As a film producer, an administrator for Hags Of Bristol, member of the Pagan Federation, the Society of Psychical Research, and The Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids, with a BA in Religion & Creative Writing and an MA in TV & Film Production, practising pagan, Thea Campbell is a woman of many talents. She joins Generally Gothic to discuss her craft and her art, and her involvement in the recent ‘Witch; Unburied, Unburnt, Unbound’ exhibition in Bristol, England.
I am not sure where my love for nature and folklore started, but I grew up in the countryside on a hill and I have always felt very attached to nature, the old ways, stories, music and unusual landscapes. As a child I felt naturally drawn to places that had energy (or ‘diamhair’) where you feel as if you are being pulled through a bush backwards or as if your body is sinking into a hill beneath your feet. So I would have to say that I have been a practising pagan/panthiest all my life.
What do the words ‘witchcraft’ & ‘witch’ mean to you & how do they play a role in your life as a modern woman?
Etymology is always a useful tool for anyone looking for hidden meanings. [In] Old English ‘wicce’ [translates to]: “female magician, sorceress.”
I personally identify Witch as someone who is a magical practitioner in any of the Witch traditions or in folk magic. I identify Witchcraft as a Witch using his or her Will to bend reality.
No one Witch is the same and no group of Witches will agree on what makes a Witch. Much like a Pagan is by definition a nature worshipper or country dweller, not all Pagans are the same, not all Pagans are Witches, and not all Witches are Pagans.
I am a Witch and Pagan in the broadest sense, but I identify myself as a Hag, Panthiest and British/Irish folk magic practitioner. Hags are women who practice local magic on the outskirts of society, or ‘in the hedge’. They practice hedge crossing, Hag-Thorne and moon dancing, shamanic work, prophecy work and herbalism.
Hag is another term I am reclaiming.
As a panthiest I believe all spirituality is connected and that any symbol, wish or prayer can be used effectively in influencing the outer consciousness with your inner consciousness. I also believe any person with a knack for magical practice usually has the talents and complications of being an empath.
I have a curious leaning towards physics and psychology. I think Rationality has a very good place in magic. I am interested in quantum physics and psychical research and view “magic” as a Science that has yet to be explained.
What is your involvement in the ‘Witch; Unburied, Unburnt, Unbound’ exhibition?
Manifestation. I am an organiser, supporter and artist. Having produced films, shows and publications in my career as well as many events, I basically took a lead in stirring the cauldron of creation and organisation with the help of some extremely talented artists and Witches.
On the event profile the description ‘modern witch art’ is used. How would you define this?
Art created by the modern Witch with a magical intent or which represents one of the many faces of Witch.
[W]e consistently charged and cleansed our work by burning incense and walking sunrise around the exhibition.
Mixing art with magic I also captured some bright blue orbs, unexpectedly, on my camera in the exhibition. They need to be investigated more, but it is interesting that they are there.
How would you describe your art, aesthetically, conceptually, and in terms of intention?
My main piece, ‘The Bristol Ash’, was a wooden sculpture [of] about seven foot in the shape of a Stang, with mirrors surrounding it in a round pool by the trunk and roots. I wanted to draw in the sense of a crossroads, and the different realms. Towering above the public, you get more of a sense of the World Tree that the Stang represents. The reflection is the other world, a portal, [a] bit like ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’, and nods towards the senses one can get from the land with practicing hedge crossing.
The photos that I took – ‘After The Witch Dance’, ‘The Heart Of The Bristol Witch’ and ‘Witch In The Bristol Woods’ – are portraits of Witches in Bristol nature. Each one is a random moment captured whilst spending time with different Witches practicing. In none of the pictures can you see their faces; this gives insight into the Witch world where everything still happens underground much of the time. These Witches were okay […] to model because we can’t see them. They don’t want work colleagues, family or the public to know who they are, […] because there is a lingering stigma.
The Witchcraft Act before 1700 targeted old folk practitioners and healers, crucified them as folk who worshipped a Christian devil and demons, and believed them to have huge, fearful powers. Post 1700s the act was changed to one of ridicule: you [couldn’t] be a Witch because actual magic didn’t exist and anyone practicing the old ways was ridiculous, or not quite right, or a fraudster. [T]he stigma has changed but both stigmas linger today in modern society.
Many magic practitioners would not dare risk exposing themselves in public for fear of being shunned.
The rest of my pieces included interesting local articles on Witchcraft in Bristol and Somerset[, l]ocal Charms and antiques such as a Nailsea Witch ball, Sailor’s glass rolling pin, horse shoe, and herbalism books such as an 1800 Culpepper. [As well] as wind knots, handmade charmed candles and dried herbs from my own collection.
And finally a little bit about my ancestor, the poet Emily Dickinson, who created a Herbarium book by the age of 14 and often confessed in letters to be a Pagan at heart.
The title of the exhibition, ‘Witch; Unburied, Unburnt, Unbound’, not only captures the attention, but is also highly emotive. It implies posthumous liberation of the persecuted witches of the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Is this the intention?
Yes, we wanted to bring Witch back to the Bristol people, to be there for the people and respected by the locals as forever [a] part of their world. Whether they realise it or not, a very real Witch lives in Bristol and Somerset today. And has done for centuries.
Witch lives, in a way, to help the community reconnect to their land and nature and ancestors. To the old ways. To give people hope or healing. And now, more than ever, people are needing that.
In what ways does their history impact you and your art?
It’s a political and societal impact. I strive to educate and support old Pagan ways and magical practice. To try and wash away the false stigma. That is what the art is trying to do: give clarity.
Who do you believe the accused were?
The accused were pagans, herbalists, wise women, midwives, anyone with influence or anyone that was not popular. Clever, middle-aged women with a sharp tongue[…] and old women with no families.
Do you believe in magic?
I believe that magic is using one’s inner will or consciousness to effect one’s outer consciousness or world. In that way I believe it exists and is the same as a wish, a prayer, a dream, [a] Buddhist chant, etc. I believe everyone practices magic. But I don’t think everyone studies it. Witch does.
I have noticed that many modern witches exist in the intersection between art, nature, and ritual. Is this true for you?
Yes, but I see it all as over-laying each other. Nature is art and art is ritual.
Do you believe that the reappropriation of the very word itself (‘witch’) is a form of empowerment?
I think it’s a hook. I think it triggers a reaction. It is empowering but also very false because it has no real clarity. It’s a cloak one wears and you will encounter viewers seeing that cloak in all sorts of colours.
Do you think that colloquial use of the term as interchangeable with (both positive & negative connotations of) the word ‘bitch’ can be detrimental to those spiritually identifying as witches?
Of course, but I think educating the public is the action we will take going forward, and regardless, many who identify themselves as Witch are pretty thick skinned, with a good sense of humour. Indifference and a sense of wiliness are often instincts that get us by.
Do you think such a use of the word is disrespectful to the persecuted women & men of C15th – 18th Europe and Northern America?
Why do you think there is a resurgence in interest in witchcraft & paganism? As both an actual practice, but also as a more widespread aesthetic trend.
There is a call because we all have a deep connection to the land and the instinct to protect our environment. People are sensitive to nature, and more open minded with regards to spirituality, ritual and practice. People need to experiment, they need to connect to their ancestors, they need to open up their senses to all that life is.
On display in Bristol, the exhibition was extended for an additional week. What role do you think place played in the success and relevance of ‘Witch; Unburied, Unburnt, Unbound’?
I think there was a huge need for it. People travelled from Cornwall, Birmingham, Wales and further afield. The space transformed into a temple. We had 3 hour conversations with people on spirituality, a couple meditating, several public members crying, and a great amount of laughter and joy, mixed in with the very occasional curious and fearful Male who would never stay long and leave in a hurry.
There is a thirst, and we were able to nourish these amazing people with stories of their land and old magical practices.
Now that the exhibition has finished, where can interested people head instead?
For anyone that would like to join us for walks, talks and events, then you can find us in the Hags Of Bristol Facebook Group . All people of good intent are welcome .
We are also hatching plans for a Bristol Witchcraft Museum.
Watch this space!
May is the Season of the Witch here at Generally Gothic. The intention is to share an honest portrayal of a contemporary pagan, and discuss representations in film, literature, history, and lore.
Thea’s opinions do not represent Generally Gothic, but are respected nonetheless. You are, as always, invited to share your responses in the comments below, but please do so with this same respect.
Fancy something else to read? Check out ‘The Love Witch’ review next!