Re-enchanted England: Exploring Paganism and Folklore

Re-enchanted England: Exploring Paganism and Folklore
A new book dives into the ancient traditions and rituals that many are turning to in an age of uncertainty, crisis and climate breakdown.

It’s Friday 3 May and a sharp drizzle is stirring the tangle of rivers and streams that weaves over the landscape of Stroud. Cherry blossom lines the tops of the cars, but the Somerset town, often described as the birthplace of Extinction Rebellion, seems tired from its week and the gloomy month that came before it.

Dotted along the grass verge of a roundabout, buttercups and wild garlic flowers bend under the weight of the heavy, cold drops. But like a field of yellow rapeseed beaming beneath a grey sky, a peculiar carnival is about to bring fresh colour to the town.

At around 8 P.M. a multi-coloured procession begins to wind its way through the sodden streets. Among the wayfarers are a band of teens with unsettled skin, a sixty-something in a pink coat and a woman bearing a striking resemblance to Charlotte Gainsbourg. Also part of the assembly: a group of frogs wearing tights, a duck in a tutu and a white figure layered in a snowstorm of old lace like a decade of spent candles. Ahead of its surreal excursion, the crowd has been split into three groups: deep voices, high voices and those somewhere in between. Each has been given a round to repeat on a continuous loop. Led by Moina Walker, the section heading the march chants: “It’s Beltane! It’s Beltane! It’s Beltane!”

Speaking from beneath a mushroom-shaped hat, Walker, one half of electronic duo Mermaid Chunky, describes Beltane as an ancient Celtic festival marking the start of summer. Incidentally, she adds, it is also a time of the year when the morning dew is said to have magical properties which, according to tradition, would prompt “maidens to get up really early and roll around on the hillside.”

In the past, Walker’s ancestors would have collected the Beltane dew in jars before leaving it to rest in the sun then filtering it. The resulting potion was said to preserve youthfulness and beauty, increase sexual attractiveness and protect the skin from sunburn.”

This scene is just one of a tapestry of curious tableaux described in FOLK, a new book exploring the wave of re-enchantment currently rippling through the Anglo-Celtic Isles.

In the age of climate change, more and more are turning to folklore, paganism and so-called ‘Earth’ religions—ones with stronger ties to land and nature compared to the monotheistic traditions of the major religious groups. According to the latest ONS census, at least 74,000 people identified as ‘pagan’ in 2021 in England and Wales, compared to just 51,000 in 2011.

But this data doesn’t unveil the full scale of the phenomenon with folklore, myths and legends steadily making their way into art, activism and even the political sphere. For some, it’s nothing short of a spiritual revolution.

Artist Ben Edge, who has been documenting the calendar customs and folklore of the Anglo-Celtic Isles since meeting with a druid order in Tower Hill in 2016, explains: “It’s in the zeitgeist […] These kinds of things are on everyone’s minds. Because we are all thinking, consciously or unconsciously, that we need meaning, that the world is in trouble.” In a country where everything is overpriced and nothing works, people are engaging in customs to make sense of lives that, as if by magic, are being transformed into freer, stranger and more mystical versions of the existence being sold to us—with increasing difficulty—by British consumerism.

From a druid ceremony held at the foot of a giant to a ritual led by crows and a cup of tea with the neo-pagan founder of Extinction Rebellion, writer Thomas Andrei and Huck photographer Theo McInnes attempt to explain how.

This extract from FOLK was translated from French to English by Chloe Anderson.

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