Skip to Main Content

Operative Witchcraft

Spellwork and Herbcraft in the British Isles

Published by Destiny Books
Distributed by Simon & Schuster


See More Retailers

About The Book

A comprehensive look at the history and practices of rural English witchcraft

• Explores witch’s familiars and fetches, animal magic, and the forms of witchcraft practiced by rural tradespeople, such as blacksmiths, herbalists, and artisans

• Offers practical insight into spells, charms, folk incantations, herbal medicine practices, amulets, sigils, and tools of the craft

• Details the evolution of public perception of witchcraft throughout England’s history, including the laws against witchcraft in place until the 1950s and witchcraft’s contentious relationship with the Christian church

In this practical guide, Nigel Pennick takes the reader on a journey through the practice of operative witchcraft in the British Isles from the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan era to the decriminalization of witchcraft in the 1950s and its practice today.

Highlighting uniquely English traditions, Pennick explores fetches and witch’s familiars, animal magic, and the forms of witchcraft practiced by rural tradespeople, such as blacksmiths, herbalists, and artisans, to enhance their professional work and compel others to do their bidding, both man and beast. He provides actual spells, charms, and folk incantations, along with details about the magical use of a variety of herbs, including nightshades, the creation of amulets and sigils, protection against the Evil Eye, and the use of aromatic oils. Pennick explains the best times of day for different types of magic, how to identify places of power, and the use of the paraphernalia of operative witchcraft, such as the broom, the witches’ dial, and pins, nails and thorns. He explores the belief in three different types of witches: white witches, who offer help and healing for a fee; black witches, who harm others; and gray witches, who practice both white and black magic. Examining witchcraft’s contentious relationship with the Christian church, he investigates the persecution of witches throughout the UK and the British West Indies up until the mid-20th century. He offers a look into the changing public perceptions of witchcraft and the treatment of its followers as well as revealing how English churchmen would offer magical solutions to the perceived threat of black witchcraft.

Painting an in-depth picture of English witchcraft, including how it relates to and differs from modern Wicca, Pennick reveals the foundation from which modern witchcraft arose. He shows how this context is necessary to effectively use these ancient skills and techniques and how the evolution of witchcraft will continue harmonizing the old ways with the new.


Chapter 7.

Spells, Incantations, and Charms

How historic witches learnt their trade is largely unrecorded. There are a number of known oral transmissions, but the overlap between what was transmitted in each case is not very large, and there is little to indicate a connected movement at any time. Because they are customarily portrayed as poverty-stricken old women living in ramshackle hovels, it is assumed that women who practised magic were always illiterate and thus not in possession of any books. But, as today, when unique old manuscripts exist in the possession of individuals, there have always been books circulating outside the remit of institutions such as universities, or, later learned societies.


Because elements of pre-Christian magic and lore have been detected in recorded witchcraft practices and spells, it is often assumed wrongly that the entire corpus of practise in historic British witchcraft is Pagan. Recorded evidence shows that spells of healing especially drew strongly from Christian sources, sometimes the mainstream Bible and occasionally from apocryphal sources. In medieval times, Catholic priests would as a matter of course in medical cases perform benedictions over water to heal a man’s eyes and bless an ointment or medicinal draught before it was administered. There were graces before meals, and a benediction over ale. Priests said benedictions over weapons about to be used in warfare, blessed the plough, and said a benediction over a hunter’s nets for catching wild animals. They prepared holy water to disperse fiends. This ecclesiastical custom is not finished, for in the winter of 2010/11 the Bishop of Lincoln blessed the Lincolnshire gritting machines and snowploughs at their depot. In Gaelicspeaking Scotland, charms known as An Soisgeul - The Gospel - were sewn into clothing as a protector long after Protestantism was in the ascendancy. They consisted of a verse of scripture, a hymn or words of benediction, written by a priest. Many of these benedictions ceased when the Protestant sect became dominant, but among vernacular culture all over Great Britain, they continued, mostly unobserved by the authorities. So the tradition of saying benedictions, prayers or spells, frequently empowered by “the three holy names”, the epithets of the god of the Christian trinity - the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost - remained embedded in traditional culture.

A Welsh healing spell preserved in the ancient writings of the physicians of Myddfai tells us: “For all sorts of agues, write in three apples, on three separate days. In the first apple + o nagla pater. In the second apple + o nagla filius. In the third apple + o nagla spiritus sanctus. And on the third day he will recover.”

A charm against worms from Bridgend, Glamorgan, in Wales, was recorded in 1909,

“God the Father down did ride
Quick and fast the fork he tried
He lifted worms that were out of sight -
One was black, the other was white; One was mottled, one was red; Soon the worms were killed and dead;
Heal, O Lord, as soon as said!” (Trevelyan 1909, 226)

A Devonian bruise charm invokes the sun and the moon as well as the three holy names:

“To charm a bruise -
Holy chica! Holy chica!
This bruise will get well bye-and-bye,
Up sun high! Down moon low!
This bruise will be quite well very soon!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen”
(Hewett 1900, 68).

In her book Nummits and Crummits: Devonshire Customs, published in 1900, Sarah Hewett gives a number of magical formulae from Devonian witchcraft:

“Charm for Obtaining Love and for Success in all Undertakings: Whoever wears this charm, written on virgin parchment, and sewn up in a small round silken bag continuously over the heart, will obtain all the love he or she may deserve and will be successful in every undertaking” (Hewett 1900, 74).

“Charm for Protection from Enemies: This talisman should be made from pure cast iron and engraven at the time of the new moon. Before suspending it round the neck fumigate it with the smoke of burnt spirits of Mars (a mixture of red saunders, frankincense, and red pepper), or a ring of pure gold might be made, with the characters engreven on the inside. The size and form of the talisman is immaterial so long as the proper time for making it is observed and the prescribed incense is used before it is worn. In any form it will protect one from enemies, and counteract the power of the evil eye!” (Hewett 1900, 73-74). The talisman bears the Christian sigil chi-rho, the lower arm of which is in the form of an anchor. Around it is “vince in hoc” - “conquer in this [sign]” - and the sigil of Mars. Another instance of Christian sigils used in witchcraft in England, a direct parallel with folk-magic traditions in mainland Europe and the hoodoo practitioners in the United States.

The formula Abracadabra is the most widely known and immediately recognizable magic word. A prescription for its use, as a talisman against fevers, is said to come from the third century CE Roman physician Q. Serenus Ammoniacus who directed it to be written in the form of an inverted triangle, each line losing the final letter until there is but a single A.

Sarah Hewett recounts how this talisman of Abracadabra was given by a white witch to a person who desired to possess a talisman against the dominion of a grey witch, pixies, evil spirits, and the powers of darkness. It was written on parchment and enclosed in a black silk bag one inch square. The owner was told that if it should ever touch the ground, it would lose its power.

About The Author

Nigel Pennick is an authority on ancient belief systems, traditions, runes, and geomancy and has traveled and lectured extensively in Europe and the United States. He is the author and illustrator of more than 50 books, including The Pagan Book of Days. The founder of the Institute of Geomantic Research and the Library of the European Tradition, he lives near Cambridge, England.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Destiny Books (October 8, 2019)
  • Length: 208 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781620558447

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

“In our postmodern world, appearances often upstage matters of real substance, and people freely adopt new personae as they please--witness the plethora of contemporary witches, many of whom share little in common with the sorts of rural figures that bore the name in earlier times. Nigel Pennick’s Operative Witchcraft is an unromanticized ‘warts and all’ survey of the real history and lore of witchcraft in his native England and elsewhere. This treasure trove of seldom-seen material encompasses topics ranging from toadmen and horsemen to weird plants and darker folk traditions, including a fascinating chapter on the syncretic links between British witchcraft and West Indian Obeah religion. One could not ask for a more knowledgeable and sympathetic guide through these shadow-filled realms than Nigel Pennick.”

– Michael Moynihan, coauthor of Lords of Chaos and coeditor of the journal TYR: Myth–Culture–Traditi

Operative Witchcraft is a fascinating, wide-ranging, and detailed work that acknowledges and tackles the complex nature of British witchcraft. The book discusses the powers of the witch, how witches have been portrayed, and the persecution of them through legislation and unofficial violence borne of ancient fears. The comparison with West Indian Obeah highlights the repetition of old patterns of persecution in Britain’s former colonies. Nigel Pennick has long been a leading authority on this subject, and Operative Witchcraft is another excellent work, shining new light not only on the history of witchcraft but also on how it has been practiced over the centuries. This beautifully written and authoritative work, which is both accessible and academically rigorous, should grace the bookshelves of folklorists, historians, practitioners of witchcraft, and those with a general interest in this enduring aspect of our culture.”

– Val Thomas, herbalist, practitioner of witchcraft and natural magic, and author of A Witch’s K

“While most historians of witchcraft have focused on the early modern and Renaissance era (myself included), Pennick goes beyond the great conflagrations of Europe to show how magic and witchcraft survived into the twentieth century. Operative Witchcraft offers one interesting tidbit of forgotten magical history after the next--not a page went by that I didn’t stop and say, “Wow!” Well written, well researched, a fantastic addition to any witchcraft library.”

– Thomas Hatsis, author of The Witches’ Ointment

“Nigel Pennick stands with one leg in the eldritch world and one in the mundane, as all who know him can attest. After a lifetime of dedication to these ancient mysteries, both in theory and in practice, there is no one better qualified to lead the reader through the highways and byways of operative witchcraft.”

– Ian Read, former editor of Chaos International and Rûna magazines

“Yet another generous offering from Nigel Pennick! In Operative Witchcraft, Pennick’s extensive knowledge of British folk magic tradition builds a richly furnished mansion from the presumed molehill of its textual and material traces.”

– Danica Boyce, producer of Fair Folk podcast

“In this intriguing book, Nigel Pennick gives numerous examples of operative witchcraft--witchcraft as it was actually practiced and documented by earlier researchers. It also includes details of the techniques and practices he personally learned from traditional practitioners over a period of more than forty-five years.”

– Anna Franklin, author of The Hearth Witch’s Compendium and The Sacred Circle Tarot

"Meticulously researched, exceptionally well written, impressively informative, thoroughly 'reader friendly' in organization and presentation, "Operative Witchcraft: Spellwork and Herbcraft in the British Isles" is an extraordinary and unreservedly recommended addition to personal, professional, community, and academic library Metaphysical Studies collections in general, and British witchcraft and wiccan supplemental studies lists in particular."

– Midwest Book Review

"If you read Nigel Pennick’s Witchcraft and Secret Societies of Rural England and found yourself wanting more, look no further, Pennick has got you covered. His latest book, Operative Witchcraft: Spellwork & Herbcraft in the British Isles is an excellent follow up or stand-alone title. Here, buried in traditions of rural tradespeople, you’ll find the roots of magic and witchcraft as it’s practiced today. Pennick outlines in detail not just what the magic was, but why it was believed to work. Operative Witchcraft covers a lot of magical ground in its approximately 200 pages: the crafting of talismans, animal magic, identifying places of power, creating tools, herbal treatments, and more! He discusses the belief of the different types of witches: White, Black, and Gray. Eventually, he leads us to an exploration of what happened when these rural practices butted up against the Church. Thoroughly researched look at witchcraft’s past and possible future, get yourself a copy of Operative Witchcraft."

– The Magical Buffet

"Operative Witchcraft is an engaging and highly comprehensive exploration of unique English traditions and offers information on a variety of forms of witchcraft..Highly recommended."

– June Kent, Indie Shaman

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: Nigel Pennick