From Tarot readings at Topshop and rugged crystals at Urban Outfitters, witchcraft is having a moment.
But for millions of pagans across the world, witchcraft is more than a passing fad.
Among them is Ashley Mortimer, 47, from Nottingham. The business consultant and web developer is a Wicca witch and the director for the Centre for Pagan Studies.
Wiccans, along with Druids, make up the UK’s long and rich history of paganism. While druidism dates back to the Iron Age, Wicca was developed by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente in the early twentieth century in England and borrows from the former as well as other pagan traditions known as the “old ways”. Official figures suggest over 60,000 people in the UK identify as pagan.
Such regions celebrate what they view as the divinity of the natural world, the seasons and “sacred feminity” and are generally polytheistic. Some Wiccans believe in the “craft” and the manipulation of supernatural forces.
To mark winter solstice – an important occasion in the Wicca calendar – The Independent picked Mortimer’s brains to find out what it means to be a 21st-century witch.
How long have you been practicing witchcraft?
I’ve been involved in Paganism and witchcraft since my teens, I am an initiate and High Priest of the Wicca of the Gardnerian variety because it comes largely from the work of Gerald Gardner in the middle of last century.
This means I celebrate the seasonal cycles of the Sun and the Moon and the Earth with a reverence for the divine as it manifests in nature and personified as a great Goddess of the Moon and her consort, a horned God of the Sun.
How does being a witch change how you live your daily life?
Being a witch means taking responsibility for oneself, one’s life and one’s quest for happiness, truth and wisdom. It means looking differently as every aspect of life, seeing through the world of form to the more subtle and powerful world of force behind it. The truth isn’t always physical or manifest.
I have a number of daily routines including morning meditation exercises, keeping of a daily journal recording insights and thoughts including dreams. I observe ritual celebrations of the full Moon and the annual sun cycle including solstices, equinoxes and the so-called “cross quarter” days between them like May Day, or Beltane, and Halloween or Samhain.
Can anyone become a witch? What is a good way to start for people who are a little nervous?
The first advice is always the same: read widely and believe nothing. Following that people can find their way to other Pagans and Witches through organizations like the Pagan Federation and the Children of Artemis who organize local social gatherings called “moots”, as well as larger conference events like Witchfest in Brighton in November. The best way to discover modern pagan and Witchcraft practices is to meet others already engaged in them and sincere seekers are always welcomed.
The internet can be a double-edged sword with a lot of misinformation and, as with any other interest group, common sense and good safeguarding practices are always to be advised. Sincerity is a two-way street.
What are the most common misconceptions about witchcraft?
Preconceptions and misconceptions are changing all the time, I think the popular view of what witches “are” and what they “do” are much closer to the truth than they used to be. There are still many stigmas and it’s been through people like myself, willing to stand up and identify as a witch, that we have begun to take a more respected and better-understood place in society.
So I remain patient about dispelling the myths which are still put forward, perhaps the most common one being some association with the devil or Satan which is, in fact, an early Jewish or Christian concept with no real bearing on the religious beliefs of witches, ancient or modern.
What do you think of the rise if “witchy” fashions? Pentagrams and crystals are everywhere at the moment. Do you think this is a good way for people to find out more, or do you think your beliefs are being exploited?
I think it’s part of our culture to exploit “trends”. We’ve seen in the past 20 years explosions of interest through popular media and culture, for example, the Harry Potter phenomena, which always brings a wave of new interest to the genuine practice of the Craft. I’ve found that when these waves of interest subside we are often left with some very good and committed new practitioners and without newcomers to the Old Ways then they won’t survive.
But yes, I do find the levels of some commercial exploitation of trends somewhat distasteful and all the more so when it springs up from within our own community. I believe that the craft calls its own, initiates frequently speak of a feeling of “coming home” and this is all to the good, but many have to wade through a lot of nonsense in books and information to find the real thing and I think that’s a pity but also provides a natural filter too.
What is the most important thing people should know about witchcraft?
That it is modern, religious interpretation of beliefs and practices that are as old as human civilization. In its modern form it’s central tenet is to discover happiness through the truth, find your own individual truth (or “will”) and practice that as hard as you can without bringing harm to others. That’s a pretty good start for any religion, I’d would think.