but are they harmless eccentrics or a dangerous cult?
By Zoe Brennan
12th November 2010
Dressed in long, hooded cloaks, the women stand in a circle around an
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.
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 police are also told to avoid touching a witch's Book of Shadows,
or spellbook, and not to handle the ceremonial dagger known as an athame.
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
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.'
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
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
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.
Indeed, an increasing number of pagans are turning to Stonehenge as
their spiritual home, with at least 30,000 celebrating the summer
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
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.
'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.
'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
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
'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.'