Sunday, 10 November 2013
Witchfest: Not as Naughty as the Photo Ban Suggests
With lecture titles including Horses, Witches and Satanism; Goddesses of Sex and Violence; and The Cult of Sacred Prostitutes, one could be forgiven for thinking that the photo ban is because those going to Witchfest are likely to get up to all sorts of naughtiness. But let me set things straight. At Witchfest, no one goes skyclad, there's no rampant sex and certainly no Satanism.
In Horses, Witches and Satanism, which was the first talk of the day, folklorist Melissa Harrington's first words were to explain that anyone there thinking they might learn about Satanism would be disappointed. In fact, her lecture was really about the mistaken belief that horses are being harmed as part of occult rituals.
Every summer, newspapers run horrifying stories about horses that have been found with their manes tangled, cuts on their skin or dead in ways that suggest ritual killing. The idea that witches, devil-worshippers, fairies or aliens regularly mutilate horses or cattle goes back into the very distant past, yet Melissa showed that the real causes are usually completely mundane. Dirty manes get tangled just by the wind and cuts can be caused by sharp edges on fencing around fields, while dead horses get scavenged by wild animals and their bodies can even explode in very hot weather when internal gasses build up. If you want to read more, you can find Melissa's academic paper on the subject here.
Goddesses of Sex and Violence was the title of Professor Ronald Hutton's talk. It was about Inanna, the ancient Mesopotamiam goddess of sexual love, fertility and warfare who was worshipped as Ishtar and Astarte and even became associated with Aphrodite and Venus. The photo above shows Inanna on the Ishtar Vase that is in the Louvre, in France. Wiccans hold Inanna in great reverence and the way she was depicted in ancient times - naked and with her arms raised - is a stance often adopted by modern high priestesses during private coven rites. (But certainly not in public at Witchfest.) For those who like Ronald Hutton's books, his latest is due out this week and is called Pagan Britain.
Inanna was also the subject of historian James Bennett's talk entitled The Cult of Sacred Prostitutes. But there was no nudity there either - and certainly no prostitution. In fact, he explained that a once-popular theory that ancient temples to Inanna had employed sacred prostitutes is probably a myth.
So, anyone going to Witchfest hoping for some real-life sex, Satanism and scandal would have been very disappointed. But, if you went there hoping to hear some fascinating talks about folklore, history and the practical aspects of modern witchcraft you would be very happy. If you went to do some shopping, you'd be happy too - as there were, as usual, a wonderful selection of stalls selling great pagany stuff. (I bought an amazing scented candle called Winter Spice from a stall called The Hedgewitches' Garden.) If you like dancing to pagan music you'd definitely be spoiled for choice, with Spriggan Mist, Damh the Bard, The Dolmen and Inkubbus Sukkubus among the entertainers.
And if you are a witch who enjoys meeting old friends and making new ones, Witchfest was definitely the place to be. Thanks very much to all the lovely people who I chatted to and enjoyed mead in the bar with yesterday - you made my day!
I had a fantastic time at Witchfest 2013, just as I have at previous Witchfests. Shame I can't show you any photos, but I hope the picture of the naked sex goddess Inanna makes up for that.
The photo is © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5
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