So it’s the merry month of May, and, accordingly, I spent last Saturday afternoon at a Beltane celebration out in the country.
It was a beautiful blue-sky day, not too hot. The sun was pretty intense, though, and I decided to pass up the Maypole dance and stay in the shade. I’m not much of a neo-pagan anyway, and the idea of dancing around a phallic pole with a somewhat disreputable history doesn’t sit well with the old Puritan inside me. (We had May Day celebrations with Maypoles in my elementary school, didn’t we? I don’t think we knew they were phallic or neo-pagan back then.)
Watching the dance, though, I found myself thinking of one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in recent years: Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford University Press, 1999). Which describes, with critical detachment yet warm sympathy, the growth and spread of “the only religion England has ever given the world.” Which even dares to raise the question: does witchcraft–call it “Wicca,” or whatever you will–really work?
What Hutton says on this topic is so excellent, so appealing to the old UFOlogist inside me, that I think it a public service to quote it. (From pages 269-271:)
“In interview after interview, Gerald Gardner [the founder of modern Wicca] drove home the point that his sort of witchcraft was not merely a symbolic system of honouring the natural world and venerating certain deities; it was an effective system of magical operation. His aim was at once to persuade the public that witchcraft actually worked, and that it was in the hands of people who could be trusted to work it for good, especially for healing. … The problem with such a strategy, of course, lay in readers and listeners who believed him when he stated that witchcraft worked but not when he added that witches would invariably use it benevolently; it was an extreme manifestation of the basic problem which dogs modern magicians. …
“This problem shades into a yet greater one, which will be introduced here by a pair of personal experiences. A few years ago I was lunching in a hotel restaurant with a classic English county lady, from an old family, who was well educated and daintily mannered as most of her kind. For a minute I let my attention wander from her conversation in an attempt to catch a waiter’s eye. Discerning this, and misunderstanding it, she asked me if I had seen a ‘fetch’ behind her. When I questioned her as to the significance of this statement, she explained that she had inherited through blood an ability to see apparitions of different kinds, at fairly regular intervals. Instinct had suggested to her that I possessed the same trait, and was therefore sympathetic to others who did; she was wrong in the first point, though correct about the sympathy. Knowing that she was a loyal Anglican, I asked her about the relationship between these visions and her Christian faith, and she replied that the latter had been the one in which she had been brought up, and to which she still trusted in the great matters of religious allegiance and of salvation. She had also, however, long realized that there were aspects of life in this world which the modern Church of England did not seem to understand, and therefore were not its concern. Her propensity to see spectral beings was one of those, and since it was a family gift she regarded it as something entirely positive and interesting, to be lived with comfortably and privately in the manner of her forebears.
“Three months later I was lunching in a pub with a somewhat younger woman friend, who belongs to one of Britain’s historical re-enactment societies. She is craggily beautiful, with the slightly bloodshot eyes and rapid and abrasive wit which are almost inseparable from the social life of the society concerned; her background is in the provincial working class. I told her about my research for the present book, and she immediately mistook this for an interest in ‘psychic’ matters in general. Being thus emboldened, she told me that she sometimes saw, or felt the presence of, ghostly figures, and that she had observed one at a gathering in the camp on the previous night; it had also been watched by another woman in the group, who had the same ability. Both had felt perfectly comfortable with this experience. She also sensed that certain places exuded spiritual power, and she enjoyed the feeling of being in them and taking it into herself. I asked her if she had any religious beliefs. She looked embarrassed and replied that she kept clear of that kind of thing. I asked her if she had inherited her gifts, and she answered that she had not; on the contrary, her family had always been troubled by them and preferred to ignore them, but the fact that she did share them with a few other friends put her at ease with her situation.
“These encounters are absolutely typical of many that I have had over the years, and especially during the last few, when my research into paganism and witchcraft has encouraged people to speak to me more openly about them. They have convinced me that there is a significant minority of people within British society (and doubtless in many–perhaps all–others) who regularly see, hear, or feel phenomena which most others do not perceive to be present, but which are very real to them. These phenomena can, indeed, be experienced in the same way by other individuals with the same characteristic. The latter seems to be most common among women, though by no means exclusive to them, and is often passed down through families. Let no readers of these paragraphs feel that their personal belief systems are being challenged; the experiences concerned may be the product of chemicals in the brain, or of communications from God Almighty, the Goddess, angels, the spirits of the dear departed, or a range of other entities. The only limitation that I myself would place upon interpretation of them is that the empirical evidence causes me to reject the notions that they are caused by mere overactive imaginations, or by general mental imbalance. I also find it highly significant that modern Western society is apparently unique in the human record in that it provides no generally accepted frame of reference for them and no system of explanation within which they may be sustained or discussed.
“This was not expected to be the final situation by the Enlightenment authors who did their utmost to demolish the previous system of interpretation, in terms of good or evil spirits. Sir Walter Scott, in his Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, argued vehemently against a literal belief in such entities; but he did not deny that humans often appeared to see or hear them. He suggested instead that an improved understanding of the natural world would eventually yield a scientifically viable explanation for such phenomena. Almost two hundred years have passed since his time, and yet that explanation has not been achieved; instead, the tendency has been to ignore or deride such experiences, leaving those who undergo them to come to terms with them within private frames of reference, and greater or lesser degrees of ease and comfort according to their circumstances. The principal consequence is that large numbers of people in this society have to live with phenomena of which their dominant models of physical and metaphysical explanation do not take account–indeed, which they do not recognize at all. …
” … The most disturbing recurrent experience which I have personally undergone since I began research for this book has been encountered in social situations shared with middle-class people of high education and professional ability: fellow academics, lawyers, schoolteachers, civil servants, and occupants of leading posts in commercial and industrial organizations. The overwhelming majority of these have been agnostics, atheists, or individuals who answer to the name of Christian but do not attend church except for rites of passage. When I have informed such people of my research, far and away the most frequent question which they ask of modern witches is not ‘From what social and economic groups are they drawn?’ or ‘What motivates them to take up such a spirituality?’ or ‘How does their religion compare and contrast with others?’ or even ‘What do they believe?’ It is, again and again, ‘Do their spells really work?'”
by David Halperin
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