Whisperings of dark rituals and black magic run through Luxulyan valley. People talk of unexplained pangs of fear and the feeling of eyes on them at night. This folklore ruminates in imaginations around the area and I distinctly remember hearing tales of nightly processions and carnal rituals deep in the woods when I was a boy.
If you ever feel those pangs then you are tapping into an undercurrent of Cornwall, you are treading on ancient land – pagan land – after all and we are biologically programmed towards feeling and sharing untoward inklings in dark, quiet places. We also watch too much TV.
It might be justified here though, there is still a definite presence of paganism and witchcraft in Cornwall, perhaps more so than other places, perhaps not. It’s not often overt so its hard to tell where it still thrives.
It is awfully hard to pin down ‘witchcraft’ into anything resembling a coherent religion, the Wiccan movement is an attempt to do this but it is merely a new face on an ancient scene.
Roughly then, magic and witchcraft is a folk-religion (of sorts) passed down through families and secretive covens, hence its individualisation. It often mirrors and interacts with the landscape in which it finds itself, another reason why Cornish paganism and witchraft is distinctive. Whilst Christian persecution of paganism ran deep and powerfully in the home counties, the traditional folk beliefs intertwined with both the landscape and Christianity here and people retained a respect – and often fear – of the ‘old ways’. Christianity and witchcraft could even be said, by some, to worship the same ‘God’.
Cornish witches were called Pellars, and in reality were wise and respected members of the community who engaged in particular physical rituals at the behest of villagers and their various rural concerns.
If it sounds like a plot to a 70’s horror then that’s because it probably is somewhere. In something slightly beyond a coincidence, the pretty awful 70’s demon child biopic ‘The Omen’ was filmed partly in Luxulyan Valley.
As for practicing witches/druids/neo-pagans/wiccans/whatever today in Cornwall. Yes. They certainly exist, a resurgence exists in our age of tolerance in fact. The most high profile practising Witch would be one Gemma Gary who has a coven down in West Penwith – by far one of the most haunting and vibey landscapes in our fair county.
She speaks pretty openly about modern Witchcraft, her particular form and what she does as a witch. She pretty much looks exactly like I would envisage a ‘good witch’ to look like, which I suppose works to her favour. Her website and another on Cornish Witchcraft in general. If you are interested in such things then I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle.
However you might note that witchcraft and traditionalised occult practices in general don’t lend themselves to the internet age. It is a traditional ‘religion’ that focuses on traditional ways, nature and practices and t’internet is not a part of that. It is nigh on impossible to find any information on any different practicing sects other than those that choose to self publicise.
You can be certain that it is around though and it gets dark too. People, in a unintended and out of place allegory to Star Wars, are tempted by the Dark side.
Modern ‘magic’ which is practised in various forms by most Paganisms has divided into Left and Right Hand Paths. The Left is traditionally associated with ‘black magic’ which involves mainly breaking established, particularly religious, taboos; hence the focus is on sexual rituals, animal sacrifice (an ancient tradition which people would not have batted an eyelid at in the Celtic past – not that I condone it) and perhaps most importantly communicating (or rather pretending to) with demons and evil entities to further ones own ends or curse others. It is selfish vs selfless basically. Which is not far off other more widely accepted creeds.
There was actually a local case of black magic intrigue and murder. Peter Solheim was a self affirmed druid – with a chequered past – who started to flirt the left-hand path and was later found brutally murdered, his name was later linked to ritual child abuse during the subsequent inquest.
When people start to push boundaries and break taboos then they can go too far. This is as true for Anarchists and Hackers as it is for self professed magic pracitioners. However it is also true that people with hidden inclinations will use and manipulate an ideology – any really, Islamic or Far-Right radicalisation is a similar process I believe – to legitimise and give creedence to them. Often making a mockery of the ideology they profess to follow.
You can be sure the huge majority of practicising ‘magicians’ or pagans in the county are benign, pushing the boundaries of conventional society perhaps, but not the law.
I have a respect for Paganism (there really are a ridiculous number of offshoots to that label) that I don’t tend to extend to more hysterical, dogmatic and established religions. A small part of it is it’s persistence, often in the face of adversity, but mostly it is to do with it’s insistence on the power of local nature, history and landscape to draw nourishment and power from.
Whatever form that nourishment and power takes, whether you channel it into traditional ritual magic or Instagram, if you feel emotionally stirred somehow when walking or interacting with the landscape then you’re probably sharing the same ancient thing.