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The Witch-Cult: from North Western England to the World Beyond

August the 1st is Lammastide, a traditional Summer Harvest Festival dating back to pre-Anglo Saxon times. Lammas, also known by its Celtic name Lughnasadh, is one of the key dates (along with Walpurgis Night, All Hallow’s Eve, and the Feast of Corpus Christi) closely associated with the Renaissance idea of the Witches’ Sabbath. On these dates, it was believed that witches would gather together in secret locations and perform dark forbidden rites. The Compendium Maleficarum, 1608, by Italian priest Francesco Maria Guazzo gives a typical account of what was supposed to occur at such gatherings:

The attendants go riding flying goats, trample the cross, are made to be re-baptised in the name of the Devil, give their clothes to him, kiss the Devil’s behind, and dance back to back forming a round.

Paul gives 666 sign, John throws horns

I’m writing this post sitting at my desk in my hot, book-stuffed workroom/study here in leafy Liverpool, in the UK. If you Google the words “Witchcraft” and “Liverpool” together you can all too easily find yourself descending into an quagmire of Beatles conspiracy theory. The group’s profound fascination with Aleister Crowley (as evidenced by that one picture of him included on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s…), Paul’s untimely death (by some occult means, probably) and replacement by a fake Paul (“Faul”), Lennon selling his soul to the Devil for fame and fortune then being assassinated (possibly at the hands of the Illuminati utilising an MKUltra brainwashed gunman) when his contractually agreed time in the spotlight expired, and of course Yoko Ono’s status as a sorceress and master manipulator (the track “Yes, I’m a Witch“, and the 2007 re-mix album of the same name almost certainly being cited).

The Fiendish Four aside however, Liverpool and Merseyside may not, at first glance, appear to have much of a history of witchery. Indeed, Dr Margaret Alice Murray’s notorious 1921 work The Witch-Cult in Western Europe mentions Liverpool witches only once in Chapter VIII – Familiars and Transformations:

In 1667 at Liverpool, ‘Margaret Loy, being arraigned for a witch, confessed she was one; and when she was asked how long she had so been, replied, Since the death of her mother, who died thirty years ago; and at her decease she had nothing to leave her, and this widow Bridge, that were sisters, but her two spirits; and named them, the eldest spirit to this widow, and the other spirit to her the said Margaret Loy. ‘This inheritance of a familiar may be compared with the Lapp custom: ‘The Laplanders bequeath their Demons as part of their inheritance, which is the reason that one family excels another in this magical art.

Liverpool, and in particular the district of Toxteth (where I now feel duty bound to point put that Richard Starkey AKA Ringo Starr grew up), does however have a very strong connection with one of the most well remembered and often dramatised of all witch trials. A Puritan community once thrived in the Toxteth/Dingle area and in 1618 they erected the Toxteth Unitarian Chapel which still stands on the corner of today’s Park Road and Dingle Lane. The chapel’s first minister was a man by the name of Richard Mather who, along with most of that Puritan community, eventually emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts in North America. Mather’s son Increase Mather and grandson Cotton Mather (author of Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions, 1689 and The Wonders of the Invisible World – Observations as Well Historical as Theological, upon the Nature, the Number, and the Operations of the Devils, 1693), both became Puritan ministers themselves. Today Increase and Cotton are best known for their involvement in the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s, in which more than two-hundred people were accused of practising witchcraft and twenty were executed.

Salem Witch Trials as depicted by Baker, Joseph E., ca. 1837-1914

In the 1920s and 30s, the Egyptologist Dr Margaret Alice Murray published several books (Witch-Cult… cited above being the most famous today) detailing her theories that those persecuted as witches during the Early Modern period in Europe were not, as the persecutors had claimed, followers of Satanism, but adherents of a surviving pre-Christian pagan religion – the Witch-Cult. In the decades following the publication of Dr Murray’s works the Witch-Cult grew with new covens springing up in places such as Norfolk, Cheshire and the New Forest. These new witches drew their inspiration not only from Murray’s writings but from a broad sphere of influences including classical mythology, Aleister Crowley’s writings, folk magic, and Freemasonry. The New Forest Coven, for example, was formed as a Neopagan off-shoot of The Order of Woodcraft Chivalry – a non-Christian Scouting-like movement founded in 1916 by Ernest Westlake. One, perhaps rather unlikely, initiate of the New Forest Coven was a white-haired, retired Civil Servant named Gerald Gardner. Gerald Brosseau Gardner was born in Blundellsands, Merseyside in 1884 but lived in places as diverse as Portugal and British Malaya before returning to England in 1936. Following his involvement in the New Forest Coven, Gardner formed his own group known as the Bricket Wood Coven.

Gerald Gardner

Gerald Gardener wrote several books on the subject of modern witchcraft – High Magic’s Aid (1949), Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959) – all of which attracted much media attention at the time. Today he is known as the Father of Wicca – the neo-pagan religion which grew out of his writings and Bricket Wood’s practices (although Gardner seems to have preferred Murray’s term Witch-Cult himself).

So, next time your mind turns to moptops and the Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey, maybe you’ll remember that one of the most infamous incidents in American history, and a global religion with as many as eight-hundred thousand adherents (according to were also birthed upon the banks of that river. So much of our modern concept of witchcraft has its roots buried deep here in the Mersey mud.

Today the 1st of August is one of the sabbats in the Wiccan Wheel of the Year – eight festivals, spaced at even intervals throughout the calendar. No doubt Guazzo and the Mathers would be glad (or perhaps disappointed?) to learn that there is no flying-goat riding, or Devil-arse kissing involved in the modern Witch-Cult’s Lammas celebrations. gives the following as suggested activities/practices for Lughnasadh:

As summer passes, many Pagans celebrate this time to remember its warmth and bounty in a celebrated feast shared with family or Coven members. Save and plant the seeds from the fruits consumed during the feast or ritual. If they sprout, grow the plant or tree with love and as a symbol of your connection with the Lord and Lady. Walk through the fields and orchards or spend time along springs, creeks, rivers, ponds and lakes reflecting on the bounty and love of the Lord and Lady.

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