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'... the nature of modern witchcraft/wicca'

What is '... the nature of modern witchcraft/wicca'? In March 2006 Dr Leo Ruickbie was asked for his opinion.



Dr Leo Ruickbie was contacted by Eddie Lawrence of Bizarre Magazine and interviewed in March, 2006. Below you will find a transcript of his original reply.


[Eddie Lawrence, 22 March 2006 13:43]
Hello there. I'm a journalist for (among others) Bizarre magazine. We're working on a forthcoming witchcraft issue, and I was wondering if you would be willing to talk to us about the nature of modern witchcraft/wicca. I'm also keen to track down as many contemporary covens as I can. Any help you could offer will be greatly appreciated. Thanks for your time,

[Eddie Lawrence, 24 March 2006 18:37]
[...] here are the questions i've put together so far [...]

  1. What are the major differences between wiccans, pagans, druids and shaman?

    [Leo Ruickbie, 27 March 2006 11:12]
    In the first place, Paganism is two things: an umbrella term that includes Wicca, Druidry and some forms of Shamanism; and a spiritual path in itself that draws on elements of Wicca, Druidry, Shamanism and other religious systems and myth cycles. Between these different spiritual paths there are more similarities than differences, but the key factor in distinguishing them has to be the practitioner’s self-definition. People usually take their practice beyond the formal definitions in eclectic directions.

  2. Are the groups quite closely aligned/supportive or do they not have much to do with each other?

    [LR] Most of these definitions overlap, so you’ll find people calling themselves Wiccans, Pagans, Druids and Shamans often attending the same sorts of events, including group rituals and seasonal festivals. The biggest difference is that Shamanism often leans more towards the New Age than the other groups.

  3. What challenges does witchcraft face in the modern world?

    [LR] ‘Witchcraft’ can mean a lot of different things, but if we’re talking about Wicca, then I’d say acceptance, although on the flip side there are people who enjoy the fact that it is not accepted. And if not acceptance, then at least toleration. I fear that there are still a lot of closet witch-burners in this world. When people in a supposedly civilised country (the USA) are prepared to burn copies of Rowling’s Harry Potter books because they think they spread ‘witchcraft’, then you get idea of how insurmountable some of those problems can seem.

  4. Is there any scientific investigation into the efficacy of witchcraft? Do you think ideas such as string theory or the existence of a noosphere could have anything to do with magic?

    [LR] My own PhD was such an investigation and I found that magic ‘worked’ but not in the usually accepted sense. The practice of magic/witchcraft leads to what I identified as ‘re-enchantment’, rather than a new car or what anyone imagines the ‘efficacy of witchcraft’ to be. The new scientific paradigm offered by chaos theory and quantum physics holds out a lot of suggestive ways for understanding the concept of ‘magic’. But rather than prove ‘magic’ we will find it explained in new ways, just as some elements of ‘bewitchment’ and perhaps the ‘evil eye’ can be explained by hypnosis. Rather than vindicate ‘magic’ this process tends to disenchant it. Hypnosis is still a little understood process, but no one thinks it is a magical one anymore.

  5. Is there an accepted timeline of the development of witchcraft?

    [LR] Accepted by whom? I can tell you my thoroughly researched timeline for witchcraft’s development, but there are people who will disagree with it for their own reasons. The academic consensus is that ‘witchcraft’ as a label for human actions has moved through several interpretative phases, notably becoming identified as a Christian heresy by ecclesiastical and legislative authorities that led to the horrors of the so-called ‘witch-craze’ or, amongst modern Witches, the ‘burning times’, before that idea was discredited and rejected, and later when a new interpretation arose in the nineteenth and especially early twentieth centuries that eventually gave rise to Wicca. Of course, this is something of an over-simplification, but then you can’t expect a history of witchcraft in one paragraph.

  6. What are considered the major historical events for witches?

    [LR] For modern witches the repeal of the Witchcraft Act in 1951 is often seen as a landmark, but there are few if any historical dates that are actually remembered or celebrated in any collective fashion. For me the major date has to be Gerald Gardner’s invention of Wicca in the late 1940s.

  7. Is there an overall "direction" in which witchcraft is moving?

    [LR] It’s moving in two directions. The first is led by the people who practice it and here we are seeing the development of a more structured and stable religious identity through national and international organizations, and community work such as hospital and prison chaplaincy. The second is led by the media - specifically film and television, and a certain publishing trend led by a US company that I won’t mention - which is driving witchcraft into a commercial product aimed at teenage girls, a sort of ‘Witchcraft Lite’ for the masses that is all ‘spells to win back boyfriends’ and little else.

  8. What are the most important dates in the witching calendar? I'm aware the solstices are considered powerful times - do covens band together to practice large-scale magic at times like this or are they observed privately?

    [LR] You’re right about the solstices, bring in the equinoxes and add the cross-quarter days and you have the eight major seasonal festivities. Many people of different spiritual inclinations come together at such times and some covens open their doors to the non-initiated, whilst others chose to mark such events in private. The most public event has to be the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge where you’ll find everyone from the ‘reincarnated’ King Arthur to the Archdruid and just about anyone who likes a mad, all-night party. In Edinburgh the Beltane Fire Society has been organizing regular public events on Calton Hill that are part ancient tradition and part rave. The lunar calendar also gives a rhythm to the year that many people observe by meeting on the night of the full or new moon. These occasions tend to be observed at the individual level or that of smaller, more intimate groups.

  9. Do covens still fear persecution?

    [LR] Who doesn’t? Anyone who strays from the norm can expect some sort of backlash. Almost everyone involved in witchcraft that I’ve talked to has a story of persecution or discrimination to tell, the more so if they are open about their beliefs. Even as an academic I’ve had a taste of it myself and on more than one occasion. The situation is certainly better than it was, but not as good as it could be. The ascendancy of the Christian Right in the USA is obviously a worrying development and people in this country should be on their guard against complacency.

  10. Do you think there has been a politicisation of magic to a certain extent? I know many druids, for example, are actively involved in anti-road building protests etc.

    [LR] Many of the people drawn to magic are of an alternative, often left-wing political persuasion, so it’s not unexpected that they should combine their political views with magic. It won’t reach the stage where there’ll be a Druids’ Democratic Party. I don’t think that most people involved in magical spirituality are interested in the political game. Instead their actions are focused on community-level direct action campaigns, which can range from camping out in the top of a tree to prevent someone from cutting it down to simply picking up litter in a park or forest.

  11. What is the source of magic power? Can anyone access it or do you have to have a potential?

    [LR] You’ve taken a big leap there by assuming that there is ‘magic power’, but, yes, anyone can perform magic and experience the results of performing magic. There are lots of methods for achieving this, for example, if you want to have a vision of your chosen deity, then starving yourself in a desert for forty days is an often cited approach.

  12. What kind of world would it be if the witches were in charge? This may seem like a facetious question, but i'm curious, as most witches/druids I've spoken to seem to ascribe to a kind of matriarchal liberal collectivism.

    [LR] [no comment]

  13. Do people generally get into witchcraft for the right reasons?

    [LR] Not always, but they usually find the ‘right reasons’ later if they stick with it. Some people do take up magic to get this and have that, but then find they’ve embarked on a spiritual journey and changed their consciousness in the process – oops!

  14. What happens if witchcraft goes "overground" and becomes a spiritual fad a la kabbalah?

    [LR] This is already happening to an extent. For example, Dan Brown threw in some trendy references to Wicca in his dreadful Da Vinci Code that were just rubbish. Commercialization and commodification as ‘Witchcraft Lite’ will destroy its credibility. Consumerism will chew it up and spit it out. But the people who live it will continue to do so and there will always be others who will find that path far from the detritus of modern culture. Those ‘in the know’ will always be able to distinguish the real thing from the media product.


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