31/10/2016 09:11 GMT | Updated 01/11/2017 05:12 GMT

Halloween - Witches And Pagans

As Halloween approaches, the "seasonal" aisle of the supermarket - which now seems to be a permanent rather than an occasional feature - fills with shiny black and purple dresses, spangly wands and orange pumpkin-shaped masks, candles and cakes. Shoppers scuttle past dragging small children and muttering about consumerism and Americanisation.

Another traditional seasonal feature is a media buzz around the idea that Halloween is a remnant of an ancient pagan festival, a Celtic day of the dead, even the Celtic new year. The evidence is sketchy: early Medieval records from Ireland, Wales and other Celtic areas of Britain don't mention it, although they do point to other dates as likely pagan celebrations, especially May Day.

Halloween, contrastingly, is more obviously a remnant of a Christian holy day: Hallowe'en, the evening before All Hallows, which was and is the festival of All Saints.

But whatever its pre-Christian origins, Halloween has become special to pagans today who think of themselves as witches, often Witches with a capital W, and often women. Its links with a vaguely pagan past are part of that fascination, but also Halloween's witchy image attracts those who want to believe in magic.

Popular culture began to reinvent witches as early as the 1920s, and by the 1990s they were all over the place: Harry Potter and Charmed saw to that. After the horrors of World War One, the idea of being able to withdraw into a fantasy world of witches and fairies was very appealing. But is being a pagan Witch today just a fantasy? Or a fashion choice? Or is it a way of genuinely empowering women?

Women who find Witchcraft empowering often talk about it as an alternative to what they see as a male-centred Christianity, a church literally ruled by patriarchs. Women's ordination in some Christian churches makes this perception less pointed, of course. But there's still the issue of religions without goddesses, who might bring some balance.

Witchcraft's roots lie specifically in anti-Christianity, and less so in opposition to other patriarchal religions. But they certainly don't lie in Satanism, as Witches are keen to point out. In the 1950s, the new pagan religion was referred to as Wicca - the craft of the wise - and championed by a retired rubbed planter and British Civil Servant, Gerald Gardner. It had a god and goddess, and men and women could both be worshippers and priests.

It was Gardner's friend Doreen Valiente who did most to make Wicca a feminist faith in Britain. And in America radical feminists began to call it Witchcraft, and focus on the goddess more than the god.

Pagan Witches might express themselves by joining a Coven of fellow goddess-worshippers. Covens use chanting and dancing to heighten the sense of their own power and freedom. Alternatively, some Witches worship alone, lighting candles and offering prayers to the goddess. Witches often join protest movements focused on ecology or social justice, and campaign for women's rights.

The real witches of history lie behind the pagan religion of Witchcraft. In England, for example, around 90% of those accused of witchcraft in the period from the reign of Elizabeth I to the end of prosecutions in the eighteenth century were female. That's a horrifying fact, one that stands out in a sea of speculation and myth-making by and about pagans.

The typical historical witch was an older, and some might say wiser, woman: often one who had set herself up as a curer of village health problems that were below the notice of the male physician. His services were expensive and his remedies were based on guesswork just as much as hers were.

Sometimes the accused witch was a midwife, although often she was just someone who said a few words over a sick child or a sick cow, and hoped for the best. Very often indeed, the accused witch was poor, someone who had little to offer her community beyond her experience of life and whatever she could grow or make with her own hands.

Someone like Annis Herd of Little Oakley in Essex was typical: by the time of her trial in 1582 she had fallen out with her vicar, who called her a vile strumpet, and had quarrelled with others among her neighbours over borrowings of pots and pans and loans of small amounts of money. When the vicar's wife died, Agnes was in the firing line and was lucky to escape with her life after a trial that saw her reputation trashed.

Why would any of this be remotely inspiring to a modern woman? There's the element of opposition, to begin with. If women accused of witchcraft lived alone and made do with what they could build, craft or borrow, then good for them. If they upset stodgy local worthies and were called nasty names, perhaps they had some right ideas after all. If those nasty names suggested that they refused to live like nuns, so much the better.

In the 1960s, when Valiente and her American admirers found them, these were ideas to conjure with, and feminist activists, journalists, playwrights and artists began to identify themselves as Witches. Now Halloween is about witches, but it's about pagan Witches too.

Marion Gibson, Professor of Renaissance and Magical Literatures, University of Exeter, UK