Our fascination with witches has long surpassed witchcraft being a crime punishable by death. They are a cultural obsession, it seems, that is always with us in one guise or another. In recent weeks it’s been Netflix’s reboot of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Sky One’s A Discovery of Witches, as well as an episode of Doctor Who focusing on the Pendle witch trials. The only shift has been packaging witchcraft as a more grown-up take on women attempting to take control of their own destinies.
As a teenager, my friends and I were self-subscribed members of Wicca, the “white witch” religion. Growing up in a rainy mill town in Lancashire, with little in the way of diversion, our cultural diet consisted of Heathers, The Craft and other moody 90s films. At sleepovers we did Ouija boards and whispered “light as a feather, stiff as a board” as one of us lay corpse-like on laced hands, her arms crossed over her chest. Later, I’d lie awake as the wind and rain battered down from the moor, thinking of the guns my friend’s father kept hanging in the hallway.
My teen years felt like a pinball machine where the ball careered constantly between terror and longing, boredom and obsession, freedom and restraint. It’s no wonder that once we grew tired of whispering chants in our bedrooms we decided to take our witchcraft more seriously. I bought Spells for Teenage Witches by Marina Baker and took it the most seriously of all of us. It rains a lot in Lancashire and that doesn’t put boys off playing football, but it puts girls off watching them. I still remember the spell to stop the rain: you’d light a tea light in a jar, or a cup, and chant: “Taba taba taba, rain, taba taba taba. Leave the storm you brew, come warm yourself by the fire.” Huddled on the edge of the football pitch with the little flame, we were literally trying to control the elements so that we could watch the objects of our desire undisturbed.
Then there was the spell to silence a bully. When one classmate seemed to be directing all his hormonal angst in my direction, I wrote his name on a piece of paper, recited an incantation and shut the scrap of paper firmly inside a heavy book. Was it my lack of reaction or something more mystical that made him stop bothering me? Either way, the bully in question ended up becoming one of my closest friends.
These small efforts at wresting back some power in a raging sea of hormones and insecurity made me feel as though I was taking the reins of my young life instead of galloping at speed towards a cliff edge. My friends and I would take our polystyrene trays of chips up to the woods at lunchtime and sit in a circle round a little homemade bonfire. We held hands and closed our eyes and felt connected to each other and to the trees, whispering and shivering around us, and the damp earth beneath us. We talked about our futures and who we thought would get married first and what our children would be called. We called ourselves Slink – six linked.
It’s hard to articulate how cavernous the future seems when you are 15 – how wide and yawning. Its jaws are gently smiling, but there is darkness within. Where there is first love, there is heartbreak. Where there’s comfort, there’s chaos. One friend’s parents were both diagnosed with cancer at the same time. Another was raped by a man she met online. As an adult, these experiences are incomprehensible; as a newly fledged woman, a grown girl, they are utterly destroying. Why did we seal names in books and hold little flames in jars? Because the world is scary and you have to live in it, so you might as well try and tend your little corner as best you can.
While all this was going on, we didn’t tell anyone of what we did. I kept my spell book hidden. We would tidy away the bonfire and wash the felt-tipped Slink logo off our hands before we went home. We weren’t in any danger of being arrested, or hounded out of town by a mob with flaming torches. The prosecution of witches was abolished in 1735, but still we didn’t make known our dalliance in white magic. We weren’t hurting anybody, or sticking pins in voodoo dolls, but we could imagine the words that would follow us down the corridors at school. Weirdo. Freak. Witch.
More than 400 years ago, a few miles away from where my friends and I sat in the woods, a group of 12 people were arrested for practising witchcraft. They came to be known as the Pendle witches: the year was 1612 and among their number were a wealthy landowner, two women in their 80s and two men. Half of them were related. Most of them had known each other for years and feuded even longer. The list of crimes they were accused of is exhaustive: witchcraft, sorcery, cursing their neighbours, who then languished in their sick beds or fell down dead.
It seemed that in the 17th century wishing someone dead was as good as taking a knife to their throat. Reading the trial transcripts, there is a definite sense of desperation in their confessions, as though they are being given something in return: a pardon, perhaps, or leniency. On the other hand, they might have been convinced of their own powers. Many of the Pendle witches admitted to having familiar spirits – a demon that would appear to them and obey them. Why might they confess that, knowing the penalty was death? The Bible makes it clear: “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones, their blood shall be upon them.” Were the Pendle witches, with their familiar spirits and dramatic tales of murder and revenge, up to more harm than good, or were they simply misunderstood?
We will never truly know because the Pendle witches were not given a voice. This was a time before defendants were allowed to speak for themselves in court, before witnesses were cross-examined. The narrative was set against them and they were swimming against the current. All but one were poor and most likely illiterate. The injustice they faced was what sparked my idea for my novel The Familiars, which fictionalises the story of one of the accused, a midwife named Alice Gray, and her rich mistress, 17-year-old Fleetwood Shuttleworth, who is desperate to have a baby.
Modern medicine was still a few centuries away and where physicians, doctors and apothecaries were above budget, as they were for most ordinary people, local wise women were relied on. These women were figureheads of their communities, delivering babies, curing livestock and concocting remedies for the sick. There was often a strong whiff of witchery popery about these methods – popery being the word associated with papal, or Catholic, practices.
Catholics were just as bad as witches, if not worse, in the eyes of King James I. It is interesting to note that though physicians, doctors and apothecaries carried out similar duties to wise women and midwives – healing the sick, bringing life into the world and making comfortable those departing it – they were almost exclusively male professions, so safe from the pitchforks and pointed fingers. Women have been persecuted since the beginning of time and continue to be so: it is a timeless theme and one we turn to again and again in stories, real and imagined.
With so many important battles to be fought, does white magic still have a place in the world and is it even comparable to the witchery popery of 400 years ago? Fundamentally magic, whether it’s white or black, is energy. From tarot to meditation, there are plenty of ways we can tap into this energy now, without the risk of being strung up. I may have closed my spell book for good, but at 29, I still have my tarot read and write off bad weeks when Mercury is in retrograde. Sometimes we should accept that fate is out of our control and there’s nothing we can do to prevent that. Yet projecting positive energy into the world and into your own life, whether it’s creating a Pinterest board of interiors for your dream house, or committing your goals to paper, is essentially modern witchcraft, recognisable down the centuries as connecting with our desires. It’s making a wish and setting it free. It’s holding a tiny flame in a jar and praying for the rain to hold off, just a bit longer.
The Familiars by Stacey Halls is published by Zaffre at £12.99. Order it for £11.43 at guardianbookshop.com