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We Explore the Rise of Magic Practices in Nottingham, From Wicca to Paganism

23 April 22 words: Lizzy O'Riordan and George White
illustrations: Sophie Elizabeth

From the success of cult classic films like The Craft and Sabrina The Teenage Witch, to modern flicks like The Love Witch, our media suggests we’re thoroughly intrigued by magic, and those practising it. But, aside from campy movies, what do you actually know about witchcraft, Wicca and Paganism? On a mission to find out more, our writers George White and Lizzy O’Riordan joined together to learn about the history of witchcraft and how it’s practised in the modern day. Talking to Dr Thomas Waters about the persecutions of the past, and magic shop owner Soroya Cordery about the thriving present, they discover why the practice holds such a powerful grasp on our zeitgeist…

Witchcraft. It’s a song by Frank Sinatra. It’s a film by Don Sharp. And, in the words of Dr Thomas Waters, the Beeston-based author of Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times, it’s what many feel is “the supernatural power to afflict other people with misfortunes”. Yet, while Sinatra and Sharp may have influenced popular culture to varying degrees, the influence of the latter on this country’s social history is almost immeasurable. From causing people to move homes to directly affecting the laws of the United Kingdom, concerns over witchcraft have created paranoia within communities, broadened divisions within society and, in many cases, even led to the end of people’s lives. 

“In the past, witchcraft has had a big impact on this country. It was illegal for centuries, and in many cases people were charged for something they didn’t do,” Waters, a Lecturer in History at Imperial College, explains. “For several centuries, people who became suspects could end up not just being victimised and bullied, but could even be prosecuted in courts of law. Between the late 1400s and the early 1700s, somewhere in the region of 500 people in England were found guilty for practising harmful witchcraft - and were executed.” 

Fear over the threat of perceived ‘witches’ affected the behaviour of people in their everyday lives, with some taking minor measures such as “sleeping with the Bible under their pillow in the hopes of creating a supernatural barrier”, to more extreme measures like “putting ritual markings down, or even outright selling, their properties if they lived near supposed threats”. For many, fears over witchcraft stemmed from the rise of adverse circumstances in their personal or professional lives, with those struggling to make ends meet or having sudden marital difficulties often coming to the conclusion that an external force was plaguing their existence. 

“If things started to go really wrong in people's lives, and they couldn't find normal solutions, they would switch to this alternative way of thinking - a really radical and quite strange way of thinking,” Waters says. “In normal times, these people would probably disregard these theories, but when they’re in such a tough situation, they might be tempted to look for explanations as to why things are going wrong, and then start to believe that it’s the malicious actions of certain people within their community.” 

Magic is an area that's ripe for abuse. There have been people who've spent an absolute fortune because of self-proclaimed magical healers

Levels of anxiety around witchcraft have fluctuated throughout history, with certain communities becoming more obsessed with the notion than others. The Victorians were particularly fearful, developing strong superstitions that affected people’s livelihoods at every level - from the local to national. And, like seemingly everything in western society, this has been heavily exploited for personal gain. Capitalising on people’s desperation or paranoia, a number of individuals have made serious money by “taking the mickey” with claims of supernatural abilities and mysterious powers. Throughout history, distressed families have been known to fork over their entire life savings to medical or magical practitioners in the belief that they will rid them of curses, misfortunes or supernatural ills. “Magic is an area that's ripe for abuse,” Waters admits. “There have been people who've spent an absolute fortune because self-proclaimed magical healers have persuaded them that they and their family are under a curse, and that they’ll require a huge amount of money to do what's necessary to remove this.” 

Fascination with witchcraft might be more closely aligned with the likes of the West Country, but Nottingham is certainly no stranger to the concept. From the extensive Pagan history of the Hemlock Stone to a series of witch hunts taking place here in the seventeenth century, our county has dabbled in a wide range of different elements of magic over the years. 

Interestingly, though, it is only in more recent history - since the 1970s, to be more specific - that the prevalence of magic in Notts has truly grown. This is largely because, Waters explains, “We’ve become a more diverse world, one that's got a greater scope for freedom of expression and doesn't stigmatise alternative thinking quite as much.” Where once witchcraft and magic were shunned and forbidden, now people are much more willing to accommodate more contentious channels of thought. 

Yet rather than developing an interest in ‘black magic’ (or “harmful” magic), us lot have become more focused on ‘white magic’, or “magic for positive purposes, such as healing, fortune-telling and therapy”. Instead of casting people out over fears of them cursing our lives, we have increasingly explored the potential benefits of a number of seemingly supernatural practices. “In the present day, witchcraft - particularly in the western world - would largely be thought of in the way of positive identities and spiritualities,” Waters says. “There are all sorts; hedge witchcraft [involving a deep study of plants and the natural world], fairy witchcraft [which honours any deity that is connected to fairies]. In Nottinghamshire today, there’ll be people who understand it in all those ways and more.” 

Paganism and Wiccanism are on the rise in the young generation thanks to an unlikely source - Tiktok

It would be amiss to say that witchcraft doesn’t still come with a taboo, with many of those practising experiencing a sense of ostracisation. However, the craft is becoming increasingly accepted and popular, particularly with the younger generation. Just pop into Nottingham’s Rough Trade and you’ll spot book titles which vary from The History of Magic to Pagan Paths. The same can be said for Victoria Centre’s Urban Outfitters, offering books including Cosmopolitan Love Spells and The Crystal Zodiac. 

Putting pop culture aside for a minute, Nottingham has a thriving Pagan and Wiccan community, with Nottingham Pagan Community boasting over 1,400 members, and an active magic shop - The Mystic Moon, located in Sherwood and run by self-identifying Pagan and Wiccan, Soroya Cordery. Coming up to its eighteenth year in business, Soroya explains the shop sells “crystals and incense and candles, but also herbs and resins so that you can make your own incense. We have books and special magical oils that you can use for anointing candles with, alongside offering reiki, crystal healing, tarot readings, and house blessings and clearings.”

According to Soroya, Paganism and Wiccanism are on the rise in the young generation thanks to an unlikely source - TikTok. “Crystals are such a trend at the moment with a lot of the younger people. They come in and say, ‘I saw it on TikTok.’ Moldavite is really popular at the moment because of TikTok, and so the price of that has really shot up. Unfortunately, it can have a lot of misinformation about crystals on it. So if you want to know, it’s best to come into a crystal shop.”

But why are young people so attracted to magic? Maybe it's partly to do with TikTok trends, but it’s also fair to say that modern Paganism, and New Age Spirituality, are filling a gap left by the abrahamic religions. With a whole hoard of Millenials and Gen Zers describing themselves as spiritual but not religious, they seem eager to leave behind the dogma of institutional religion, while still holding on to the wonder and mystery of the metaphysical. “Paganism and witchcraft are very much widening now, and people are looking for things other than the mainstream religions which are really designed to control you,” Soroya says. “Whereas this is a lot more open, you have to trust your guide, trust your inner voice, and take responsibility for what you put out there into the universe.”

Wicca and Paganism put a large emphasis on the environment, and for a younger generation struggling with ecological anxiety, this is certainly appealing

Wicca and Paganism also put a large emphasis on the environment, and for a younger generation struggling with ecological anxiety, this is appealing. Striving for a sense of harmony with nature brings a sense of hopefulness in an otherwise bleak zeitgeist. We catch up with Carys, 28, who works as a professional gardener and food grower, and describes herself as an existential millennial. “I have found purpose and occupation by working with plantlife; engaging with other species to inform my place within the world. I like to live by the light, recognising and celebrating the equinoxes and solstices” she says. ''I have a belief in the devine and deep wonder for the natural world. I want to remain in a state of wonder.” The same sentiment is mirrored by Adam, 32, who performs a kind of traditional Folk Witchcraft, who comments, “Witchcraft is about honouring the spirits of the natural world. It is about embodying and acting as an agent for the wild untamed powers of nature through occult practice and the veneration of the spirits of the land, sea, and sky.” 

There are many theories as to why people are embracing a more open approach to spirituality, ranging from rejection of religion, ecological anxiety to consumer capitalism - with Professor Matthew Hedstrom theorising that ‘millennial spirituality’ is centred on buying religious products, like yoga mats and crystals. Whatever the driving force, it’s evident that Paganism, Wicca, and New Age Spirituality are bringing joy to the lives of younger and older people alike. As Carys comments, “It softens the edges when contemplating existence, as well as bringing an ecstasy to my world view.” And for those with mental health struggles, such as Adam, “It has helped me cope with mental illness and shows me a universe rich with meaning and value in the face of nihilism.” This is a sentiment reiterated by Soroya, who thanks crystals for helping with her chronic health issues. 

Looking back at the long history of Wicca, witchcraft and Paganism, it’s inspiring to see that so many people feel free to practise their craft, without overt fear of persecution. And while it might not be a path for everyone, there certainly seems to be a lesson that we can all take: to follow our own intuition, treat nature with respect, and to carry with us a sense of wonder about the forces that may be out there. 

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