Children of the nineties may associate the term ‘witch’ with the hideous moment Anjelica Huston removes her mask, revealing her true Grand High Witch visage in The Witches.
However, I’m not entirely sure all witches are into trapping children in paintings and turning them into slugs so they can ‘squish’ them.
I decided the best way to find out if this was the case was to chat with a witch myself. This proved difficult at first, as many are quite understandably worried about opening up their alternative world to a nosy outsider.
However, I eventually found a very friendly witch to talk me through the ins and outs of modern day magic. And I have to say, witches are way more chilled than I expected.
Merlyn is one of the original founders of the Children of Artemis, an organisation for those practising Wicca and witchcraft, having been interested in alternative religions from an early age.
Growing up in a Church of England family, Merlyn found there were ‘too many conflicts’ between the Old and New Testament, which he found to be contradictory.
After dabbling with the Baptist Church as a 10-year-old – on the promise of a free bible – he turned to Wicca, which he found to be ‘much more organic’.
Merlyn told UNILAD:
One of the great things about all the pagan traditions, including Wicca, is we are much more pragmatic, and we are also much more critical.
No one can get away with just saying ‘but it’s always been like that’ because that is a get out of jail free card for people who have a religious practice that doesn’t make any sense.
In all honesty, I wasn’t 100 per cent clued up on the difference between witches and Wiccans, but Merlyn explained how ‘every Wiccan is a witch, not every witch is a Wiccan’:
Every Wiccan does practice witchcraft in the form of spells, but they also have a religious belief in a god and a goddess.
So Wicca is a full blown religion, with a definable belief system whereas witchcraft is purely the practice of natural magic.
Merlyn helped me understand how – for many people – Wicca is both a religion and a way of living, providing the sort of community and identity a Christian might feel by getting involved in church life.
When I asked Merlyn what Wicca meant to him, his answer was striking:
It’s a complete way to live your life, a lot of people don’t fully understand it.
It gives you guidelines to help you live your life, it gives you a spiritual connection with the divine.
And it gives you connections with the world and nature around you as well, and it’s very much based on being attached to the natural world.
So it’s a complete lifestyle.
Rather than huge, earth shattering magic, Merlyn explained how magic is often very homely and everyday, helping witches to work through issues which affect us all, such as struggling to pay rent or overcoming illnesses.
Merlyn described these spells as being ‘gentle nudges in the right direction’ and said magic can help ‘everyday, [the] almost mundane, but to be honest it’s what most people need.’
According to Merlyn, Wiccans aspire to follow the advice of ‘An it harm none, do what ye will’, which of course makes sense whatever your faith may be:
The Wiccan rede is something which we aspire to, like the Christian Ten Commandments.
It’s is incredibly hard to live up to. Basically, not harming anything by your very existence is very, very difficult.
So it’s an aspiration, it’s a guideline.
It’s very much like Karma. If you try and live your life well and treat people the way you would like to be treated, then I can’t see this as a bad thing.
In many ways, the critical and open-minded element of Wicca and witchcraft arguably make it a much more relevant religion than some more ‘socially acceptable’ faiths.
This is reflected in it being one of the fastest growing minority religions in the world.
Long-time Wiccan Merlyn has noted how the witch population has swelled since the 1990s. Once upon a time, a person wanting to become a witch had to join a coven – which is a notoriously difficult thing to enter.
Covens have to remain relatively small, so letting new members in is not something which is treated lightly.
However, everything changed after the publication of The Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham. This book offered instructions on how to become a witch on your own, without having to enter a coven.
This led to an explosion among people becoming solitary witches, practising by themselves in their own homes or out in nature.
Merlyn also noted the influence of popular culture on perceptions of Wicca and witchcraft, with favourable changes to media representations causing a boom among young witches in the early 2000s.
He cites Buffy, The Craft and Charmed as all being hugely influential in offering positive depictions of witches, where they are shown to be ‘the good guys’.
According to Merlyn:
From anything from books to films to TV, and a lot of the people who were, I suppose, getting involved in Hollywood were themselves being influenced by the rise of pagan and Wiccan beliefs.
Some of the cast of The Craft were – or are still – pagan.
Unlike some major religions, LGBTQ members are welcomed without question and there is none of the hand-wringing over same-sex marriage which continues to be a contentious issue in religious communities.
We get a lot of people who are from alternative sexuality communities. And there’s no judgement.
If someone is trans, if they are gay, lesbian or whatever sexual orientation they are, that is their business.
It is nothing to do with the religion, and if they want to participate, they are more than welcome. And we’ve got gay, lesbian and trans members.
And we’ve even had them as members of staff without a problem.
LGBTQ members may also tie the knot in a Wiccan version of a wedding ceremony – or as Merlyn refers to it, a ‘hand fasting’ ceremony.
These are apparently ‘more celebratory and earthy’, and sometimes even involve the happy couple quite literally jumping over a broomstick.
Unlike many modern wedding ceremonies, priests and priestesses can officiate the ceremony completely free of charge.
The fact that Wiccans worship both a god and a goddess is apparently as appealing to male members as it is to female members.
According to Merlyn:
When you have this kind of really severe male deity – with no counterbalance – it sets unrealistic expectations for what males are supposed to achieve.
It’s all too easy to scoff at and stereotype alternative religions, but at its heart Wicca is a caring and accepting religion with an emphasis on ‘life, fun, love and enjoyment’.
Witches think carefully about the effect their actions have on the world, and have a profound respect for nature. Many are members of environmental groups, working to protect the planet we all have a responsibility for.
Having survived persecution, Wiccans have proven the strength of their faith, adapting to fit contemporary needs and welcoming those who are all too often regarded as outsiders.
Simple spells can sometimes feel a world away from our modern, technologically focused world, however for many people such rituals provide immense comfort, connection and community.
Could witches be on to something?