Witchcraft, but not as you know it
PROFILES:Witches aren’t scary, but they do cast spells, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH, who talks to some Irish practitioners of the ancient craft of Wicca
WITCHES HAVE SUFFERED from centuries of bad press. The very mention of witchcraft calls up images of sinister warty crones; cauldrons full of dogs’ tongues and newts’ eyes; broomsticks streaking across the night sky. Influenced by half-remembered folk memories, lurid tabloid stories about satanism and even the Harry Potter books and films, the public perception of witches remains caught somewhere between fantasy, mockery and deep suspicion. The witch is still the ultimate female outsider figure: strange, transgressive and misunderstood.
But the two witches who run Féile Draíochta, Ireland’s annual festival of magic and spirituality – formerly known as Witchfest Ireland – taking place today at the Camden Court Hotel, aren’t scary at all. In fact, they seem open, friendly and remarkably down to earth.
Barbara Lee, who describes herself as an Alexandrian high priestess, has been practising witchcraft or Wicca since the late 1970s, and has run a coven for nearly 30 years. Lora O’Brien, who met Lee when she was 18 (“back when she was just a baby witch”, Lee says), is known as a high priestess too, although she prefers to be called Bean Draoí – which means female user of magic. “I will answer to plain old witch too though,” O’Brien says.
Féile Draíochta is a day of talks, workshops and special events designed by and for the pagan community in Ireland. While there are serious aspects to the festival, it’s clear there’s plenty of room for fun – there’s even a competition for the best witchy cackle.
Both Lee and O’Brien are keen to explain that there is nothing remotely sinister or satanic about Wicca. O’Brien says that, for her, it’s about health and healing and protection. “Wicca is a kind of religion,” says Lee, “but it’s also a craft – it encompasses the practice and creation of magic. We practise sympathetic magic, using items like candles or crystals or herbs to create spells. We celebrate the cycle of the year: we observe the four major fire festivals and the four solar festivals, and those are our main meeting rituals. Wicca ritual is about celebrating the Earth, channelling positive energies and creating healing. There’s no dogma or written creed in Wicca: it’s very free and it allows for difference in experience, in practice and in perception.”
While part of the appeal of Wicca is, as Lee puts it, “the awe and the wonder and the magic”, she says that the social side is important too. “We support each other, stick up for each other. There’s a deep connection there. We like to party, too – we wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun.”
There are seven women and six men in Lee’s coven – considered the perfect number since the traditional size of a coven is 13 – and the age profile ranges from people in their 20s to their 60s. The members of the coven travel from all over Ireland, and they usually meet once a month, when the moon is full, in Lee’s home – known as the covenstead. There’s always a feasting element, with plenty of food and drink. “We have cheese, wine, bread and cold cuts,” she says, “it’s our reward to ourselves for being such good witches.”
Real witches may not have broomsticks, but they certainly have wands. In fact, Lee always chooses particularly spacious handbags so she can keep her wand with her at all times. But there’s no high-octane showmanship in casting spells: “We use wands in a ritual way rather than in an abracadabra sense.”
She sees spell-work as akin to prayer. “It’s a manipulation of energy: putting focus and thought into an outcome. You do have to be ethical, take responsibility for what you do. We use spells mostly for healing – that’s our number one focus, but we also do money and job spells.”
Lee also claims to have had extraordinary success with her pregnancy spells, for couples wishing for a child. “But I do sometimes say no. Sometimes I get people coming to me whose partner has left them and they want me to cast a spell to bring them back. I wouldn’t do that. I could, but I wouldn’t. When it comes to love, I stay clear. I would also say no if the expectations are too high, or if people are looking for a quick fix.” Even witches, it seems, realise that there’s no such thing as waving a magic wand to cure all ills.
Lee says that she has been practising Wicca for so long that is has become inseparable from her own identity: “I’ve lived over 30 years of my life as a witch and it’s so much a part of what I am – even things like lighting a candle, waking up in the morning and greeting the day a certain way, even in how you listen to people .” Her Wiccan faith was a deep support to her when her 16-year-old daughter, Rhiannon, was diagnosed with cancer. Rhiannon died in September 2007. “I wouldn’t have got through that without the belief that at some point we will meet and love again,” Lee says.
Lora O’Brien says she started off as a solitary teenage witch. But after she met Lee at a pagan meeting in a small bookshop close to Dublin Castle, she began her initiation in the Wiccan tradition: “I was hungry for contact with like-mided people.”
Today, O’Brien lives in Co Roscommon with her two children and her fiance John Sinnott, who is also a witch (Wiccan men as well as women call themselves witches). O’Brien manages an archaeological heritage centre at Rathcroghan and she’s also the high priestess of her local coven. Sinnott, who is an archaeologist by profession, is the high priest.
It’s an unusual life choice, one which some people would find bizarre. But O’Brien says such scepticism is unjustified: “A lot of pagan people are involved in the caring professions or in community work, putting their spiritual ethos into their professions. There’s a lot of altruistic work going on out there under the radar.”
She adds that once people know more about paganism, it becomes less threatening. “In 2005 I published a book about my experiences and the publishers insisted on a headline-grabbing title. So it was called Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch. People reacted negatively to the title, and when my granny wanted to read it, members of my family tried to discourage her, they thought she’d be shocked. But granny said it was just like listening to stories that her own granny told her. And I think that’s true. Whatever label you put on it, it’s just the stuff that’s always been here in Ireland – things like cures for warts and so on. It’s actually very familiar.”
Barbara Lee says that “for some people witchcraft is always going to be weird and scary. That’s fine, we’re not out to seek recruits. But we don’t sacrifice babies, and we don’t indulge in mad sexual orgies. Wicca is all about each individual’s exploration of themselves. We would never presume to interfere with or criticise someone else’s spiritual journey, so I think it’s fair to expect the same respect.”
Modern witches can claim ancient precedents for their benign interpretation of the tradition. In pre-Christian times, witchcraft was respected as a healing practice; the word witch derives from Wicca, which itself translates as wise one.
For some women, part of the appeal of Wicca is its emphasis on the feminine and on goddess worship: as John Sinnott points out, it’s the high priestess, not the high priest, who actually runs the coven. And that focus on female spirituality is a part of the wider pagan tradition, too.
Laura Maeve Dunne, who describes herself as a pagan and a tribal bellydancer, is giving a workshop at Féile Draíochta that aims to get people in touch with “the divine feminine”, or their inner feminine power. “I discovered paganism many years before I took up belly-dancing,” Dunne says, “but it was dancing that just woke me up. Before you start doing any healing, you need to accept yourself. Dancing is like standing in front of a mirror naked and saying ‘yes, I’m okay’. It’s about making yourself vulnerable, dropping the fences, and learning how to respect your own body.”
There’s no doubt that alternative spirituality has a strong presence in Ireland. Barbara Lee estimates that there are 150 witches from the Alexandrian tradition in Ireland, with another 2,000 pagans, druids and shamen.
To some people, pagan beliefs and practices may seem odd or absurd: the wands, the spells, the outlandish titles, such as priestess hierophant of the western mystery tradition. And many may question practitioners’ ability to effect any change at all, good or bad, through their rituals. But a central tenet of Wiccan morality is the ancient saying “An it harm none, do what ye will”, known as the Wiccan Rede. It’s a declaration of the freedom to act, as well as an acknowledgement of the responsibility of one’s actions. If witches are doing no harm by their actions, perhaps it’s time to live and let live.