Chrstine Quick looks like a regular working mum. She drives a black Peugeot, runs a small business and wears bright, sensible clothes. The only hint that Quick might be involved in anything out-of-the-ordinary comes with a glimpse of the sticker affixed to the back of her car. ‘Protected by Witchcraft’, it says.
Once the preserve of myth, legend and bad Halloween costumes, the witches of today are more likely to live next door and shop at Tesco than wear a big pointy hat and breathe their last on a ducking stool. Indeed, witchcraft is a burgeoning business. Wicca (as witchcraft is more properly known) is reportedly the fastest growing religion in Scotland, and many of those drawn to it are young men and women inspired by television programmes such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed, as well as the Harry Potter phenomenon.
Quick, based in Aberdour in Fife, was brought up in Lincolnshire as a “good methodist girl,” but turned to witchcraft after the break-up of her marriage 16 years ago. She now runs the shop Mystique Moments on Aberdour’s high street, which sells an eclectic mix of witchy paraphernalia including crystal pendants, herbal tinctures (that she mixes herself) for everything from back pain to fertility problems, and a host of self-help books. There are even a few broomsticks for adults on sale in the corner for £15.
But, while it is easy to dismiss it as yet another incense-infused shop filled with New Age junk, the shop is the place to go for anyone interested in witchcraft. Her herbal remedies are a hit in Japan and the place is packed at weekends; even GPs in Edinburgh sometimes refer their patients to her.
“I can help treat everything from colds to cancer,” says the 46-year-old. “I get people coming in from all over the world. Some just come in to see what I look like, and others are teenagers who love Harry Potter who I like to help because they are the next generation of witches.
“But you never know who is going to come through the door. Many of my customers are lawyers, accountants and teachers who come in either looking for help with a medical problem, or who are witches who like the fact that we are in the middle of nowhere and can shop here unseen by their neighbours.”
That’s the thing about witches, most of them like to keep their beliefs private, so nobody really knows how many there are. However, as church membership continues to dwindle, more and more people seem to be turning to Wicca.
In 2001 The Pagan Federation estimated that there were some 10,000 followers north of the Border. And, while according to the Scottish Executive in the 2001 Census only 1,930 people indicated they were pagans in their response to the optional question about their religious beliefs, given that 1,400 others claimed to be Jedi knights, it is unlikely that figure is entirely correct.
Mystique Moments is certainly revelling in a resurgence of interest in all things Wicca. The shop is double the size it was when it opened in 1996 – and Quick happily admits this has a lot to do with the interest in all things Buffy or Potter-related. Yet there is more to these figures than the popularity of JK Rowling and the sex appeal of Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Psychologist Dr Susan Blackmore, a visiting lecturer at the University of the West of England, Bristol, with an interest in science and religion, says that it has a lot to do with the current political climate. “We all have natural religious impulses – a need for ritual, and some explanation as to the meaning of things in life. But at the moment with all the friction between Christianity and Islam, people are looking for some other outlet for these impulses,” she says.
“Wicca is a safe religion – it doesn’t have a theistic god, it isn’t regimented, and wiccans are not known for their wars or aggression. On the whole it is far enough removed from the religious struggles going on at the moment to appeal.”
According to Blackmore, we also have an intrinsic need to be connected to the Earth. “Wicca is not really a religion in the traditional sense of the word because, for a lot of wiccans, it is about the ground and the Earth and about connecting with nature and their own bodies. Especially if you are a city-dweller that is very attractive because we are natural creatures, we have evolved from hunters and gatherers, and it is in our nature to have an affinity with plants and animals.”
It all sounds very touchy-feely. But what do witches believe in, and what distinguishes them from a new-age hippy or a slightly unhinged tree-hugger? On the surface, not much. There are so many different types of witch that they are a difficult bunch to define.
While there is no strict definition of Wicca, and no witch equivalent to the Bible or Koran, it is broadly a belief system whose followers worship the Goddess and the God (a mother earth and a father-type figure), who devote themselves to nature and try to channel the energy of the elements in spells and magic. Some like to work in a coven – a secret group of witches who prefer a more ritualistic approach to the religion and who meet to cast spells regularly. Others, like Quick, are hedgewitches who work on their own and practise ‘low’ magic – using spells, crystals and natural potions to help and heal.
In fact, 21st-century witches have more in common with homeopaths and spiritual healers than they do with their fictionally embellished predecessors. There are those who use their knowledge and power for their own gains, but the majority of wiccans denounce any kind of black magic and, contrary to popular belief, don’t sacrifice lambs or goats. Nor do they have anything to do with Satan.
According to historian Richard Jones, author of Mystical Britain and Ireland, before religious fanatics bred this sort of fear and hysteria, witches were an accepted part of society.
“Witchcraft, as it would have been called, probably had its heyday in the middle ages,” he says. “There probably would have been a local wise woman, or witch, in every village, if not in every family, who would have played the role of doctor, counsellor, and healer. But then the witch hunts started in the 16th and 17th centuries and it became very dangerous to be classed as a witch. This happened at a time of great religious disturbance in Britain when people were unsure about their religious identity. Largely driven by the church and the monarchs of the time, a witch came to be seen as the personification of evil, and the legacy of fear about witchcraft remained for a long time.”
As a result, witchcraft was outlawed, and witches were either persecuted or forced underground (4,000 alleged witches were put to death in Scotland alone). It was not until the Witchcraft Act (the notorious act that stated the practice of witchcraft carried a death penalty) was repealed in 1951 that witchcraft was no longer deemed illegal.
More than 50 years later, not only it is well on its way to becoming a fully tolerated religious practice, but lay men and women are fascinated by it. “People are searching for something and this has been reflected not just in the rise of pagan religions but the interest in the supernatural in general,” says Jones. “In an age of instant celebrity and material wealth, people are rejecting organised religion and have turned to paganism for the answers.”
Witchcraft certainly answered all the questions Quick was asking. “Becoming a witch has changed my life,” she says. “When I started learning about witchcraft I was at a very low point, but it is such an empowering thing because it allows you to solve problems by making spells. It also helps you see things from a different perspective and appreciate nature. It’s not a restrictive religion – we let people believe what they want to believe. But most of all it brings you comfort. Being able to talk to the moon and asking them to help you with things is similar to praying, but you are speaking to something you can see. And you always seem to get a response.”
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