The Wookey Witch Trials (2009)

The Wookey Witch Trials (2009)
Formed by water soaking through the limestone of the area and melting it into caverns Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset have been associated with humans since the mid Palaeolithic Age 41,000 years ago. The limestone in the area also has a high iron content in the form of Haematite and iron sulphides which can help in the channelling and conduction of earth energies, but may interfere with many types of modern technology. Somerset was a stronghold of traditional Pagan practices due to the geography of bogs, swamps and large shallow lakes. Dutch engineers drained the worst areas in the 17th Century but it was still well outside the mainstream influence of the rest of the country as a whole until well into the mid-20th Century.

It was against this backdrop that the legend of the Witch of Wookey Hole arose. There are several variations of it, but the common thread is that a Witch who lived in the caves was feared by the locals, and as a result a Christian Priest was sent to combat her. In the resulting battle the Witch was turned to stone by prayer, holy water, or pure faith on the part of the Priest, depending on who’s telling the story. Personally I think the folklore is a garbled version of a Pagan holy site being reprogrammed to the Christian aspect of Divinity. Not that the reprogramming took as the river running through the caves is the only one most Pagans agree has a Witch as an overseeing Thoughtform/Elemental rather than a Naiad or Undine.

Whether there was an actual witch is still being debated. A 1000 year old skeleton of a woman was found in the caves in 1912 and it has been suggested that the former owner could have been the person the Witch mentioned in the tale was modelled on. The bones are in the Wells and Mendip Museum labelled “The Witch of Wookey Hole” despite the lack of corroborating evidence.

The caves were first opened to the public in 1927 by the owner at the time. Their fame spread over time and they are now owned by the former circus proprietor Gerry Cottle and are a well-known tourist attraction in the UK. For some time as part of the attraction they have had an actress portray the Witch in typical “Halloween” style and, in 2009, the person who had been doing the job for many years decided to retire and an open audition was held to select her successor. Considering the pay was £50, 000 pro rata, and the submission form specified “No pyrotechnics” I felt compelled to apply.

When I arrived the place looked like Halloween had arrived several months early. There were people dressed in black with pointy hats everywhere I looked. The few Pagans that were there were easy to spot – they were the only ones not dressed as a stereotypical Witch, Wizard, or Goth variant. I was wearing my outdoor ritual outfit of black Gi (martial arts suit), Jika-tabi (Japanese outdoor footwear), leather hat, and a black hooded cloak. Other Pagans had taken an equally individual approach to their outfits one lady had dressed like the lady who fed the pigeons in “Mary Poppins”, while many of the men seemed to have taken inspiration from many of the Robin Hood films from the 1950’s onward. One group I hadn’t expected to see were the people from various medieval re-enactment groups who had not only very accurate dress for the time the Priest V Witch contest was supposed to have happened, but also good knowledge of magick and herbs from that time too. Some of them were Pagans, but most were just really into that particular historical period.

In all it was a very impressive turnout of over 400 people all vying for the position of Official Wooky Witch. The people running the event were totally overwhelmed as Jane, the outgoing Wookey Witch, confirmed when I had a chance to talk to her. “My guess is that you were expecting maybe fifty to seventy-five people mainly a lot of oddballs with a few actors, and the plan was to select someone from the latter group. Right?” Jane nodded while looking around at the sea of wannabe Witches in every type of outfit imaginable, including some who’d just thrown something on- and nearly missed.

“Evidently no one here was aware of the rise of Witchcraft and general Paganism in the UK during the last few years” I continued “Personally I think your best bet is to pick one of the re-enactors or Pagans for the job. They’ll do it well and you’ll get years of faithful service” Jane said she would consider it and went off to join the judging panels.

There were four of these panels judging the prospective candidates. There was only going to be one originally but the sheer number of applicants meant that they had to add an extra three just to process the numbers. My interview was pretty brief as I had relied on my written entry including a recommendation from a well- known celebrity, evidence of my background in contemporary Paganism, and my knowledge of the history and magick of the time. The judges were clearly looking for someone with more of a performance background, so I didn’t even make it through to the second round. I didn’t mind that much as it gave me a chance to join the many spectators and watch the rest of the ‘trials’ from the side-lines. This was when the true diversity of the performers came in. Frankly it was like the early stages of the X-Factor, only much, much, weirder. There were people with trained Crows and Ravens who clearly hadn’t read the background information on the post which mentioned that the successful person would be working with several cats. The ‘straight out of Halloween’ costumes were quite fun, but even in July the wearers were evidently starting to realise that they weren’t up to continuous use in the constant 11⁰c of the caves. Many of the re-enactors gave the best performances, but because of their historical accuracy the people on the panels came across as thinking they lacked showbiz “flare”.

The eventual winner was an estate agent, and former chairman of the Vampire Society, from nearby Shepton Mallet. Sadly she only lasted a few weeks before “There was an acrimonious falling out” according to a news article at the time. Since the audition I attended there have been several more auditions to the extent it has been almost one every 18 months. I can’t help feeling that if the judges had followed my advice to Jane and chosen a re-enactor or a Pagan they’d still have the winner from 2009.

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