11 - Some Other Matters

I think that I must make it clear that, as far as my experience goes, while the coven should traditionally have six couples and a leader in the circle, nowadays it may often have less. At a meeting, if there were more than thirteen initiated people present they would sit outside with any uninitiated and watch the religious rite. If for certain reasons they were required in the circle, others would step outside to make room, and those without would then be purified and taken inside.

When the rites were finished and the circle closed, all took part in the dance and feast. If there were, say, twenty initiated and enough room, they would probably form two covens, each in their own circle, with one leader or timekeeper. If there were still more, they would form three circles. Nowadays, no uninitiated persons are ever present and the ceremonies are usually indoors, where there is seldom room for more than one circle.

Also, though the witch ideal is to form perfect couples of people ideally suited to each other and so in perfect sympathy, and to cause people to be suited to each other, nowadays this is not always possible; the right couples go together, the others go singly and make do as they can. Witchcraft today is largely a case of 'make do'. Another matter I must explain. At first I was puzzled by the absence of the Cup from the witches' working tools and the inclusion of the unimportant pentacle, said to be used to command spirits; also that while the witches admittedly used a form of spiritualism, asking departed spirits to return or communicate, they did not generally evoke - that is, command - either spirits or Elementals to appear, and then, by commands, bribes or sacrifices, cause them to do services.

The more so because, through their connection with sorcerers, they knew of these practices. Also, in the explanation of the working tools, mention is made of such matters. The answer I get is: In the burning times this was done deliberately. Any mention of the Gup led to an orgy of torture, their persecutors saying that it was a parody of the Mass; also the riding or dancing pole ('broomstick') was cut out. Censer and pentacle were substituted and explanations made to fit what their persecutors expected. If all told more or less the same story of what they were taught - because it was actually true and it agreed with the story of others - why bother to continue the torture?

The witch was convicted, and if she did not escape or die in prison, she was quickly burnt and her troubles were over. It was the poor wretch who was not an initiated witch who was tortured and tortured again and again, because she did not know what to say and could not invent a story that would pass muster. This explanation is I think plausible. Naturally, at times, individual witches may have attempted to work with elementals, but the general feeling is: 'These are usually evil, it is unlucky to have dealings with them, and the goddess is sweet and kind and would not like it. It is wrong to go against her teachings.' Of course, I am only speaking about the witches belonging to the cult. The village wise-woman fortune-telling type may have done anything.

Witches are constantly accused of raising storms. My informants simply do not know how to, and, by the system of magic they use, I do not see how they could, except of course by asking their gods. In other words, 'by prayer'. They know vaguely that pouring water, especially over a naked virgin, is said to produce rain, but they have no special rite or ceremonial to that effect, or if they had, it has not been preserved.

In both the First and Second World Wars there were stories that the Germans could and did work the weather to their own advantage, and witches wondered if this was true, and if so, how it was done. Undoubtedly in the old days part of the witches' job was to work the weather, but this seems to have been done on witch-doctor lines: by their clairvoyant powers and observation they knew when rain was coming and only started rain-making when they knew it was on the way. Again, they knew if a long drought was coming and could advise farmers accordingly.

If fine harvesting weather could be expected, they told the farmer to let the crops ripen; if rain was coming, to call all hands to get the crops in and to get the roofs ready in case of impending storm. They did not consider this charlatanism. As they say, half of their power came from people who believed in them and so would take their advice.

If people knew how it was done they would say: 'Oh, we'll try it too'; one would work against the other and it would be chaos. The witch wants quiet, regular, ordinary good government with everyone content and happy, plenty of fun and games when you are alive, all fear of death being taken away; as you grow older, you rather welcome the idea of death, as an abode of peace and rest, where you grow young again, ready to return for another round on earth.

Unfortunately, few periods of history have suited witches. I think personally that at Athens their system, or some system like theirs, had great success in spite of the various wars that took place, and I have a feeling, based on nothing more than a hunch, that much the same happened in ancient Crete. It is also quite possible that something like this occurred in Egypt, but I have no evidence of this.

I think in Celtic and pre-Celtic times witches had great scope and used their powers wisely and with restraint. In Rome I think they had too much opposition from conflicting sects, from the Roman character, the mixture of the population and, of course, Christianity, which, together with various wars and invasions, put them out of the running for a thousand years.

About the time of the end of the Crusades, however, men's minds began to be rather freer; the shock of the total defeat and destruction of the Crusaders, together with the new ideas these had brought from the East, made men think. And there was a chance that the witches might have had a beneficial effect. But Pope Innocent III saw clearly that this would be to the disadvantage of the Church, which of course it would have been, though I cannot see it as the direct conspiracy against Christ it was said to be. Tolerance had to be avoided at all costs; so the persecution began. There was so much that bigots and Puritans detested, so they wiped witchcraft out.

During the Renaissance witchcraft might have been expected to revive; but at that time, though men's minds had suddenly become freer, they had also turned to Kabbalistic types of magic, and learning had suddenly discovered many new types of poison.

All this promised quick and easy effects which you could perform yourself. In England, in Elizabeth's time, there was learning and more freedom of thought; but Italian poisons arrived at the same time, and were used; also there seem to have been many outbreaks of ptomaine poisoning, due to more trade and importation of goods, and the blame was put on the witches. Religious feeling was still high. Neither side had any use for the tolerance that witches preached.

After someone made a wax image of her and stuck pins in it, Elizabeth was persuaded that a witch or sorcerer had done it and passed a law against witchcraft and magic. You could be put in the pillory for practising magic, but there were few convictions and many of these may have been plain poisoning. If you killed anyone with a sword, poison or magic, that was murder, a crime against the common law.

The Pope had made magic criminal and Bishops took the law more or less into their own hands; but it was not the law of the land. I think that if Elizabeth had had children and they had carried out her policy, we would have had a very different idea of witches and the May Games and their like would still be performed; there might still be a Merry England. But unfortunately she died without issue.

In Scotland, the Earl of Bothwell was thought to have had great powers with, if he was not the actual head of, the Scottish witches, and James believed he was using these powers trying to kill him and gain the throne for himself. Terrible and long-drawn-out tortures produced some confessions and the strong persecution began. The Puritans had their chance and brought the persecution to England.

It is said that the Great Rebellion was largely fomented because Charles I objected to people being condemned to death for witchcraft with no evidence, or against all evidence (vide Four Centuries of Witch Beliefs, by Mervyne Peake). Anyhow, the hunt was up again. Anyone likely to be a witch must be exterminated and his children with him.

In spite of it all, witches still linger on. They deliberately never know where the next coven is. If they do not know, they cannot tell, for who knows when the persecution may break out again? But I think we must say goodbye to the witch. The cult is doomed, I am afraid, partly because of modern conditions, housing shortage, the smallness of modern families, and chiefly by education.

The modern child is not interested. He knows witches are all bunk - and there is the great fear. I have heard it said: 'I'd simply love to bring Diana in, she would adore it and she has the powers, I know; but suppose in some unguarded moment she let it out at school that I was a witch? They would bully and badger her, and the County Council or somebody would come round and take her away from me and send her to an approved school.

They do such awful things by these new laws nowadays. ...' Diana will grow up and have love affairs, is not interested, or is interested but gets married and her husband is not interested, and so the coven dies out or consists of old and dying people.

The other reason is that science has displaced her; good weather reports, good health services, outdoor games, bathing, nudism, the cinema and television have largely replaced what the witch had to give. Free thought or spiritualism, according to your inclinations, have taken away the fear of Hell that she prevented, though nothing yet has replaced her greatest gifts: peace, joy and content.