LONDON Witchcraft got its annual public outing on Wednesday with the celebrations surrounding Halloween when the occult comes into its own.
And prominent witches say that after generations in the dark, witchcraft is becoming increasingly mainstream boosted by television programmes such as "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" and Harry Potter mania.
"Witches are getting more and more in demand. People want a pagan wedding," said Maxine Sanders, high priestess of the sacred mysteries and a promoter of the modern nature-based witchcraft movement of Wicca.
Sanders said that witchcraft was a taboo religion when she was initiated into a Manchester coven aged 16, causing a rupture with her family:
"It was awful, the catholic priest was brought in with two altar boys, I was told to recant the devil, the police were brought in ..."
Sanders earned notoriety in the 1960s when a newspaper published pictures of her carrying out a ritual naked. She told Reuters that she and her husband "wanted the right to practise our religion and fought for that right."
People are more tolerant on the whole nowadays, she added, and more interested in witchcraft.
WITCHCRAFT GOES MAINSTREAM
As witchcraft becomes increasingly mainstream, the witch community has designated its own spokespeople to combat popular myths of crooked-nosed hags on broomsticks.
Inbaal, 33, is a high priestess and spokeswoman for the large witch community "Children of Artemis", appearing regularly on television and radio.
She told Reuters that witchcraft was illegal in her native country of Israel, but she had never encountered problems with the British police.
"One time we went for a late year initiation with swords and a police car came past us ... we told them we were witches, upon which they said OK and drove off."
Inbaal said that while her interest in witchcraft was sparked by a love of Tarot cards, for most people nowadays it was sparked by television programmes such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".
However, only 7,227 people in England and Wales declared themselves Wiccans in the latest census of religious affiliation.
More and more people are practising magic but they are not necessarily interested in the spiritual side of witchcraft, said John Cole, high priest of a Manchester coven and owner of an occult shop selling everything from cauldrons to Viking rune charms.
Sanders explained that witchcraft is still a minority cult and does not actively seek converts:
"People in the craft recognise that it is not for everybody. In the old days you'd have had the old wise woman in each village who would advise, heal and create concoctions -- witches are like that."