The X-files 2

Letters to the Editor - The X-files

The author, a member of the Society, wishes to have their name withheld.

It was with great interest that I read the article from Ralph Bradbury in the December issue of the Berkshire Family Historian entitled 'The X-files'. As both a family historian and a practising pagan I found his idea of a 'Pagan Index' intriguing and, given that he has treated the subject of alternative religions seriously and sensitively (for which I am grateful), would like to reply through the pages of the magazine.

The idea has considerable merit in that it could add a great deal to our knowledge of the way our ancestors lived in their communi­ties: their interactions with neighbours, the distances they were able to travel comfortably, their relationships within the social hierarchy and their influence over local events could doubtless be deduced from information contained in the kind of index suggested. However, what must be considered - as with every other aspect of family history - is the reliability of the source evidence. Much of the evidence would necessarily come from Church or State records in order to be considered sufficiently authoritative; we have all been mislead by family legends, however attractive, and it cannot be over-emphasised that one should always verify one's references. It is here that the major problem, from a family historian's point of view, arises. The very documents to which we would normally turn for evidence cannot be taken as factual. What Church and State records exist for evidence of paganism (mainly witchcraft) is in the form of witchcraft trials, events hard­ly renowned for their fairness and unbiased judgements. People were accused of witchcraft on the flimsiest of pretexts, so those who practised the Old Religion tended to conceal the fact. Thus, one could be a pillar of the religious (ie Christian) community whilst slipping off to the Sabbat once a month with no one the wiser.

From a pagan's point of view Mr. Bradbury's index would be unworkable for the following reasons taking the points in the order of his letter:

i) A list of those who organised covens. The coven is headed by one person, sometimes referred to as 'The Black Man' (whether male or female); whose identity is unknown to the other mem­bers.

ii) Each coven is autonomous and has little or no contact with other covens in the vicinity: hence if one member of one coven is discovered and tortured, as few members of the pagan community as possible are revealed.

iii) Where covens took place. This would be at a location known only to the coven members.

iv) Full details of what went on. These are revealed only to initiated witches, according to degree.

v) How they dressed. In ordinary, dark clothing for the most part, to blend in with the dark countryside (No pointy hats, please note).

vi) Details of burnings (only in Scotland); hangings (most frequent); hanging, drawing and quartering was reserved for traitors.

vii) Witches (or suspected witches) were merely subjected to the most abhorrent torture the human mind can devise before being hanged.

viii) Prophecies - search for the sayings of Mother Shipton in any good book on English Folklore. Curses - known only to the perpe­trator and used only once.

Finally, readers might not be aware that the Witchcraft Act was only repealed in 1951 (to be replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act), but that repression of paganism was still rife until the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1945) was ratified in 1998.

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