Paganism has a lot of strange images attached to it by people who don’t know what it is, and – usually – have never knowingly met a Pagan. These people also seem to get their “information” from films, television, and authors such as Dennis Wheatley. Even professionals such as medical practitioners seem to have bizarre ideas culled from these sources when encountering Paganism for the first time.
This was certainly what happened to a friend of mine who ran a training coven on the mainland just north of Portsmouth. His wife had twins a few months before Samhain and was receiving regular visits from the Health Visitor to check on their and her health. Health visitors in the UK are nurses or midwives with two extra years of training to enable them to advise on a variety of health issues involving young families, baby feeding, and post birth health.
In the case of my friend they had been assigned a new health visitor as the one they had previously had left the area. Coming up to Samhain they had decorated their altar in the main room in a very dramatic style; black velvet altar cloth, silver candelabras, ceramic skulls, photos of departed relatives. Plus of course the usual Athames, chalice, cauldron, wands, censer etc. that normally belongs on any self-respecting Pagans altar, it looked extremely impressive. They also had a black cat called Merlin, who liked to sleep on the altar, particularly when it was covered in the black velvet because it was comfortable and, because she was black, she blended in with the cloth becoming invisible.
All of this was out of sight of casual visitors calling at the front door as the house was of traditional British design with a hangover of the privacy issues of Victorian times. This meant that that the entrance way in the corner of the room had the door hinged on the side that screened most of the room from view. You had to go fully into the room and turn around to see the altar, from the doorway looking in the room just looked like a normal front room.
I arrived on a visit one evening a few days before Samhain to find the front door open and strange whooping noises coming from inside. My first thought was that something bad had happened, and this seemed to be confirmed when I rushed into the living room ready for combat to find my friend, his wife, plus several students curled up gasping for breath on the floor. It took several seconds to realise that they were actually laughing.
“D-did you see her?” my friend eventually managed to say.
“See who?” I asked
“The h – h – h – Health Visitor” He gasped eventually
“No. Why? How..? Oh never mind” I said “I’ll make tea while you lot pull yourselves together. Then you can tell me what happened.”
The story that emerged was as follows: The Health Visitor had arrived at my friend’s house about 20 minutes before me. He met her at the door and showed her into the living room where some of his students were working on the written bits of their assignments. They’d all said “Hi”, and got back to their work. Then she turned around and saw the altar for the first time.
Apparently she’d gasped her eyes went wide and she “sort of froze”. As I said the altar was impressive, even to me with plenty of experience, so goodness knows what effect it had on someone who had never seen one before. Her gasp was enough to wake up Merlin who, in the way of most cats, thought ‘Ooh a human – I wonder if she’ll feed me?’ She opened her eyes, stretched, and gave an enormous yawn, not realising from the Health Visitors point of views it looked like the altar had sprouted eyes, risen up towards her, and grown a mouth with massive teeth. IT WAS GOING TO GET HER!!! So, quite naturally, her reaction was to scream and run. Much to the amusement of the entire coven.
Needless to say from then on all my friends Health Visitor appointments were held at the local medical centre as, for some reason, there was a certain reluctance on the part of the Health Visitors to do home visits to my friends address...