In her wonderful book ‘Diary of a Witch’ Sybil Leek, the original celebrity astrologer and witch, says “Before I left England, the British Broadcasting Corporation did a special programme based on my life and ended it with me standing trial against the judgement of theologians, doctors and scientists - not a novel experience for any witch. The jury decided against witchcraft. However, I was acquitted. The theologians were darlings but the doctors fought it out violently, ready for a taste of blood. Erudition gave way to temper and then they were lost, for bad temper achieves nothing. Not long after,” she concludes, “I came to America.”
Shocking, isn’t it? That was the mid-1960s. Leek was called ‘the most evil woman in the world’. Her landlady refused to renew her lease. With nowhere to live, she was driven to the States and all because she was brave enough to stand up and be counted as a witch, a mere 13 years after the repeal of the Witchcraft Act.
In America, incidentally, she became the media’s darling, appearing on every chat show and rubbing shoulders with the icons of that generation.
Wicca founder Gerald B. Gardner’s witchcraft and biography books were available to the masses a decade earlier, and not neglecting to mention Alex Sanders, whose funeral in the late ‘80s was as steeped with media attention as the previous 20 years of his life had been.
It must have been harder for craft-folk then, when the word ‘Witch’ still caused faces to grimace and journalists to rejoice. The media, as yet unaccustomed to religious tolerance, would make life impossible for those interviewed and thanks to those days, so many of us still now will not admit our religion in public, certainly not in front of a camera crew.
That was then; things are very different now. The word ‘witch’ has been reclaimed, thanks to this magazine and the Witchfest events, unashamed and never frightened to use the W word. A lot of the street cred and the glamour of the word are gone. From personal experience, it is now harder to get a magazine to feature an article about witchcraft than it is to buy your first athame. Both the hype and the scandal have finally receded and witchcraft has now become a respected lifestyle choice. The worst reaction you’ll get to a profession of the craft is a raised eyebrow or a smirk. Teenagers merely seeking attention and rebellion now need a new religion to pursue.
Five years ago, I joined the Children of Artemis media team. Being a professional psychic, I have very little to lose by standing in front of a camera and explaining that I’m a witch as well as a Tarot reader. It’s half-expected and hardly a sacking offence in my line of work. Since then, I’ve spoken to production teams, programme makers, radio interviewers and several delusional wannabe TV researchers, and posed for innumerable photographs, both ‘mystical’ and ‘normal’, depending on the requirements of the particular article. Publications as varied as Cosmopolitan, the Daily Star, the Illustrated London News and Alternative London Magazine featured articles with titles as naff as ‘It’s a Kind of Magic’ or simplistic as ‘Witches in the Home Office’. We’re still in the headlines but witchcraft is far less as a curiosity now. They like to focus on how normal we are. This development is sweet and helpful, and means that the next generation of witches will not have their kids sent home for asking the other schoolchildren why their gods have no horns, and they certainly won’t have their accommodation taken away for practising the Craft. The media’s current attitude means we can be open about our faith. It also means we need to reassess our attitude towards the media.
I am often accused of headline-grabbing (or media-whoring) for my positive relationship with the press but my opinion is that if the press want to interview a witch, a witch they will find – or they’ll make one up. Would you rather have an article featuring an angry Essex teenager wearing black lipstick and torn fishnets pretending to be a witch - or a witch? Would you rather have a bathrobe-clad hippie with delusions of grandeur or a pleasant, smiling young woman representing your religion to the devouring masses?
Let’s explore what the media already knows about our faith: they know Hallowe’en is ours (just don’t make them spell Samhain). Some are even knowledgeable enough to know Yule is Pagan (although they’re not sure why). They’re pretty sure it has something to do with nudity and the full moon (and the Wicker Man, but they’re suitably embarrassed to ask whether it is the same type of thing) and they know for a fact it has something to do with Qabalah, Tarot and astrology.
All the rest is merely free-form association games.
Last winter, happily in the throes of arranging media coverage for Witchfest International, I got a call from CoA headquarters. Iain Lee of LBC radio was dedicating his show to the age old question: Are witches sexy? I was given the number and rang in. You could see it as demeaning and you could think it unnecessary to define our religion in terms of physical attractiveness but isn’t this a positive move from the times, a mere decade or so ago, when people considered green-faced, big-nosed be-moled types to look ‘witchy?’ I’d take the pre-Raphaelite hair and velvety corset myth over the other one anytime. Time FM from SE London taped a Hallowe’en interview that same day, and over Witchfest weekend, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a well-informed report on current Craft on its Sunday religion show.
We’re mainstream, and no two ways about it.
In order to keep our happy co-existence with our neighbouring faiths, we need to keep a jolly co-dependency with the press. They need to feel they’re ‘in the know’ and they repay good relations. Give them the interview and they’ll make you sound great. Ignore them, and the Hell of the Christians hath no fury. They need to be constantly reminded of our passion for nature (rather than naturism). Equality of male and female and balance of the elements are two other Craft concepts that get hilariously misquoted time and time again. They also need to be reminded that we are non-hierarchical, so that they understand any claims for Wiccan superiority are in-jokes. And really, there’s no need to jump on soapboxes and wail at the mention of ‘White Witch’, the most common inaccuracy of them all.
The reason I say that, is that in PR terms, the gentleness of our religion is a great asset, and although we don’t need to be defined in PR terms, it does make life easier to be accepted. Let’s leave the rebellion to those who can be bothered with it.
Of course, I’ve been misquoted and misrepresented. Here’s a random selection: The lame “Inbaal practises paganism to bring another dimension to her life” in Here’s Health magazine; “paganism is very hip these days, with the focus on good spells and fully clothed covens” misquoted another; The cringeworthy “I started doing spells for friends and found I had a gift” in the Daily Star; and my personal favourite “They meet to celebrate their eight seasons, including Hallowe’en and every full moon”, with a hilarious claim that I corrected the esteemed Croydon Advertiser journo who thought there were only four seasons.
Yah, I know, it’s not that good – but it’s not that bad either. No harm in coming across more insipid than necessary.
Being mistaken for Satanists is a different kettle of mooncakes altogether.
On my way to Witchfest Scotland 2004, I picked up a copy of the Times (it’s a long train ride and Heat takes an hour to read cover-to-cover, if you’re wandering what my nose was doing in a grown-up newspaper), which reported the suicide of a gentleman who, they claimed, was involved in Druidry. The police were investigating his death’s connection to the ‘Dark Arts’. That’s what we don’t want to be associated with.
The alleged ritual killing of an African infant found in the Thames a few years ago was also linked with witchcraft in the news.
That’s why I feel an emphasis on our kind nature rather than spells and ritual daggers is the way forward.
For the naive, research-shy journo, Harry Potter is a lifesaver. As are, embarrassingly, the ‘Charmed’ girls. (I draw the line at Buffy). They seem to take the point if you tell them that it’s got some things in common with the books or the shows, but isn’t exactly identical.
Simple and easy does it. With Witchfest on BBC Radio 4 and the wonderful Kate West’s appearances on the Heaven and Earth show, our road ahead is half paved out of the press harassment of the New Forest - and onto a box in the census form.
It’s not a fantasy, and good media relations, Goddess Willing, can take us there.