Other Traditions

The reality of Gardner's claim to have discovered an existing religion is only one of two large problems which confront a historian concerned with the origins of Wicca. The other,'closely tfelat'ed, lsKvhe&fer any other groups of pagan witches existed at the time when he was forming his own. It was crucial to his portrayal of this process that he was believed to be reviving an old and secret faith that had almost died out; built into that portrayal, therefore, was the suggestion that other adherents of that faith might have survived m the manner of the 'New Forest coven', and could surface to claim their rightful place in history now that Gardner had initiated the process of emergence. In order to do so credibly, however, such groups would either have to approximate to the Gardnenan model of what traditional pagan witches ought to be like, or else to challenge that model direcdy as fraudulent or inadequate. For anybody who wanted to follow the former course, an adequate bluepnnt was available at any time from 1954 in Witchcraft Today, reinforced by High Magic's Aid. The whole Gardnenan Book of Shadows was published m 1964, m a pirated edition issued by Charles Cardell,

At the beginning of the 1960s a New Forest witch, Sybil Leek, became well known as a media personality, and ran a group of her own according to what she asserted to be ways learned m an international network of old covens into which she had been initiated long before; Doreen Valiente thought that her rites sounded similar to those of Gardner (Alderman,

1973: 169-72;. Vali<?nte, 1989: 145-7). From 1958 to 1964 the aforementioned Charles Cardeli mbunted a campaign to descredit Gardner and to substitute himself as the true fount of knowledge concerning traditional pagan witchcraft. There is no doubt now that he was a charlatan {Kelly, 1991: 137-43; 'Robert', pers. comm., 'Bran', pers, comm.). Since that time the number of pagan covens using the labels of 'hereditary', 'traditional' or simply 'old' has grown fairly steadily.

There seem to have been a number of different processes at work to produce this phenomenon. In several cases known to the present writer, it has been the result of the desire of groups, or founders of groups, to practise pagan witchcraft in ways different from those of mainstream Wicca and without any sense of accountability to the national Wiccan network. In three more, also in personal experience, people genuinely trained in the old-fashioned popular witchcraft described earlier, founded covens in the 1960s which followed the Wiccan model but in which they practised a lot of the older operative magic. As said above, most modern pagan witches employ techmques gained, direcdy or through reading, from this tradition.

When these phenomena are taken into account, however, there remain a number of claims for the continuous existence of certain covens from before 1950. In some cases these are made at second hand, people repeating what they were told since the 1950s by eiders of the group concerned; into this category would fall the accounts of a nationwide network of traditional covens ¡made by Bill Liddell (Liddell and Howard, 1994), of one which met near Chanctonbury, Sussex (127-36; Valiente, 1989: 139; Jones and Matthews, 1990) and of one in Lincolnshire, described to me by a man trained m it. There are also, however, memoirs by two people who were themselves allegedly initiated into long-established covens in the 1940s; Rhiannon Ryall, who set her experiences in the Devon-Somerset borderland (Ryall, 1989), and a recent contributor to the Pagan magazine, The Cauldron, who told of his inception into a group m north-western England. The only positive proof of these assertions would be either completely independent testimony or evidence (dianes, letters, photographs); from the period m question or earlier. Neither would, m the nature of things, be easy to produce, and the absence of it does not automatically invalidate the claims concerned; although Liddell's testimony can be faulted in specific points of fact and Ryall describes a religion so widespread and rooted in local society that it seems bizarre that nobody else would have recorded or testified to it. There is nothing mherendy improbable m the idea that pagan witch groups could have evolved mdependendy from Gardnenan Wicca, drawing upon the same common cultural pool of images and impulses. In the present state of the evidence, this is probably all that can be said.

This being so, ic is ironic and may be significant that the most important developments m pagan witchcraft during the 1960s were produced by two individuals who are now generally considered to have masked considerable creative talent behind an insistence that they were following inherited teachings; the whole image of sthe Old Religion' at that time would hardly have allowed them to be taken seriously had they stated anything else. The first was Robert Cochrane, who flourished between 1963 and 1966, and inspired a small network of groups which worked between the Cotswolds and Sussex. He laid great emphasis upon witchcraft as a mystery religion, with an elaborate symbolism which he expounded with considerable skill, and an ingrained sense of the age, majesty and fearsome power of its pagan deities. He rejected the Gardnenan use of nudity and the scourge, laid a much greater emphasis upon a close relationship with the natural world, had a different system of correspondences between the cardinal points and "the elements, and worked a quite distinctive set of ntuals. His groups were termed 'clans' and were centred upon a male 'magister' rather than upon the high priestess.

In 1964 he gained the support of Doreen Valiente, who had spent the years since her breach with Gardner working with pagan witches in Sussex. She had also become a writer upon witchcraft herself, although posing (as Gardner at first had done) as a scholar observing others (Valiente, 1962). Delighted to find a tradition which was apaprendy both old and independent of Gardner, she lent Cochrane her considerable skills as a pnestess and a poet. Near the end of the year he and his friends established the first national body for pagan witches, the Witchcraft Research Association, with the first national periodical for them, Pentagram. At the same time, he drew the interest of a journalist, Justine Glass, who duly produced a book in 1965, Witchcraft, giving a sympathetic account of his tradition as if it were the normative one.

This was the fundamental weakness of his strategy; that he and some of his friends aimed not merely to become the guiding forces in British witchcraft, but to guide it firmly into their own ways. The opemng of a full-scale attack by them upon the Gardnenans led to the collapse of both the organization and the magazine during 1965, and the alienation of Valiente. The latter had also caught out Cochrane m a deceit and an inconsistency concerning the alleged antiquity of his tradition, and begun to suspect that he had devised the latter himself. His personal life collapsed at the same time as his ambitions, and he committed suicide m 1966, leaving some devoted followers behind to continue his practices and teachings (Valiente, 1989: 117—36). He was still young when he died; had .he survived this period of crisis to practise as a witch until the present, then it is likely that 'Cochraman Wicca; would have taken its place alongside Gardnenan as one of the great formal divisions of modern pagan witchcraft. Instead, his successors have continued to use the labels 'Traditional' or 'Old' Craft, which create some confusion and invite discussion.

His tragic demise cleared the way for the nse to pre-eminence of a different personality, and variety of Wicca. Until this point the centre of gravity of the religion had remained' firmly in the south of England, its chief representative in the north being the Gardnenan high priestess Patricia Crowther, who had founded covens in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire, and come out in public as a witch, giving numerous lectures and media interviews, and producing a book with her husband Arnold (Crowther and Crowther, 1965). In November 1961 she received a letter from a man in his mid-thirtaes and living m Manchester, signing himself Alex Sanders. He told her that he had been gifted since childhood with clairvoyance, that his grandmother had informed him that they were descended from a witch, and that he had always wanted to be one himself. He went on to say that he had never been able to contact anybody who could help him, until he saw her and Arnold on television. Pat Crowther subsequendy took a look at him and rejected him for initiation, a slight which he never forgave (Johns, 1969: 58-60; Valiente, 1989: 165-6). Instead he got himself accepted into her daughter coven in Nottinghamshire, the high priestess of which was Pat Kopmski. He may also have visited Gardner; by either or both means he obtained a copy of the Gardnenan Book of Shadows (Valiente, 1989: 166; Kelly, 1991: xiii). In September 1962 he launched himself into the world of media relations in which the Crowthers had established themselves so effectively, staging a ntual for the Manfhester Evening Chronicle. As a result he was dismissed from hisjob, and Kopinski tired of her role as high pnestess and abandoned him at some point soon after that 0ohns, 1969: 61—7; Valiente, 1989: 166-8).

This sequence of events would have deterred many another person from a career in witchcraft. Instead, Sanders set to work to build up covens of his own in and around Manchester, and by 1965 he seems to have founded three. He had also acquired as a high pnestess a stupendously beautiful and strong-minded woman called Maxme Moras, who was aged 18 in that year. The two of them were handfasted to each other then, m what was probably the first Wiccan wedding service to be featured in the press. Sanders had, indeed, begun to play the media field again, and now with conspicuous success. In March 1966, infunated by reports that he had been engaged as adviser on a film about contemporary witchcraft, two Gardnenan grandees, Patncia Crowther and Ray Bone, made the fatal mistake of informing a newspaper that he was a charlatan who knew nothing of genuine Wicca. They provided him with the perfect opportunity for revenge, for he blithely replied, to a media community which had come to regard him as good copy, that they represented a phoney

...vSSl modern cult, whereas he worked the true and ancient witchcraft, taught to him by his grandmother (Valiente, 1989 ; 168-71). From that moment onward he stuck to the tale that this grandmother had initiated him at the age of seven, and that the Gardnenan Book of Shadows which he used for his ntes had in fact been copied from hers. When these additions are pared away from his biography, what emerges instead is a story of a Manchester upbringing marked by poverty, and a career in Spiritualism m which he demonstrated gifts as a psychic healer (Johns, 1969: 10-60).

In 1967 Alex and Maxme moved to the capital, with the tides of King and Queen of the Witches, and held court together there for six years. They became the principal beneficiaries of the decade's powerful reinforcement of those same impulses in modern culture which had created Wicca in the first place; nostalgia for the natural and rural world, feminism, sexual liberation, dissatisfaction with established religious institutions and social norms, and a desire for a greater individual self-expression and self-fulfilment. To the radical counter-culture of London around 1970, there were two basement fiats which really mattered: the one from which Oz magazine was edited and the one from which the Sanders operated. They worked mdefatigably, lecturing, training and initiating, and also providing spiritual healing and counselling; their home became an unofficial out-patient clinic for drug addicts. They also maintained their status as the favourite witches of the mass media. By the early 1970s their initiates outnumbered those of any other pagan witch tradition in Britain.

Alex Sanders's one deficiency was as an author, and here he compensated with Robert Cochrane's trick of finding a tame journalist; in his case June Johns, who produced an admiring biography of him in 1969. He then found another, Stewart Farrar, to write an account of the actual workings of his Wicca which was published in 1971 as What Witches Do. Farrar provided a double reward, because he was initiated himself and he and his wife Janet became two of the Sanders's most distinguished pupils. In 1976 Maxme brought out an autobiography, and the following year another sympathetic study of her was produced by a journalist, Richard Deutch. Gardner's ghosted autobiography had been low-key and objective; the Sanders, by contrast, told their life stories as medieval hagiogta-phies, full of miracles and portraying the protagonists as warriors in a constant batde of good magic against bad. This was further gall for the Gardnenans and other witches, but it was also a reply to continuing attacks in the popular press which sought to equate all witchcraft with evil.

There was more to 'Alexandrian' Wicca, however, than outrageous flamboyance. In part the name was, of course, self-referential ('Sandersian

Wicca' did not have the same ring), but it was formally represented as an allusion to the great city of the ancient world in which the religious and magical traditions of so many cultures had met. Alex brought into Wicca much of the traditional learned magic of Cabbala, the Tarot and the Golden Dawn, which other branches of it had deliberately kept out. The importation of much from Judaeo-Chnstian sources was made easier by the manner m which the Sanders blurred the boundaries of their paganism. Alex asserted that Christians were welcome in his covens if they recognized that his god was also theirs (Johns, 1969: 121), while Maxine claimed that her astral body had visited the Christian heaven and found it 'useful and beautiful' (Sanders, 1976: 144—5).

Their joint reign lasted until 1973, when they separated and Alex moved from London to Sussex. Maxme continued to preach and practise Wicca at the same rate from the same address until the end of the decade, when she too began to withdraw. In 1982 she joined the Liberal Catholic Church, an eclectic esoteric organization sprung from Theosophy, Alex's geographical retreat had been accompanied by a retirement from public availability and public attention, but he was neither idle nor any less a Wiccan. Instead, he was quiedy developing forms of pagan witchcraft which were more accessible to gay and bisexual men, breaking down the overt hostility to homosexuals which Gardner had embedded in it together with the stress on gender polarity. He was also training initiates from Continental Europe, so that Alexandrian Wicca had become planted in several of its countries by the time that he died, in 1988.

It was not to b,e in Europe that the most significant expansion of pagan witchcraft was to take place, however, but m the USA; and this was in turn to rebound upon British paganism and alter its character. In this sense, the history of Wicca and its relations in the 1970s and 1980s was to be one aspect of the Special Relationship between Britain and America.

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