Marc Zakian looks at the history of druids, wizards and witches and uncovers the story of modern magic.
There are probably more druids today than in ancient times. In the 2011 census 4,189 people declared druid as their religion; some 56,620 selected Pagan while 11,766 said they were followers of Wicca. In 2010, druidry was officially recognised as a religion by the Charity Commission.
The druids are Britain’s most famous magicians. These mysterious Celtic leaders were healers, high priests and astrologers who divined information about the past and future from the stars. They made predictions by sacrificing animals and also – according to one historian – humans, plunging a dagger into a victim and ‘observing the way the limbs convulse and fall and the gushing of blood’.
The word druid means ‘wise person of the oak’. We know that they worshipped in small oak woods where they cut mistletoe – regarded as a magical plant, because it flowers in winter – from the trees. Druid traditions – though, thankfully, not sacrifices – were revived in the 18th century. The poet and mystic William Blake became a druid, taking part in ritual ceremonies. The most unlikely modern druid was Winston Churchill.
Merlin is Britain’s most celebrated wizard. He lives on today, somewhere between myth, legend and history. One expert claims that Merlin was actually a real life Romano-British leader, an advisor to fifth-century king Vortigern – though many historians insist that no such king ever existed.
For most of us Merlin is the magus from the Arthurian stories. Born the son of an incubus (demon) and a nun, he became a royal advisor tasked with finding Britain’s true king. Merlin thrust a sword into the stone, declaring that only the rightful heir could pull the blade from the rock. No one was able to draw the sword until young Arthur freed the blade and became the ‘once and future king’.
In another legend, Merlin altered the appearance of King Uther Pendragon so that he could enter Tintagel Castle for an intimate tryst with Igraine, a union that led to the birth of King Arthur.
The great Neolithic stone circle in Wiltshire is one of England’s most mysterious monuments. According to medieval legend it was built by Merlin, who caused the giant stones to fly from Ireland to Wiltshire.
During the 1700s the antiquarian John Aubrey claimed that the stone circle was built by the druids, calling it a ‘Temple Druidum’. Modern archaeology has shown that Stonehenge was built thousands of years before the Celticculture, but many people still associate the monument with the druids.
Stonehenge continues to be a pilgrimage site for modern druids, particularly during the summer and winter solstices, but the place weaves its own special magic on visitors from near and far throughout the year.
THE LEY OF THE LAND
Imagine a sequence of invisible energy lines that run below the earth. Pathways that connect our most sacred ancient monuments and megaliths. These are known as ley lines.
The phrase was coined in 1921 by the amateur archaeologist Alfred Watkins who believed the lines were ancient trackways, pathways across the landscape. He coined the term ‘ley’ because they passed through places whose names contained the syllable ley. Watkins never attributed any supernatural significance to leys.
During the 1960s the idea of ley lines became associated with mystical and spiritual powers. People started to try and dowse the ley lines, with many enthusiasts claiming that the lines followed mysterious magnetic underground fields.
If you would like to try to dowse the ley lines you will need two metal rods bent at right angles (they can be made from a coat hanger). Stand to the west of Stonehenge with the two rods held loosely in your hand and the rods should cross over as you move over the line. There are lines running right across the country, often next to sacred monuments.
In medieval England witches were folk healers – local people or family members who performed magic to cure illnesses, banish bad weather and prevent crops from failing.
Many witches were employed to undo evil spells. Girdle-measurers specialised in diagnosing ailments caused by fairies, while charmers gave magical cures for burns or toothache. Toad Doctors cured the sick by placing a live toad in a muslin bag and hanging it around the sick person’s neck.
During the 1600s witches became the target of persecutions. The attack was led by King James I who wrote an 80 page treatise on witchcraft called Daemononlogie. The king even participated in witch trials.
Most people accused of witchcraft were poor, old women. Those unfortunate enough to be ‘crone-like’, snaggle-toothed, sunken cheeked and having a hairy lip were assumed to possess the ‘Evil Eye’; if they also had a cat, this ‘familiar’ was further proof. Some 2,000 so called witches were burned at the stake in Scotland. In England, however, it was fewer than 500 and the punishment was usually death by hanging.
Almost half the English death toll was accounted for in one county: Essex. Here the self-appointed witchfinder general, the Puritan fanatic Matthew Hopkins persecuted hundreds of women. He began his work in Manningtree accusing seven women of talking to imps and attempting to kill him by conjuring up the devil in the form of a bear.
Witch fever gripped East Anglia in 1645 and 1646. Hopkins had 68 people put to death in Bury St. Edmunds and in a single day 19 hanged at Chelmsford. He then set off for Norfolk and Suffolk. Aldeburgh paid him £6 for clearing the town of witches, King’s Lynn £15. This at a time when the daily wage was 2.5p.
Hopkins identified witches by their Devil’s Marks – a wart or mole or even a flea-bite. He used his ‘jabbing needle’ to see if these marks were insensitive to pain. His ‘needle’ was a three inch long spike which retracted into the spring-loaded handle. There were other proofs for witches. Mary Sutton of Bedford was put to the swimming test. With her thumbs tied to her big toes she was flung into the river. If she floated she was guilty, if she sank, innocent. Poor Mary floated.
A last reminder of Hopkins’ reign of terror was discovered in St. Osyth, Essex in 1921. Two female skeletons were found in a garden, pinned into unmarked graves and with iron rivets driven through their joints. This was to make sure a witch could not return from the grave.
Hopkins was responsible for over 300 executions, but eventually people grew tired of him and villagers refused him entry. Legend says he returned to Manningtree where he himself was accused of witchcraft. In reality, he died of consumption in 1647. The enthusiasm for killing witches waned. The last witch-hanging in England took place in 1682. But the Witchcraft Act was not repealed until 1951.
THE PENDLE WITCHES
In August 1612, three generations of one family known as the Pendle Witches, were marched through the crowded streets of Lancaster and hanged. Six of the eleven ‘witches’ on trial came from two feuding families, the Demdike and the Chattox – both headed by old, poverty-stricken widows. Old Demdike had been known as a witch for fifty years; it was an accepted part of life in the 16th century that there were village healers who practised magic and dealt in herbs and medicines.
The story began when one of the accused, Alizon Device, asked a local pedlar for some pins. When he refused her she cursed him and he suffered a stroke. Alizon was hauled in front of the justice and confessed, accusing her grandmother Old Demdike and several members of the Chattox family of witchcraft.
The trials were held at Lancaster. Old Demdike never reached trial; the dark, dank dungeon in which they were imprisoned killed her. Nine year old Jennet Device was the key witness, allowed to testify under the King James witch trials rules – someone so young would not normally have been able to give evidence. When Jennet testified against Elizabeth (her mother), she had to be removed from the court – screaming and cursing her daughter. This one series of trials in the summer of 1612 accounts for 2% of all witches executed in England.
THE QUEEN’S SCRYER
In 1547 an audience gathered in Cambridge for a performance of a play by Aristophanes. When a giant flying beetle took to the stage the terrified onlookers fled the theatre, convinced that the devil had entered the building. The story is testimony to the superstitious world of TudorEngland. They were convinced that spirits, wizards and witches moved among them – anyone who collaborated with these demons risked execution.
The flying insect was actually a stage illusion created by John Dee, who was accused of sorcery and questioned by the authorities. Evading formal charges, the great magus left for London to make his way as a philosopher, diviner and astronomer. Dee drew up astrological charts for Bloody Mary and was promptly accused of ‘lewd practices of conjuring to enchant Queen Mary’. Imprisoned for months, he was eventually released without conviction.
When Mary died, the superstitious Elizabeth I took the throne. Dee’s moment had arrived, he was commanded to determine the best day for her coronation. He was also recruited as an agent by the Queen’s spymaster Walsingham, who gave him the code name 007. When an image of the queen was found in Lincoln’s Inn Fields with a pin stuck through the heart, Dee was responsible for counteracting this evil. John Dee is celebrated as England’s last royal wizard.
Take one part Fiery Dragon, add some Doves of Diana, mix in seven Eagles of Mercury. This is the ancient alchemical formula for ‘sophick mercury’, the key ingredient of the philosopher’s stone, that magical substance that will turn base metal into gold.
The manuscript containing the formula was found in the documents of Sir Isaac Newton. The father of modern science, who defined the motion of the planets and the properties of light, spent half his career dabbling in the illicit magic of alchemy.
Newton wrote more than one million words about alchemy throughout his life, most of it in secret code because anyone caught practicing this dark art would be punished by public hanging from a gilded scaffold. In his notebooks, Newton gave his ingredients bizarre coded alchemic names such as the ‘green lion’ and the ‘sworded whore’, elements he used in hours of chemical experiments. A deeply religious man, Newton calculated the date of the end of universe and came up with the year 2060.
In the 1980s researchers analysed locks of Newton’s hair and found they contained high levels of mercury – quicksilver was considered one of the magic metals that was the key to alchemy.
THE BEAST AND THE BEATLES
Aleister Crowley was one of the most controversial figures of the first half of the 20th century. This wizard and occultist held ritual gatherings at his home involving robed figures dancing around pentagrams, esoteric rituals and potions made from apple juice mixed with opiates and mescaline, all drunk from golden bowls.
Crowley himself was a witty, wealthy, maverick author and the self-titled ‘Great Beast’. He founded the religion of Thelema, naming himself as the prophet entrusted with guiding humanity into the Æon of Horus in the early 20th century. Having burned his way through a family inheritance – an estimated at £3m – Crowley died in poverty in 1947. But his influence on British popular culture lives on. Crowley was included as one of the figures on the cover art of The Beatles’ album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and his motto of ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ was inscribed on the vinyl of Led Zeppelin’s album Led Zeppelin III.
John Dee was a member of a society of mystics known as the Rosicrucians. Originating in ancient Europe, its symbol is a cross with a rose at its centre (the Rosy Cross). Rosicrucians believe that secret wisdom has been handed down to them from ancient times. This knowledge was laid out in the book The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, published in 1616. JK Rowling’s Harry Potter stories were influenced by this book. Fans have noted dozens of similarities; both books feature mystery beasts, such as the phoenix, the unicorn and the griffin, and meals are served up by invisible servants in a hall lightened by floating candles.
Blue Badge Guides offer guided tours on the theme of magic or ghosts across the UK. We have private guided tours of Stonehenge, and some of our guides will show you how to dowse the ley lines.