From the S&S archives: That old white magic
October 31, 1964
WITCHES' CALDRONS only bubble these days with detergent suds, not trouble. The only concoctions Nightmare Alice stirs are cocktails. And if you get stuck with a poison apple, blame it on insecticide.
Witches are working overtime to wipe away the evil, cackling image that has been associated with their craft down through the ages.
In Britain, the number of practicing witches has been estimated at about 6;000. Leading the campaign to make their activities more open is Hampshire journalist-author-housewife-mother and antique expert Sybil Leek. She sees no need for surrounding the cells, or covens, of witches in thick smoke screens now that the anti-witchcraft laws (1735-1951) are off the statute books.
"I shall spend the rest of my life trying to dispel the stupid medieval concept of witchcraft," she has declared.
The quarterly forest conclaves, when the dozen members of a coven and their high priestess convene to renew their "energies" by communing through nature with the Supreme Being or Life Force (Great Mother), are "quite jolly affairs, really."
Speaking for the good, old-fashioned country witches, as contrasted with London's sensationalist smart-set practitioners, Mrs. Leek proclaimed, "I should like people to know that we don't dance around with nothing on or have orgies."
The rural rites, complete with still secret chant, are conducted out in the open, all present being bare only about the feet. It is also required that all make their way to the midnight gatherings by foot. The winter, spring and summer feasts (Sabbaths or Sabbats) take a back broomstick to the fall Halloween ceremony, which pre-dates the Christian All-Souls observance as the night when ghosts and witches are supposed to be on the loose.
Mrs. Leek (her high priestess implements such as stones and sword swathed with her in a cape ... it can get cold out in the forest) ... makes her way accompanied by her walking jackdaw, Hotfoot Jackson. Hotfoot, who got his name because he's such a jazz fan, sometimes rides on his mistress' head. He only flies as a last resort.
Such old standbys as a fiery caldron and trusty broom of twigs are functional (for keeping warm and cleaning up) as well as symbolic features of this neo-pagan, pantheistic worship.
Of the witches it has been noted: "The one thing they seem to have in common is a feeling that before coming into the craft their lives lacked connection with the earth and natural things."
The only magic practiced by Mrs. Leek and other civilized witches is of the "white" variety, in that they only seek good for others. Mrs. Leek :receives thousands of letters a week, many from America and even some from clergymen, seeking her help and advice.
"Many were just people wanting to get their problems off their minds. I've found time to answer them all, even those who don't include return postage. People seem to find comfort in telling their problems to a stranger, and as a witch they seemed to think I could help. I hope I have."
Witchcraft, in Mrs. Leek's family for generations and which also includes belief in reincarnation, has given Mrs. Leek a "complete philosophy and way of life" which tells her that she "must live as sincerely and truly as possible."
"And I have studied all religions," she added.
Witchcraft has been described as "a vital and growing religion with sincere devotees, and as with all religions it is as profound and rich, or as banal and empty, as the individual worshipers."
Mrs. Leek emphasized: "We don't want any cranks."
She added, "Only about one applicant in a thousand is accepted."
Husband Brian is a strong sympathizer, but not a convert.
The "essence" of the faith is the "power of positive thinking ... living in harmony with others." All of which is great for "getting rid of tensions."
"Certainly, the witches I have spoken to," reported a London journalist, "seem characterized by directness, energy, and good spirits."
Happy-go-lucky Mrs. Leek, a well-rounded woman in her 40s and lovingly addressed as "you old witch" by her friends, has been hop-scotching back and forth to the U.S. — always with Hotfoot — for publication of books (on her life in the New Forest), TV appearances, lectures, and meetings with American witches. As a TV writer herself, she has come up with the idea for a television series entitled "Dear Witch."
THERE is one American, a Columbia University professor, who won't soon forget Mrs. Leek. She and Hotfoot demolished him when he tried to lecture in London on the topic that witches did not exist and never had. This brought rude squawks from Hotfoot and crushing retorts from the quick-witted high priestess, backed up by 100 fellow witches. Luckily for the harried professor, curses and spells have gone out of style.
That witchcraft has something for everyone was aptly illustrated in the account from Essex about the publican's wife who cures hangovers with witchcraft.
Such power certainly deserves some sort of recognition in the witchcraft museum on the Isle of Man.