Religious Status for Druids. the Police Trained to Respect Witches. Pagans Are on the March -- but Are They Harmless Eccentrics or a Dangerous Cult?
Byline: by Zoe Brennan
DRESSED in long, hooded cloaks, the women stand in a circle around an iron cauldron.
The chief witch sweeps her broom around the coven, making their circle a sacred space. A candle is lit, incense is burnt, and spells are mixed in the cauldron.
These are the witches of Weymouth, the latest foot soldiers in the march of paganism in Britain. And this ceremony marks the festival of Samhain -- the turning of the year from light to dark.
The Dorset women were last week hailed by the BBC as figureheads of 'a reinvented religion', as the corporation's news channel devoted considerable airtime to the festival.
At the same time, it emerged that the Metropolitan Police has produced a diversity handbook offering advice on handling witches and pagans.
Officers are advised not to panic if they encounter a blindfolded person in the nude with their hands tied together. The book reassures them: 'This is in accordance with ritual and has the full consent of the participant.' The police are also told to avoid touching a witch's Book of Shadows, or spellbook, and not to handle the ceremonial dagger known as an athame. But it's not only the BBC and the police getting clued up. Druidism has just been given official recognition as a religion by the Charity Commission -- with the tax exemptions and other 'rights' that follow.
Jailed druids are now allowed to take twigs, or 'magic wands', into their prison cells, and are being given official days off prison work to worship the sun.
Critics say that this growing acceptance of primitive beliefs as a new faith undermines our social values. Mike Judge, spokesman for the Christian Institute, says: 'The BBC down-plays Christianity and up-plays paganism which is unreflective of British society. It creates an atmosphere where it's OK to marginalise Christians.' He adds: 'When it comes to granting pagans rights, this is surely a case of political correctness gone mad. Some people are more equal than others when it comes to the equality agenda, and it seems Christians are always at the back of the queue.
'We are abandoning the values that make us who we are. You can't chip away at the foundations without the whole structure coming down.
'What have pagans ever done? Historically, they produce unstable, violent societies -- is that what we want?' So is paganism really on the march in Britain? And even if it is, why are the BBC and the liberal Left establishment suddenly suggesting that it should be taken seriously -- even to the extent of putting it on an equal footing with Christianity and other religions? For an answer I turned initially to those women in the Dorset field. The leader of the coven is Diane Narraway, who teaches courses in tarot and witchcraft. One of her congregation, 35-year-old teaching assistant Anouska Ireland, explained what they do: 'We sometimes use the cauldron to mix spells, perhaps for the purpose of healing.' Meanwhile, Sarah Sanford, a mother-of-three, uses witchcraft to protect her children. She says: 'When they are going to school I'll do a protection spell for them, so they get through the day all right.' Another Weymouth witch is Holly Syme, who says her incantations serve very practical purposes. 'You do a money spell, or you do a happiness spell, and it's giving you the motivation to go out there and do what you want,' she says. 'And it makes you feel better.' Some might be concerned that small children were in attendance at the Samhain ceremony -- the footage showed a young girl clutching a teddy -- but Ronald Hutton, professor of history at the University of Bristol and the acknowledged UK expert on paganism, witchery and druids, says that witchcraft is benign, adding: 'Unless you believe in evil spirits, which I don't.' Paganism is a blanket term for the worship of multiple deities, along with their own mythologies and rituals. Modern-day pagans draw on Celtic imagery, and often worship the occult. …