Earlier this month, hundreds of marks were discovered at Cresswell Crags caves on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire; they are believed to have been put there to stop witches from rising from the underworld. Symbols show diagonal lines, crosses, and mazes, believed to deter and trap evil, and VV, believed to be emblematic of the Virgin Mary. One of the interesting parts of this story – apart from the fact that the cave’s managers knew the marks were there but thought they were Victorian graffiti – is that they are believed to date from the early 1800s, almost 100 years after the tide of recriminations against suspected witches in England had ended.
Or had they? Though many of the Acts against witchcraft were repealed in 1736, witch hunting still went on. In 1863, an alleged male witch was drowned in a pond in Headingham, Essex and in 1945 the body of an elderly farm labourer was found near the village of Meon Hill in Warwickshire. His throat had been cut and his body was pinned to the earth with a pitchfork. The murder remains unsolved, but the man was believed to be a wizard. And, of course, the last version of the UK witchcraft act was not repealed until 1951.
In the UK, as across the world, there is evidence of a past belief in witchcraft, and some belief in witchcraft still seems to exist. As recently as 2014, the BBC reported that the Thames Valley police are still having to deal with emergency calls about witches, with 48 reports on supernatural or extra-terrestrial events between 2010 and 2013 alone. One caller claimed that her sister-in-law was practicing witchcraft and voodoo on her; one man knocked on a woman’s window claiming that he had seen the ghost of his grandmother in her house; and a Berkshire woman claimed her Christmas tree was “writhing” and that “there was an alien climbing around in it”.
Now, of course, there is a chance that some or all of these calls can be related to mental health issues or prank calls, but the relationship between strangeness and witchcraft that still exists in the 21st century is interesting. Donald Trump continues to cry ‘witch hunt’ every time someone accuses him of something that he may – or may not – have done; celebrities such as Lana del Rey claim to be witches, while others, such as Beyonce and Stevie Nicks, have allegedly been accused of witchcraft; and witch groups across the world gather to hex unpopular politicians and public figures. I think the fact that the UK parliament still has a page dedicated to witchcraft speaks volumes about our continued interest.
The media has also cottoned onto this resurgence and made it somewhat of a fashion trend. In February 2019, Marie Claire UK published an article called ‘Witchcraft is officially a thing – are you a basic witch?’ It discusses the upsurge in witch-related sites on social media and an increasing interest in media, such as the Netflix remake of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. But it also offers the modern reader a ‘basic witch starter kit’ – linking witchcraft to modern consumerism and trends such as the girl squad – and gives a spell for long-lasting love, in which you burn certain herbs in a dish, then run your finger through the smoke, and use this finger to ‘swipe’ on Tinder in order to find the love of your life.
Image courtesy of Marie Claire
However, there is a much more serious side to 21st-cenrury witchcraft. As Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible to show parallels between 1950s McCarthyism and the Salem witch-hunts, so this resurgence of interest in witchcraft in the 21st century can be linked to phenomena such as global warming, seen as our environment turning against us; social unrest through Brexit here and Trump’s policies in the US; and a disenchantment with scientific and rational explanations for those things we feel defy explanation. People are increasingly looking to the supernatural for both explanation and to resolve their anxieties.
Tragically, some people and cultures also look to those they define as witches as the cause of their anxieties, and this is especially true in the case of children, with news reports increasing about instances of chid murder related to witchcraft. In 2017, The Telegraph reported 1,500 child abuse cases a year in the UK alone linked to belief in witchcraft and demonic possession, and charities say this figure is likely to be an underestimate because many social workers did not know how to spot the signs. There is a need for increased awareness and training, but also for more education, especially in those communities affected. It is one thing for Marie Claire to encourage middle-class, middle-aged readers to dabble in a little light-hearted love spell, but when children’s lives are at risk, we are in danger of sliding back to a time when the cry of ‘witch’ put whole communities at risk.
This article is by Dr Krissie West, lecturer, writer and editor and Storytelling Consultant at The Story Consultancy
Krissie is the author of two forthcoming books: ‘The Weary Little Wanderer’, about author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott and her works for children and ‘The Guilt of Innocent Blood: Reading the Salem Witch Child‘, which explores the role of children in the Salem witch trials. Both books are published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Krissie is a sessional lecturer in English literature at the University of Reading, and recently completed her PhD in American literature. She also lectures and researches in the US on Transcendentalism, with her work taking her to Harvard University, Boston and San Francisco. Krissie also specialises in social media, both as co-founder of We the Humanities, and as a lecturer and coach for academics, businesses and individuals.
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