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Wednesday, 31 October, 2001, 15:43 GMT
When Wales welcomed witches
Witch burning scene
Villagers declined to burn their neighbours for witchcraft
As if by magick, witches have rarely received a good press.

Much-maligned throughout history, brooomsticked dabblers in the black arts were, at various times, chased, ridiculed, ostracised and murdered.

Long before Harry Potter was a glint in J.K. Rowling's eye, his wizardly contemporaries were subject to the great witch hunts which swept Europe in the Middle Ages, killing 200,000 suspects.

Stonehenge
Witches and wizards are linked to druids
But Wales, a new book reveals, was a relative haven for paranormal practices, sparing the pointy-hatted pagans from hanging, drowning and other unhappy endings.

In "Pembrokeshire Witches and Wizards," author Brian John claims the Welsh druidic tradition lent a tolerance to the cause of witchcraft which still persists.

"Only three witches in Wales went to trial, in 1656," says John. "And that was at an English court in Chester.

Druid wisdom

"Many people viewed them as the natural inheritors of the old wisdom of the druids.

"There was an extraordinary degree of tolerance and respect for witches as members of society.

Devil and witch
The devil was not demonised in Wales
"Wales was 500 years ahead of everyone else in accepting them."

In the 1600s, as conflict raged between ambitious Roman Catholic and protestant disciplines, pagans were blamed and hunted for practising forms of magick woven from a rich tapestry of folk traditions.

Those beliefs flew in the face of mainstream religion and, demonised, suspected witches were put on trial and executed.

"In Wales, that didn't happen," adds John.

Magick respect

"Often, witches were just old ladies who only wanted a crust of bread and would take advantage by threatening to place curses on villagers.

"Genuine witches were looked on as healers and wizards had the observational powers of detectives and, you could say, were the first psychiatrists of the age.


"Wales was 500 years ahead of everyone else in accepting witches

Brian John, author
"They were all helped by the deep-seated respect in Wales for magick and connection with the spirit world."

In contrast to worldly perceptions of the paranormal, villagers in Wales were spellbound by their neighbours, living in harmony despite occasionally falling victim to spells or curses from an upset occult expert.

In such circumstances, John's book claims, locals might approach a stronger witch in a canny bid to have the incantation removed.

Even Satan was a "foolish" figure who villagers sent packing with his tail between his legs.

Harry Potter
Harry Potter, too, is keeping wizardry alive
Eirlys Gruffydd, who has also written books on witches, said: "They were poor people who were scapegoats for all the misfortunes in society.

"I think people probably needed the wise woman and herbalists because there were no doctors."

In many cases, wizards were even religious ministers with a druidic past.

Descendents of Carmarthenshire wizard John Harries, who practised in the 19th century, are still rumoured to possess mystical powers, according to the author.

And acceptance for magick remains - outside of fashionable forms of Wicca and paganism, acts prohibiting practice of witchcraft were repealed only in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, the "wizard" Harry Potter phenomenon is keeping the paranormal popular, with the first of a series of movies slated for UK release on 16 November.

As Halloween falls, we are all still spellbound by the spooks.

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 ON THIS STORY
Brian John, author
"Many viewed them as the inheritors of the wisdom of the druids"
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