Virtual magic and Zooming to the Sabbat

Witches and Pagans turn to IT for a virtual Halloween 2020

In October 2020, in the midst of the Covid 19 pandemic, thousands of British Witches celebrated  Halloween in new and different ways to their usual traditions. More accurately, they celebrated their sacred festival of Samhain, so named in an act of reclaiming roots more ancient and more Celtic than the commercialized American.   This is the time when modern Pagan Witches mark the turning of the year wheel to winter, contemplate the thinning of the veil  between the worlds, and conduct their solemn festival of remembrance of the dead, followed by a feast and social gathering; but  this year this mostly happened online.

Witches are part of modern Pagan revival that was found to be Britain’s most popular new religion in the 2011 census. Paganism includes Druids, Shamans, Heathens and people of a wider generic Pagan spirituality. In 2020 Pagans followed social distancing rules to practise, and were happy to continue to worship outdoors, and in small groups as normal when permitted, with ritual adaptations for social distancing. However, lockdown posed the same problems for this religious community as any other and over 2020 there was amassed adoption of the Zoom video conferencing system for networking, learning, and sharing community.

 Indeed the corona virus precipitated all sorts of new Pagan communication avenues opening up. Conference organisers reached beyond their normal localised attendees to much wider audiences, as did moots and musicians such as Dahm the Bard, a very popular Druid singer and Inkubus Sukkubus, a Goth Witch band of 30 years standing. Witchfest, Britain’s largest Pagan conference/festival continues online, with videos of speakers prepared and ready for each event. 

The magical community, known by historians such as Professor Wouter Hannegraaff as practitioners of “Western Esotericism” also flourished on Zoom. The Magical Womens’ conference has gone international with a series of events from summer salons to “into the dark nights”.  Magical teaching has proliferated under these circumstances. For example, Rufus Harrington, a senior University lecturer who had to put all his university courses on line this year, adopted the IT  for teaching guided Hermetic meditation, which he normally taught to six people at a time in his sitting room, in early autumn 2020. Not advertised and spread only by word of mouth this was so well received that by late autumn his related facebook page had 400 followers and meditations were being given to over a hundred people, and  translated into seven languages.  Lon Milo DuQuette, a magician of international acclaim from California, has been entrancing his long term and steadily growing fan base with readings of his books, and dissemination of his magical teachings, that could normally only be accessed via American events  and  international workshops.

This adaption of practice and adoption of new mediums of communication is not surprising. Despite their love of arcane texts and candle lit worship Pagans were quick to embrace IT long before 2020.  Tanya Lurhmann’s 1989 anthropological study of the magical milieu in London found that respondents were at the forefront of the computer industry. International Pagan discussion forums proliferated in the early years of the world wide web, and now do so over all forms of social media, including the “baby witches” of Witch Tok, which has over 5 million hashtag users.  Children of Artemis, one of Paganism’s largest members’ societies, started using Second Life for teaching purposes in the mid noughties. The Pagan Federation Community Support Team already run accessible on-line Sabbats, and the newly formed Pagan Seminary is due to run chaplaincy training courses online in 2021.

However, the Pagan community is still working out how best to use IT for ritual itself, from dividing ritual parts between participants to everyone muting a zoom meeting then singing at home with one singer on speaker view. Some aspects of ritual have had to have much thought, such as how to initiate someone,  while 6 people have been able to meet then it has been possible, with any guests on line as a new addition to the circle.

For many this new technology has been a vital religious and community tool, which they will continue to use, but others have found it difficult, with the lack of face to face human interaction making communication harder, and loneliness still a potent issue in the difficult times of lock down and isolation. Most will be glad when post pandemic normal life can resume, but the new IT tools will stay in use as a connected global community of modern Pagans and esotericists enjoy virtually meeting with likeminded people.

Halloween 2020  was not  quite the same as a traditional Sabbat when raising a cup of mead to the ancestors on one’s own, but when one turned to the new soft blue light in the corner of the temple one could raise that cup and speak one’s loved ones names with like-minded people from all over the world. On the plus side potent ceremonies of remembrance and celebration connected people who never could have met so easily via normal means.  So it seems that as the world learns how to live a new socially distanced life the British Witches and their colleagues have adopted one more tool for their temples, and alongside the cauldron and broomstick, amongst the candles and incense, possibly even sat on by a cat,  is a discreetly placed laptop that forms a portal to other people, other time zones,  other places, and other modern magics. 

Dr Melissa Harrington

The Pagan Federation.