Until 1970 there existed a community of people in England, numbering at their peak quite a few thousand, who constituted a race apart from general society, keeping very much to themselves. They were travellers, but unlike the gypsies, their medium of transport was water. They lived and worked on the canals and rivers of England. Some of the other canal dwellers called them Water Witches, because they represented one branch of that multifarious system of ancient practices that we now lump together under the heading of Traditional Witchcraft.
Some canal families (though certainly not all) practised what we today would call Witchcraft. By this is meant that they cast spells, practised divination, and performed sorcery – all very much in connection with their natural environment, the canals, rivers, and surrounding land. They also recognised the existence of a number of deities, both gods and goddesses. They certainly did not conflate all goddesses into one “Goddess” as many modern Pagans do. They had a very highly developed sense of the numinous, and a rich elf-lore involving all sorts of nature spirits and kindred entities. And, not surprisingly, they regarded water as the sacred element.
From about the 1880s Christian missionaries gradually began to become aware of the existence of the canal folk, and many forced conversions followed. Starting in the 1930s, children of canal families were forcibly taken from their homes (the narrowboats) and sent to land-based schools for part of the year, where their ancestral culture was drummed out of them. Although much depleted by the 1960s, the community was still in existence. This ended in 1970 when all commercial canal carrying ceased. Their livelihood finished, the canal folk were forced off the waterways to inner city council estates and unemployment.
The following is an eyewitness account of what is probably one of the last conventicles (i.e. meetings) of Water Witches that is likely to take place. It was witnessed by the Chief Instructor of the OAM near Fradley Junction, Staffordshire, in April 1995.
The Conventicle at Ravenshaw Wood
The Water Witches arrived in boats of all shapes and sizes. Some were long and graceful narrowboats, brightly painted with roses and castles. Others were newer, plastic boats, but were nevertheless loved and taken care of by their owners. One thing I did notice was that almost all of them had a wheel design containing six spokes painted on them, usually at the front. I knew this to be a religious symbol. In former days the families met together in a “conventicle” like this once a month, on the new moon, at a location chosen in advance.
When the night was dark enough we all made our way into Ravenshaw Wood, some of us crossing the canal in small wooden boats, others swimming. We walked into the woods some way, until we came to a clearing. My companion explained to me that this clearing was the right size because it was eighteen feet wide. I thought I knew something about traditional witchcraft, and simply assumed that they were going to draw a circle here for their ritual. I was surprised when instead they marked out a square, eighteen feet by eighteen feet, using long pieces of wood and branches that had fallen from trees. They then made a smaller square inside that, and a third, even smaller, inside the second. The squares were joined to each other by four long sticks, intersecting each square halfway along its side. This design, they told me, was called the mill. Its four sides were aligned to the cardinal points, which were attributed to the four elements. This at least I understood, it is a common feature of magical rituals from all sorts of different traditions.
For the Water Witches, water is the most important element, for it is in the depths of the water that the ancient gods dwell. They were not at all forthcoming to me about these deities on this occasion, but I later learnt quite a lot about them.
At midnight the ritual began. It turned out that there were two families present, and nine members of each of these came and stood on opposite sides of the square, facing each other. It became obvious to me by this time that the two families were to compete in some sort of game.
Those of us who were not taking part, a few children and an even smaller number of elderly people, stood on the sidelines and watched. I stood apart from the others, who seemed to view me with a great deal of suspicion. I also happened to know that there were other people still on some of the boats, mostly men, looking after very small children. Among Water Witches women appeared to be dominant, at least in all the important ways.
The ritual began with the members of each “team” taking it in turns to enter the “board” one by one, with the leaders entering the board last. It suddenly dawned on me that the game they were playing was none other than nine menís morris, using people instead of counters. Team leaders were responsible for making decisions about which moves to make, though if the leader was taken off the board in the course of play, she could no longer have any part in the game. A temporary leader would have to take over, and this would necessarily affect that teamís ability to play a coherent game.
Unlike normal games of nine menís morris, which only last a few minutes, this version seemed to go on for hours. Each move was preceded by an interminable delay as tactics were considered and reconsidered. The atmosphere was similar to that at an international chess tournament. Everybody present seemed to be entranced by the whole thing.
Eventually, one of the teams won, and the other conceded defeat. It was all very civilised, though they had been playing as if their lives depended on it. As it happened, it was “our” side that won, though I didnít so much feel pride as stupefaction. Clearly, however, to everyone present, it had been an intensely religious experience, one which had left them in a trance-like state. Then, suddenly, everybody shouted “hip, hip, hooray!”, and began talking all at once. The wood that had been used to make the mill was gathered together in a pile in the centre and made into a bonfire. And now began the sort of ritual that I may have been expecting.
People produced pipes and drums, and began having a good old sing-song to a cacophony of music, whilst meat, bread, potatoes, and other goodies were cooked, and sometimes burnt to a crisp, on the open fire. We were joined at the fire by those who had remained on the boats during the serious part of the ritual, and somebody produced a huge keg of home-brewed beer, all yeasty and lethal in its strength. This was soon finished, but it seemed that every boat had two or three of them stashed away, so there was no chance of running out. The two families, who had been mortal rivals earlier, began exchanging news and gossip from all over the country. It dawned on me that they probably hadnít seen each other for ages, perhaps years. In other words, they were genuinely pleased to see each other. It struck we that this was a truly unique system that the Water Witches had developed for themselves. And, yes, later we did all dance round the bonfire, after we had been lubricated by booze.
The sun was beginning to rise when one of the men filled a bucket up with water from the canal and doused what was left of the fire with it. Those half dozen or so die-hards of us who had stayed up to welcome the sun now returned to our boats, being careful to clear up as much rubbish as possible, so as to disguise our presence there. As soon as it was light enough the boats began to untie their moorings and depart.
The Nature of Traditional Witchcraft
The basic purpose of Witchcraft is to invoke, or create, non-physical entities which are then given a specific function or task to perform. This is what is known as a spell. The beings that are invoked have many designations: demons, goblins, elves, elementals, etc. Of course, the creation of thought-forms plays no small part in many different types of Occult practice. Witchcraft is no exception. Indeed, without the invocation of an entity, no genuine Witchcraft is being performed.
A spell in Witchcraft can be for any purpose. It could be to destroy an enemy, or to help a friend. No proper spell could be cast without invoking, or creating (birthing), a non-corporeal entity to carry it out. In modern Wicca, as devised by Gerald Gardner in the 1950s, not only is the casting of spells very rare, but those spells that are cast almost never include this essential ingredient, the invocation of an entity. Instead, a variety of techniques are used, such as evocation (visualisation), chanting, and sigilisation. These three techniques are also used in Traditional Witchcraft, but only as a small part of the invocation procedure, not the spell itself.
Conversely, divination (especially cartomancy) plays no part at all in real Witchcraft. Water-divining, or water-witching, is an exception to this. But fortune-telling by tarot cards is definitely not part of Witchcraft. What would be the point? A Witch should be able to change the future at will. Many Witches, of course, have historically also read the cards in return for money from a gullible public. But they would never need to do a reading for themselves.
Because the ability to invoke entities is fundamental to the practice of Witchcraft, all of the group meetings (conventicles, i.e. covens) are geared to this end. Rituals are always led by the female members of the family, even though the overall head can sometimes be a male. Participants never work in the nude, rather they wear a short kilt or tabard which covers the body but keeps the arms and legs free. A cord or rope is tied around the waist. A cord is tied just above each knee and each elbow. This is kept tight during the whole ritual, and prevents the participant from feeling the cold (rituals are always outdoors at night).
There is no circle as such, rather the ritual area is square, drawn on the ground or delineated with pieces of wood or rope. In fact, three squares are drawn, one inside another, joined by four lines. The sides of the square face the cardinal directions, and an object of a specific colour is placed just outside the square at the four sides. In the south is a white object, in the east a red object, in the north a black object, and in the west a grey object. It is said that Wr-alda, the seven-headed World Serpent, dwells in the four quarters, and also dwells beneath the earth and the sea. The four quarters themselves are known as the Four Brothers.
Once drawn, the sacred space is known as the mill (perhaps Blakeís “dark Satanic mills” is a reference to the practice of Witchcraft). The mill is entered from the west, at the southern end of the western perimeter. Before the ritual begins, the female leader of the ceremony, known as the Ringleader, walks round the four quarters twice, outside the square, placing an onion on each coloured object the first time round, and pouring some wine or sherry on the onion the second time round.
When the ritual begins (preferably at midnight) the Ringleader, followed by the other participants, runs towards the mill from a distance. It helps if there is a slope here. When she is nearer the mill, she drops to the ground and gambols the rest of the way, followed by the other participants. Only the female participants are allowed into the mill itself. The men have constructed the mill, and now they stand around the perimeter guarding it. During the whole ceremony they chant and play pipes and other instruments.
When the Ringleader reaches the entrance to the mill (the southern end of the western perimeter) she kneels and places her hands on her forehead, palms outward. This is done by each of the other participants as they reach the mill entrance. The Ringleader, on her knees, moves round the perimeter of the mill, facing outwards. When she reaches each of the coloured objects she must tap them three times with each elbow. First along the south perimeter, then the east, then the north, and finally the west, where she stops, stands up, and turns to face the centre of the mill. The other participants follow her round, and stand up when she does, wherever they are on the perimeter. Nobody is allowed to stand up before this, it is said that a ceiling of glass lies just above their heads until the Ringleader has greeted each of the Four Brothers (by tapping the objects with her elbows).
The ritual then proceeds with all present facing the centre and greeting it. During the entire time that the participants are inside the mill, in other words the whole ceremony, they must keep their hands on their foreheads, palms outwards. Because of this, anything that needs preparing is done beforehand by the men and left in the mill as they are building it (they build it from the centre outward, as they are never allowed to enter it). The greeting consists of all participants descending into a crouching position, then rising to a standing position, and repeating this over and over again until the desired entity appears in the central square (which nobody is allowed to enter). The name of the entity that is being invoked is chanted by the participants, including the men outside the perimeter. The physical description of the entity is given to the participants beforehand, and they try to visualise (evoke) it in the centre during the ceremony. It goes without saying that this ritual is extremely physically demanding for those inside the mill, and many of the older female members of the family would stay with the men outside the mill, preparing the food for afterwards. Some rituals could go on all night. If the entity had not appeared by dawn, then they gave up, and considered the ritual a failure.
If and when the entity appears to visible sight to all present, the chanting and greeting cease, creating silence and stillness. The male leader of the family, known as the Master, gives the entity its instructions in an authoritative voice, and tosses the same, inscribed on a piece of wood, into the centre. At the same time the other men toss pieces of burning wood into the centre, and the female participants destroy the mill with their feet, and throw its pieces into the fire. The men then rush in and make this into a bonfire. Food and booze is had, and a jolly old sing-song, and everybody tries to forget about the ritual they have just performed.
As has been stated, the Water Witches may choose to invoke, or create, any entity they deem proper to the occasion. Almost always they will choose a being from their rich and diverse Elf-lore. Nature spirits abound everywhere, they believe, living in earth and water. In practical terms this Elf-lore is certainly the most important part of their magical philosophy.
Initiation, Hell, & Death
In the olden days the Water Witch families used to meet together for a ritual once a month, on the last night of the lunar month (i.e. the dark of the moon, just prior to the new moon). The location was chosen a month in advance, and was always on some remote and rural stretch of a canal (or navigable river), in a field or wood. They also had three special dates on the solar calendar: St Thomasís (1st January), St Georgeís (4th May), and St Bartholomewís (4th September). These are the Old Style dates for these festivals.
Water Witches knew nothing of “Initiations” that conferred the status of “Witch” on a person. To them, a Witch was simply somebody who practised Witchcraft, in the same way that a physicist is simply somebody who practices physics. It is the ability to perform magic that is the important thing.
Having said this, there was a ceremony that can be regarded as the equivalent of an Initiation, though it was known instead as a “vigil”. It was always performed alone, and was intended to introduce the person to the rigours of ritual work. If the acolyte lost her nerve and came back then she was deemed unsuitable for ritual work, and would never be asked again. Prior to the vigil the acolyte makes her tunic out of some cloth, dyes it, and finds some rope for her waist and cords for her arms and legs. She then goes out to some remote spot, and remains there, alone, from midnight to dawn. The vigil is always performed on the first full moon of the year, and is therefore extremely cold. It is deemed a success if the acolyte is unable to feel the cold when it is finished. She will also have been given a new name, or bye-name, which should be seen emblazoned across the sky in huge white letters.
There is no oath of allegiance nor vow of secrecy during the vigil, or at any other time. These things are simply accepted. The consequences of breaking such understandings would be dire, and all acolytes knew this. The vigil is repeated each full moon thereafter. During these lone sessions, the acolyte practices the powers of evocation (visualisation). She will attempt to meet up with her siblings on the “astral”.
It is sometimes said that Traditional Witchcraft has seven degrees of initiation. This is an erroneous view which is, nevertheless, based on a misunderstanding of real facts. The Witchcraft that the Water Witches practised had no “degrees” at all, and only one “Initiation” (though they didnít call it that). There are, however, seven specific rituals which the acolyte performs during her active Witchcraft career. She performs them when, and only when, she herself feels ready. They are an intensely personal thing, and although they are supposed to confer increased powers, nobody is obliged to tell anyone else if they have done them.
These rituals refer to the seven hells that are said to exist beneath our feet. Each of these hells is situated in one of the heads of the World Serpent that is propitiated in group rituals, and from which all power ultimately derives. The acolyte must travel to each of these hells to receive the powers inherent in them. The First Hell, surprisingly, is the earth itself, and the acolyte is deemed to have entered it on successful completion of the all-night vigil described above. The next six are said to be inside the earth, in layers. The Second Hell contains sand and the shades of the dead. The Third Hell contains a certain class of diminutive elemental beings, but these are not intelligent, and will not remember any instructions given to them. The Fourth Hell contains the fiery essence of Witchcraft itself, which can be captured in amber. The Fifth Hell contains most types of elemental beings, both evil and good, and also some shades of the dead. The Sixth Hell contains the most powerful types of elemental beings. The Seventh Hell contains nothing but fear and darkness, and must be mastered before the acolyte can escape death.
To enter any hell except the first (which we all live in, and donít need to enter), the acolyte must have mastered the previous hell and be able to invoke its contents at will. The actual ceremony of entry is the same in all cases. It is known as the water-box ceremony. A container, large enough to crouch down in, is filled with about a foot of water. The acolyte, in ritual garments, gets inside and crouches, but never sits or rests. The lid is closed so that she is in total darkness. She stays inside from midnight to dawn, and travels to the relevant hell in her “astral body”.
The Water Witches believed that after death we cease to exist. The only way of preventing this was to create a shade of oneself, which after death would go and inhabit one of the hells (though it could be summoned to earth). This shade is then enabled to continue to exist by its living descendants regularly giving it new infusions of energy. Hell, therefore, is a desirable place to go after death, as the alternative is oblivion. Other alternatives included causing a dead personís shade to possess a living person (or animal, plant, even an inanimate object). This is the nearest thing to reincarnation among the beliefs of the Water Witches. Theoretically, one shade could successively inhabit an unlimited number of living bodies.
Whether the shade exists in hell, or inhabits a living body, in both cases it is acting as a Vampire, taking energy that does not rightfully belong to it, and is thus dependant on the living. That this state of affairs will not last forever is implied by the belief that ultimately every human soul will leave the seven hells entirely and go and inhabit one of the stars of the firmament. Each soul has its own star, though we do not necessarily know which one is ours. We can only find out by contacting our Cosmic Twin, a perfected and all-powerful version of ourselves that already inhabits the star.