil, finally using their powers to drive him away. There are many films that follow this, ‘Hocus Pocus’ (1993) which again featured three sisters, ‘The Craft’ (1996), the four main characters again being women. ‘Practical Magic’ (1998) features two female lead characters (playing sisters), and at the end of the film a large group is assembled to cast a circle consisting solely of women. These films are now not only exaggerating the extreme feminist influence on new age cultures and magic, but pushing for an almost exclusiveness based upon gender.
They are however portraying a ‘good guy’ image with the Witch protagonists being the good guys with the exception of ‘Hocus Pocus’. ‘Chocolate’, a book written by Joanne Harris was made into a film in 2000. More about the challenge of traditions and the ideals of acceptance, the magical tones are intrinsic both to the book and the film. Successful as a book, being short-listed for the White bread Award in 1999 and being made into an Academy Award winning film, it is this that brings magic in the written form to our attention. Going back to the 1950’s, Arthur Mille wrote ‘The Crucible’ in 1953. Set in during the Witch trials of Salem, ‘The Crucible’ was actually written as a response to crusade against Communist sympathisers.
Despite the recent expos’e of Wicca and magic to the public this play was directed at a different meaning altogether. This may be the reason that the accusations of magic are more important than its actual practice. If Miller had been writing to present magic and witchcraft as part of modern culture to his audience it is interesting to think about how he would have written it differently. Perhaps the most popular books that portray magic at present, much to the protest of many very dedicated Christians, is the ‘Harry Potter’s series.
The role that magic plays in these books is very interesting when compared with how it is shown in all the other sources of modern media. Magic in this series is shown more as a tool than anything else, especially a religion. Although it is exclusive to those born with the ability, the students of Hogwarts School of witchcraft and wizardry are taught that magic as if it were a science. As the name of the school would suggest, magic and witchcraft are once again synonymous.
However, magic is this time presented without any religious reference. There are three main characters, which is similar to many of the programs and films mentioned above; however there are many other characters which have a large interaction with the evolving plot lines. Only one of the three main characters is female, a choice that is more a romantic plot device and gender balance than a representation of women’s role in magic. This form of magic, as a science, is very similar to that recorded by the secret societies of the eighteenth century such as the Masons. It would be a source of interest in itself, even without the massive publicity it has earned. This form of popular magic is devoid of the rituals and internal reflection present in many other sources of magic shown in the media.
It includes potion brewing and the stereotyped divination techniques of crystal-ball gazing and reading tealeaves. With magic being worked through a wand, it hardens back to the childish stereotype of bearded wizards. As the books progress though, the storyline’s become much more intense. As they deal with very adult issues such as death and prejudice, it is easier for people to identify with the issues the people are dealing with. Coupled with the fact that these characters are essentially normal people, just with an additional tool with which to work, it is very easy to identify with the characters and the issues they are dealing with. Although this is anecdotal evidence, what cannot be disputed is that this series of books is incredibly popular.
Within them they have created a system of magic independent of other sources which its popularity lends weight to. The scientific world of magic is also featured in Terry Pratchett’s disc world series. Wizards are trained at a university, with their magic being taught in lecture rooms throughout the campus. The Witches are once again however, exclusively female. The craft of these Witches is much different from that of the wizards. It is taught to be practical, and is often centred on nature, animals and plants.
Although no popular fictional television series, film, book or play has portrayed Witches accurately, they are all based in some way or another on the New Age religion. The magic in ‘Harry Potter’ is completely separate from this and is almost free from its link with witchcraft. With the various different avenues that magic has into our culture via the media, each source has created its own system of magic. With all these different worlds of magic being based upon the Wicca religion, they have created a form of ‘media magic’.
This ‘media magic’ takes the form of witchcraft, normally an exclusive skill, sometimes hereditary, practiced by a group of women, often sisters. These women are blessed with gifts and powers that they must hide from the rest of the world whilst dealing with the problems of being a magical being in a mundane world. We also have the world of magic featured in J. K. Rowling’s books along with Terry Pratchett’s. This magic harks back to the recorded rituals of the secret societies and presents a different view of magic; one that is separate from religious ideology.
All the time that these different magic’s are progressing and being introduced to the public, we still have the magic that is a very real part of many people’s lives. Despite this however, a large amount of people have more interaction with the magic presented to them in fictional works than they do with the one that is integrated into a modern belief system. These various magic’s that have been produced by the media confuse the issue when dealing with magic in the form of witchcraft and Wicca and in turn can be attributed with at least part of the false impressions that practicing magic is subject to.