Practicing the Occult

22 February 2008

Ever wondered whether witchcraft and wizardry really exist? Jess Banham brings you the facts behind the magic.

With the huge popularity of books such as Harry Potter and the Northern Lights series, there has arisen an equal interest in magic and the occult. But what is the truth behind the fiction? Putting aside spells that can make your pudding fly across the table, I went to see Tim Goodwin, the owner of Libra Aries Books, an alternative bookstore, to learn about the widespread phenomenon that is paganism. Expecting to hear tales of spotty sixteen year old girls desperately seeking love potions or spurned spinsters purchasing candles and herbs to hex the one that got away, I actually received an education in a world that, although different, is rooted in the natural world.

Tim and his wife started out selling a few alternative books on a market stall in Leicester. Having realised the potential of the business, they moved to Cambridge in 2004 and purchased their own store, which has been providing the public with books as diverse as the Handbook for Pagan Healers by Liz Joan to Andy Thompson’s Native British Trees. Tim is quick to point out that they don’t just sell pagan or occult books. “People come in here looking for all sorts of things”, he comments. “I couldn’t say which type of book sells the quickest; no single shelf sells faster than any other”. When asked if he gets a lot of giggling students in the shop, he replies, “That doesn’t happen very often; usually if students come in, they head straight for the shelf on different psychological states. Information on magic mushrooms and the like seems to interest them the most!”

My images firmly shattered, he went on to describe the many different branches of paganism and their fundamental beliefs. So here is Thursday‘s rundown on occult practices:

PAGANISM

A Pagan is a person:

Who has recognised themselves and the inner feelings of attachment.

Who understands the cycle of life from life, to death, to rebirth.

Who respects the simplicity of nature, as well as its complexity.

Who respects and understands Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit.

Who lives their religion every day, not just 8 Festivals a year.

Paganism can also work as an umbrella term in the UK for a number of different forms of the occult.

WICCANS

It is important to remember that although all Wiccans are pagans, not all pagans are Wiccans. Witches, both male and female (warlock is an antiquated insult, despite what JK Rowling would have you believe), generally form covens and are active practitioners of the Craft. Mostly they follow the way of Gerald Gardner, widely believed to be the founder of modern Wiccan practices. They are particularly interested in the use of herbs, crystals and candles in the performance of spells.

HEDGE WITCHES

This kind of modern witch tends to shy away from covens but has an interest in the natural world, Wiccan ideas and the uses of herbs and crystals.

DRUIDS

Interested primarily in the Celtic religions of the Irish and the Scots, druids tend to be solitary and interested in nature or “trees, plants and performances”. They can be male or female and perform the combined duties of priest, arbitrator, healer, scholar and magistrate.

THE NORTHERN TRADITION

The major denominations of this tradition draw from Icelandic, Scandinavian and Continental Germanic culture, language and religions. Those who follow the Northern tradition are generally most interested in gods like Odin and Thor. Their principle texts are Icelandic, and many have become increasingly interested in understanding the pre-Christian religious beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons.

SHAMANISM

Technically you can only be a Shaman if you’re from Siberia, but it’s more generally associated with Native American views of the underworld. A Shaman is believed to be able to descend into the underworld and return with the power to heal. Shamans are particularly focused on conversing with the spirit world and believe animals act as messengers and provide omens.

CEREMONIAL MAGIC

This tends to be more about “smells and bells”; add in the odd bit of Latin and you’re all set!

Having received a full run down of all things pagan I ended by asking whether or not he felt paganism was being damaged by the fictitious portraits of magic in the literary world. “I don’t know about that”, he commented. “If anything, paganism is becoming more interesting to people; after all, Wiccan practices were only popularised about fifty years ago. As long as the world continues to be tolerant and increasingly multi-cultural there will be room for paganism and magic”. An apt way to end, I thought, having had my eyes truly opened by the experience.