Britain’s witches stir it up for holiday

As others party, pagans to honor, commune with dead on Samhain

ST. LEONARDS, Sussex, England – “You can summon the dead if they want to come back,” said the man in a long, red velvet robe.

As he spoke, 10 black cats pawed their way around an altar adorned with pentagrams, crystals and candles in his living room.

No, this is not Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and Harry Potter is nowhere to be found. But this Victorian hillside house in Sussex on England’s south coast is inhabited by witches.

Kevin Carlyon, a high priest of British white witches, and his wife, Sandy, also a practitioner of earth magic, live here with their “black-mass” of Halloween cats.

While children across the country pick out costumes and concoct new pranks for the upcoming holiday, Carlyon has planned a parallel celebration for a few members of his religious circle, known as a coven.

“There’s a small group of us — there should be 13 in a coven — that go out into the marshes locally, form a bonfire, and tune into certain people that need help,” Carlyon said.

Samhain celebration

Over the weekend, millions worldwide will don a witch’s hat, cape and broom or some other outlandish garb, but how do real witches celebrate Halloween? And where did the holiday originate?

“The basis of Halloween — or Samhain — goes back to the Middle Ages and before; people believed that on that night they could raise magic and see the dead,” said Carlyon, 45, who claims to have been able to foretell future occurrences since childhood.

The Catholic observance of “All Hallows Day” — or “All Saints Day” — now lends its name to the occasion. But, the holiday is actually rooted in a harvest festival first celebrated around five centuries before the birth of Christ by the Celts who lived in what are now Ireland, Britain and northern France.

The Celtic summer officially ended on the last day of October, and the New Year, called Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), began on the first of November. On the night between years, the Celts believed that the living and the dead could interact with each other.

And most modern-day witches believe they can, too.

“It is possible to conjure up the spirit of a person who can help a (living) person in need,” said Carlyon, adding that he has witnessed spirits take solid, corporeal forms.

Communing with the dead

While the modern American version of Halloween — which has recently been exported back to Britain — is a pot luck of Celtic, Roman and Christian tradition, heavily infused with its own commercial traits, practitioners of witchcraft relate more closely to the original celebration of Samhain.

“It’s a time to honor the changing season, the dead, those who’ve recently passed,” said Brian Botham, a leading member of Britain’s Pagan Federation.

Most pagans believe that upon death a person’s soul travels to the Afterworld, or Summerland — an idyllic realm of warmth and beauty — before reincarnating to earth again. There is no hell, and spirits in the Summerland can be contacted.

“Especially at this time of the year the veil between the worlds tends to be on the thin side and communication is a lot easier,” Botham said.

This year, Botham and his wife, Trish, have organized a celebration to honor both the eclipse of the moon on Thursday and Samhain. A well-known priest and priestess, David and Sorita Rankine, will lead the spiritual rituals, which their flyer promises will include honoring the “Lady of the Silver Wheel, Arianhod, and the Lord of Death and of the Wild Hunt, Gwyn Ap Nudd.”

While the foreign names may intimidate those of other faiths, Botham said that the ceremony, which is open to the public, will be more akin to a “ritual drama” than “The Blair Witch Project.”

“People will go in, the team will cast a circle within the hall, call and bless the elemental guardians, lead the (Samhain) rituals, there will be a full moon ritual to follow, the cakes and wines will be blessed and much merriment will be made,” he said.

The couple expects the central London ceremony to draw about 150 followers.

Secrecy in witchcraft

While some Samhain celebrations are open to the public, many pagans conceal their faith.

Until 1951, witchcraft was illegal in Britain. Since then, the ancient religion has crept out of the occult and into the mainstream, but some covens still adhere to a bond of secrecy. Due to the covert and decentralized nature of the subculture, estimates of the number of pagans worldwide vary between tens of thousands and more than a million.

Botham said such reticence among pagans is born out of a fear of discrimination, but others hold different opinions, including concerns of alleged sex-rite initiations.

“The more they’re secretive, the more it draws people,” said Carlyon, who is an outgoing, self-initiated practitioner and leader of a coven of 1,600 members worldwide, many of whom he is in contact with via cell phone and the Internet.

But some secretive pagans fear that excess openness shows a lack of seriousness and belief.

“The proper craft has a high moral standard and a standard of no exploitation, but since it’s just emerging from the occult there are some people who are only in it to serve their own ego or to exploit others,” said Tam Campbell, a third-degree Gardnerian Whitecroft witch who will be engaging in a closed Samhain ceremony with his coven.

Others scorn the use of titles and degrees.

James Morris, a solitary pagan, wrote in an e-mail interview, “My title is Mr. I don’t need anything else as I don’t belong to a coven or group that requires a hierarchy and therefore I have no need to posture!”

As in all religions, there are myriad branches of Witchcraft.

“I know a lot of Alexandrians, Gardnerians, hedge witches, some who’ve followed the Egyptian path, and I’d say everyone can learn from everyone else,” said Botham, who began practicing traditional witchcraft 12 years ago and now incorporates aspects from various sects into his personal practice.

While their paths differ greatly, all forms of paganism are “much more matriarchal than patriarchal,” Botham said, explaining that the religion is based in a celebration of the earth and the elements.

Americanization of Halloween

Although Halloween has its origins in Celtic Britain, until recently the holiday was largely celebrated here in unison with Guy Fawkes Day — the Nov. 5 anniversary of a conspiracy to blow up the English Parliament and King James in 1605.

But, fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes have been overshadowed by the American tradition of dressing children up on Oct. 31 and sending them out to knock on doors for candy.

“I think it’s wonderful how the Americans celebrate it; it keeps the tradition alive, but I wish there were more factualization about it,” Botham said.

“The only thing I object to are the Halloween films because they put witchcraft into a light of disrepute,” he said.

But, some witches find the commercialization of one of their most holy days hard to bear.

“The American trivialization of Samhain is overtaking the rituals and ceremonies of not only Britain but all over Europe,” Campbell said in a phone interview.

From Britain’s most haunted city of Exeter to its mysterious stone circles, thousands of witches and pagans will be gathering to commune with the dead this Oct. 31.

But, despite the perceived enigmatic nature of witchcraft, some will be taking off their suits and ties and celebrating in a very simple way.

“I for one will be celebrating alone on Putney Common with a small dedication ritual to friends and relatives who have departed. It will be a small ritual with some wine, a ritual ‘goblet’ (fancy wine glass really!) and a candle,” wrote solitary practitioner Morris.

More articles by Jennifer Carlile


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Religion News Blog posted this on Friday October 29, 2004.
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