Witchcraft & Folklore: An Interview with Nigel Pearson

During our tours – as the name suggests – we like to discuss the folkloric aspects of all the wonders of nature we come across with our guests. Much of these folk tales and information however come with an understandably large amount of debate as to what information is true to legend, and what is purely fiction. Whenever we are presented with apparent “folk knowledge”, we often refer to the books written by Suffolk-born, Nigel Pearson, to ensure what we have heard about is accurate from both historical and spiritual standpoints. Nigel is a good friend of ours, and he co-owns the well-established esoteric and traditional witchcraft shop in Ipswich called Sacred Earth, with his husband Anthony. Both Nigel and Anthony have been greatly influential in both our lives in many ways, especially Nigel’s books which have helped shape not just our knowledge and understanding of paganism, neopaganism, witchcraft and traditional vs. modern paths, but also our beliefs and values related to these subjects.

Nigel is born and bred Suffolk and has been practicing as a Traditional Witch for over 40 years. He has written many books regarding witchcraft and paganism. He has studied deeply the myths, legends and lore of the British Isles, and has produced a number of fantastic books that are perfect for anyone looking to discover more about magic and folklore. His books include: Treading the Mill: Workings in Traditional Witchcraft; The Devil’s Plantation: East Anglian Lore, Witchcraft & Folk-Magic; Walking the Tides: Seasonal Magical Rhythms and Lore; WortCunning: A Folk Medicine Herbal & A Folk Magic Herbal, and his latest release, A Ring Around The Moon: Witch Rites Revisited. He is also a practitioner of Advanced Herbal Medicine and Homeopathy. Graciously, Nigel agreed to participate as one of our interview guests for this Blog series, and we are elated to be able to share his knowledge and expertise.

After reading this fantastic interview that we had the pleasure of having with Nigel, we highly recommend checking out the shops of both Sacred Earth and Troy Books. You can find Nigel’s work on both websites. We highly recommend getting your hands on Nigel's books as they are the ideal literary resource for anyone interested in reconnecting to the land around them. His work would be of interest to anyone who is curious about history, folklore and nature, from both practical and spiritual perspectives. Links to each will be posted at the bottom of the article. We would like to sincerely thank Nigel for providing such wonderful responses to our interview questions, and we hope you all enjoy.

Without delving too deeply into your own practices and personal beliefs, what led you to becoming an author on the fascinating subjects of Traditional Witchcraft and land-based spirituality? Was there a particular moment in time or event in your life which led to you deciding to write your first book, was it simply the next milestone of your career, or had you always wanted to pursue the path of becoming an author?

To be perfectly honest, my writing career began as a bit of an "accident". I have always loved books and have been an avid reader all my life, but had never thought that I could actually be an author myself - it just never occurred to me. However, some years ago, I was teaching a series of practical workshops and had to compile some notes on each topic to give to the students for reference, after the workshop had finished. Anyone who knows me - and it may become apparent in this interview! - is aware that I tend to over-explain things. In this case, it meant that the students went away with a whole sheaf of notes, tantamount to a small booklet. After I'd done a few of these, I thought it might be a good idea to write these up a bit and sell them in the shop that I run with my partner, Sacred Earth. The booklets went down well, so I continued to produce them until it struck us both that they could be the beginnings of chapters in a full-length book. We were friends with the people that then ran a pagan publishing company, so I approached them to see if they would be interest in releasing the proposed book. They were very enthusiastic about the project and signed me up straight away. So, I rewrote some of the booklets, added a few more chapters to make it a coherent whole and it was eventually published as my first book; Treading the Mill. This sold quite well, so I subsequently wrote Walking the Tides, mainly based on questions I had been asked and conversations I had had with customers in the shop, as there seemed to be a need for this type of book and, basically, it went from there. I was next invited by Troy Books, my current publisher, to write a book on East Anglian magic and traditions; this also went down well and I have stayed with them ever since. So, really, my writing career wasn't actually planned, I just fell into it as a consequence of teaching and it went from there.

Out of the many books you have written, is there one in particular which is especially significant to you, and what makes that book stand out for you? Our personal favourite is Treading the Mill; this title was particularly influential on both of us in the early days of forming our own practices and beliefs surrounding our relationship to nature and how we relate to the land spiritually.

Treading the Mill seems to be consistently the most popular of my books and, as my first book published, I suppose it will always hold a special place with me. However, I think I would have to say that The Devil's Plantation is closest to my heart. When I was initially asked to write a book on East Anglian magic, withcraft and folklore I felt rather daunted and baulked at the task, as it felt like too large a subject for me to handle and I didn't think I knew enough about the subject to do it justice. There were also several other books already written that I considered covered the subject exceedingly well already. However, Troy were persistent in their requests for me to write something for them and so I eventually agreed and started doing the research for the book. Having decided on the approach I wanted to take - and trying to avoid the ground already covered by others, although there would necessarily be some overlap - I found myself really enjoying the task. As someone who had been born, bred and lived their whole life in Suffolk, I was aware of certain aspects of lore and had already sought out and been taught more in my magical development and training, but now I came across much more than I had learned before. I was able to track down documents and people who had much more specific knowledge and expertise of certain areas than I had and most were very helpful with information and their time in giving me useful material for the book. In fact, a lot of the detail that I was given never made its way into the book, as I was asked not to publish it for secrecy and confidentiality reasons, but I learned an enormous amount from my researches and a significant amount was included. It took me about 2 years to do the research and a further 18 months to write up the material and by the end, I had what I jokingly (but seriously) refer to as my "love song" to my native Land of East Anglia. I learned an awful lot whilst writing it and feel much the richer for it and I hope this comes across to the reader.

Do you consider folk practice & witchcraft to be synonymous? People can often look at folk traditions and equate them with magical practices, especially when looking at natural healing remedies. Were the two one and the same in the past, or was witchcraft considered to be more of a fringe discipline only practiced by skilled ‘cunning folk’, rather than something that was infused into the daily lives of the common folk?

This is a difficult question to answer in a short and concise manner, as there are many different aspects to consider, which may not be initially apparent to many people, but I'll give it a go! I would consider Folk Practice/Magic to be separate from Witchcraft proper for several reasons. Firstly, Folk Practice is basically what it says on the label, practices performed by the folk, the ordinary, everyday people who lived and worked on the Land. There was no specialisation and everyone/anyone could do them. They were generally simple charms or actions that had been passed down in families, or generally within a village situation, which most people knew and employed as and when the occasion needed it. There was no great training or expertise needed. The Witch, on the other hand, was the person who was the specialist, the one who had trained and practiced over a period of time, to hone skills not possessed by others. They knew secret ways of accessing power, of communing with spirits, of obtaining knowledge and journeying to other realms, not generally available to most people. More than likely, they had gone through some form of ordeal, made some sort of pact or had some life-changing experience/s that set them apart from "ordinary" people. They would be the ones that would be consulted when the generally known folk practices didn't or hadn't worked and more strenuous measures were needed. Often feared and derided, frequently outcast from their local communities, they were nevertheless the ones people turned to in times of emergency, when their own measures had failed. Where folk magic ends and witchcraft begins is an area of endless debate and there was often an area of overlap, as in all things, but in general, I would consider them two different areas. Incidentally, before I finish with this question, I would just say that "Cunning Folk" weren't generally considered to be the same as Witches. The Cunning Man or Woman was generally the one you went to to take off what was considered to be the malefic effects of Witch magic and they served a different purpose. (However, there were people who played both sides of the game and practised as both Witch and Cunning person).

When considering different magical paths and practices, it is often said that whatever works for the individual is what is best for that person. As people who spend lots of time out in nature and use foraging as a tool of connection to the land, we tend to participate in more practical, direct and informal styles of folk practice, rather than the more formal, structured and ceremonial rituals that have become more popularized. Do you find there to be a difference in what tends to yield a deeper connection when comparing the two styles of nature worship?

I think firstly one has to be aware of one's terminology in situations like this. If we are talking about Witchcraft and other Traditional Paths here, then we're not talking about "nature worship". This is something that is a part of modern Wiccan and pagan practices, which may or may not be formal and ritualised. Witchcraft per se. in the forms that I know it, is not about worshiping nature or nature deities, in fact Traditional Witchcraft doesn't really do worship at all. There is reverence and respect, awe even, an awareness of Powers greater than oneself, Powers that can help and heal, but also harm and hurt, but they are not worshipped, as in modern traditions. These Powers are approached to be worked with, on their terms and in their ways and this is one of the great, major differences between the Traditional and Modern paths. As to what yields the better connection to the Land, I would say that rests entirely with the individual and how they go about it, the effort they put in, whether ritualised or informal. However, this is not a matter of doing what you feel like, but of making a direct, intimate and genuine bond with the energies that inhabit and enliven the Land around us. There are traditional techniques for doing this, which vary from place to place and Tradition to Tradition, but they are time-tested and known to work. Just presenting yourself in the Landscape and expecting to connect just won't work. There needs to be the development of a partnership, a give and take, over an appreciable period of time, for a genuine connection to be made. If you want to do this, then you need to learn and follow the techniques that have been shown over time to be acceptable and favoured by the energies you are attempting to connect with. How ritualised, formal or informal this is will vary enormously. The older forms of practice tend to have little formality and appear very simple, even childlike, but are based on a deeper knowledge of techniques that work. More modern practice tends to be more ritualised, based ultimately on the Lodges of Ceremonial Magic common at the turn of the 20th Century, and upon which the modern religion of Wicca is partly based. What works best for the individual is anyone's guess, but I prefer a simpler, more direct method of working when out in the Land, connecting with its Powers and Spirits.

What are the most prevalent misconceptions circulating today that you have found regarding witchcraft and paganism coming from those outside of the practices and their communities?

Hhhmm, tricky one this, as there are just as many misconceptions from within the pagan and witchcraft communities in my opinion, as there are from outside of it. I would say that, generally, the public is much better informed these days, due to the vast amount of publicity these subjects get, particularly online/in social media. There are still some people, however, that think it's all devil worship, mass orgies and black magic, although thankfully, most people now don't think we sacrifice babies! There is a general misconception, I think, that it's all chakras, crystals, ley lines, fairies and angels (which has nothing to do with actual witchcraft) and a lack of comprehension of the sheer effort and work that has to be undertaken to learn anything. These days it tends to be all weekend workshops and instant shamanism and you can just go online and get a certificate and you're a witch. People also seem to think that it's just something that you decide that you are; if you say you're a witch then, hey presto, you're a witch. Instant everything, no effort involved. Also, people tend to think there's a coven round every corner and they can join one just for the asking. I tell them that it's not an open door policy and they have to be vetted, train and be worthy of an invitation to join and this puts most people off, as they think it's something that they can pick up and drop when they like and are shocked when I tell them it's a lifetime's dedication and involvement.

Misinformation is a big problem in our modern day, especially as it circulates and is reinforced around the internet. As an expert on the subject and a well-established author, do you have any tips on how folks who are interested in delving more deeply into the subject of historically authentic magical practices can do so correctly and avoid some of the unfounded claims that are presented in the online world?

One answer to that; research, research, research! By this, I mean doing the leg work of seeking out the relevant texts and reading them, for which there is absolutely no substitute. Hunt down people in the know and question them and stay off the internet. As you so rightly say, misinformation circulates endlessly online and people tend to swallow it readily, without doing any fact checking of their own. There is absolutely no substitute for reading the source material itself, that is quite readily available and finding out your own information. Read actual historical texts, folklore, mythology, books of flora and fauna and stay away from popular magical/pagan texts, unless written by credible and acknowledged authors. In my books I try to give as full a bibliographical list as I can, of relevant source material and by reading these, you will be led on to further works that will also have bibliographies and through which you can deepen your knowledge and understanding. So often you can come across a statement on a pagan/magical site online that is blatantly incorrect, yet people accept it without a murmur. Check all statements - assume they're incorrect unless independently verified. A simple look in a history book or academic text will soon give you the right answer. There are many works, mostly by Victorian and early 20th Century writers, on traditions that were collected by going out "into the field" so to speak, and gathering information from the people then still practising these traditions, or of tales and stories still told in their original forms. These are a rich source for the budding folklorist. Whilst sometimes couched in the moralistic terms of the times, these contain the essence of the traditions that modern pagans purport to be practising, without having been put through the sieve of conventional correctness.

Do you see the growing “trend” of witchcraft and paganism in the mainstream as being a blessing, in bringing more interest and diversity to the rich and complex world of folk practice & witchcraft, or have you seen the practice of these paths becoming more fashionable, superficial and insincere with this trend, ultimately making the deeper teachings of paganism harder to find?

Alas, I fear that I have to say the latter. Far be it from me to condemn the search for knowledge in anyone, in whatever way it takes for the individual and it IS true that a greater availability of information on these topics has brought forth more writing on a greater variety of related subjects from a larger number of people, but at the same time it has greatly trivialised the whole area, giving rise to the "everyone is a witch" phenomenon. In this sense it is very much a mixed blessing, in that a greater number of people are able to gain access to areas that they may have known nothing of before but, as I have already mentioned, it leads to a "dumbing" down of the teachings, to gain as wide an audience as possible. The techniques taught are said to be "quick magic" and "spells in 5 minutes" and such like, completely belying the fact that a full study of this subject takes at least one lifetime and possibly many more. Whilst paganism was once the religion of the masses in times gone by and is pretty much accessible to anyone, witchcraft is NOT the same thing and has never been for the majority, rather the seeker of arcane lore and the delver in darker areas than is the norm. I am aware of several Traditional Witchcraft paths that once came out into the glare of publicity, only now to have returned to the shadows and to have left very little, if any, trace of themselves. This is a great shame for those seeking to learn the valid, time-honoured ways of the Craft and may put many people off seeking further. However, like all fads and trends, this too will pass, and those who wish to study the real teachings will continue as they always have.

Do you have a favourite celebration or festival surrounding the seasonal tides? As we know, most of us practicing pagan and/or folk traditions like to celebrate phases of the year when the seasons change, crops are harvested, or around specific celestial events. Is there a specific celebration that you find particularly enjoyable, and what about it makes it a favourite of yours?

I actually enjoy celebrating all of the seasons and look forward to each festival as it comes round; the one I'm about to do next always becoming my favourite. I do have a liking for Springtime in general, however, if I was to pick the one which gives me the greatest feeling of that "special something", I would have to say it would definitely be the Winter Solstice, call it Yule, Midwinter, Christmas, or what have you. For me this time has always held a certain magic and probably stems back to my childhood. Every young boy or girl loves and looks forward to Christmas, but I remember a time when I was about 6 or 7 that was particularly special. My mother was tucking me into bed and said, very quietly and seriously; "Do you know what tonight is? Tonight is the Winter Solstice, which is the longest night of the year and is very special. From tomorrow, when the Sun rises, the days will start to get longer again and we can look forward to Summer. It's a magical night and very old." To a little boy - well, me, certainly - this was a thing of wonder and delight and I've never ever forgotten it. My Mother is neither a witch, pagan, nor magic worker, but she set the seeds of all of those in her son that night, so I always blame her for what came after! For me, the Winter Solstice is a magical pivot point in the year, around which everything else revolves. It is the time of greatest darkness, from which the Light of the Divine Spark emerges heralding the beginning of a new cycle and at the same time symbolising the Light inherent in each one of us.

In modern culture, the archetype of the “witch” is often seen as being innately female. As many popular movies and television series perpetuate, there is a growing overlap between witchcraft and feminism, with the practice gradually becoming a symbol of liberation for women around the world. We know that many men also practiced witchcraft historically; does the merging between witchcraft and feminism pose a problem to the cultural significance of what witchcraft was in the past and is today? What is the significance, if any, of differentiating between witchcraft and its use as a tool for women’s liberation movements?

The conflating of witchcraft with feminism is not a new phenomenon and has been going on since at least the late 1960s/early1970s. This mainly came about when the young religion of Wicca - a modern, neo-pagan religion - was taken over to the United States and got taken up and popularised by the then emerging women’s liberation movement. This spawned movements such as Dianic Wicca, Feminist Wicca and other, similar groups and was further aided by the publication of books such as "The Spiral Dance" by Starhawk (Miriam Samos). This was a seminal work, mainly about eco-feminist goddess worship, which basically created the religion of the Great Mother Goddess, which was then overlaid onto Wicca. This had originally been quite balanced in its worship of both a God and Goddess, the earlier groups actually favouring the worship of the Horned God over the Goddess. This more Goddess orientated type of worship in America got re-exported back over to Britain and Europe and gradually became the norm in Wiccan practice, creating all kinds of offshoots, worshipping a goddess figure, which again was taken up by feminist groups and used for their own agenda. Having said this, this is not a new phenomenon and is just following a historical practice of any political movement in co-opting any popular trend for its own purposes, so cannot be blamed for that. What it does do is blur the lines between historical Witchcraft, which was NOT a pagan religion in these isles, and the newly derived neo-pagan religion of Wicca. I have already described my thoughts on the differences between these two, so will not do so again here, but it doesn't help the casual student, general public or interested newcomer to this subject to separate the two and see which is which. It totally muddies the waters and leads a lot of people to the wrong conclusions about what actually happens now in modern practice and what happened in the past, creating all kinds of myths about things which never actually happened, but are taken by many people as "gospel". This is a highly contentious and hotly debated topic within magical circles and has led to some quite stupendous explosions, further complicating genuine research, study and practice. That women in general hold a much higher status within pagan religions today than in the traditional Abrahamic religions of the West is surely a good thing, but this must be seen within its proper, historical setting and not be the product of historical wishful thinking.

Practising as people who intermingle foraging with pagan beliefs, how important would you say it is to present physical offerings (such as milk, bread or honey) to the land whilst out harvesting and gathering? Is this something you would recommend being done on every foraging venture, or more simply as part of a weekly or otherwise regularly scheduled practice? Do you think people who want to honour spirits of the land and of place ought to do so? We sometimes find it difficult to strike this balance.

From my point of view, making offerings is very important and an integral part of magical practice, whether that be Land-based, to gods, spirits or ancestors. Having said that, there is no need to go over the top. I would say that making a special offering of what you feel appropriate and traditional for your area/Land, at a certain place and time, regularly would be sufficient to create and maintain a bond with the spirits in your area. For example, you might like to set aside a small plot of land in your garden, which is left wild and uncultivated for this purpose alone. Or maybe a venerable tree in a nearby woodland, a special rock, or natural feature in the Land that feels "sacred" to you. Take your offering there, say, once a week, once a month, or at every festival - whatever feels right to you, but it must be regularly - and leave it there. You may feel that you would like to recite a prayer, a poem, a charm or simply use your own words. The point is to express, genuinely, your desire for mutually beneficial interaction and communion with the Land/Spirits of that area. Pause for a while after for any response that may be given, then just turn your back and walk gently away. After some time of doing this practice - and it will vary from person to person, place to place - you will begin to feel a kinship with the Land, its energies and Spirits and may even receive some signs of communication or interaction. Just be patient, open your senses and don't lust after result. This type of regular offering should be more than sufficient to enable you to forage in the area without upsetting the resident spirit life, as long as it is done with an attitude of respect and reverence and maybe a few whispered words of thanks each time you take something. Once commenced however, this practice must be kept up at the times that you agreed to do it, and not forgotten or done as an afterthought when you feel like it. An offering of this kind is a type of pact and the Spirits will know if you renege on your word and will not thereafter cooperate with you, so be warned! If it's something a bit more particular you desire to take away with you, say the cutting of a piece of wood for a wand or a staff, or the taking of some herbs for a magical charm, etc. then you need to make a specific offering to the plant/Land you are taking it from, each time; again, with respect and reverence. Look into the old folklore of plant harvesting and you will find plenty of references to the proper way of taking things from the Land. Always remember though, that any offerings must be appropriate to the spirits you are offering to and the Land where you are. NEVER leave things like crystals behind, as they can totally wreck the energetic makeup of the area and cause havoc to the local spirit life. No lit candles left on standing stones that could crack the rock and kill the moss or lichen that has taken centuries to grow there. It should also go without saying that nothing toxic or harmful to the local wildlife should be left either, as being totally counter-productive to the whole point of making an offering.

We both like to use foraging as a way of reconnecting to both the land and to our ancestors, and find it a useful and enjoyable practice in doing so. Do you know of any other accessible practices like this which you would recommend to folks who are looking to delve more deeply into folk practice, and to commit themselves to witchcraft or paganism in simple but meaningful ways?

This question is pretty much the reason why I wrote Walking the Tides, in that I was trying to show people how they could acknowledge and rediscover their own connection to the Land where they are and at the same time honour and celebrate their ancestors' legacy. Firstly I'd say put the modern books on paganism and witchcraft to one side. They'll give you a lot of information on gods, goddesses, ritual, correspondences, spells, etc, but very little on how to engage with the Powers and Spirits within the Land. Next, go out into nature and walk the Land where you are, as often as you can in all seasons and in all weathers. Don't try and do anything else, just go out and walk, taking in as much as you can of the smell, the view, the sounds and feels of the countryside. Open ALL your senses. Over a period of time, you will really get to know what and how it feels like and to appreciate the tides and flows of natural energy. Once you have a feel for this, or indeed, alongside it, do research into your local area, probably through local archives, church or secular, many of which can be found online these days, or at your local Record Office. Look up local fairs and shows, agricultural meetings, church fetes and similar; look into local history magazines, which contain a wealth of lore on local and historical practice. None of it is likely to be called pagan or witchcraft, but you'll find out what people actually did, how they celebrated, recipes they used for the food they ate and where it came from. Look at the types of flora and fauna that were available to eat and in what seasons they were available. Look up local groups of Morris Dancers, Wildlife Rangers and Volunteers, groups that do voluntary work in clearing up rivers, parks, wasteland and re-instating footpaths and clearing woodland. Join some of these groups and go out and get your hands dirty. Go to local seasonal fairs and farmers' shows. All of this will give you a much greater, wider and in-depth knowledge of the Land you inhabit, than reading a book by someone who doesn't live there, based on what our ancestors were "supposed" to have done and worshipped.

Troy Books:

Sacred Earth:

*All photos were taken by ourselves and are representative of our own personal practices.


 Thanks for reading!