Wiccan History

The circle of the year turns round and round until it is time for the colour supplements to print something about witchcraft and paganism. Usually there’s an oo-isn’t-it-freaky-English-eccentricity article on pagans at the summer solstice and at Halloween and this year has been no exception. The Guardian has done a big piece on Wicca with some well-known witchy names (some of whom I know quite well — claim to fame!). And it actually made me feel quite misty-eyed about the subject. Because I was initiated into Wicca, and it was really good, and yet it turned into a painful experience for me.

I suppose I ought to start by going right back, to a strange land far away called Hornchurch. Many witches seem to have had quite difficult childhoods and I was no exception, conforming to the archetype of the loner kid who had strange ideas (and strange visions). Essex in the 70s was not a fun place for a shy artistic sensitive boy, especially if you’re kicking against a smothering Catholic environment where everyone’s constantly on tenterhooks because the priests are raping the children. I presume this is a reason why I’ve always been something of a rebel, and it’s probably why I’m very suspicious of spiritual paths, even though I’ve tried a few. I was never a Believer in Christianity; the internal contradictions, as my communist friends would probably accurately put it, were always too obvious. But you had to conform to survive, and it could be quite a good forum where I was able to indulge my taste for performance and showmanship, and I was quite a popular Reader. I was also an incompetent altar boy — I was always tolerably rubbish at doing Wiccan rituals too. I suppose I just don’t like robes...

I always felt connected to the land and to some kind of earthy spirituality, long before I read any books on the subject. I always had mad visions of the world as fire, a feeling that how the world looked through the decoding of your eyes could be completely different to how it "really was", and I always thought there was no way to say what the world "really", definitively was. So — I had some innate simplistic grasp of Heidegger and Berkeley, probably as much as I will ever have, even before I went to school. And I remember going to Glastonbury as part of some kind of bizarre mystery play when I was eight or nine — Catholicism is quite good for that kind of thing — and we went up on the Tor as part of this enormous Christian festival, with what looked like thousands of kids all doing their little plays, and I remember thinking really clearly, "This Christian stuff is a load of rubbish, even if it does scare the hell out of me, but underneath it, there’s something much bigger, and I can feel it in the land."

I suppose it was the flood of country air into my oxygen-starved lungs. Hornchurch was pretty badly polluted in the 70s.

Hornchurch is "the Horned church" — it’s a Baal thing, because there was a cattle market there. It’s up the road from urban Romford, down the road from edge-of-the-country Upminster ("the church on the hill"), and is essentially Suburban Hell with rows of identikit thirties and fifties human-hutches, and an atmosphere of incredible violence. I don’t know much about the "real" countryside and I am aware that I idolise it — we moved to Upminster in my teens and the image of the country which is lodged deepest in me is of a strip of farmland with poplars by it that was opposite the bungalow we lived in. But this bit of Essex was suburbanised quite late — my parents remembered lots of fields around Hornchurch up to the fifties. There’s still fields between Romford and London by the side of the A13 even now. I’ve often wondered whether as a child I detected a hangover of country spirits in the area. (Though why should these not survive centuries of concrete, and be present everywhere?)

There was one big upside to growing up in my part of Essex, which was the libraries. For some reason, every library I ever visited in Essex had a fair selection of occult books, especially a number of fat tomes of Aleister Crowley. By the age of ten I was dipping into these fairly regularly because I was just drawn to them — partly it must have been the aura of the forbidden, but mostly it was about information. I wanted to find out what was going on. You may snigger at this, but I read a lot of science too, if that’s any satisfaction. No doubt this was driven at least partly by the hellish family life we endured, so I was trying to find out why life was so Shitty and more pertinently what I could do about it. The books helped me, in that I could do the yoga-ish exercises in "Magick in Theory and Practice" and sort my head out a bit. Not as good as therapy, but that wasn’t available.

I got involved in a group for the first time, after what by then was a fair few years of solo magick, or something approximating to it, at university, where there was a common-or-garden pagan group. It was great. No-one knew anything; there was no hierarchy as such, or at least not in my opinion, since there was no high priest lording it, just a bunch of people getting out into the Yorkshire countryside and engaging with nature together. There was the odd falling-out and some nasty scenes between people, but this happens in lots of magickal groups. I suppose after my family background I was kind of inured to it. But the actual rituals we did were really good, fairly spontaneous, lots of fun, and magical in every sense of the word. And I met my future wife there, so the nostalgia is strong for me.

Around 1987 we developed links with the (absolutely wonderful) Sheffield station of the Temple of Psychick Youth. I’d been interested in TOPY for years, since I was 15 or so, and had corresponded with the London HQ and various offshoots for some time. It combined industrial music, video art, guerrilla anthropology, a bit of politics, weird sex and magick in an irresistible pot-pourri. Most people became interested in TOPY because of its figurehead, a minor pop star called Genesis P-Orridge and obviously this was an attraction for me, but I was more interested in the ideas and the network of people, whom I found rather interesting and agreeable. I stayed in touch with them, and when I finally came back to London (and became a workaholic!) I went along to a meeting in Beck Road, the legendary squat-turned-countercultural centre in the depths of Hackney. It transpired that this was one of the transition points in TOPY history, where one generation of activists passed on the torch to the next. As it transpired, this included me.

TOPY became for me a weekly social club with magickal, artistic and networking interests. Some of TOPY’s activity was about using magick in a critical, questioning way which sought to enable the individual to make up their own mind about the "is it all psychology or is it supernatural?" dilemma, so that people were empowered to create their own system which lacked hero worship, the obfuscation of deities (though that did not preclude using them if desired), or the meaningless mouthing of nonsense for reasons no better than tradition. This has left me with what I am told is a good appreciation of the power of "magick" and other "occult" practices, while giving me an attitude which is probably too critical of and (let’s admit it) cocky to magickal authority to be a functioning member of any other magickal group. Or at least, so it seems now...

But TOPY wasn’t a magickal group. This surprised people on the occult scene. Nor was it a "magickal order" as such, though we discussed the idea and we certainly fulfilled many of the criteria: we had a set of ideas about magick, a number of suggested magickal processes which new people could adopt, and some unique symbolism. The difference was that magick was not the only or the whole point of what we were doing and you could be a full participant in the group while taking little active interest in magickal working. Above all, and to me this was a crucial point, belief was not required. Belief was seen as a commodity, which one invested in particular behaviours in order to achieve desired results. The idea was that in order to create a change in the world, one must believe that such a change is possible, even inevitable, at least for that period when one is trying to achieve that change. Belief in any particular supernatural structure was not deemed a condition for membership, spiritual hygiene or personal wholesomeness. Outside of Chaos magick, with whom we had some association, this was fairly rare in the Occult world, though subsequently it has became far more acceptable and is a commonplace element of the intellectual furniture of many traditions, including Wicca in recent years.

We did a lot in TOPY, and we met a lot of people, and I miss the regular social contact this entailed, and the sense of momentum. Of course much of this was provided by your friend and mine John Eden who I said at the time was by far the most impressive person I met in TOPY, possibly even more than the redoubtable Malchick Nostra who was the eminence grise of the (dis)organisation and who ran its administration from Sheffield. Certainly I found John more vital than Genesis P-Orridge. Gen was a good visionary, mystic and media figure who became a fairly good acquaintance of mine. But I was never interested in hero-worshipping a fuhrer; I still had in mind the community of equals of the Sheffield group. The system Gen had proposed, or rather which grew out of the intellectual and social compost Gen provided some years previously, created precisely that kind of autonomous, anti-hierarchical network or rhizome, and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Of course Gen’s apparent desires diverged from those avowed by TOPY: he liked acolytes and was weak enough to be capable of hurting (some) people foolish enough to put themselves up for the job. We in TOPY London were always in trouble with Gen because of our fierce independence. I suspect he sometimes gave John rather a hard time, especially since as usual John did more of the actual work involved in getting things moving. Gen was always scrupulously pleasant to me though.

We did a lot in TOPY. We put on big multi-media shows that filled large venues, we did performances at S&M clubs, we did a lot of ritual, including very large ones at stone circles, and we produced a whole heap of magazines and booklets (if the web had been around then, we would have filled up quite a chunk of it — sadly most of that stuff is languishing in filing cabinets now, though John has rounded up quite a lot on his site). We got involved in some protests I won’t go into now. There was a genuinely world-wide network of people — I used to travel to the US a lot on business, and I was always meeting up with people out there.

We also tasted the reactionism of the State when Mr Sebastian, who was "our" tattooist and piercer, and who was arrested as part of the horrific "Operation Spanner" crackdown on gay S&M (we did security for him throughout the trial, an interesting experience, and celebrated with him when the trial finished). Then Gen was busted in the trial’s aftermath following a load of made-up allegations screened by Channel 4’s Dispatches — eventually it was the Daily Mail of all organs which proved that it was all cobblers, and that Dispatches had been hoodwinked by fundamentalist christians out to crucify pagans. It was the old, tired, traditional accusations of Satanic child abuse. Gen beat the rap, we got vindicated in the press, and Gen can come back to the UK when he wants to now. But it took a while, and in retrospect, it was all a bit exhausting, and maybe I became a bit paranoid then.

Eventually, it seemed to me, TOPY ran its course, though I think there’s still bits of it out there — I don’t pay much attention now. The end of TOPY London for me was all a bit sad. There’s a common syndrome in political, occult and music groups where the people who are perceived as leaders become a target for the dissatisfactions of the rest of the group. At least that’s how it seems to the leaders! What was strange to me was that I had never seen myself as a leader, though I had believed I was articulate and had something to say. It turned out some people in TOPY London, including it has to be said some people who were fairly new and, errr, hadn’t done much, felt John and I were ego-driven leaders. I thought this was crap, that there was only a hierarchy of work, that John did all the work anyhow and all I did was turn up to everything that was going on and talk to people. We’d just produced this enormous, fantastic magazine which was the product of the whole network, but some people just wanted to slag it off, because (it seemed to us) John and I had put the work into producing it. Ah, fond memories...

We both stayed in touch with most of the cool TOPY people. John went off to do the AAA, and I went off and did... what? I did a load of work and made some money and eventually, after much to-ing and fro-ing and thinking, I did Wicca. Now this was not as crazy an idea as it may now seem in retrospect. TOPY was not noted for its closeness to formal high magick Wicca, though there were lots of connections with witches (which is not quite the same thing). However, my logic went like this: I wanted to do the nature-worship, pagan thing, which harked back to the Sheffield days, and I didn’t want to do all the ritualistic crap that was involved in high magick, but I wanted to do something challenging. I wanted to be a witch. And ideally I wanted to have a connection between what I’d been doing in TOPY. In fact there was a ready-made connection, an ex-TOPY fully-initiated witch with whom I was friendly and whose workshops I had enjoyed.

Looking back the alarm bells first sounded at the very peak of that intense initiation ritual. And boy was it intense — one of the biggest, best rituals of my life, I tell you, and let me be crystal clear — I am eternally grateful to the individuals and groups who initiated me into Wicca for that experience and for the many subsequent experiences which Wicca gave me.

I don’t propose to give away any secrets here (I don’t think there are any really, I suspect one can find most of the texts on the Net — but the texts aren’t really as important as the relationships, in my opinion, though some disagree with me). But when the blindfold came off, a senior (and wise) witch whom I still like a great deal and for whom I have enormous respect, said "Welcome to Wicca: it’s a really good religion."

Now there’s the problem in the nutshell. We can argue about the precise semantic meaning of the word "religion" and the nature of "belief", but a small but loud voice welled up at the back of my very much tripped-out (though drug-free), ritual-suffused mind at that stage and said, though I did not vocalise it, "I don’t want to be part of a religion".

I suppose I’m terribly dim, am I not, after all the years of reading and doing and thinking, and all the hours of meetings and chats and work with Wiccan people prior to the initiation, to not have twigged at some point earlier in the process that this was not just witchcraft, but Wicca — the Religion of the Witches. In retrospect, it might have been the smart move to have asked at some point earlier, So do you think this Wicca stuff is actually, you know, a full-on, belief-based, capital R, "religion"? Because if it is, then I have to tread very carefully, because my default position is to run screaming from the room at the very mention of the word. I mean, I’m an Essex boy ex-Catholic: that’s as anti-religious as you can get. Spiritual pathway, yes; occult experience, yes; critically-engaged belief structure, yes. Religion? NOOOOOOO!!!!!

Maybe I did ask the question and decided to ignore the issue in the belief that it would all come out in the wash, in which case more fool me. Maybe I got a not entirely clear response to the issue (and how could they know my sensitivity?). I don’t know; I can’t remember.

Nevertheless, it was a right rollicking night in the woods which had a permanent effect on my psyche (in a good way) and, as I say, I am eternally grateful to the people who were brought me in. If any of them are reading I’d like to say thank you.

Wicca may be a religion, or rather, maybe it can too often be decoded behaviourally and attitudinally as a religion in ways with which I personally am uncomfortable, but it does work. If you do the rituals, you will the get the feelings of universal (or specific) connectedness and you will feel as if you engage with, ooh I don’t know, something ineffable and ancient (if a temporal sense is meaningful). In short, it works. How it performs in the Chaotic sense of "results" is another issue. That’s a philosophical debate which is probably not capable of scientific proof.

However Wicca is also "high magick", or rather most of the behaviours with which we engaged during my time in Wicca can be deemed high magick. That means the rituals are somewhat theatrical, with a highly evolved demonology of entities with whom the aspirant engages who are deemed to have fairly specific traits, and there are robes, ritual instruments and, yes, scripted lines involved. As someone with a background in industrial magick and common paganism, all of this was something of a shock to the system. A comparison with a geisha’s tea ceremony comes to mind: it’s beautiful, codified, rule-bound and gives you a great orgasm in the end, but I was more used to a joyful tumble culminating in a sweaty shag. There’s nothing wrong with theatrical magick but I personally found that I was more concerned with whether or not I was getting things "right" and obeying the "rules" than with enjoying myself. And rightly or wrongly, I felt the Coven set-up reinforced these feelings.

Wicca seems to me to have a tendency to authoritarianism encoded into its structure of High Priestess / Priest as architect of the life of the Coven. One can see how this might have evolved as a defensive mechanism during less tolerant times; certainly one can see how Gerald Gardner with his taste for S&M power relationships might perhaps have emphasised this aspect of the Craft when formulating modern Wicca in the 50s. Whether such a hierarchy is "useful" or not is largely a matter of taste and maybe I was simply naive to try to engage with it given my background and proclivities. Nevertheless I felt that the specific Coven in which I was involved had a lot of the instructional, almost coercive "do this" behaviour, and not enough of the participatory "we can share this" behaviour. Some might say, Well that’s Wicca; to which I’d reply, that’s my point.

Yet I don’t want to tar the whole of Wicca with the same brush. Other Covens didn’t seem so authoritarian, and I enjoyed doing rituals with them more than with my own Coven. And in the end, it wasn’t this aspect of Wicca which drove me out, though the feeling of never quite getting it right or being approved or being good enough was a major factor.

And it wasn’t just the issue of whether I could wear glasses. There seemed to be an apparently widely-held Wiccan position that if you seemed physically disabled in any way during a ritual, this would put off the other witches and would annoy the gods and was really not on. This is obviously crap but the argument went on for months. (Eventually a very senior member of the craft revealed to the high priestess that she always wore glasses in skyclad rituals, and if necessary Wellingtons if outside, which rather put paid to the debate!) I remember asking the HPS at one point if someone requiring walking sticks or a wheel chair were to want to use them in the Circle, would they have them removed? The answer was yes. (I’m not making this up — nor do I believe this reflects the real sentiments of most Wiccans.)

No, what drove me out was that there was a syndrome of having major arguments before every ritual which the high priestess felt would "clear the air" so the magick could flow unchecked. Too many seemed aimed at me, in a climate of suspicion. Even when they weren’t, they left me feeling sick and drained. Maybe it is good magickal practice; it never seemed so to me. Eventually, at Imbolc, where after my protestations we had agreed not to have any argument pre-ritual, and there still was one, I lost my composure and said I couldn’t stand the arguments any more and I was leaving the Coven. I had actually discussed this with the High Priest and he had asked me not to leave til after the ritual, and he would try and see if any argument couldn’t be avoided. Well, I tried to do my bit; but I wasn’t going to be wrung through the mangle of pointless arguments any more. I’d had enough of that at home. Maybe I’m over-sensitive; maybe I’m just sensible; either way it was intolerable.

I now wonder if perhaps the truth was that I came into Wicca at the right time, and that I left at the right time. I was initiated a few months before my whole life fell apart, and I departed when I was, as it were, scaling a mountain I felt I had to climb in order to put my life back together.

After a few months in Wicca, I suddenly found out that my father was dying of cancer and only had a few months to live; then it transpired he had been having an affair with a close family friend for decades; and then my mother had a number of heart attacks at the stress of it all, one in my arms, both before and after his death. It got worse when dad died — blessed relief for him — for then the real family problems started. It was excruciatingly painful and it went on for months, years even (I’m still living with the physical, stress-created symptoms of all this horror). So I went from being a happy-go-lucky cheerful chap to being a miserable wreck. Witchcraft and paganism in general are rather good at helping one deal with enormous emotional crises like this and I believe Wicca was helpful for me. There were lots of tears in rituals (there’s lots of Wiccan stuff about remembering and dealing with the events of the last year’s cycle, so you can imagine what this was like). You might say I must have been extremely difficult to deal with in this time and I should be grateful for the support I got — and you’d probably be right. All I know is that from my point of view there were some things I couldn’t deal with which I felt were wrong and unhealthy for the group but more especially for me. My partner had noticed that Wicca wasn’t making me happy any more and was concerned for me as well.

On the other hand, I was putting my life back together. I’d had a load of grief counselling, so the really horrible stress symptoms, such as the feeling that one’s fingernails are slowly being pulled out of their sockets every waking moment and a permanent knot of fear in the stomach (which led to surgery) had pretty much cleared up. The last day of counselling happened to be my last, combustible day in the Coven. And I was about six weeks into an MBA, a really intense year-long post-graduate business course. After TOPY I’d wondered whether to be initiated as a witch or whether to be initiated in business via the agency of the MBA. Most people said to do the MBA — in the end I went for both, but I should make it clear that I only decided to go for the MBA months after dad died. There was never an either-or choice in my mind, and I was fully dedicated in choosing the Wiccan path. Though I suppose you could say that Mammon won out over Hecate at that point in my life.

After the leaving there was an uncomfortable exchange of letters; I just tried to be honest and fair, though how this was perceived I don’t know. I didn’t like the letters from the Coven much; one in particular I felt was hateful, an unwarranted attack on, of all people, my partner. That was hurtful, though I’m told it’s not uncommon — one of Phil Hine’s excellent books discusses this kind of group dynamic. I haven’t been in touch with the Coven since then, which is a painful rift, but not one I am in any hurry to bridge. I have talked with some of the other Wiccans I met since then, and they’re lovely. I’ve tried not to seek their opinion on what went on; I don’t think it would be fair on them. In fact, one nice witch called me up and then I lost his details and I’ve regretted it ever since. I may have reservations about Wicca, but I like most Wiccans.

There hasn’t been much formal magick since then and I miss it; I enjoyed the two years of Wiccan rituals, and all the others before. I feel a bit burnt out, though one or two very kind offers to be part of other Covens or groups have come my way. I haven’t said yes yet. Some time there are some Wiccans, and other kinds of magickal people, with whom I would like to do some work. My spiritual life now is a bit unfulfilled. I do a lot of country walking now, and I’m a bit of a stone circle spotter and old church visitor, but it’s not the same. My social life is quieter now too, though marriage has made a difference there, and I don’t regret it; but I am aware that my years in magick included lots of intense relationships, many of which haven’t made it through the years, mainly because of the combustibility of magickal groups. And there’s little doubt in my mind that I have probably missed a vast number of brilliant clubs, DJs and raves due to magick, though I did have a pretty good go anyway. Or maybe this is just what happens in one’s thirties: it gets harder to maintain lots of relationships, but the ones you retain are deeper.

I suppose what I’d like now is some low, "hedge-witch" magick whose cultural values are not centred round 70s hippy style (yes it’s the "basket-weaving" jibe again), but one which includes boingy jungle records and hyped-up 2 Step garage mixtapes. Maybe my interest is being rekindled because the biggest magick of all has entered my life: my wife is pregnant. We both feel some sort of reflective need coming through, though whether it’s a need for "magick" or not is a moot point. We’ve been doing a lot of yoga; right now it feels like the way forward, or part of it. And my pulse still quickens and my spirit still soars at the feel of the wind and the sight of the land, and sky, and moon. I may never again wield a pointed stick and invoke the quarters, but my reply to Mr Fingers’ ancient question, Can You Feel It, is: yes.

Paul Eden

November 2, 2000

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