The trouble with witchcraft today

From dodgy faith healers and false accusations to violent abuse, allegations about magic fly around. Historian Thomas Waters says we should use what’s worked in the past to challenge harmful beliefs

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The scariest witchcraft stories are the ones that are true, like the tale of a mother and her adult son who thought a spell-casting neighbour was making them ill. For months they retaliated with curses and evil prayers, chanting “death by fire” through the walls during the small hours and calling on God to kill the “witch”. They even told the poor woman’s seven-year-old daughter that her mother was evil.

The worst thing about that case of “witch” harassment is that it didn’t occur in the remote annals of British history. It happened last year, in London.

Vilest of all is the idea that children can be witches or be possessed by devils

Just the deranged behaviour of a couple of paranoid Christian fundamentalists, you might retort. Well, yes. But also no. Today, beliefs about witchcraft, curses and black magic regularly cause real harm. Reporting is patchy but it appears that, in recent decades, harmful magic has become more common in the UK.

“He is a very dangerous man, taking money and telling families they must cut ties with each other.” The words of a Leicester woman, who in 2018 wrote to her local paper to denounce an unscrupulous faith healer. He specialised in diagnosing and curing black magic. Evil spells, he claimed, caused his client’s misfortunes, from business failures to marital breakdowns, cancer and depression.

Breaking spells is lucrative. It paid well enough for the faith healer, who was from India, to regularly fly to the UK to work for British families living in Leicester, Birmingham and elsewhere. As well as being expensive, his therapies were destructive. The man sometimes broke up families by accusing one member of being the source of an evil that was apparently poisoning their lives.

In case you’re wondering, believing in curses and black magic isn’t just a problem for deeply religious people or folks from minority backgrounds. Anyone can get suckered in, if things are going badly and they’re feeling desperate. This was how, in 2005, a woman from Leicester ended up getting conned out of £56,000 by a psychic calling herself Sister Grace. It started with what seemed like an innocent tarot reading but ended with Sister Grace insisting that a curse would kill her client’s son and husband if she refused to pay.

Beliefs about curses and witchcraft are responsible for huge numbers of smaller scams. In 2006, for example, an estimated 170,000 Britons were taken in by junk mail from fake clairvoyants, urging them to buy powerful items that would attract good luck and repel evil. Most of the victims were elderly or vulnerable, losing on average £240 each. If you don’t hear much about these cons, it’s probably because the victims are too embarrassed to come forward. Witchcraft is also an eerie, secretive subject that people don’t like to discuss.

Vilest of all is the idea, found in some Pentecostal churches and among some Islamic jinn-removers, that children can be witches or be possessed by devils, such that they emit evil powers. This idea inspired the murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié in London in 2000, along with another five other children of African heritage between then and 2010.

Horrifyingly, the problem of child spiritual abuse goes much deeper and wider. The Department of Education now collects figures: in 2017-18 alone, it recorded 1,630 reports of “faith-based abuse” against children in England. This probably understates the problem. If you dig down into the figures, you’ll find that some local authorities don’t record any cases whatsoever, suggesting they’re basically unaware of the existence of child spiritual abuse. As a society, we’re barely scratching the surface of this deeply serious problem.

I think history shows us how we can deal with harmful magical beliefs. I’m not talking about the “witch craze” period of the Tudors and Stuarts – the late 1400s, 1500s and 1600s, when witchcraft was a crime that could get you executed. Witchcraft stopped being illegal in Britain in 1736 but throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, huge numbers of people continued to sincerely believe in it.

You probably don’t picture the Georgians and Victorians as being afraid of witches. But many of them were. The newspapers from the period report hundreds of cases of supposed witches being mobbed, beaten, stabbed, spat at, bullied, abused and, in a few dreadful instances, murdered.

It didn’t just happen to country bumpkins either. Alleged witches were attacked in industrial cities like Sheffield in 1802, Manchester in 1826, Leeds in 1828 and Warrington in 1876. Across Britain, thousands of fortune-tellers and magicians known as “cunning folk” also made their living by selling anti-witchcraft charms and rituals. Leeds, in the 1850s, was home to at least three white wizards. Durham, despite its cathedral and university, possessed four witchcraft-curing wise women.

This weird culture of witchcraft declined markedly during the late 1800s and early 1900s. It wasn’t that Britons suddenly became more intelligent or educated. The real change was in policing, which became more professional and widespread. First, policing stopped the abuse of supposed witches. Then the authorities cracked down on the various esoteric healers who taught ordinary people what witchcraft was and how to believe in it.

There’s a lesson here. With enough policing and regulation, perhaps with some undercover work, we really can diminish harmful magical beliefs, if not eradicate them altogether. We might also consider making it illegal to accuse someone of practising harmful witchcraft, following the example of countries from Malawi to India, which did so in 2018.

Although witchcraft today inspires fraud, abuse and violence, I don’t think it’s all bad. Tens of thousands of British people currently identify as witches – whether as Wiccans, hedge witches, traditional witches or other variants. They’re overwhelmingly good sorts – environmentally conscious, socially progressive and feminist. Like some of their counterparts in America, they might sometimes cast hexes or binding spells on politicians they dislike. But, not being a believer in the reality of magic, I don’t think that sort of thing does much harm.

It’s harder to know what to think about the various spiritual healers who earn their living by offering all sorts of magical services, from fortune telling to house cleansing and curse removal. There are probably tens of thousands of them working in the UK today, advertising their shadowy business on the internet or in some papers’ classified ads. According to one estimate, Britain has more spiritual healers and complementary therapists than it does GPs.

Modern spiritual healers come from every creed and background you can imagine: Hindu vaids, Muslim hakims, Christian exorcists, obeah therapists, aura readers and energy cleansers. And there are white witches, who’ve selectively revived the cunning craft – a tradition of white magic that I mentioned earlier that existed in Britain between as long ago as the Anglo-Saxon period and the mid-twentieth century.

What should we make of their work? Obviously it’s wrong to frighten people into paying many thousands of pounds to have a supposed curse lifted. And it’s appalling to spread conflict and cause discord by saying that a curse has been laid by another (innocent) person. It’s also unacceptable for magicians to make ridiculous claims about having a “100 per cent success rate” in curing everything from witchcraft to depression, like a clairvoyant from Chorlton, Manchester, did in 2010. (Thankfully, the Advertising Standards Agency banned her from doing so in the future.)

But what about an energy cleanser or white witch who doesn’t make inflated claims, and who charges £100 for a couple of curse removal rituals? Or a spiritual healer who sells curse removal incense, herbal tea or bath bombs (yes, really) over the internet for £20 a pop?

Faith is powerful. The placebo effect is real. Belief and positive thinking can work if not magic, then wonders. Some people find magical rituals psychologically therapeutic, as anthropologists studying foreign cultures have observed. The same is true in modern Britain. Given this, perhaps it’s OK to make a living from magic – so long as spiritual healers don’t encourage conflict, don’t overcharge and make it clear that belief-based systems are an addition to, rather than a substitute for rational thinking and scientific medicine.

Cursed Britain: A History of Witchcraft and Black Magic in Modern Times, by Thomas Waters, is published by Yale (hardback £25)

Photo: “Old Sorceress with Distaff”, illustration by Hans Holbein the Younger, Augsburg 1537 (Alamy)

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