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Genes Reunited delves into the unknown this halloween
Witchcraft, voodoo, clairvoyance, necromancy, neo-Paganism... Call it what you will, a fascination with the idea of the para-normal is an integral part of our culture, both past and present - from Stonehenge to Macbeth to Harry Potter. This Halloween, the UK's leading genealogy website Genes Reunited has been investigating the history of Witchcraft in Britain - is it really all hocus-pocus, frogs' tails and flying brooms, or does Witchcraft still exist as a hidden component of our multi-faceted society?
Remarkably, recent census statistics indicate that Wicca - the neo-pagan religion most closely identified with popular notions of 'Witchcraft' - is the fastest-growing religion in the USA. Here in the UK, more than 7000 people identify themselves as Wiccans. Though hardly a popular movement, this figure does mean that -as a statistical probability - at least seven of the people cheering on the Red Devils at Old Trafford every weekend are likely to be 'Witches'!
What with the equivalent to a football stadium full of people becoming new members of Genes Reunited every single week, this means that the likelihood of discovering a link to the occult in your family history is constantly on the increase. So why not log on to Genes Reunited and see what Halloween surprises lurk within your ancestry?!
A Genes Reunited member - who wished to remain anonymous - said the website had "helped greatly" in her attempts to piece together the history of Wiccan tradition in her family - helping her contact distant cousins from all over the world and piece together anecdotal evidence about her family's spooky history. "Our roots are in Ireland, and the families (both sides) settled in Scotland in the mid 1800s", she said. Rather than the image of the sinister Halloween witch, it seems Wiccan practises once sat comfortably beside more mainstream religious beliefs: "Strangely, the Old Ways were mixed with Catholicism there, and were not seen to be mutually exclusive. I was told that even the priests attended some of the public rituals, such as the Shamain (November Eve) fires".
Census figures indicate that 67% of the UK's remaining Wiccans are female, and our interviewee confirmed that in one sense witchcraft really is connected to the idea of the 'old wife's tale': "As in many religions, it was the women who kept the faith going, performing the rituals, although the men joined in for the festivals, if not the everyday rites. As such, the knowledge of "The Ways" was passed from mother or grandmother to daughter or granddaughter. If you look in any church today on a Sunday, you will probably find it predominated by women as well".
This is not to say witchcraft was without its spookier elements; "My mother had what was known as the 'Sight' and often actually saw people appear to her just before they were about to die", said our mystery member. Halloween, said our resident 'Witch', was "the most sacred day in our homes" because it is "a time when the veil between this world and the next was thought to be thin". She also admitted that "we acknowledged the 'fairies', often leaving food and drink for them on the windowsill at night before retiring. It was told to me that this was an ancient custom passed down for millennia".
So, it seems that the image of the wicked, warty witch with a black cat and bubbling cauldron may be somewhat wide of the mark - though the religion does still contain its oddities! In fact, perhaps witchcraft is even adapting itself to modern society: "In our family, the energy raised in ritual was used for healing, and to help people attain positive goals, such as obtain employment." Maybe Gordon Brown would do well to start researching witchcraft in his family this Halloween!
For the first time, genealogy websites - of which Genes Reunited is the largest and best-known - have released huge historical resources into the public domain. Whereas researching family history once involved an arduous trawl through the dusty annals of Census, Birth and Death records, extensive family trees can now easily be built in the comfort of your own home. Genes Reunited places records of over 500 million ancestors and relatives at your finger tips - so why not see what spooky surprises lay hidden within your family history this Halloween?!
Notes to the Editor - About Genes Reunited
Genes Reunited was launched in 2002 as a sister-site to the Internet phenomenon Friends Reunited. Since then it has grown to become the UK's largest genealogy website.
It marked a revolution in genealogy and ancestry by combining them with Internet social-networking. Members are able to build their family tree by posting it on the site and investigating which ancestors they share with other members. They can also search historical records such as census, birth, death, marriage and military records.
It currently has over 11 million members and over 750 million names listed. One new name is added to the site every single second.