The writings of Mike Nichols are almost ubiquitous on the Internet. His essays on the Witches’ Sabbats have been endlessly re-posted and republished (sometimes without proper attribution), becoming an essential resource for many to understanding modern Witchcraft’s “wheel of the year”. Some time ago I had the privilege of interviewing him to help promote the book version of his essays on the Sabbats published by Acorn Guild Press. However, due to a computer melt-down the interview was lost. But as luck would have it, the interview was recently rescued from digital oblivion, and I’m now happy to present this “lost” Wild Hunt interview with Mike Nichols.
The Wild Hunt: I know you cover this in your book, but briefly, for the benefit of my readers, how did you come to be so interested in the origins of the holidays, and how did that intersect with your newfound Paganism?
Mike Nichols: As a kid, I adored holidays. It was like taking a break from normal, mundane time. And since I was raised Catholic, I was subject to a rich liturgical calendar from the start, one that borrowed many elements of custom and lore from pre-Christian sources. It wasn’t until I was in high school that I started actively researching the origins of holidays, but as I did, I realized that those studies dovetailed beautifully with my growing interest in Witchcraft. In dealing with the eight Witches’ Sabbats, I realized I was coming at the same holidays from two different angles, and it was pretty easy to fit the pieces together.
WH: Your works on the Witches’ Sabbats are well known, with the publication of the book do you feel you are “done” with the topic now, or are you still researching, refining, and updating your essays? Can we expect a “The Witches’ Sabbats Part 2” at some point in the future?
MN: When I first set out to write about the Sabbats, I was trying to cram as much information as I could into articles that were originally intended for small magazine publications. So I wrote them in a highly concise fashion. It’s true that I occasionally run across new bits of information on one of the holidays, but probably not enough to justify a companion volume. Everything that I really wanted to say about the holidays, I already managed to say in those essays. Other authors have dealt with other aspects of the holidays, such as rituals or decorations or crafts, but my focus was on the history, folklore, and symbolism of the holidays. And I’ve said pretty much everything I wanted to say about that. That’s not to say that I don’t have other books up my sleeve, and other stories waiting to be told.
WH: Your writing on the Witches’ Sabbats were, thanks to the Internet, already famous within Craft circles by the time the book was published. How has the book done sales-wise since its release in 2005? Do you feel that making a good portion of the book available for free helped or hindered sales?
MN: Book sales tend to increase around the Sabbats or when I do a live interview. Since the recession, however, sales have dipped, but my publishers tell me this book has “long legs”; they’re already planning a second edition. My website (witchessabbats.com) also sees a greater increase in traffic around the Sabbats. Readers write to me, however, that they are happy to have the physical book, which was lovingly edited and designed, so they can toss the pages they’ve printed from the web and have been carrying in their BOS for many years.
WH: In your years studying the Sabbats have you seen different trends regarding the Witches’ Sabbats come and go? Were there any common elements in the early days of the Craft that are rare now? Any elements popular today that surprise you?
MN: Yes, there have been significant changes in how the holidays are celebrated, but those changes reflect the larger changes that I’ve seen happening in the Craft in general. The biggest is that when I first began to celebrate the Sabbats as a Witch, back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I had to celebrate them alone, or with a group of friends who were not necessarily Pagan themselves. That’s because Witchcraft was so incredibly underground at the time. There were covens, but most would certainly not host open rituals. You’d probably have to train with them for at least the traditional “year and a day” before you would even be allowed to attend one of their Sabbats. Back then, this was a secret, initiatory, mystery religion. No one would come up to you and say, “Hey, we’re having a circle on Saturday night. Wanna come?” In fact, the tradition was (similar to the Masons) that you would have to seek them out, not the other way around. That was part of what proved your worthiness to be accepted into the fold.
WH: One essay collected in the book is one concerning your reflections on the Pagan community in 1999 (after being away for ten years). That essay is itself now ten years old. Have your views changed much since then? What are your impressions of modern Paganism in 2010?
MN: That’s an interesting question. When I wrote the article you refer to, I tended to focus on the growth of the Pagan community, and how quickly that happened. But I think if I were writing that article today, I would focus more on how the Pagan community has matured. Back in the day, if someone said they were a ‘hereditary Witch’, they were inviting snickers and guffaws. Today, you can’t go to a Pagan festival without seeing second and third generation Witches: kids who have been raised in Pagan households and have never known any other way of looking at things. That’s a huge difference. There is also greater diversity of viewpoint and tradition, and the first stirrings of questions of “authority”. By that I mean, up until now, this has been a grassroots movement wherein every practitioner is seen as a member of the clergy. But now, people are starting to ask whether there should be a separate, paid clergy, for those who want to devote the whole of their lives to ministering to Pagans. And should there be some kind of certification program for teachers? I mean, lots of people are kind enough to regard me as some kind of authority in this field, but I have no actual credentials. Should I have? Do we need them? Or would we simply be caving to the structures that many of us rebelled against when we left our birth religions in the first place?
WH: Do you feel that our communities place enough importance on seasonal rites? It often seems as though Halloween (Samhain) and May Day (Beltane) get some attention, but that often the others seem to fade into the background and only get lip-service (if that). How successful do you feel we have we been in reviving pagan holidays?
MN: Well, first, I have to accept that I may personally have a very skewed perception of this. Practically every bit of e-mail I get is in regard to one of the eight Sabbats and, although Halloween may still be the most popular, all eight holidays are well represented. But maybe that’s just because they are writing to me, and they know that the eight quarter-days and cross-quarter days are my own particular specialty. And there may be a further distinction between how the holidays are seen by practitioners of the Craft, as opposed to the general populace. Witches themselves may celebrate all eight holidays equally; whereas, they only get calls for media interviews just before Halloween or Beltane. That is why I jump at the chance to do interviews on any of the other holidays.
WH: Also included in your book on the Sabbats is an entertaining and insightful essay called “Rethinking the Watchtowers” where you put forth 13 reasons why the element of “air” should be in the North instead of the element of “earth”. Have you made many converts to with your arguments? Do you think that some Witches get so worried about tradition that they forget to be informed by their natural surroundings?
MN: Yes, I think I have made some converts because of my arguments, but by far the biggest surprise is how many people have contacted me to let me know they already do it that way. They usually fall into one of two categories: either they claim membership in a tradition that places air in the north (many Welsh traditions hold this in common, for example), or they are given the air-in-the-north model as an advanced degree secret, often conveyed to them as the “corrected” information. The funniest example of this was from a High Priestess who is a good friend of mine who spent many an hour in friendly argument with me about which element belonged in the north. After years of supporting the traditional attribution of earth, she went to California to take her third degree from her tradition’s elders, and just guess what the big Third Degree Secret she received was? LOL!
WH: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, if there is anything you would like to add, please feel free to do so.
MN: Only my thanks, Jason, for inviting me and my thoughts as guests on your Wild Hunt Blog! We are all much obliged! Bright Blessings!