W is for… Wiccans

Lady spin your circle bright.

Weave your web of dark and light.

Earth, air, fire and water,

bind us as one.

I chant and weave in and out of flags representing the four elements, part of a circle of 100+ witches who have gathered for the opening ceremony of Artemis Gathering, an annual witch camp.

A female figure in a long blue dress walks around the perimeter holding up a vast sword as if offering it up to the sky. “Come circle – may you be a place of power. May all goodness, happiness, positivity and knowledge be contained within you. So Mote it be”.

Everybody repeats, “So mote it be”.

Her blonde hair billows dramatically in the wind. A gold bracelet snakes down her upper arm, and around her waste a leather belt houses a ceremonial knife. Something about her draws me in, like the curious kids in ‘Hocus Pocus’.

The keynote address is ‘Meet the Witches’, a Q&A session with a panel of four men and two women, all apparently prominent figures in the Wiccan community. I put my hand up.

“How has society’s attitude towards Wicca changed over the last 25 years?”

A chap with shoulder length hair, wearing a sharp suit and cravat stands up to answer me.

“Well”, he clears his throat. “It’s positive and negative really. We no longer get social services trying to take our children away… But we’ve sort of fallen into the same camp as the Quakers now – harmless, but not to be taken seriously. That’s why you never really see any of us in public positions”.

This is a ‘no photo’ event, meaning you cannot take photos of other attendees without their expressed permission. Much like the Naturists, this rule is in place to protect those who have not ‘come out’ as witches yet, and do not want to be forced into this by social media.

A Wiccan is a witch who is part of an exclusive family called a Coven. Becoming a member involves an initiation, during which you are shown ‘the mysteries’ which, frustratingly, ‘must be experienced and cannot be explained’. Members are also required to attend regular Sabbats (celebrations and festivals), and group rituals. For example, to mark Samhain (Halloween) most Covens will host a ‘feast of the dead’, where they set twice as many places at the table. Every other seat is saved for loved ones they have lost, invited to join the celebration at a time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest.

Of course, you do not have to join a coven to be a witch. ‘Solitary’ or ‘eclectic’ witches, as they are known, practice their magic alone. About half of the men and women here are solitary witches (the term applies to both sexes), performing rituals and healing ceremonies, and using crystal balls, tealeaves and cauldrons to perform divination (picture Professor Trelawney in Harry Potter).

At the closing of the weekend, we are treated to a fire-walk workshop with Oona, a beautiful Scottish redhead. She wears a top hat and is passionate about fire; you can almost see the flames in her eyes.

“I love coming here”, she tells us. “It’s like coming home for me. You are all so open, and you already know that there is more than what we can see”.

The fire that we are due to walk on in an hour rages ten feet in the air, tended by a grey-haired lady called Sheila who wears a sparkly purple dress and no shoes. She looks at the fire and mumbles to it, conjuring up the flames with indistinguishable words, swaying from side to side in a ghostly dance.

While we wait for the fire to burn down to glowing coals, we are invited to take part in a cleansing ritual. This involves using visualisation to charge an arrow with something we want to rid from our lives, before placing the head into the soft small of flesh at the base of our throat. The other end is propped against a board, which we are to walk towards in one quick movement, snapping the charged arrow to pieces.

“This technique is great for helping you to eradicate negative thinking”, Oona says. “Much quicker than burying an ox tongue wrapped in barbed wire under a tree at midnight”. She adds, “of course that works as well, but it can get a bit messy. Who’s next?”

Dammit. I knew I wouldn’t be able to avoid this. I walk tentatively up to the front and she hands me an arrow. I take it and place the head at my throat.

“What’s in your arrow?” she asks.

“Self doubt, and fear of failure”.

“Great!” she says. “Now what I want you to do is flap your arms up and down three times, like wings. Then take a deep breath and walk into it”.

“OK”, I say feebly, concerned by how sharp the metal feels.

“We will help you by chanting. What do you want us to say?”

“Strong” I gulp.

I lift my arms to flap them and the crowd of witches start to chant ‘strong, strong, strong, strong’.

This is surreal. I try to clear my mind of fear, remembering my parkour lesson. I walk forward and my neck sears with a split-second of pain before the arrow shatters and flies across the room.

An hour later I am taking my feet out of my red wellies onto the cold damp grass. They start to warm up as I take my first discomforting step over the glowing embers. Emboldened by the lack of pain, I take another few steps, but the coals get hotter and hotter and by the end I am panicked by the sharpness and the heat. When I reach the cool grass at the other side, I feel an overwhelming rush of relief and bold exhilaration. But I still don’t feel like a witch.

The last person to cross the fire is Sheila, who dances and skips gleefully over it in her purple dress, giggling and screeching mischievously, not seeming of this world.

In a way, she really isn’t.