Before the Gardnerians: Four More Precursors

The Hollywood Coven

 The Hollywood Coven was founded in 1967 by E. Tanssan of Hollywood, Florida. However, according to a letter by Kitty Lessing in an issue of Green Egg in 1972, Tanssan had been a member of the “Gundella” coven in Birmingham, MI, that was headed by a T. Milligan and had been established early in this century. Tanssan had succeeded Milligan as leader of the coven in the mid-1960s, shortly before the coven was disbanded because of police harassment, at which time Tanssan and some other members moved to Florida and founded the new coven. The sociologist Marcello Truzzi told me that he had been able to find people in Michigan who knew about this coven and who could tell him something about its practices—which were clearly not Gardnerian; he also saw ordinary documents from that period that confirmed the coven’s existence.

Kitty wrote that the coven worked robed, celebrated only the four “major Sabbats,” and met weekly or biweekly for esbats. It used the terms “Coven Lady” and “Grand Master” rather than “Priestess” or “Priest,” and apparently had only one significant degree of initiation, achievable only after a year of study. All these practices match those of Victor Anderson’s Feri tradition. In 1972 it had established a second, student coven.

Kitty Lessing (born ca. 1943) was the editor of the coven’s newsletter, Enchanted Cauldron, which later was renamed The Black Lite and had exchange subscriptions with a dozen or so other Craft magazines and newsletters at that time. She was a lively spokesperson for the coven and engaged in a controversy in the letters columns of Green Egg with Lady Gwen Thompson of the New England Coven of Traditional Witches over the details of what constituted Celtic Traditional Witchcraft. She moved to Milamor, California, in the mid-1970s, and soon thereafter both she and the Hollywood Coven disappeared from sight. Some current Florida covens may have a lineage back to someone who had been a member of the Hollywood Coven in the 1970s.

  Russian-Jewish Witches in L.A.

 David Farren in his The Return of Magic described the immigrant Russian-Jewish coven in Los Angeles that the mother and grandmother of Tanya, his wife, belonged to. Their focus was strictly on working magic; they had no rule against working black magic; and insofar as they were concerned with any concept of a deity, which was very little, it was with a god, not a goddess. Farren says (pp. 27-28), “Tanya’s grandmother claims to represent the twelfth generation in the family line to be born a witch,” although she is also Jewish and from Ukraine; “she trained first her daughter and then her granddaughter in a lore which is part Russian and part Anglo-American.” Both Natasha, Tanya’s grandmother, and her mother “belonged to local covens which . . . reflected the Cabalistic ceremonial magic that was popular in Victorian England [but so does Gardnerian practice] . . . Natasha’s coven was composed mostly of other European emigrants anxious to keep alive some of the old ways of magic, but . . . any serious apprenticeship in magic was still kept within the family.” Farren himself, when I knew him in the 1990s, had had a coven of his own in the San Fernando valley and was working with the Coven of the Doves, the central coven of the United Wiccan Church, in the 1734 Tradition.

  The Discordian Society

 The Discordian Society, also known as the Parathea-anametamystikhood of Eris Esoteric (POEE), was founded in a bowling alley in Hawthorne, California, in 1957 by Gregory Hill (1941-2000) and Kerry Thornley (1938-1998). Hill became the primary author of Principia Discordia: The Magnum Opiate of Malaclypse the Younger, or, How I Found Goddess and What I Did to Her When I Found Her, which grew in size with each of its first four editions, reaching its final form in 1964. It has been kept in print as an underground classic ever since. Many have supposed the POEE to be the brainchild of Robert Anton Wilson (1932-2007), one of its most prominent members, who wove the Discordian Society into many of his novels. However, the POEE does have a real history quite independent of Wilson.

What Hill and Thornley founded was a religion devoted to the worship of Eris, the Goddess of Confusion. It was she who tossed the golden apple inscribed “To the Fairest One” into the wedding feast of Peleus and Thetis. The ensuing dispute among the goddesses over who was entitled to it led to the Judgment of Paris and thence to the Trojan War, the “First Great War” among men. Eris and Eros were also the names for the principles of repulsion and attractions between elements as proposed by Empedocles.

The Discordian Society is unusual in being a religion which proposes that humor in itself has spiritual value. It is inherently a religion that attracts people who are not very interested in formal organization, which it has therefore tended to lack. However, manifestations of it have turned up steadily in the popular literature and music coming out of California since the 1970s. “Hail Eris! All hail Discordia!” can be heard in the background on many rock albums. Many Pagans and Thelemic magicians in America consider themselves to be members of the POEE.


 In 1957 Frederick MacLaren Adams (1928-2008), a graduate student in art at Los Angeles State College, founded the Fellowship of Hesperides as a utopian response to a planet in crisis. Heavily influenced by his study of Robert Graves, Adams intended it to be a Goddess-oriented religion devoted to the worship of nature. For it Adams created a new literary form: the first cycle of ritual scripts for the eight Sabbats of the year; these are widely thought to be among the most beautiful rituals ever created for the Pagan movement. These were to be celebrated in outdoor “henges” oriented to the four cardinal directions and the Pole Star. The first such henge was created in the Sierra Madre Mountains near Pasadena in 1959. The organization later came to be called Feraferia (Latinate for “festival of wildness”), and was incorporated in 1967.

The organization grew slowly during the 1960s. Adams retained tight control over it and created all of its rituals and writings himself. By the 1970s Feraferia’s journal, Korythalia, was reaching many of the other Pagans in California, and Adams was regarded as an Elder Statesman of the Pagan movement, as well as one of its most important creative artists. He was a central figure in the Pagan Ecumenicism of the early 1970s, when Feraferia had perhaps fifty formal members, but Feraferia then began to shrink. Fred’s tight control over the organization allowed little opportunity for others to exercise any creativity, and the group seemed to have no way to keep up with the rapid pace of change in the Pagan movement in general. Fred and his consort, Lady Svetlana Butyrin, continued to hold their “Wildness Festivals” at various locations in California, including Pasadena, Pacific Grove, and Nevada City, well into the 1990s.


War Against Women: Empower the Victims
“I Fell in Love with a Witch”: The Vision of Gerald Gardner
How I Pray
Prologue to a Story of Jesus and Mary
  • Dave Burwasser

    You’ve mentioned the 1734 Tradition in HCBW and now here. What is it?

    • Tara

      It is the tradition of Robert Cochrane.

      • HRM

        1734 is the tradition of Joe Wilson, and is derived, in part, from the teaching of Robert Cochrane. They are not the same thing.

  • Robert Mathiesen

    For the Gundella Tradition in Michigan, see also the site
    which is devoted to Marion E. Kuclo (May 25, 1930 – July 10, 1993) and her legacy (including her two very interesting books).

    She was friendly with the late Marcelo Truzzi, and may have been his principal source for early 20th-century Witch activity in upstate Michigan. She died in July, 1993.
    Her activity was carried on by her daughter Veronica Kuclo-Raub, who died in 1999. (I met Veronica once, not long before she was murdered, but we didn’t have occasion to talk about her mother’s deep background.) There seems to have been at least one other daughter, Madilynne, who also called herself a Witch, but I don’t have any hard information on her.

  • Pingback: Before the Gardnerians: Four More Precursors – Patheos (blog) ::

  • Jonathan Nightshade

    I was young, but I remember having seen “Gundella, the Green Witch” on television in Chicago. It may have been on Bob Kennedy’s local TV talk show in Chicago. Bob Kennedy was a friend of Sybil Leek, I remembered that she also appeared on his show when she visited Chicago (a photo of him with Sybil at a seance is in her book “The Complete Art of Witchcraft.”) He died in 1974, so was probably in the very early 1970′s. Gundella released a vinyl album, “The Hour of the Witch,” parts of which can be heard on youtube and the website that was referenced by Professor Mathiesen.

    It seems that Mr. Farren may have had second thoughts about the reliability of the information that was provided to him by his then wife. David Farren later wrote another interesting book, “Finding Magic” (2001, iUniverse #0-595-16501-X), in which he states, “…. I met the woman I’ve written about as Tanya, who for my benefit fashioned an elaborate story of familial practices dating generations back. Tanya, herself, I was to find, had pilfered elements from Sybil Leek’s ‘Autobiography of a Witch’, at that time something of a bestseller” (page 17).

    • aidanakelly

      Ah. Well, that sort of thing has happened a lot in the Craft. I hadn’t touched base with Doug recently.

    • Deborah Bender

      My maternal grandmother emigrated from the Ukraine with other family members a few years before WWI. Tanya’s grandmother’s story strikes me as completely implausible. If a Jew from the Ukraine were going to practice or take up magic either in the Old Country or the New, it wouldn’t be based on those elements or sources.

      The idea that a Jewish immigrant of that period would band together with non-Jewish immigrants to practice “the old ways of magic” that they [presumably] had in common is laughable. And if the group of immigrants were all Jews from the Pale of Settlement, why in the world would they take up Russian magic and Anglo-American ceremonial magic instead of using Jewish folk magic and Jewish esotericism or something neutral like astrology as their base? It’s not just that Russian magic and Anglo-American versions of Cabala were alien to Ukrainian Jews of any class; those systems were practiced by Christians, and Christians were enemies and oppressors.

      This is the kind of origin story that sounds convincing to people unfamiliar with the culture of origin.

      • Deborah Bender

        I should add that my grandmother’s mother tongue was Yiddish. The Pale of Settlement was a sort of unwalled semi-rural ghetto, and many of its inhabitants had very little interaction with Russian and Ukrainian speakers.

  • Jonathan N

    Another line of Traditional Witchcraft (not derived from the Gardnerian form of the Craft) is that of the “Skull and Bones” family tradition of Douglas McIlwain (no relation to the secret fraternity at Yale). This was passed on to Douglas McIlwain and his first cousin Mark when they were teenage boys in 1967. Mr McIlwain provided some details of the family tradition’s beliefs in a series of articles which were published in “The Cauldron” magazine in the UK by Mike Howard in the late 1990′s. There is information on this group in “Children of Cain, a Study of Modern Traditional Witches” by Michael Howard (Three Hands Press, 2011, pp 182-185).