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A Witches Athamé and the Law?

    On May 9th of this year (2006) an Arch Druidess and Pagan Priestess was arrested for possession of a Bladed weapon (her Athame) in a public place, that case is ongoing…  

    What though does this mean for the wider Pagan community, and for the myriad of other non Pagan organisations that use Ritual tools, such as Freemasons and Orange Lodges?

    We have all got one, or know someone that has. An Athame, a Black or White hilted Knife, a Ritual /Ceremonial Dagger or Sword, in short any Bladed weapon over three inches, Banned under British Law, (and yes that includes your kitchen knives and letter openers) But what exactly is the law and how does it affect the Pagan community? Let’s first look at the relevant law...

    The Home Office announces a knife amnesty in June 2006: (partial quote relating to relevant law):
"The knives amnesty will run in England, Scotland and Wales from 24 May to 30 June 2006 inclusive. It is being run jointly in England and Wales by ACPO and the Home Office. A similar amnesty will be held in Scotland run by ACPOS and the Scottish Executive. Advertising and publicity materials promoting the amnesty will be distributed in advance of the start date."

    Current legislation relating to knives: The Prevention of Crime Act 1953 prohibits the carrying of any offensive weapon in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. A public place includes private premises to which the public have access. An offensive weapon is defined as any article made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person, or intended by the person for such use. Maximum penalty: six months imprisonment and/or £5000 fine.

    The Restriction of Offensive Weapons Act 1959 prohibited the manufacture, sale, hire or offer for sale or hire, and importation of flick knives and gravity knives. Maximum penalty: six months imprisonment and/or £5000 fine.   

    The Criminal Justice Act (CJA) 1988 created an offence of having an article with a blade or point in a public place without good reason or lawful excuse. An exemption applies to folding pocket knives with a blade of less than three inches. Maximum penalty: up to two years imprisonment. CJA 1988 also created a similar offence of having a knife or article with blade on school premises. Maximum penalty: up to four years imprisonment.  

    CJA 1988 also prohibited the manufacture, sale, hire, offer for sale or hire of a range of weapons specified in the Criminal Justice Act (Offensive Weapons) Order 1988. These are mainly items designed to cause serious injury, for example knuckle-dusters, handclaws and certain martial arts equipment, or those which can be easily concealed, including swordsticks. Maximum penalty: six months imprisonment and/or £5000 fine. Offensive Weapons Act 1996 amended the 1988 Act to prohibit the sale of knives and certain articles with a blade or point to persons under the age of 16. Maximum penalty: six months imprisonment and/or £5000 fine.

    Knives Act 1997 created offences relating to the unlawful marketing of knives as suitable for combat, or in ways likely to stimulate or encourage violent behaviour. It also extended the power to stop and search in anticipation of violence contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. Maximum penalty: six months imprisonment and/or £5000 fine.  

    Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, as amended by the Knives Act 1997, contains a power under which an officer of inspector rank or above could, in certain circumstances, authorise police officers within a given area to stop and search for offensive weapons.  

    Provisions relating to knives in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill [see Home Office press notice 088/05] propose to: - raise the minimum age at which a young person can buy knife from 16 to 18.

    Weighty stuff, but how does it affect you carrying your Ritual or Ceremonial Tools and what is Lawful Authority or reasonable excuse?

    Well let’s see: In brief any ‘Bladed weapon’ three inches or over is banned under British law. There are however three defences permissible for reasonable excuse or lawful permission (Section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953):  

(1) Tools of the trade.

(2) Religious obligation  

(3) National costume

    All are open to interpretation and all may be viewed with the intent for which they are carried and seen in context alongside any other tools and /or other accompaniment, such as is specific to its use. (Ceremonial robes for instance). As in the case of the Sikh, using defence (2) where all five ‘K’s’ must be present.

    Let us look at the law and the possible defence and see what may constitute lawful authority or reasonable excuse…  

    For instance, under (1), whilst a chef may be in possession of his kitchen knives or a surgeon his scalpels travelling to and from his place of work, were he or she to be found with them at a football match or a political demonstration the courts may indeed take a different view.

    Equally under (3), without the complete national costume a Scot may not simply stick a knife in his sock and call it part of his national dress.

    Under (2) A Druid Sword bearer, or for that matter any Sword bearer, Masonic or Orange Lodge must show the court that he or she was (reasonable excuse) going to or from a ceremony at which they were carrying out such functions as necessitated the bearing of said sword.. Ritual and Ceremonial daggers likewise must show reasonable excuse.

    You cannot simply say, "It's a ritual dagger and I use it in ritual." or "It's a ceremonial sword and I use it in ceremony" as (2) a religious defence,. The courts will ask, rightly in my opinion, so why did you have it with you at this time and in this particular place?

    Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has lawful authority for her Swords, as do the officers in Her Forces. And indeed when given the freedom of a borough her regiments may march with fixed bayonets.

    Other 'weapons' that fall into this category are Black-rod's mace and those traditionally used by town councils, Universities and other 'official bodies'  

    In practice, if arrested for a Bladed weapon in a public place the first thing the Police will usually do if there is no question of improper use is to ask you to sign a disclaimer so that the ‘Banned weapon’ may be destroyed. On rare occasions (as has happened to me in the past) the custody sergeant may simply say “Charge refused” and it will go no further. They may at this stage also offer you what is termed an Adult Caution and possibly tell you that this will be an end to it. Should you accept a Caution however it WILL go on your record and the acceptance of any such Caution should be viewed as an admission of guilt.  

    Assuming that you have not committed any other offence that involves the Tool you can at this stage refuse both to sign the disclaimer and to accept the Caution.

    It is then up to the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) as to whether it proceeds to trial.  

    The next stage is usually and in the first instance the Magistrates court. Even at this stage the Magistrate may, hearing your evidence, ‘throw it out’ with a ruling that there is “ No case to answer”. Assuming it goes ahead you may then elect to be heard in that court or take it to a higher (Crown) court.

    Assuming it goes to Crown the Judge likewise may throw it out even before any jury is sworn in with a ruling ‘That it is not in the public interests to proceed with such a case”

    At any time in this process the CPS may either drop the case or having got you to court ‘Offer no evidence’ thereby leaving the Magistrate/s or Judge no option other than to dismiss the case and bring an end to the proceedings.

    The whole process can take months before a verdict is given with numerous trips to and from police stations, solicitors and courts and more often than not the arresting officer will use this as an incentive for you to either sign a disclaimer of accept a Caution. Well I caution you here, if you value your Magical Tool - don’t disclaim it. And if you truly believe that you have done nothing wrong - Do Not accept a Caution.  

    If you would like to know more about possible defence see the Witness Statement (prepared by Prof. Ronald Hutton).

    With the aid of Ronald’s witness statement I was reunited with both my dagger and Sword, having been charged on two counts of ‘Bladed Weapon’, despite the fact that I had on my person at the time of arrest several permissions in letter form from several of our constabularies. Under British law it is up to the arresting officer alone to determine whether an offence has been committed or not. On the plus side this means that a senior officer may not order one of a junior rank to make a specific arrest. On the negative, it means that each case is viewed separately and solely in the opinion of the officer concerned. In practice this means for me that on political demonstrations or protest actions it is a good way for the police to take me out of the picture even if at the end of the day they cannot secure a conviction.

    In conclusion, therefore, should you need to carry a Ritual Tool with you, I would advise you to make sure that you can show that you are en route to/from a ceremony, and that the tool was needed at that ceremony. Ensure that the blade is sheathed and locked away where possible and that other accoutrements of your faith pertaining to ceremonial accompany it (robes/wands/incense/rites etc). Should you be arrested, do not sign a disclaimer or accept a Caution and do not allow the Police at interview to refer to your ceremonial blade as an ‘offensive weapon’. If they do so, correct them each time. Remember, an offensive weapon by definition is ...." any article "made" or "adapted" for use for causing injury to the person, or "intended" by the person having it with him for such use by him or by some other person” (Section 1(4) of the 1953 Act), and none of us want our ritual implements so described  

    For my part I have used these arguments successfully in the courts on both my own behalf and that of others in the capacity of ‘McKenzie Friend’ a legal term for a lay adviser. When brought before a Court to give evidence I will swear upon my sword rather than their book, a precedent I set in The Royal Courts of Justice, so you see, faced with such arguments and Truths, Justice can prevail….  

To be noted: It should be clear that any interpretations of the law are mine and mine alone and that should you fall foul of it you are strongly advised to seek legal advice from a professional solicitor. It is also worth noting that if arrested you have not only the right to have a solicitor present when charged but to await his/her arrival and advice before giving any statement.

© 2006 Arthur Pendragon Battle Chieftain and Swordbearer Council of British Druid Orders

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Witness Statement:

Witness Statement from Professor Ronald Hutton Professor of History at Bristol University

          This witness statement was prepared for the trial of Arthur Pendragon at Southwark Crown Court, November 1997, regarding Arthur's right to carry the sword Excalibur.

Virtually everybody in the Western world has heard of the Druids, they are part of the common cultural inheritance of our civilization. This familiarity is increased, rather than diminished, by the fact that the 'original' Druids, of the Celtic Iron Age, remain such shadowy figures.

We can say with confidence that they were the public magicians, soothsayers, religious experts and political and judicial arbitrators of the tribes of north-western Europe at the time when history begins in this region; about two thousand years ago.

It is also fairly certain that Britain was recognized as their original homeland, in which the system of thought and action which they represented was first developed. Beyond these facts, however we run up against the problem that since their own teachings were never committed to writing, we possess no sources produced by Druids themselves.

Instead , we depend on views of them developed by outsiders, either contemporary Greek or Roman writers, or those later Christian Middle Ages; and these varied wildly according to the prejudices and propaganda needs of the authors concerned.

There is thus no 'authentic' original Druidry against which later Druids can be judged; rather, Druids are powerful symbolic figures, which have been appropriated and re-imagined in different ways by successive generations ever since ancient times, That is their true power to move the imagination.

In the eighteenth century Age of Reason they were most commonly seen as rational, pacific and patriotic thinkers who combined rigorous training and close observation of nature to produce a reasonable and benevolent religion which reconciled God, humanity and the other parts of creation in a harmonious system.

From this time sprang a succession of modern Druid orders, some of which survive to the present day, dedicated to the task of putting together the wisdom of all the worlds' great religions, within a single framework with a distinctively British character.

Since the mid-1980' a set of new Druid groups have appeared, which are devoted to the work of developing a new spirituality based upon the traditions, monuments and landscapes of the British Isles.

I have been studying these intensively since 1991 as part of a research project into such new 'native' religious movements. Arthur Pendragon is one of the most Prominent and most significant, figures within them.

The groups concerned number just over 6,000 (Ed: over 15,000 with recent affiliations) individuals between them and are growing fast; furthermore, the ideas and images they represent are rapidly spreading among British youth and among specific sub-cultures such as New Age Travellers. They all have in common a powerful reverence for the land of Britain as something sacred in itself, with this sanctity especially concentrated in certain places such as Stonehenge.

All are also dedicated to improving the spiritual quality of life of the British, by assisting people to greater self knowledge, to a still more positive set of relationships with each other and with the natural environment and to a greater personal freedom, within a framework of social responsibility.

All, therefore, feel compelled by their beliefs to oppose specific projects which damage places of natural beauty and historic significance, such as particular road-building schemes and quarries, and to safeguard or extend civil liberties. All are committed to a pacifist ethic which condemns violence and prefers to campaign by employing moral pressure and drawing public attention to the issues at stake.
From that point onward, however, practice between both groups and individuals diverge considerably. Some adopt a quietest stance, preferring to advance their ideals through meditation and personal example. Others prefer to take part in direct and public political action, including demonstrations and protest camps built on the route of controversial developments. Arthur Pendragon is one of the most important of the later.

Before concentrating on him, it may be helpful to emphasize that Druids of his kind are contributing to debates which involve a much larger cross-section of the national community and are commonly recognized to possess a great deal of validity.

Their religious ideals represent only one part of a constellation of movements, some within established traditions such as Christianity and some outside them, which are striving to develop a spirituality which is more feminist, more sensitive to environmental issues and more dedicated to individual freedom and personal growth, than those which have prevailed in recent centuries.

The specific issue of access to Stonehenge has divided the community of professional archaeologists in the past few years, with some of the most respected figures joining the Druids in arguing for reopening the monument at the key solar festivals with which it is associated.

The controversy over national transport policy and the road building schemes which are the main feature of the current one, has involved a very large number of people and range of ideologies and interests. The question of who owns the land and who may have access to it or should be concerned in its preservation had generated another major debate in the past two decades.

The new Druids and especially those involved in direct action such as Arthur, are therefore not fringe figures with ideals and preoccupation's detached from those of a wider national community, but some of the more colourful contributors to a set of arguments and activities which involves a large part of that community.

Now to Arthur Pendragon himself: I first saw him in person in May 1993 I adopt a quietest stance, preferring to and have been observing him at regular and frequent intervals ever since. It would be impossible for me to conduct my present study without doing so, because he is such a major and respected figure among the new Druid groups.

Indeed, he holds formal office in no less than three, being the Pendragon of the Glastonbury Order of Druids and the Swordbearer of the Secular Order of Druids, as well as leading his own order, the Loyal Arthurian Warband, as chief. These represent between them, the three groups most heavily involved in direct political campaigning.

Although a strong mutual respect has developed between us, it would be stretching this too far to term us as friends. My opinion of him therefore reflects my own viewpoint as an onlooker and an academic scholar.

He is clearly a sincere natural mystic, whose very strong libertarian political convictions are bound up with a sense of guidance by supernatural forces. His belief in reincarnation was stimulated by the experience of vivid dreams and reveries, known since childhood, which seemed to him to be memories of previous lifetimes.

His assumption of the identity of King Arthur, in 1987, was precipitated by a series if apparent signs and omens. His love of the land is charged by his belief (shared by hundreds of thousands of modern Pagans in Europe and North America) that it is sacred in itself and represents a living entity, most often called Gaia, Mother Earth, or, (to Arthur as for many others) The Goddess.

In taking up this identity, he has identified with a well known legend that Arthur and his knights are not dead but sleeping in a cavern, from which they awake when the land is in danger. Hitherto, that has usually been interpreted as signifying an external danger (from foreign invaders), needing a military response.

To Arthur and his comrades, it is an internal danger, from pollution, destruction by needless building or digging programmes and the erosion of civil rights and demands of a non-violent response of demonstration and the building of public opinion. It is to that they have dedicated themselves.

The Loyal Arthurian Warband, over which he presides, is now one of the largest modern Druid orders and is divided into three levels or circles according to the degree of commitment desired of its members.

Its members define themselves by swearing to three things.

To tell the truth:

To uphold honour and:

To fight for justice:

The first is fundamental, as it is believed that insincerity and dishonesty corrode the bonds of the Warband and destroy any hopes it has of winning and retaining the public esteem.

It also carries the connotation that only displaying the highest personal probity (as 'knights') can the Warband's people prove themselves worthy of the causes for which they campaign. Honour and justice are combined in those causes, by the perceived need to defend the land against damage or destruction and civil liberties and human rights -a category extended upon occasion to include workers' rights against encroachment.

The language is chivalric and military, but the ethics of the Warband remain pacifist and its members are expected only non-violent direct action. In its passive form, this consists of putting their bodies in the way of developers until dragged aside. In its active one, it takes the form of digging tunnels or building tree-walks in the path of proposed development and trying to evade capture and joining protest meetings and marches. These activities are, of course, common to many other groups concerned with the same causes.

The central emblem of the Loyal Arthurian Warband is the ceremonial sword, which Arthur himself has carried from 1987 until its confiscation by the Police upon April 12 1997. He identifies it with the original Excalibur of the Arthurian legends. It has been used to dub knights of the Band, which is the formal rite of admission to the group, and oaths are taken upon it in other ritual contexts.

The latter include marriage ceremonies of members of the group and of their friends, solemn undertakings to carry out particular tasks and, (on one occasion) the formal affirmation to tell the truth in a Crown Court. I have myself witnessed examples of all these different kinds of proceeding.

          The use of swords in such contexts is, of course, itself a mediaeval tradition, but the symbolism has been reinforced in modern times by the related tradition of high ceremonial magic, as developed in the nineteenth century by the French occultist Eliphas Levi and the British Order of the Golden Dawn.

Within this, a sword represents the human will, which is expected for solemn purposes to be as strong and straight as the blade and pure as the steel of which it is made. A related aspect of this tradition is that a sword used in a sacred and ritual context is polluted by being used for violence and indeed, upon none of the scores of occasions upon which I have closely watched or interviewed Arthur Pendragon have I noticed any suggestion that he does not hold to this rule.

The legendary Excalibur was a fighting weapon, employed in battle; this one functions in virtually the opposite role, as a purely symbolic object, comparable to the four swords carried in the coronation ceremony of British monarchs, or to the maces of town councils, universities and of the House of Commons.

Precisely the same considerations apply to the ceremonial dagger carried by Arthur Pendragon until its confiscation by the Police upon the same date.

In the Western tradition of ritual magic, described above, the dagger functions as a miniature equivalent to the sword and likewise represents the human will. It is often deployed in a magical context for which a sword would be unwieldy, such as drawing sacred signs upon the air, but it also functions in a more practical role, of cutting herbs, plants and flowers used for medicines or as ritual decorations and symbols.

The most celebrated example of this in Druid tradition is the ritual gathering of mistletoe. I have seen Arthur employ his own ceremonial dagger in this latter capacity and for no other purpose.

It may be helpful in the context to note that a black handled ritual knife, known as an Athamé, has become the prime symbol and ceremonial object of the modern Pagan religion of Wicca, drawing upon the same body of tradition, no Wiccan can practice his or her religion without the possession of one.

A curious and paradoxical aspect of Arthur Pendragon's role is that he has adopted the trappings and persona of mediaeval monarch and his companions the identity of mediaeval knights, as part of a cultural movement which in general dislikes authority figures and hierarchies and prefers an ethic of communal work and comradeship.

The paradox is resolved by Arthur's consistent refusal to be treated as a guru or cult leader by the Warband and its allies. I have repeatedly seen him use his considerable sense of humour to divert or deflate attempts to give him this sort of stature and this behaviour is the best illustration of an important feature of the Loyal Arthurian Warband which has contributed considerably to the success with which it has functioned.

On the other hand, as indicated above, Arthur and its other members are genuine mystics and visionaries, who take the causes to which they have dedicated themselves very seriously indeed. On the other, they go to some lengths to avoid taking themselves too seriously and so acquiring the disposition of fanatics; there is a great element of playfulness and parody in their self-image.

Their identity as Arthurian knights lends to their activities something of the atmosphere of carnival and street theatre and it has the undoubted practical advantage of attracting and holding the attention of the mass media and therefore of the public, in a which more conventional and less colourful protesters do not have.

In this respect they stand firmly in another tradition of British popular political movements associated with a fancy dress which gives drama and adds meaning to protest, examples between 1600 and 1900 include Captain Pouch, Lady Skimmington, the Waltham Blacks, the Scotch Cattle, and the Hosts of Rebecca. This is a distinguished company and the Loyal Arthurian Warband very clearly represents a modern continuation of it.

A contemporary historian has therefore, to take Arthur Pendragon seriously. Upon the one hand he is a major figure in modern Druidry, leading one of the largest orders and representing a distinctive form of spirituality.

On the other, he has an equally important place in the history of groups concerned with environmental issues and civil rights. It is an impressive duel achievement.

 Professor Ronald Hutton

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