Yesterday I attended (and spoke at) a one-day public conference titled “Seriously Bewitched”, organised by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomenon (ASSAP) and held on the premises of Goldsmiths, University of London, an academic institution based in southeast London’s New Cross. As its title suggested, the conference was devoted to the subject of witchcraft, both in its historical and contemporary manifestations. Given ASSAP’s remit, the conference was not strictly academic (although there were many academics present), and instead it aimed to reach a much wider audience including quite a number of people who were personally involved in forms of modern religious Witchcraft. This broad church approach undoubtedly had its benefits in bringing together divergent opinions and perspectives in a spirit of dialogue, although at times it also resulted in some vocal disagreement, particularly from attendees who weren’t particularly familiar with the nature of academic scholarship or the realities of what historically constituted “witchcraft”.
The event kicked off with some opening remarks from Professor Chris French, a psychologist based at Goldsmiths who has a particular interest in the critical study of paranormal phenomenon; for me, it was particularly intriguing to finally meet Professor French in the flesh as I remember him being a talking head on television shows about the paranormal when I was a child. He was followed by Deborah Hyde, his successor as editor of The Skeptic magazine, who used her talk to delve into the Roman Catholic Church’s response to Medieval heresy, discussing how that phenomenon impacted on the later witch trials of the Early Modern period. Sticking with those trials, we then had Christian Jensen Romer, a self-professed evangelical Christian, offer a discussion of the witch trials that took place both in Eastern England at the urging of Matthew Hopkins and those that took place in Salem, Massachusetts. Seeking to turn commonly held notions upon their head, he pointed out that many of those most active in carrying out these persecutions were highly educated men working on a rationalist basis – he even compared them, perhaps a little tongue-in-cheek, to ASSAP members – while also noting that it was Puritan preachers who were among the most vocal critics of the trials.
It was my turn after lunch, as I focused on “The New Witches of the West”, looking at the development of Wicca – in both its British Traditional and later Dianic variants – as well as modern Satanism, before exploring quite why many modern day people choose to identify as “witches” when that term is so loaded with historical baggage. Given that I was feeling a little under-the-weather, I chose to read from a script rather than speak without one, however I got a fair bit of positive feedback nevertheless (although I was somewhat lost for words when one audience member started insisting that a secret cabal of Satanists rule the world…). I was followed by Dr. Helen Cornish of Goldsmiths, who discussed the fascinating case of Joan Wytte, “the Fighting Fairy Woman of Bodmin”, whose alleged physical remains had been displayed at Cecil Williamson’s Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall for many years. Returning to the subject of modern Pagan Witchcraft, PhD candidate Charmaine Sonnex then discussed some of her ongoing work on how modern British Pagans (into which she includes British Traditional Wiccans, eclectic solitary Wiccans, and Druids) conduct magic spells and how they believe that such spells work.
Moving into the evening session, the Wiccan High Priestess Bekie Bird provided a biographical overview of her own life, discussing key events in her childhood and adolescence that led her onto the Pagan path, and talking about her beliefs pertaining to magic and spirituality. Finally, independent folklorist Mark Norman ended the day with a talk on what he termed “Traditional Witchcraft” – meaning both historical folk magic and those contemporary esotericists who self-designate as “Traditional Witches” – focusing in particular on how “Traditional Witchcraft” has been presented by Gemma Gary of the Cornish-based coven Ros an Bucca. All in all, it was an interesting day that brought together many interesting people and interesting talks, and my thanks must be extended to its organisers. For those interested, the next themed ASSAP conference, “Seriously Enchanted”, will be devoted to fairy lore and will take place at The Academy, Holiday Inn, in Bristol on 12 March 2016.