Society doesn't burn witches at the stake anymore, but that doesn't mean life is easy for those who come out of the broom closet.
Photo by Javier Pardina via Stocksy
Betrayed by their neighbors, tortured into confessions and promptly executed—the 16th century was a dangerous time to be different in Britain. Many Christians believed that witches were part of a demonic conspiracy who were given magical powers by the Devil to destroy the human race. Most of those who were branded witches were women, as they were seen as the inherently wicked sex. As mass paranoia spread across Europe, thousands of innocent people were sentenced to death.
These days, there are scores of women (and men) who proudly call themselves witches. Many follow the pagan religion, which started in southern Europe way before Jesus showed up on the scene and became the continent's spiritual leader. It has since steadily diversified into numerous subgroups including Wicca and Druidism.
Read More: The Broadly Guide to Witchcraft
There are enough pagans in the UK to form a small army—one that is 56,620 strong, according the 2011 population census— while across the pond, a Pew Research Center survey in 2015 found that 0.3 percent of Americans identified as pagan or Wiccan.
In some ways, the stereotypes are true: Casting spells and performing rituals are an important part of being a modern-day witch. Pagan ceremonies are usually held outdoors and begin with the formation of a ritual circle, a sacred space symbolising equality and eternity. Every sub-group mixes up its rites, with Wiccan ceremonies taking place at night and using a broomstick (or "besom") to sweep and purify the ritual circle. But pagans aren't the type to wish evil on others. Instead, they prefer honoring the spirituality of the natural world.
Charlie Mallory Cawley, a 25-year-old from Kent, England, describes herself as a hedge witch—a pagan designation that indicates her speciality in folk medicine and the herbal arts.
"I use lots of crystals and also make herbal remedies and oils. I very much love healing people. While I've also cast protection and blessing spells in the past, I prefer using Tarot cards and a pendulum to help guide me," she says.
Although women are no longer put to death for their magical powers, many still face prejudice in today's society. Manchester-based witch Victoria Rivers, 28, was in primary school when she first found paganism and is "proudly out of the broom closet." She practices her religion to do good, but claims that she faces resentment and prejudice from others.
"I have been discriminated against as a pagan. I was once told by a preacher that I was going to go to hell after he noticed my pentacle, which is always worn around my neck," she says. "He said this as I walked past him to give a homeless man a cup of tea and a pasty because it was a cold afternoon. I found it rather ironic that I was told I was going to hell when I was clearly trying to help another in need."
One day I was cornered and attacked in the toilets by a group of girls, who called me a Satanic bitch.
When others ask if she's a devil worshipper, Rivers takes it as an opportunity to educate and put them in their place. "I tell them I'm not a devil worshipper as Satan is a Christian entity. To recognize the devil would mean I am in some way Christian. Luckily, most people do listen."
Others face more severe abuse for practicing their beliefs. Cawley experienced years of bullying at school and at work. "I was in primary school when it came out that I was a 'witch,'" Cawley says. "At first I got the usual jibes about sacrificing animals and using black magic, but one day I was cornered and attacked in the toilets by a group of girls, who called me a Satanic bitch."
Reporting it to the school didn't help. When Cawley told one of her teachers about her religion, she was practically laughed out of the room. "She told me it was my fault that it had happened and that I should stop trying to stand out and blend in more."
The taunting didn't stop there. When Cawley started working after school, she was told she couldn't wear her pentacle because the manager deemed it a superficial fashion accessory and not a religious artefact. She ended up quitting her job after months of bullying. Plus, there seems to be no such thing as sisterhood when it comes to celebrating religious differences—Cawley finds that it's mainly women who are hateful towards her.
"Men think they're just being funny with their comments. It's rarely anything hateful—unless it's religious," she explains. "Women can be very bitchy and really go for the throat. Because we're taught to hate anything that doesn't seem normal, it gets labelled as wrong and is deemed okay to ridicule."
Sometimes that prejudice can even come from women's nearest and dearest. Angela Campos, 28, was born in Portugal but currently lives in Liverpool, in the north of England. For a time, her Portuguese parents pretty much ostracized her for refusing to follow their Christian faith. "They are very old fashioned people and unfortunately their religion is one of those that states to be 'the only possible one,'" Campos says. "Many religions work out of fear and I just didn't want that in my life anymore."
When Campos started following paganism in her late teens and refused to go to church, her parents took drastic measures to try and change her mind.
"They wouldn't talk to me, they wouldn't help if I asked and tried isolating me," she says. "My parents returned to their usual ranting to convince me that the outside world was dangerous and evil and would destroy me."
Campos's parents also blamed her newly acquired boyfriend—who isn't actually pagan—for her beliefs and tried to break them up. Unfortunately for them, the couple have since married. "I have been living with my husband for over five years and the distance has helped. My mother loves her grandchildren, but my father keeps to himself, mostly."
I truly believe children should be taught about paganism in schools as it would help to promote a better understanding of what it's about.
According to Bristol University historian Ronald Hutton, paganism's association with dark and perverse activities could be a lasting hangover from Britain's past as a ferociously Christian society. Although some pagan-haters are Christian, many more may have abandoned the religion but held on to its prejudices.
"Even though they generally don't believe in magic themselves, they do still have this illusion that there are Satan worshippers inside society. Studies have consistently shown that between 18 to 25 percent of British adolescents believe in black magic," Hutton says.
While the threat of death is no longer an issue, the prejudice experienced by pagans has stayed the same for centuries. "A large number of people in modern society aren't worried about pagans and witches and accept that people can be different," he adds. "But there is a widespread minority who do not, and they are a problem for any liberal multicultural society."
For things to change, schools and the media need to step up their game and encourage public re-education. Modern-day tensions have been largely caused by hateful tabloid journalism, says Hutton.
Society nowadays still depicts witches as evil, and children are taught this from an early age—think Snow White and the evil queen.
"Until the late 1990s, there were numerous tabloids that encouraged people to see witches and pagans as the enemy and ran bitter and ignorant articles against them. The now defunct News of the World was a particularly nasty culprit," he says. "While the mass media is now more educated and benign towards people of these beliefs, school teachers often are not. It will take a long time for cultural attitudes to change completely."
Rivers believes that people aren't inherently bad, but simply misinformed. She believes that schools could make a real difference by giving paganism the same rights as other religions, as well as rejecting outdated stereotypes that you might find in any old Disney film.
"I truly believe children should be taught about paganism in schools as it would help to promote a better understanding of what it's about," she says. "Society nowadays still depicts witches as evil, and children are taught this from an early age—think Snow White and the evil queen, or the stereotypical image of the witch with a broom, hooked nose and warts."
But there are broader battles to be won. Many pagans believe that the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which registers hate crimes as offences against race, religion, disability, and sexual orientation, should include a much wider range of groups and subcultures. At the moment, Greater Manchester Police is the only force in the UK to record attacks on members of subcultures like goths and emos as hate crimes. But pagans are left out.
"The law desperately needs changing as we should be better protected by the Act, and being able to put our belief on the census as an 'official' religion would be an amazing start," Cawley says.
Currently, witches must tick the 'Other' box on UK government forms when specifying their religion. England and Wales also does not legally recognize religious ceremonies like handfasting, the pagan version of traditional marriage vows. In Scotland, only some handfasting ceremonies are legal.
For things to improve for modern-day witches, it all comes down to cultural acceptance—however long this may take. "If people can overcome prejudice about faiths they know little about and see how pagans simply try to work with Mother Earth to make their lives and others better," concludes Campos, "things might become lighter and lovelier for everyone."