They're not just on your TV screen: these days, witches, druids and shamans are coming out of the broom closet and making themselves heard. With the growing interest in all things supernatural, from Harry Potter to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it's little wonder that paganism too is growing in numbers – but those riding broomsticks and worshipping Beelzebub need not apply.
The number of pagans in Ireland now tops 3,000 – encompassing such diverse trends as Druidism, Shamanism and white magic. But the largest and most popular of these pagan movements is witchcraft, or as its modern-day followers refer to it, 'wicca'. Due its Celtic origins, Ireland is fast becoming the place to be for wiccans and pagans of all kinds, and with the occult becoming ever more popular amongst angst-ridden teenagers, you could shortly be greeting your co-workers with 'Blessed Be' instead of 'Good Morning'.
According to Silja Muller, the High Priestess of the Coven of the Silver Wheel of the Stars, and arguably the most public face of Irish paganism (even though she is a Swiss native), the growth of paganism in Ireland can be attributed to two things: liberalism and fashion. "Ireland is becoming a much more liberal country," she says. "Also, witchcraft is kind of fashionable at the moment – you've got Sabrina the Teenage Witch these days…"
If you are still shaking your head trying to figure out what wicca actually is, you're not alone. It's a difficult one to pin down. Silja, who founded her coven dedicated to the such figures of Celtic myth as Brigid, Morrigan and the Tuath de Dannan three years ago, is not much more successful: she narrows it down to a belief system based on individualism, unity with nature – not to mention having a good time.
These are the core concepts of all pagan groups, but specifically wicca, which is based largely on the teachings of English civil servant Gerald Gardener. To dispel a few myths: wiccans do cast spells and practise magick; they do not brew potions, eat babies or worship the devil. "To believe in Satan implies belief in a Christian God, we don't," Silja says – it would be much like a Catholic praying to Buddha on the side.
Though based on many ancient traditions, modern-day witchcraft is a very new idea – being a witch only became legal in Britain in 1951 – after which Gardener, who founded the magazine Witchcraft Today, laid out much of the Wiccan belief system. Though some of his beliefs – going 'skyclad' or naked when performing rituals, for example – were more bizarre than others, Gardnerian Wicca has led to other, slightly more conservative forms – such as Silja's coven, which forgoes many of the more traditional Gardnerian ideas.
While beliefs vary from coven to coven, most wiccans subscribe to two main tenets: the Wiccan Rede, and the Threefold Law of Return. The latter is very much karmic-based – what goes around comes around, only more so – which acts as both a deterrent from causing harm and as an encouragement for wiccans to do good in their lives. Any "bad" spells they cast will return on them threefold – but likewise any good that they do through wicca.
The Wiccan Rede, which begins "An it harm none, do as ye will" has attracted some criticism. On the surface, it would seem to preach "feel good, no responsibility" – though wiccans are quick to point out that nothing could be further from the truth. The Rede, they argue, is about taking responsibility for one's own actions, and encouraging a life of happiness for all.
While the beliefs and rituals may seem outlandish, wicca and paganism in general continue to increase in popularity. What is it that attracts people – specifically teenagers – to wicca and its beliefs? Peter McGrath is a second-year student in DIT, and hopes to join Silja Muller's coven this January. And, no, he isn't called a warlock – male wiccans are also called witches.
"I was always a pretty religious person and I found that Catholicism wasn't satisfying," Peter says. "I wanted something that related specifically to Celtic culture." Peter, who was always attracted to Celtic myths and legends as a child, began practising wicca four years ago, and now that he is past the minimum age for joining the coven, hopes to become a dedicant wiccan next year – "sort of like a white belt in karate", he explains.
Unlike most wiccans, Peter views it as a religion rather than as a source of magick. "A lot of witches get into it for the spells and the religion aspect is secondary. I think I'm the other way around: I'm in it for the religion and the magick side is an extra bonus."
Ah yes, magick – spelt with a 'k' to differentiate it from stage magic. Eye of newt, tongue of dog and all that. This is one aspect the stereotype gets right -- casting spells is indeed an important part of life for wiccans. However they view spells and sorcery not as a physical show with bright lights and special effects, but rather as a powerful spiritual transaction that can have real results. In this respect, magick and spell casting is more like an elaborate prayer – so those who say a few 'Our Fathers' now and again perhaps shouldn't be quick to sneer. Peter, who has cast three spells during his time as a wiccan, explains how it is accomplished.
Firstly, one creates a magic circle – "a protective barrier, because when doing magick you open yourself up to good and bad forces" – inside which all the equipment need for the spell is contained. Creating the circle and using specific items is all about getting the participant into the right mindframe to cast the spell – "separating yourself from the mundane world".
The spells themselves usually involve simple actions – Peter chooses the example of a good luck spell he cast before his Leaving Cert (in which, he notes, "I got exactly the number of points needed for my course"), where three coloured candles are used. A black candle, representing the person with bad luck, is lit; an orange candle, which represents the bad luck being drawn out, is lit from the black; and finally a white candle, representing the purified person, is lit from the orange. In other spells, words are recited and specific deities are called upon. Then, at the end of the spell, the opposite of everything that has been done is performed: taking down the circle, saying goodbye to the deities and so on. Most wiccans end their spells with the words "for the good of all and the harm of none", in accordance with the Wiccan Rede – "amen", anyone?
With practices such as this a regular occurrence, it is perhaps not surprising that Peter keeps his belief in wicca pretty much to himself. Though he has recently had a pentagram tattooed on his back – a traditional symbol of witchcraft and not of Satanism, wiccans hasten to add – Peter is selective when talking about his religion. "Personally, my faith is very big," he says, "but outwardly, I tend to lead a pretty secular life – I don't go around saying 'hey, look at me, I'm a witch'." Only his parents, sister and one close friend know of Peter's religious beliefs.
Much as Catholicism is not the only form of Christianity, so too is wicca only one group that falls under the banner of paganism. Another group normally shoved in alongside with it is Shamanism, a "spiritual practice" which has its roots in ancient Eastern culture – though Cáit Brannigan, a Shamanic practitioner, is quick to point out its differences.
"Shamanism is not specifically pagan. It is a spiritual practice, rather than a religion which, through soul-flight, allows the development and maintenance of spiritual pathways of communication which can aid the community at large."
Heady stuff, indeed. The concept behind Shamanism is that the practitioner enters a trance, enabling the soul to leave the body and travel the "realms of spirit". They can enter one of the three realms – the Upper, Middle or Lower Worlds – where they can communicate with spirits, "power animals", and various other forces one would normally think confined to the realm of fiction.
Indeed, wiccans, shamans and pagans of all kinds seem to be bursting from the TV screen and out of our pages. One only has to look at the supernatural success of Harry Potter, upon which someone must be casting a good luck spell, the youth of today seemingly can't get enough of the occult.
Peter has his own theory as to why this is the case. "It [the occult] has this appearance of being clandestine and secret – somehow dangerous. Anything that appears like that to a teenager is going to automatically appear attractive.
"Girls magazines like Just 17 seem to have a lot of features on witchcraft, where they'd interview a teenage girl who is a witch, and they'd give you a spell—it's completely off-the-wall, though, crap."
Dr. Paul O'Grady, a lecturer on Religion in Trinity College, Dublin, puts the growth of paganism down to two main forces: the failure of traditional religion, and the threat of technology. "People need to counterbalance an impersonal, technical society with personal spiritualism," he says. "It also seems to be largely a female phenomenon – and unlike religion and science is pretty unstructured, non-hierarchical, and accepting of diversity. More deeply it fulfils the roles of ancient myths and legends – heroes and heroines battling with great evil forces and overcoming them. It's an ancient motif."
Bizarrely, while paganism is very much about getting away from technology and into nature, it could be technology itself that's partly responsible for its rise. Many pagans have embraced the Internet as a means of communication, organisation and a way to meet liked-minded people. Silja Muller met her mentor, Robin, who lives in France through a mailing list; Peter discovered Silja's coven (as did this writer) through her website: http://indigo.ie/~silja/silverwheel/ for the curious amongst you.
Despite the growing popularity of paganism in at least some of the media, the days of witch-hunting and scare-mongering are not quite over. A teacher in England was recently suspended (though later reinstated) when he found to be a member of the Pagan Federation and a practising wiccan. Even harmless Harry Potter has been banned in some American states for promoting witchcraft. Clearly, people still think of broomsticks and dishevelled old crones when the word witch is mentioned.
"Curiously, there's a double think about this stuff," says Dr. O'Grady. "On the one hand, people are regarded as kind of nuts to be involved in clearly dotty stuff – one the other hand there's the fear that there might be something in it. I think traditional religion is extremely worried about it and that lies behind institutional reactions."
With the popularity of paganism on the increase, is there a chance that one day we will be gathering in our magic circles every Sunday morning? Dr. O'Grady certainly doesn't think so. "Part of the buzz involved is from the 'alternative' aspect. The perception of being a priest or a nun is that it's boring, dull – whereas being a witch has an edge, it's subterranean, mysterious and subversive. It would lose all that by becoming mainstream."
Curiously, Peter agrees – and even more curiously, for some of the same reasons. "I hope it will never become a mainstream religion," he says. "That's part of the attraction for me – the fact that it's very personal. By its very nature, it's supposed to be practised in smaller groups."
Cáit is also uncertain that paganism will ever become mainstream – and that she would ever want it to become so. "I don't think that it is necessary for it to be a healthy and meaningful 'religion' for people to practice. What I do feel is necessary, is for people to be allowed, and to allow others, to practise their beliefs without prejudice, as are their rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."
So it seems that the occult – which both Peter and Silja rush to say actually means 'hidden' – is destined to stay that way, and most pagans seem quite happy to keep it confined to the pages of Tolkien and company. But as more and more people, through love of nature, hatred of technology, or blind devotion to Harry Potter, become interested, it may not always remain the way they want it.
MYTHS AND FACTS ABOUT WITCHCRAFTMyth: Witches worship Satan
Myth: Witches cast spells
Myth: Witchcraft is a cult
Myth: There are good and bad witches