Doreen Valiente: A Witch Speaks

On 22 November 1997, Doreen Valiente spoke to the assembled masses at the National Conference of the Pagan Federation, an organisation she had helped to set up 27 years before. Corridors were deserted and stallholders took a break as a thousand or so Pagans filled the main hall to hear one of modern witchcraft’s most influential and respected figures.

Source: Pagan/Wiccan pages on Ancestry.com

Friends I stand here today accused of helping to found a new religion.

As I have always believed that organised religion is nothing but a curse to humanity, this places me in a very embarrassing position. I am therefore grateful to the Pagan Federation for giving me the opportunity to defend myself from this very serious charge.

However I think that what happened in 1951 when Gerald Gardner "went public" about the survival of witchcraft in Britain was simply a manifestation of an idea whose time had come. People like Old Gerald and myself were simply the means through which it manifested, thanks to something which stirred on the inner planes. Why, I don’t know, but most probably something to do with the incoming of the Aquarian Age.

I have heard that one of the reasons why the last Witchcraft Act was repealed from the Statute Book in 1951 was that the authorities had been advised that witchcraft was dead. However they were soon undeceived.

It was in July 1951 that the Witches Mill in Castletown, Isle of Man was opened as a museum of witchcraft under the name of the Folklore centre. It seems to have been the original idea of Mr Cecil Williamson, who is still with us and who I understand is writing his biography, which should be very interesting. In newspaper articles of the time, Gerald Gardner is described as the "resident witch". Later however the two men fell out and parted company. Mr Williamson took his share of the museum and went first to Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds, and later to Bocastle in Cornwall. I am glad to learn that on Mr Williamson’s retirement, the Bocastle Museum has been acquired by sympathetic owners and is being carried on.

We should all remember the old Witches Mill with affection, because it lit a beacon for Pagans and witches everywhere. It was reading about this museum that first attracted me to witchcraft. I saw an article in a magazine called "Illustrated" dated September 27th 1952, and wrote to the museum asking for more information. That is how I eventually came to contact Gerald Gardner, as I described in my book, "The Rebirth of Witchcraft".

There is an interesting point in this article, which makes it clear that I did not, as some people have suggested, introduce the concept of the Goddess into present day witchcraft. One paragraph of the article begins "The gods of the witches were the oldest of all- fertility and death. A coven is these days led by a woman officer because of a shift in emphasis towards the life-Goddess- a woman- and away from the Lord of death." This was printed before I ever joined the craft of the wise.

I like this expression, the "craft of the wise" The earliest mention I can find of it is in the books of the historian Hugh Ross Williamson, which appeared in the 1940s. The other term sometimes used to describe witchcraft is the "Old Religion" This dates back to the works of the American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland, of which the best known is "Aradia, the Gospel of the witches". This book appeared in 1899, and tells of the surviving though much fragmented traditions of witchcraft in Italy, where it was known as "La Vecchia religione" meaning "the old religion".

It has become customary today to speak of "Wicca" although in fact this word does not mean witchcraft at all. It is the Anglo-Saxon term for a male witch. However it has passed so much into present day usage, that by now it has probably found its way into modern dictionaries, so there is not much we can do about it. In fact, our friends in the USA have found it very useful in registering their groups as religious bodies.

We do not t the moment have this facility here. However all this may change. Last month, a very important piece of news for all of us appeared in the press and on television. It seems like at long Last we are about to get something like a Bill of Rights. In a report dated 24th October we were told " The government today took the first steps in enshrining the protection of human rights in British Law. Ministers published a White Paper setting out their proposals for incorporating The European Convention of Human Rights into UK law. At the same time they published The Human Rights Bill in the House of Lords."

Now this piece of legislation is potential dynamite, because on the television news broadcast which mentioned it, we were told it would include the outlawing of discrimination, not only on account of colour, sex and race, which we are already supposed to have by law, but on account of religion also. I remember some time ago writing to my MP about this and being told that the present law said nothing about the discrimination on the grounds of religion. This therefore is a significant gap in the law as it stands and we must strive for that gap to be plugged.

If this new civil rights legislation is passed, then the sensationalist press will no longer be able to do, for instance, what it has done in the past when it has been discovered that someone is a practicing witch and has gone to their employers with this information, and suggested that the person ought to be sacked. If they try that, or anything like it under the proposed new law, then they will be in trouble, because this will be discrimination on the grounds of religion. I am asking this audience therefore to take a keen interest in this matter, because it amounts to a Bill of Rights, and indeed is already being described as one. People like us, in particular, need a Bill of Rights and we should monitor this situation and do our best to see that it becomes law.

I well remember back in the 1970s going to the Houses of parliament to lobby a Welsh MP who was proposing to get the old Witchcraft Act back on the Statute Book, after some silly posturing on TV by our old friend Alex Sanders. The Mp and his wife proved to be very nice people, and gave me tea in the tea-room of the House of Commons. I do not know what sort of person they expected to meet, but after I had talked to them and explained what present day witchcraft was really all about, I am glad to say that the proposed ban on witchcraft never materialised. I remember too telling the representatives of the media who questioned me about my visit, that witches would consider going to International Court of Justice to claim our civil rights, if such a ban ever again did become law in this country. Well, now we may not have to. We may be able to claim our civil rights in the British Courts. This is a very important matter for us and I am sure the Pagan federation in particular will be watching it.

People today have no conception of how uptight and repressive society was back in the 1950s when Old Gerald first opened up the subject of witchcraft as a surviving old religion. You could not go into a shop then and buy a pack of Tarot cards or a book on the occult without getting curious looks and usually a denial that they stocked any such things. There were no paperback books on the occult, except such things as Old Moore’s Almanac and very popular stuff such as how to read tea leaves. Serious books on the subject were only obtainable second hand at very high prices. The mentality of the period was perfectly illustrated by the by the famous enquiry made by a distinguished lawyer in the course of the trial about the publication of DH Lawrence’s book, lady Chatterley’s lover, when he quite seriously asked the jury, "Would you allow your servants to read this book?" There was a built in assumption that ordinary people were not entitled to read what they liked, or to think what they liked, and still less to do what they liked. Hence of course, Old Gerald’s "Witchcraft Today", first published in 1954, made all the more of an impact. His publishers, Riders, were really sticking their necks out in publishing it, and it was, I believe, only after having the book carefully edited by Ross Nichols that they agreed to do so. Even such established writers as Dion Fortune came up against this barrier of prejudice. She had to publish her most famous piece of fiction, "The Sea Priestess" herself because no publisher in her day would touch it because of its references to moon magic and witchery.

I never thought, when I went to tea on that day to meet Old Gerald at Dafo’s house on the edge of the New Forest, that I would end up, more than forty years later speaking to such a conference as this, of self avowed pagans and witches-and believe me, in those days such a conference as this would not have been allowed. You would have been closed down by the Police! Times have indeed changed, and only the older generation like myself realise by how much.

You may ask, what was old Gerald Gardner really like? Well he was a truly singular character, I impressive in appearance with his wild white hair and his suntanned face, tattoos on his arms and a big bronze bracelet on one wrist. However he was a very kindly man, not bombastic as some would be leaders of the occult world, but full of real out of the way knowledge and experience, gathered from many far off places and meetings with people like Aleister Crowley and other actual practitioners of magic, not just people who talked about it.

He also had a wonderfully sly sense of humour. I remember once, when he wanted to send something he had made to a pen-friend in America. He was very skilled at making witchcraft equipment, because you could not buy anything like that in those days, and he had made a beautiful little object to form the head of a wand. The problem was this object was made in the shape of an erect phallus- quite traditional, but how was he going to describe it on the form you had to fill in, in order to send something overseas by post? Well, Gerald thought it out, and arrived at a form of words that which solved the difficulty. He called it a "portable religious erection". Evidently no one questioned it, and it arrived safely at its destination.

At first I did not question anything Gerald told me about what he claimed to be the traditional teachings of the Old religion. Eventually however, I did begin to question, and began to ask how much was traditional and how much was simply Gerald’s prejudices. For instance, he was very much against people of the same sex working together, especially if they were gay. In fact he went so far as to describe gay people as being "cursed by the Goddess". Well I see no good reason to believe this. In every period of history, in every country in the world there have been gay people, both men and women. So why shouldn’t Mother nature have known what she was doing when she made people this way? I don’t agree with this prejudice against gay people, either inside the craft of the wise or outside it.

In 1978 a very interesting book appeared in the USA, called "Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture", by Arthur Evans. It is subtitled "a radical view of western civilisation and some of the people it has tried to destroy". I only wish Old Gerald could have read it, because it may have opened his eyes, (as it did mine when I acquired a copy of it recently). To a whole area of witchcraft hitherto regarded as a taboo subject. As they say in the X Files, "the truth is out there"

Another teaching of Gerald's which I have come to question is the belief known popularly as "the Law of Three". This tells us that whatever you send out in witchcraft you get back threefold, for good or ill.
Well, I don't believe it! Why should we believe that there is a special Law of Karma that applies only to witches? For Goddess' sake do we really kid ourselves that we are that important?
Yet I am told, many people, especially in the USA, take this as an article of faith. I have never seen it in any of the old books of magic, and I think Gerald invented it.

I am not trying to do an axe job on Old Gerald. We have had enough people doing that, usually those who would never had heard of witchcraft if it hadn’t been for him. But eventually I also came to question how he could most solemnly swear his initiates to secrecy- and then go and give an interview to some newspaper which he knew specialized in the crudest forms of publicity.

Gerald did seek publicity to the exasperation of Old Dorothy, his initiator among the New Forest witches, Dafo his High Priestess and eventually myself. But he had a purpose in doing so. He honestly believed that the old religion was going to die out in this country unless it attracted new blood. Whether he was right in this belief I simply do not know, though personally I believe the Old religion has its own guardians upon the Inner Planes. However Gerald had the enthusiasm of a convert and alarmed the older folk considerably.

I remember when at last I ceased working with Gerald, and took up with Robert Cochrane, who claimed to be a hereditary witch, Robert told me that the traditional witches he knew were outraged by Gerald’s activities.

In fact, so I am told , some of them deplored the repeal of the old Witchcraft act, because they said it would open the door to every kind of charlatanry. They wanted the public to go along with the view that witchcraft was dead. That way, they reasoned, they would be able to practice the Old Ways in peace.
People must decide for themselves whether or not these old practitioners were right. There have been times, I admit, when I have come close to thinking they were. However as I see it, nothing stands still. We cannot live in the past. We have to look to the future. 

And yet, some people seem to be rather shocked to find that witches and pagans nowadays have websites on the Internet, especially in the USA. Well the Internet seems to me to be a rather magical-sounding thing- the World Wide Web. Do they know that one of the goddess was a spider sitting in her great silver web? Do they know that certain voodoo cults in America refer to her as ‘the Spider Queen of Space"?

I wonder how the late Robert Cochrane would have reacted to these modern developments. He was the Magister, or male leader of a coven I contacted after I had ceased working with Gerald Gardner. He claimed to be a hereditary witch, and detested those whom he called "the Gardnerians". In fact, I believe he invented this word Gardnerian- originally as a term of abuse. 

His form of working was very different from that of Gerald Gardner. Firstly he rejected the idea that it was necessary to work in the nude. Hence his kind of coven has come to be known as a "robed coven". Its members wear robes, usually black: firstly, because they prefer to work outdoors, being closer to nature, and secondly, because they argue that if the witch power cannot penetrate through a layer of clothing it must be very feeble power indeed. The black robe represents night and secrecy and is of very practical use as camouflage at night when its wearers want to be able to melt into the shadows and not be seen.

Cochrane’s way of working used much less words than that of Gerald Gardner. Much of it was meditational and performed in silence. I think myself that this was probably more in keeping with the ways of our ancestors, because the majority of people in the old days could scarcely read or write, and the rituals would have been learned by heart and passed on by word of mouth. However Cochrane observed the same ritual occasions as those of Gerald’s followers, namely the Full Moon and the four great sabbats of candlemas, may Eve, Lammas and Halloween. He also observed the Equinoxes and Solstices, but gave them less prominence. Wordless ritual chanting was a favourite means of raising power as was circle dancing, often around a Bonfire or a symbol of the God and goddess, such as the forked wand (known as the stang) and the cauldron.

I have no doubt that there was much potency in this way of working, and personally I believe it to be closer to traditional witchcraft than Gerald’s way. I think the reason why Cochrane’s coven eventually broke up (as I described in my book The rebirth of Witchcraft) was more to do with his personality defects and personal troubles than it was with anything wrong with his magical system. I am glad therefore to be able to say that his workings are still being carried on, both here and in the USA- though in great secrecy.

We talk about means of raising power, but what actually is the witch power that is raised? It appears to be some kind of borderline energy, such as various practitioners have talked about in many different times and places. For insurance the kahunas Hawaii call it Mana. The Hindus call it Prana. When in the 18th century the followers of Mesmer began to rediscover this energy, they talked (rather confusingly) of "animal magnetism". In our own day Wilhelm Reich gave us the concept of "orgone" energy, which seems to be very similar to what Baron Von Reichenbach in the early 19th century called "od" or "odyle", and which he claimed to see streaming from the points of quartz crystals, a concept reminiscent or the "crystal power" we hear so much about from the new age practitioners today. It seems evident that all the words are describing a similar energy, and perhaps today when people’s minds are more open, we may beginning to study this realm of subtle energies more closely, and perhaps rediscover what really happens when witches gather together to "raise the Cone of Power"- allegedly what the witches pointed hat represents.

But what should we set out to do with this power once we have raised it? What in fact is the fundamental purpose of the craft of the wise? We are told that witchcraft is a fertility cult. In olden times, that is probably just what it was. It was concerned with the fertility of the earth through the four seasons of the year, and the welfare of the land and its people. It was concerned with the fundamental aspects of life: birth, death and rebirth. Hence it was basically the invocation of the Life Force itself; the "Ancient Providence" as country people in Britain used to call it.

However he idea of fertility is something that goes much deeper than the hope for good crops and increase of livestock, and I am sure it always did. There is a spiritual as well as a material spirituality. There is a need for people to be alive and vital and creative. Life is here to be enjoyed, not just endured. There is a wonderful passage in Aleister Crowley’s famous "channeled" writing, the book of the law.
"Remember all ye that existence is pure joy; that all the sorrows are but as shadows; they pass and are done; but there is that which remains.

Aleister Crowley may not have been a very nice person but he was a great poet.

The initiates of the ancient pagan Mysteries were taught to say ‘I am the child of earth and Starry Heaven and there is no part of me that is not of the Gods". If we in our own day believe this, then we will not only see it as true of ourselves, but of other people also. We will for instance cease to have silly bickering between covens, because they happen to do things differently from the way we do them. This incidentally is the reason why I eventually parted from Robert Cochrane, because he wanted to declare a sort of Holy War against the followers of Gerald Gardner, in the name of traditional witchcraft. This made no sense to me, because it seemed to me, and still does, that as witches, pagans or whatever we choose to call ourselves the things which unite us are more important than the things which divide us.

I was saying this back in the 1960s, in the days of the old Witchcraft Research Association and I repeat it today. However since those days we have, I believe, made great progress. We have literally spread world wide. We are a creative and fertile movement. We have inspired art, literature, television, music and historical research. We have lived down the calumny and abuse. We have survived treachery. So it seems to me that the Powers That Be must have a purpose for us, in the Aquarian Age that is coming into being.

"So Mote It Be"


published in Pagan Dawn, Lughnasadh edition 1998

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