Witchcraft. Some people believe in it. Some people laugh at it. Some people are afraid of it, even though they claim their various monotheist faiths are stronger. Our first documentary, A Very British Witchcraft, traces the origins of popular witchcraft, aka the Craft or Wicca, from its first codification in the 1940s through to modern day.
Eccentric scholar Gerald Gardner developed a religion based on folklore, folk tradition and Western esoteric traditions, with a healthy bit of Aleister Crowley thrown in. Using the archaeological and information available at the time, Gardner developed Wicca, a term supposedly traceable to the Anglo-Saxon for “wise” and allegedly whence came “witch.”
Drawing heavily on Fraser’s Golden Bough and the idea of the dying and reviving god who was the consort of the ever-present Goddess–represented by the moon, earth and nature–Gardner created a working group of witches in the English countryside. One of his most famous exploits involved creating a “cone of power” over Britain during World War II to prevent the Nazi and Axis forces from invading (other occultists from different traditions including Dion Fortune were also involved in this project), even though the Witchcraft Act forbidding such things was still in force. In 1951, thanks to the efforts of several Spiritualists in Parliament and the influence of Winston Churchill, the Witchcraft Act was repealed and Gardner began publicizing his religion.
This documentary hosted by author Ronald Hutton is in stark contrast to the rare BBC documentary, The Power of the Witch, from 40 years earlier (featuring a much younger Hutton!) which begins benignly enough. Interviews with sweet middle aged ladies who talk about healing spells give way to very dark overtones as the allegedly dark side of witchcraft is “exposed” as demon worship, drug taking and blackmail. It’s kind of funny, except that it’s off base (Jayne Mansfield was not killed by Anton LaVey casting a curse, for example; and Satanism has nothing to do with Wicca, and Charles Manson wasn’t a Satanist) and designed to scare people away from what was then–and still is–a rapidly growing religion.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a boom time for Wicca and similar pagan faiths, tapping into the ideas of equality/feminism, ecology, and free love. Paganism spread throughout the US and Europe developing offshoots with their own traditions and methods that incorporated bits and pieces from other world religions.
In 2007 the United States Military finally recognized the rights of pagans to have a pentagram on their tombstones as a symbol of their faith. However the term “witch” is used in Uganda and India and elsewhere as an excuse to torture and kill children and the elderly (due in a large part to the influence of evangelical Christians).
Wicca was the first truly English religion in that it captured the imagination and faith of several generations, one that is still misunderstood, laughed at and looked at with a cocked eye. Does it work? Yes, in that those who follow it find comfort in it. And as Hutton says, followers may not only find God but find that they are gods.
And yes, all of this kinda presupposes a belief in Something Another, so atheists here may poo-poo the whole overarching concept…