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The Cat, the Hat, and the Broomstick

Are you one of those people who have always wanted to wave around your wand, brew mysterious potions, or surf the skies on a broomstick? Or are you someone who used to hide behind a bush whenever you saw an old woman with a big nose and warts walking down the street? In most literature witchcraft is portrayed as something evil. Witches live in gingerbread houses and eat children, hand out poisoned apples, predict a king’s rise or downfall, or lure innocent children into their sleigh with a hot drink and some Turkish Delight.

Whether you read one of Grimm’s fairy tales or Roald Dahl’s The Witches, these magic creatures are usually pure evil, al-ways plotting to curse someone, or eat a young child. For centuries witches have been portrayed as evil beings. As Roald Dahl states:

Real witches dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs. That is why they are so hard to catch. A real witch hates children with a red-hot sizzling hatred that is more sizzling and red-hot than any hatred you can possibly imagine. A real witch spends all her time plotting to get rid of the children in her particular territory. [...] A real witch gets the same pleasure from squelching a child as you get from eating a plateful of strawberries and thick cream.

In recent years, modern literature has changed this view on the world of enchanting magic and witches. Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Harry Potter, Charmed, Nanny McPhee, and many others have changed the way both children and adults see the magical world of witchcraft. Witches can be heroes: they can perform good deeds and fight other creatures who are harmful to them. However, this is something that has appeared only very recently. The reason for this change in the portrayal of witches in literature can be explained by looking at the past and at the way people used to view witches. During the Middle Ages witchcraft was often associated with the Devil and Devil worship. It was seen as evil, and people practicing it were hunted down and murdered. Especially in protestant Europe extensive witch-hunts meant that thousands of innocent people (mostly women) lost their lives. These witch-hunts reached their absolute peak between 1560 and 1660, followed by a rapid de-crease in the Age of European Enlightenment around 1700. In 1735, a Witchcraft Act was ensued, making it illegal for people to accuse others of practicing witchcraft. After this, witchcraft became of less importance to churches and governments.

For quite some time magic was practised in secrecy. This all changed when, in the 1930s, the famous religion of modern pagan witchcraft known as Wicca was invented. Although many people believe Wicca is an age old religion that has deep roots in history, in reality it was invented only about eighty years ago by a man called Richard Gardner. When Gardner moved to Highcliffe, a small town near the coast of England, at the age of 52, he quickly became a prominent member of a local nudist community. He had travelled extensively over the course of his life and had acquired a great interest in the many spiritual rituals of the tribes he saw. Earlier in life he had been inspired by the spiritual interests he saw in Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes books. By the time he moved back to England he had studied quite a bit of magic. He found a group of occultists and spiritualists near his new home, practising rituals that reminded him of his travels, though t located in England. He joined this group and started using this kind of spiritualism on a greater scale: fighting Hitler. After the war, he wished to spread the witchcraft he practised all over the world, but because the Witchcraft Act was still active it was illegal to publicly come out as a witch. He then published a book on witchcraft under a pseudonym. In 1951 the Witchcraft Act was repealed and Gardner could finally come out and tell the world about Wicca. He wrote The Book of Shadows, in which he noted all sorts of rituals and spells that were conducted by the people practising this type of magic.

It was as if he had timed his plan perfectly: “as the sixties began to swing, Wicca’s emphases on gender equality, nature worship and sacred sexuality, made a perfect fit” (Hutton). Wicca became immensely popular and by the time Gardner passed away in 1970 it had spread to become one of the top ten world religions. Today there are millions of people supporting the Wiccan religion.*

This development has had great influence on the way people view magic. With more and more (mostly young) people discovering this new magic, Wicca is the fastest growing religion of modern times. This becomes most evident, of course, in literature, as both books and movies explore the young adult and adult genre of fantasy and the different ways of viewing witchcraft in modern times. This, in turn, has greatly influ-enced the way both children and adults view witchcraft, because the genre has become a very popular one, putting witchcraft in a positive daylight.

by Jeanne Goossens

* If you want to know more about Richard Gardner, check out the documentary on him and his religion: A Very British Witchcraft. You can find a link to the documentary on The Angler’s Facebook page.

Works Cited

A Very British Witchcraft: Documentary on Richard Gardner & Wicca. Perf. Ronald Hutton. 2013. Documentary.

Russell, Jeffrey Burton. Witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, United States: Cornell UP, 1984.