Pagans are on the march -
but are they harmless
eccentrics or dangerous cults?
Dressed in long, hooded cloaks, the women stand in a circle around an iron cauldron.
The chief witch sweeps her broom around the coven, making their circle a sacred space.
A candle is lit, incense is burnt, and spells are mixed in the cauldron.
These are the witches of Weymouth, the latest foot soldiers in the march of paganism in Britain. And this ceremony marks the festival of Samhain — the turning of the year from light to dark.
Ancient beliefs: The rise of paganism in 21st century Britain has led to police officers being given advice on how to approach witches
The Dorset women were last week hailed by the BBC as figureheads of ‘a reinvented religion’, as the corporation’s news channel devoted considerable airtime to the festival.
At the same time, it emerged that the Metropolitan Police has produced a diversity handbook offering advice on handling witches and pagans.
Officers are advised not to panic if they encounter a blindfolded person in the nude with their hands tied together. The book reassures them: ‘This is in accordance with ritual and has the full consent of the participant.’
But it’s not only the BBC and the police getting clued up. Druidism has just been given official recognition as a religion by the Charity Commission — with the tax exemptions and other ‘rights’ that follow.
Jailed druids are now allowed to take twigs, or ‘magic wands’, into their prison cells, and are being given official days off prison work to worship the sun.
Critics say that this growing acceptance of primitive beliefs as a new faith undermines our social values.
Mike Judge, spokesman for the Christian Institute, says: ‘The BBC down-plays Christianity and up-plays paganism which is unreflective of British society. It creates an atmosphere where it’s OK to marginalise Christians.’
He adds: ‘When it comes to granting pagans rights, this is surely a case of political correctness gone mad.
'Some people are more equal than others when it comes to the equality agenda, and it seems Christians are always at the back of the queue.
‘We are abandoning the values that make us who we are. You can’t chip away at the foundations without the whole structure coming down.
‘What have pagans ever done? Historically, they produce unstable, violent societies — is that what we want?’
So is paganism really on the march in Britain? And even if it is, why are the BBC and the liberal Left establishment suddenly suggesting that it should be taken seriously — even to the extent of putting it on an equal footing with Christianity and other religions?
For an answer I turned initially to those women in the Dorset field. The leader of the coven is Diane Narraway, who teaches courses in tarot and witchcraft.
One of her congregation, 35-year-old teaching assistant Anouska Ireland, explained what they do: ‘We sometimes use the cauldron to mix spells, perhaps for the purpose of healing.’
Meanwhile, Sarah Sanford, a mother-of-three, uses witchcraft to protect her children.
She says: ‘When they are going to school I’ll do a protection spell for them, so they get through the day all right.’
Another Weymouth witch is Holly Syme, who says her incantations serve very practical purposes.
‘You do a money spell, or you do a happiness spell, and it’s giving you the motivation to go out there and do what you want,’ she says. ‘And it makes you feel better.’
Newsworthy: Organisations such as the BBC and the Metropolitan Police are giving more and more time to the understanding of pagans such as in this news report
Some might be concerned that small children were in attendance at the Samhain ceremony — the footage showed a young girl clutching a teddy — but Ronald Hutton, professor of history at the University of Bristol and the acknowledged UK expert on paganism, witchery and druids, says that witchcraft is benign, adding: ‘Unless you believe in evil spirits, which I don’t.’
Paganism is a blanket term for the worship of multiple deities, along with their own mythologies and rituals.
Modern-day pagans draw on Celtic imagery, and often worship the occult.
There are a bewildering number of pagan strands, from druids — who believe themselves to be proponents of the ancient faith of pre-Christian Britain — to wiccans, modern witches who wear a five-pointed star, and shamans who engage with the spirits of the land.
Then there are heathens, worshipping the gods of the north European tribes, including Thor, and the neo-pagans — essentially new-age eco-warrior types.
Central to them all is the idea of a divine force inherent in nature. Prof Hutton says there are up to quarter of a million practising pagans in Britain.
Only 40,000 are registered on the official census, but in the mid-Nineties, he estimated that there were around 120,000 ‘active engagers’ in paganism, a number he believes could have doubled since.
To put that figure in perspective, there are 144,500 Buddhists, according to 2001 figures, and the registered Jewish population numbers 259,000.
The Pagan Federation, which aims to represent all ‘followers of a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion’, claims the number of adherents has reached the 300,000 mark — putting them on a par with the Sikhs.
March: Women take part in the Pagan Pride Parade in London by dancing in Russell Square
Indeed, an increasing number of pagans are turning to Stonehenge as their spiritual home, with at least 30,000 celebrating the summer solstice there.
Astonishingly, around 100 members of the Armed Forces now classify themselves as pagans, and a further 30 as witches.
There are thought to be about 500 pagan police officers. A Pagan Police Association has even been set up to represent those who ‘worship nature and believe in many gods’.
To the consternation of many, they have been given the right to take days off to perform rituals, such as leaving food out for the dead, dressing up as ghosts and casting spells, or celebrating the sun god with what news reports have described as ‘unabashed sexuality and promiscuity’.
So why are Britons reaching out to ancient divinities? Is paganism filling a spiritual void left by the marginalisation of Christianity?
Certainly it seems so. There is even a new Pagan message community on the most middle-class of websites, Mumsnet.
One mother writes: ‘For the equinox I think I will do something in relation to having a white candle and a black candle. I’d also like to bid farewell to the light out of doors but I’m not sure if those lantern things that float up to the sky are eco or not.’
Each spring, more people join the Pagan Pride Parade in London, dressed in velvet robes and carrying broadswords and shields, their heads garlanded in wild flowers.
Prof Hutton says that paganism is growing in popularity because it addresses modern ills.
Gathering: Not all meetings take place at ancient monuments - some pagans gather in homes
‘It is gives a sense of connectiveness to the land and to our remote ancestors, both of which we lack in modern life,’ he says.
It is also feminist, in that it gives women at least an equal role, unlike most other religions.
‘It is environmentally friendly, and regards the natural environment as sacred. It has a powerful personal ethic, which could be described as individualism. It suits the free spirited in that you don’t have to do much. It is a back-garden religion.’
Undemanding in a moral sense, and with no rigid sense of responsibility, values or right and wrong, it seems to be a perfect religious mish-mash for our times.
And what is the Church of England’s view? Asked whether the Church sees the rise of paganism as a good or bad thing, a spokesman says rather feebly: ‘We wouldn’t comment on that.’
Ian Haworth from the Cult Information Centre is more outspoken, however. He says: ‘Paganism does fit under the umbrella of the occult, and that brings concerns.
‘Many cults use the occult to brainwash people.
‘There are several pagan groups we are concerned by in Britain, they are operating as cults. Paganism is not necessarily harmless.’
Keen to find out more about the pagans in our midst, I post messages on several pagan social networking sites on the internet.
Several responses are defensive. Nicola Kerr, from Falkirk, Scotland says: ‘I will just say this. “Normal” pagans are everywhere. Living quiet and industrious lives well under the radar of the media.
‘We are soldiers, civil servants, teachers, housewives, accountants, university lecturers, farmers, bakers, child-minders, historians, policemen and women, forestry workers, sailors, gardeners, call centre workers, office clerks, dancers and shop workers.
‘We live our lives quietly, paying taxes, working hard, loving our families, donating to charities, being part of the fabric of society.
Legitimacy: Popular depictions of paganism such as this gathering of novice druids are making the 'religion' more acceptable
'Next time you are in a public place, consider that some of the people around you may well be Pagan.
'In 99.9 per cent of cases you’ll never know that they are because they look, and are, normal.’
Those living near ancient sites no longer believe paganism is harmless, however.
They complain of pagans ransacking sites for souvenirs, scrawling graffiti on ancient stones, and leaving clothing, beer cans and wiccan effigies littered behind them.
One critic, from Wiltshire, says of pagan activity at nearby Avebury, Silbury Hill and Stonehenge: ‘These people are entitled to their beliefs and pursuits, they are entitled to dress like Sixties hippy throwbacks, and make a lot of noise with drums.
'All I ask is that when they go they take with them their rubbish, tat, paraphernalia and imposed beliefs and leave our ancient sites tidy and tranquil once more.
‘Druids and pagans have no claim on these sites. Britain’s historic ancient monuments are for all.
‘I for one do not appreciate the arrogant minority shoving their beliefs in my face.’
For her part, Diane Narraway of the Weymouth coven will not be drawn into any discussion on the rise of paganism in Britain.
She explains that she is fed up with the attention given to her rituals as a witch.
Lea Jackopson, a pagan from Portland, Dorset, explains that most devotees practise their ‘faith’ without show, and are keen not to attract undue attention.
She says: ‘Paganism is very fragmented in Britain. There are lots of different groves, which are pagan groups or covens. They meet for a “moot” in a sacred place, in a field, or in someone’s living room.
‘You go to one about once a month, and share poems and call on the spirits.’
She adds: ‘I don’t cast spells or wear robes. I want to live in unity with nature.
‘It is a harmless religion with no secrets. The pagans who creep about in disused churches and woodland glades are giving paganism a bad name. The hat-wearing cauldron-stirrers are putting people off.’
Nevertheless, they exist. I spoke to one, who would not be named.
She says: ‘I belong to a coven in Cornwall. We do hold moots in graveyards. Paganism demands that we find the bones of our ancestors in order to commune with their spirits.
‘We drink the ancient honey beer mead, and carry out midnight vigils, dancing round the graves.
'Sometimes we’ll have the Stag Lord there, with his antlers, representing the Celtic divinity.
‘Believe me, paganism is going from strength to strength in Britain. It will take over as newer religions like Christianity die out.’