Traditional Witchcraft for Urban Living

By Melusine Draco

An extract from the book and a bit more …

Only recently, a rather mature witch of my acquaintance reminded me of the time when I’d advised her on how to cope with a recent move from rural Berkshire to a large sprawling city;  of how she needed to get out and find the old heart of her new community and reconnect with the heart-beat of her kind.  It was amazing, she said, just how many old life-lines were still evident in the abandoned water-courses, derelict churchyards and ancient architecture. 

Late 18th-century antiquarians portrayed the urbanizing towns of the period as ‘centres of a new-style civilization, confident, reformed, free of the old superstitions of the past.  The urban laboring-classes were still views as ignorant and vice-ridden, but they were not thought to be as ignorant, and consequently not as superstitious as their country bumpkin cousins.  By the mid-19th century, confidence in the civilizing effects of urbanization had worn off somewhat … but many intellectuals of the period believed that urbanization rescued people ‘from the idiocy of rural life’.   Thus an editorial in the periodical All The Year Round (November 1869), remarked that although the belief in witchcraft still existed ‘to a very considerable extent in England’ it was not heard of in the busy towns

Washington Irving, writing in 1820, described how the inhabitants of Little Britain (near Smithfield Market) still believed in dreams and fortune-telling but failed to mention witchcraft among the beliefs still held in the area.  It is evident from the scant folkloric source material, and from the newspaper archives, that accusations of witchcraft were far less common in London than in rural areas during the modern period.  In early modern England the flow of rural migrants to an expanding London, for example, did not necessarily lead to irrevocable breaks in social relations between village and city.  Rural teenagers were apprenticed to urban relations or friends, and many townspeople returned to their village homes to help at harvest time, this reinforcing those kinship links which geographical distance might have otherwise broken.

Owen Davies, who is well-known to most pagan readers for his classic Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History charted the transition of cunning folk from village to city in his The Decline in the Popular Belief in Witchcraft and Magic; his unpublished PhD thesis for the University of Lancaster, 1995 – which was later published in the Journal of Social History (1997).   By the time of WWI there were far fewer cunning folk operating in England than there had been fifty years before, and by the 1940s they seen to have disappeared altogether.

Interestingly, Gabrielle Hatfield made a similar observation in Memory, Wisdom & Healing (1999) following her researches into the history of domestic plant medicine , that had been passed down orally from one generation to the next.  She acknowledges that many women described as witches were probably innocent practitioners of herbal medicine; while others undoubtedly cultivated the image of witchcraft so that they had more to offer their customers than the common knowledge of plant medicine.

She also found that when she was collecting data on 20th-century plant remedies, many people initially disclaimed any knowledge of the subject. “In our present century, elderly people with such knowledge usually have not passed it on to the next generation for fear of being laughed at, or simply because they felt that such information was of no interest … especially in view of the condescending attitudes shown towards the users of such remedies.”

As far as today’s witches are concerned, the pursuit of this hidden urban knowledge is concerned, will be long and often misleading.  After all, why should an eager young witchlet expect these elderly kinfolk to be forthcoming?   The modern witch seeks to drop into a stranger’s life and expect to share their recollections and knowledge, and very often they will not be immune to having the wool pulled over his or her eyes!

For the witch whose career confines them to an urbanised environment, regular Craft practice may often seem like a futile gesture, especially if home is a small, gardenless-flat. Even the suburbs can be magically incapacitating, if there is constant noise from traffic and neighbours. People work long hours; often setting off for work and getting home again in the dark during the winter months, without having the opportunity to notice the subtle changing of the seasons. Weekends are a constant battle with family commitments, domestic chores and socialising. It’s no wonder that the urban witch has little time or strength left for magical and spiritual development.

There are, of course, others who find themselves having to remain town and house-bound because of age or disability; because they are caring for an aged/infirm parent, or partner; or because they have small children. Urbanisation often provides on-the-spot facilities to make things easier on the domestic front but it cannot give the one thing that a witch needs most – privacy and spiritual elbow-room. So how do we manage?

We get up close and personal. And we reject the textbook clichés of what is, and what is not, recommended witchcraft practice. We do not follow stereotyping when it comes to when, where and how we perform our rituals simply because it may not be practically possible to always follow the instructions to the letter. For example: I am a Welsh witch and I come from a place midway between the mountains and the sea, but I have not lived in my homeland now for many years. It would be untrue to say that I never experience what the Welsh call hiraethus, that indescribable feeling of longing and home-sickness, but as we all know, in magical terms there is always a price to be paid for our Craft. During those long years, my career and domestic life has taken me to London (where I lived for 20 years), to the industrial Midlands and, more recently, to a totally urbanised area of East Anglia. Not once, before moving to rural Ireland, did I have the luxury of wild, open spaces – it was all concrete and asphalt. But not once, in all that time, did I stop being a real witch.

In my experience, the greatest problem a solitary urban witch faces is that an urban environment is not user-friendly when it comes to psychic activity, but then we don’t always have a choice of where we are going to live if someone else’s needs have to be catered for, too. Mostly I have been confined to renting small terraced cottages and flats, often with little or no garden to give that extra bit of space. I make this comment merely to demonstrate that my Craft activities have not been conducted in a round of luxurious city apartments and picturesque Grade II listed town houses! Under these circumstances, for me the key words have always been: acclimatise, adapt and improvise. Any animal, plant or person that is uprooted and transported to another environment quickly learns to acclimatise if it is going to survive. I have adapted to my surroundings and drawn on whatever material/energy there is to hand, even if it is not what I’ve been used to working with. I improvise by drawing on existing knowledge and experience. So …

Acclimatise: Accustom yourself to tuning-in to your environment, even if you’ve lived there for some time. Try to imagine visiting the place for the first time. Buy a detailed street map or guidebook, and familiarise yourself with all the hidden nooks and crannies in the immediate vicinity. Is there a park nearby? Public gardens? Churchyard? Cemetery? What trees are growing locally? Which are the most important/attractive buildings?  Where is the nearest river or canal? Where is the oldest church? Take your time … explore … rediscover … acclimatise.

Adapt: Modify or adjust the way you look at things. There is no point in wishing you were elsewhere when circumstances dictate that you remain where you are. But on the other hand there’s nothing quite so mind-numbing as doing the same thing, day in day out, for weeks on end. For a change, try walking to the shops, school, or travelling to work, via a different route. Examine what’s growing in all the front gardens along the way to the shop, school, station or bus stop. Make sure you take time out for lunch – and get out of the home or working environment for an hour – even if it’s a wet Wednesday afternoon: after all, a witch shouldn’t be afraid of a little drop of Elemental Water! Start seriously inter[1]acting with your environment … adapt.

Improvise: Be prepared to perform a magical working at any time, without preparation, and without what is considered to be the ‘proper regalia’. Be aware of the magical signs Nature has to offer and be ready to act spontaneously, even in the middle of a crowded railway station or shopping mall during rush hour! It may also come as a bit of a shock to realise that a large number of books mentioned in this text are not about witchcraft, or written by witches. This is because we are learning to improvise and look at things from a different or unexpected perspective. Before we go out and meet Nature face to face, however, there may be one or two changes needed to enable us to re-connect with the natural, elemental energies that are an essential ingre[1]dient within any magical environment. Sorry … we’re not talking about symbolic bowls of water, salt, night-lights and a joss stick to mark the quarters on the sitting room rug, we’re talking about encountering real Elemental Air, real Elemental Water, real Elemental Earth and real Elemental Fire – up close and personal!

Elemental Air: This is … wait for it … fresh air! It’s the stuff every living thing on the planet needs to breathe to stay alive but, apart from the occasional jaunt to a pagan camp, a large number of urban pagans appear to be terrified of it. I’ve been into some homes where the stuffy, cluttered atmosphere is so over-powering that you could cut the reek of stale incense with a knife. Whilst we appreciate that modern society no longer allows us to live with our doors and windows wide open, we must get used to letting cleansing air back into our lives.

There is a purifying element to fresh air! In both religious and magical terms, however, Elemental Air is usually represented by smoke from the incense carrying our prayers and entreaties up to the gods. As Joules Taylor observes in Perfume Power, the burning of fragrance to represent questions or appeals is an ancient and well-nigh indestructible facet of worship. In other words, from very early times fragrance has been associated with the gods, the soul and spiritual qualities. Learn to recognise natural fragrance (not always pleasant) from the world around you, and not to rely totally on the contrived atmospherics of the incense burner!

As Jules Taylor goes on to observe, our once highly developed sense of smell is now generally under deployed and now perhaps the least-regarded of all human senses. We can improve our ‘scent perception’ by simply concentrating on becoming more aware of the smells around us. Unfortunately, the urban witch also has to contend with exhaust fumes, fast-food outlets and all manner of other municipal pollution, but with practice it is possible to detect the faint fragrance of Nature. If we want to reconnect with Nature the first thing we must do is sharpen our senses and learn to read the signs that come to us on the breeze

Elemental Air brings lightness and freedom of spirit, as well as being a universal symbol of irresistible force and uncontrollable power. Exercise: In town it’s often difficult to find a moment, or even a place to relax. In the larger towns and cities the noise is a constant, 24- hour drone of traffic, where people never seem to sleep. With the use of a local map, find a ‘green spot’ … even if it’s only a small churchyard or square … where you can sit, watch and listen.

Okay, but what are we watching and listening for?

Nature … because she is there all around us, all the time. For example, I’ve encountered a green woodpecker while sitting in the small courtyard garden of a coffee shop in the middle of town. I’ve seen (and heard) hundreds of these birds over the years, but this was the closest I’d ever been … just five feet away. How many different birds (most certainly creatures of Elemental Air) can you identify? If the answer is very few, then how can you hope to begin to read those ‘signs’ that make up a large part of the witch’s world? Invest a few coppers in a book on British birds from a local charity shop, or buy off e-bay, or ABE-Books on the Internet. Start learning, even if it’s only by watching the pigeons in Trafalgar Square! You’ll be surprised how many different birds can be spotted in our towns and inner cities on a regular basis, and birds have been always been considered bearers of omens since ancient times.

Elemental Water: Water is the essential ingredient of life but how many of us consciously pay homage to this fact in our day-to-day existence? We use water for the daily ritual cleansing of our home and body, to water the garden or wash the car, but often neglecting its spiritual properties. From prehistoric times, our ancestors considered springs and ‘watery places’ to be sacred, and the contemporary custom of throwing coins into wells and municipal fountains goes back to the times when votive offerings were cast into the waters to propitiate the gods. We should be mindful that water, particularly spring water, is truly a ‘gift of the gods’ and not to be treated casually.

For magical purposes we need to re-connect with water, for even the most rubbish-clogged urban watercourse carries life[1]giving properties along its muddy artery. If we live close to a river, canal, park or golf course, then it makes it easier to observe water at close quarters during the changing seasons, and come to recognise the local wildlife that depends on it. Even the modern fountain in the city centre can be a focus for meditative moments when the sun catches the colours of the rainbow in the falling spray. Our local brook regularly acts as a depository for shopping trolleys, traffic cones and other domestic debris, as it runs right through the centre of town. Growing through the restraining brickwork, however, is a magnificent elder tree and an amazing collection of harts-tongue ferns, which I haven’t seen in such profusion since leaving Wales.

Most days the flow is the barest trickle but when it rains, the watercourse becomes a raging torrent. The only other ‘watery’ place is the dried bed of an old pond that only floods during the winter months, but this is the real magical place. The water has gone because the surrounding urban development has drained it, but the site is old, with a large stand of reed mace and a host of other interesting creatures living in this well-established habitat.

There are numerous ideas for a ‘water feature’ in the home, and much depends on personal taste rather than pagan cliché. Even the smallest courtyard can host an ornamental wall fountain, birdbath or wooden barrel containing miniature water lilies (although these do require direct sunlight for success). Inside, a large bowl with flower heads floating on the surface can be extremely attractive … but not a good idea if you have small children or a large dog. Be creative, use your imagination.  

Elemental Water ‘saturates our lives and language and is the most compelling of human metaphors’ wrote Rebecca Rupp in Four Elements; it is the universal symbol of primal mystery.

Exercise: Trace your local source of natural water and try to follow it for as far as possible. You may be lucky enough to live near a pond, stream, lake, river or canal and can watch the changing face of the seasons at the water margin. How many different species of flora and fauna dependent on an Elemental Water habitat can you identify? If the answer is very few, then how can you hope to begin to read those ‘signs’ that make up a large part of the witch’s world? Remember that pure (or purified) water is sterile and that for magical purposes we need to work with natural water. Unless you have access to a spring or holy-well, place a wide bowl or jar outside on a window-sill, to catch rain or moisture; transfer to a sealable bottle and keep for use in your rites. But don’t drink rainwater!

Elemental Earth: Of all the elements, Earth is the symbol of solidity and substance, and the ‘most intrusive in our daily lives’, was an observation made by Rebecca Rupp. The subject of global warming and saving the planet is at the forefront of everyone’s mind these days, but for the witch, the sanctity of the Earth and Nature has always been paramount. The witch does not ‘worship’ Nature but exists in a sort of ‘spiritual care-taking’ capacity – after all, it is from Nature direct that we divine the signs and symbols that give us the power over natural things. Communing with Nature isn’t always easy in an urban environment and it is very often necessary to ‘manufacture’ a moment of peace for ourselves amongst the busy populace.

Dig out a copy of that famous junior school poem by William Henry Davies, ‘Leisure’ that begins: “What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare … ” and take a verse for your very own Thought for the Day. Without compromising your personal safety, try to visit the local park or old cemetery during school hours, or early on a weekend morning, when you can guarantee having a quiet corner to yourself for a while. Many years ago, long before the ‘great clean up’ got underway, we lived near Highgate Cemetery and this was a perfect place for a meditative or magical moment. The magnificent monuments were overgrown and apart from the occasional tourist visit at weekends, we pretty much had the place to ourselves via a discreet hole in the boundary fence. Not only had Nature taken over completely and the place full of wildlife, but there was also the comfortable familiarity that all witches should have with both the spirits of the dead, and the spirits of Nature.

But how do we bring Elemental Earth into our urban home? By growing something, of course! Not everyone has green fingers but it doesn’t take much effort to introduce a small selection of supermarket-grown potted herbs to the kitchen window-sill, does it? This small gesture gives a dual sense of purpose, in that we are caring for something that we can utilise in our day-to-day cooking and magic. Go one better and buy a small kitchen bay. As well as having culinary uses, bay is one of the oldest sacred herbs with strong protective powers when used in spell-casting. My bay started out (many years ago) some six inches high and now stands three-foot tall in a large pot that can be transported anywhere. This is your first step in learning (or re-learning) about wort-lore within the confines of urbanity.

Elemental Earth gives a feeling of security. Universal myths claim that first man was created out of clay, earth or sand; traditionally Earth is represented by the ‘mother’ and the harvest.

Exercise: It must be obvious that Elemental Earth is much more complex than we would first imagine. We live on it, our food comes from it, we bury our dead in it, Elemental Earth (North) is the direction of magical Power … and yet most of us are afraid of getting our hands dirty by interacting with it. So now is the time to rediscover the Earth energies around where you live, by going out and making time to stand and stare!

This also time for an exercise in personal honesty; be truthful, just how comfortable are you with quiet corners of a park or cemetery? If the answer is ‘not very’, then how can you hope to begin to read those spiritual and temporal ‘signs’ that make up a large part of the witch’s world? Again, I would repeat, never compromise your personal safely while on your quest, but try to determine whether you are nervous because you feel vulnerable (i.e. alone), or whether you are uncomfortable with the close proximity to the natural (and supernatural) worlds.

Elemental Fire: In its natural state, Elemental Fire is the most elusive of the four within an urban environment, unless the local vandals have ignored the ASBO and gone on a car-torching spree! Fire has always played an important part in esoteric gatherings but the historic concept of a coven gathering around the bonfire in a woodland clearing is highly suspect. A single candle flame can be seen for miles on a dark night, and in the days when witches were falling foul of the law, a blazing fire would have been an open invitation to the Witch Finders. Fire, however, is part of the Mysteries of Craft and an integral part of any magical working.

First man probably encountered fire as the result of a lightning strike, and so he would have been left in no doubt that the resulting blaze was indeed heaven-sent. From that time to the present, that god-gift of heat and light has provided the dual[1]purpose of hearth fire (domestic) and sacred flame (religious) … both equally as important as a spiritual focus. For our purposes the hearth-fire is, of course, the most obvious, for witches require no formal temples or sanctuaries in order to follow their Craft. Our urban problem of fire lighting was solved by purchasing a circular patio heater – this is a domed-mesh cover affair, with a tray underneath to catch hot ash so it can safely be used on decking – and also doubles as a barbeque. It can be used in confined spaces and moved to another home when necessary. We also have a collection of old-fashioned lanterns (probably nearer the true), which double up for both indoor and outdoor working … and infinitely safer than naked candles.

Elemental Fire is the symbol of warmth, passion … and danger. It can offer the welcome of a glowing hearth or an uncontrollable conflagration that destroys everything in its path. Those who pass through the flames and survive, emerge transformed and improved.

Exercise: Learn to love fire and make a point of always having a candle burning (safely) while you are at home. Treat yourself to a ‘special’ holder that will always act as the focus for your devotions – whether indoors or out – so think in terms of something generous, expensive and wind-proof, like a storm[1]lantern. If you are fortunate enough to have a patio heater or an open fire, buy some of those wonderful copper sulphate- coated pinecones that produce the most amazing coloured flames – perfect for divination – but don’t cook over them! Now … how comfortable are you with fire? If the answer is ‘not very’, then how can you hope to begin to read those divinatory ‘signs’ that make up a large part of the witch’s world?

Important: When out and about, never put yourself at risk by wandering in remote places. More attacks on lone people occur in urban areas rather than out in the countryside, so do not be foolhardy – the gods do not always protect.

We also need to accept that witchcraft (unlike Wicca) is not a religion – it never has been, simply because it’s an individual’s natural ability that distinguishes him or her as a witch. In other words, a witch is born, not made. It just isn’t possible to learn how to become a witch if we haven’t got these abilities, although it is possible to learn how to hone and develop latent, or suppressed psychic talents, under the right tuition. And there is no age limit for these discoveries – in either the young, middle-aged or old. Wicca, on the other hand, is fast becoming accepted as the ‘new pagan religion’ with its doctrines drawing heavily on an eco-feminine shadow-image of Christianity. This again is nothing new, since Christianity itself absorbed many of the existing pagan festivals and celebrations into the Church calendar (including an identification of the Virgin Mary with Isis), and contemporary paganism is merely reclaiming its own. But in reality, even in the days before the Christian invasion, not all of the pagan populace were skilled in the Craft of witches.

To use a natural analogy, the differences between witchcraft and paganism per se is to liken them to the relationship between the domestic and the wild cat. To the casual observer there is little difference. Just as the similarities between the modern wild cat (felis sylvestris) and the house cat (felis catus) are so great and the differences so few, that it is difficult to establish any authentic genealogy. There is evidence that wild cats have mated with domestic cats and domestic cats can survive in the wild having gone feral, but they don’t usually move far from human habitation and will quickly revert if given the opportunity. The wild cat, however, cannot be handled or tamed; even a small kitten it is extremely ferocious. In appearance it is difficult at a distance to distinguish a wild cat from a large domestic tabby that has gone feral, but (as with witchcraft and paganism), the subtle differences are there, if you know where and how to look.

Witchcraft is not bound by social rules and conventions, only by the personal morality of the individual, and is governed solely by the natural tides. Any form of magical working or spiritual observance tends to be of a solitary nature, or in the company of tried and trusted people. Witches believe that esoteric knowledge should be kept hidden because it is impossible to convey the meaning of the ‘true mysteries’ without the appro[1]priate teaching. Traditional witches are now rarely seen at pagan events, and hold that any ritual equipment will be acquired as and when it is necessary.

The witch learns his or her Craft along the way, and pays homage to Nature but in a more abstract form that the textbooks will allow, something along the lines of Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’:

“To see a World in a grain of sand,

And a Heaven in a flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour”

Sources:

Memory, Wisdom & Healing, Gabrielle Hatfield (Sutton

The Secret People, Melusine Draco (Moon Books)

Traditional Witchcraft for Urban Living, Melusine Draco (Moon Books)

Sources:

Memory, Wisdom & Healing, Gabrielle Hatfield (Sutton

The Secret People, Melusine Draco (Moon Books)

Traditional Witchcraft for Urban Living, Melusine Draco (Moon Books)

Urbanization & the Decline of Witchcraft: An Examination of London, Owen Davies, Journal of Social History vol 30, No 3 (Spring 1997)

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