The sky was already murky at 4 p.m. when I locked my bike outside Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. Inside, it was even murkier: wood-panelled corridors stretched off into the gloom, men in grey suits were wedged together, smoking Bensons and drinking bitter. No one looked even slightly like an Arch Priest of the Council of British Druid Orders. At 4:10 I found a separate little bar near the back of the pub. As I walked in, a big man with round shoulders and grey hair stared at me and I saw the corner of a magazine poking out from inside his coat. As I watched, the whole cover slowly emerged: a yellowy-purple watercolour of a fairy, and the title: The Witchtower. ‘Steve?’ I said. He nodded.
We bought bitter, found somewhere to sit, and began what turned out to be a three-hour crash course in modern paganism, one of the fastest-growing religions in Britain.
‘It’s time for us pagans to make ourselves heard,’ said Steve. Steve is founder of Pebble (the liaison committee for British paganism) which has given all the various pagan factions — Witches, Druids, Heathens, Voodoo Priestesses, Shamans, Chaos Magicians — an official voice. ‘Look at the 2001 census,’ he said, ‘the results have just been published. We’re the seventh largest religion in the country — there are at least 40,000 of us. It’s time that we were taken seriously.’ What sort of people are pagans? I asked. ‘Ooh, every sort: lawyers, teachers, nurses, pensioners, students. There are lots in the Civil Service,’ said Steve, who works for the Charity Commission. ‘There’s even one writing regularly for the Daily Telegraph.’ Who? Steve chuckled, raised his eyebrows and took a pull on his pint of Pride. Anne Robinson? I thought; Bill Deedes? I asked, ‘What is a pagan these days anyway?’
‘Well,’ said Steve, relaxing, ‘the first thing is that we’re not Satanists and we don’t sacrifice babies.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘The Devil is a Christian concept. We worship the ancient, pre-Christian gods and goddesses. A pagan is defined as a follower of a polytheistic nature-based religion which incorporates beliefs and rituals from ancient traditions.’ As he laid a line of Golden Virginia on to a Rizla, I examined Steve closely for signs of in-leagueness with the Devil. There were rolls of grime under his fingernails and some red scratches on his right hand.
So, can a modern pagan just pick any god to worship? I asked. Egyptian? Roman? African? Are there any rules? Steve put his hands self-consciously under the table, ‘No rules,’ he said. ‘Being a pagan is about being free from institutional rules. And the gods? Once you start seeking they choose you, really. Everyone has their own path, but we all celebrate the same festivals: the summer and winter solstices, spring and autumn equinoxes and four other festivals: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasad.’
Pagans, I discovered during our second pint, are also united by their sense of the injustices done them by Christians. The last 2,000 years of history, as explained by Steve, is a heart-wrenching tale of innocent occult revivals squashed by ignorant, scaredy-cat Christians; of forced conversions by English kings desperate for Roman approval; of goddess-worship suppressed by chauvinist orthodoxy and cries of ‘Burn the witch!’ Eventually, after a tour through the Enlightenment (good), Freemasonry (also good), Constantine (bad) and Dominican monks (Satan spawn), we reached the 20th century, where, said Steve, paganism was once again revived by a man called Gerald Gardner. In 1957, after 20 years of frolicking with a coven of witches, Gardner wrote Witchcraft Today — a mix of folklore, Masonic rituals, nudism, sex and Aleister Crowley-style magic which became a sort of handbook for the modern Wicca witch and inspired the whole postmodern frogspawn of spiritually and sexually liberated pagan sects. ‘Paganism today is continually evolving,’ said Steve. ‘There’s no right or wrong thing to believe, so even if we disagree, it’s impossible for pagans to be schismatic.’
Why did you become a pagan? ‘Oh,’ Steve leant back and stretched. ‘When I was young, I was a Christian, but I couldn’t take the idea that good people like Buddhists, for instance, are going to Hell. Then I met someone who was involved in the Fellowship of Isis, and the idea of the goddess just started making sense to me. But everybody finds their own way,’ he said. ‘I mean, 9,000 teenagers became Wiccan witches in England because of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’ What!? ‘It’s true,’ said Steve. ‘When Buffy’s friend Willow became a lesbian witch, the WiccaUk website went mad, and 4,500 of the new young witches have stayed pagan ever since. It’s the future!’
Steve went to the loo and I flicked cautiously through his copy of The Witchtower. An article on Animal Spirit Guides by Janet Robson ended with something called an ‘Affirmation’:
I recognise my true beauty within;I value and cherish all that I am.I have the power to transform my life.To experience true joy.
It sounded dismally familiar. Like every self-help book, and most after-dinner conversations in Camden. On Monday David Hope, the Archbishop of York, said that he would find it difficult to describe England as a Christian country, and he’s right — we’re all really pagans already. Nearly everybody I know is a keen believer in ‘some sort of energy’ and that basking in it will lead to ‘healing’. They take it for granted that you’re more likely to hit on the truth by making up your own spiritual rules than through orthodoxy, that abstinence is unhealthy, monotheism narrow-minded and a belief in original sin a sign of mental illness. That your personality is determined by your star sign is, however, regarded as common sense. The nearest thing Wicca witches have to a creed is a prose poem called ‘The Charge of the Goddess’ written for Gerald Gardner by a woman called Doreen: ‘If that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee.’ You’d have a tough time finding anyone in the country who disagreed.
‘Steve,’ I said, when he came back, ‘isn’t paganism just about discovering your inner strength? You don’t actually believe that all these hundreds of ancient gods exist, do you?’ ‘Oh yes, I do,’ said Steve. He laughed. ‘The gods are very real indeed. Once they start communicating with you, coincidences happen, you’re led’ — his voice became softer — ‘it’s like having the wind behind you.’ So all the different deities — Anubis, Athena, Baron Samedi — are actually out there, with their different personalities?
‘Yes,’ said Steve firmly, ‘they are. Most pagans wouldn’t distinguish much between what’s inside and what’s outside your mind, but the gods are certainly real. They have an effect. If you’re taken over during a ritual, it’s not something you can control — it’s a very powerful feeling and unique to that particular spirit.’ What happens? ‘Well, recently, for instance, I went to Neasden reservoir for a West African Yoruba ceremony. I was standing among 50 or 60 people, but the priest came up to me and chose me to be the Yoruba god, Obatala. As soon as he chose me, I immediately felt Obatala’s presence; I was literally stunned, only half there.’
As Steve spoke, I suddenly remembered an odd experience I had, seven years ago, in New Orleans. Bored and lonely, I accepted an invitation to a voodoo ritual in the French Quarter, and as I watched the priestess swaying around, muttering in Creole and asking the Voodoo spirit, Chango, to possess her, I saw her change. The way she smiled and danced became different, and the light in her eyes went out, like a sleepwalker. At the same time, I felt an odd intense buzzing in my head, as if something was trying to get into my mind. I had to fight to stay conscious.
What is it like to be possessed by a god? I asked Steve, wondering if I had come close. ‘You can’t recall much because they take over.’ Steve seemed suddenly cagey, as if I was prying. We sat in silence for a while remembering our rituals. I worried for a moment that the existence of Chango and Obatala contradicted the idea of a Christian God, then I remembered a passage from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy (which I later looked up): ‘It is not enough to find the gods; they are obvious; we must find God, the real chief of the gods. We must have a long historic experience in supernatural phenomena — in order to discover which are really natural.’
So what do you think about modern-day Christians? I asked Steve. ‘They don’t drown witches any more, do they?’ ‘They still spread lies about pagans,’ said Steve, looking irritated. ‘Christians still teach that paganism was and is just about indulgence and hedonism.’ Like what? ‘Okay, I bet you think that the Romans had a room called a vomitorium where they sicked up food, so that they could eat more?’ Yup. ‘Well that’s rubbish. It’s anti-pagan Christian propaganda. A vomitorium was just the foyer of a theatre, a place where people would spill, or “vomit” forth after a performance.’
‘But the Church of England, Steve,’ I said, ‘you should like it. It’s tolerant of other faiths, reluctant to lay down the law, it has women priests and its Archbishop is a druid.’ Steve looked jaded. ‘As a matter of fact,’ he said, ‘I am totally opposed to the ordination of women priests and practising gay clergy.’ Something small but important snapped inside my head. ‘I think they should just make the break,’ said Steve, ‘and leave Christianity behind. I was talking to an Anglican priest the other day and it was just like listening to a pagan except that he wouldn’t let go of this ridiculous text.’
A few days after my re-education, I went to a pagan get-together, or ‘moot’, that Steve had organised in a room above a pub. No one looked noticeably luminous with inner divinity or liberated by their lack of rules, but nor did they look particularly depraved. In fact, despite the dragon medallions, crushed velvet scoop-neck tops and dyed black hair, it felt comfortingly like a C of E church fete. A cheery woman with schoolteacher glasses sat at a table by the door taking entry fees and selling raffle tickets for a prize draw which included a tray of scented candles. Men in long-sleeved T-shirts drank pints of lager and made jokes about Catholic priests and choirboys.
After half an hour, a small plump man in a black leather waistcoat stood up to give the pagan equivalent of a sermon. He was a zoologist, he said, who investigated supernatural phenomena. At first it sounded promising — a case of two wallabies found mysteriously beheaded and drained of blood. The congregation listened attentively. But, disappointingly, the culprit turned out to be not a vampire but a local smackhead. The lecture disintegrated into a debate about who, between Buffy and Dr Who, would kick whose ass in a fight.
Afterwards, parish notices: the dates of a discussion on the Goddess and The Da Vinci Code hosted by Jocelyn Chaplin, (artist, psychotherapist and founder of the Serpent Institute); details of a book called Now That’s What I Call Chaos Magick, and advertisements for The Knights Templar Walk (‘With tangential links to the dreaded Bavarian Illuminati!’). A friendly, skinny man handed me a flyer advertising an open ritual for the ‘Turning of the Wheel and Birth of the Sun-Child, Led by Herne’s Tribe’. ‘I used to work at the London School of Economics,’ he said, ‘and now I do shifts on the Catholic Herald.’ A poet called Rory brought over a piece of his performance verse: ‘Love is a nice cup of cocoa,’ I read, ‘when you’re feeling all alone and frightened like a small rubber ball.’
‘So what are you doing for Christmas?’ I asked Steve as I got up to leave. ‘Something fun?’ ‘The big feast for us pagans is the winter solstice on the 21st,’ he said, looking relieved that his moot had gone well. ‘And I’ll probably celebrate in the traditional way. I’ll put on my white djellaba and go off to a pre-Christian burial mound to make vows to the deities and watch the sun come up.’ ‘What sort of vows?’ I asked. ‘Oh you know,’ said Steve, ‘that Pebble goes from strength to strength and that paganism everywhere thrives.’