The puzzle of the Mother of Modern Witchcraft — a village witch who lived in a tower block

It’s almost a fortnight now since Doreen Valiente – author, poet, and hailed as the Mother of Modern Witchcraft – was honoured by the public unveiling of a ‘blue plaque’ at her place of residence, campaigned for and paid for by the efforts of The Centre for Pagan Studies.

Blue plaques are permanent – and rather lovely – signs mounted on buildings to commemorate famous, important or influential people who lived or worked there.

The design of the blue plaque for Doreen Valiente

You might think, being one of founders of Wicca, and arguably its most prolific liturgist, that this might have been a quaint country cottage near the New Forest, with rambling roses over the door and lavender alongside the pathway. Not a bit of it. Doreen Valiente lived in a council flat, in a tower block, in a city.

Doreen Valiente’s actual place of residence: Tyson Place in Brighton

And apparently she loved it there.

So what are we to make of this apparent paradox – the co-creatrix of one of the most influential nature religions in the world, living happily in what most of us would consider to be a deeply unnatural environment?

There is, of course, the argument that Wicca is not, in fact, a nature religion at all – at least not a religion which is directly to do with the actual non-human environment. Wicca can be at least as much about human nature, psychic development and magical power as it is about our relationship with non-human nature.

There is also the possibility that Doreen Valiente valued her interactions with nature all the more, and found even greater spiritual depth in them, precisely because she lived in an urban environment. I am sure many of us who have lived or do live in cities, yet consider our Paganism to be very much a nature religion can relate to that experience.

Then also there is the historical and social context to consider. As a woman born in 1922, Doreen Valiente would have been in her early to mid-twenties during the Second World War, and experienced the devastation both of war and of the economic depression which preceded it. Hers was the generation who voted in the Labour government of the post-war years, which instituted decent unemployment benefits, the National Health Service, and, yes, council housing.

To gain a council house or a council flat when these blocks were first built was an experience of undreamed of luxury for many: indoor toilets, hot running water, views for miles on the upper floors. For all they may look ugly and depressing to us, for the generation which first moved into them, they must have been like living in a dream of the future.

Then also, it may just be that she got on with her neighbours. She was apparently well-liked by her neighbours, and lived in a quite and unassuming way, despite her fame and respect within the worlds of Witchcraft and Paganism.

All of this is, of course, speculation. We may never know why Doreen chose to live at Tyson Place for so long, nor why she seemed to like living there so much.

But even though Wicca is not my path, I am deeply proud that One of Our Own has been honoured in this way, publicly, and with the assistance and involvement of both national government, in the shape of English Heritage, and of local government within Brighton and Hove. It seems to mark a major shift in how Pagan religions and spiritual traditions are viewed by officialdom here in the UK, and in the respect given to our Mighty Dead.

You can view the entire blue plaque unveiling ceremony here:

YouTube Preview Image

and a short section of the Summer Solstice ritual to honour Doreen Valiente on the website of the Brighton and Hove Argus.

Pictures of the day’s celebrations can be found at Philip Carr-Gomm’s blog and around the web.

The Centre for Pagan Studies also has plans for blue plaques to honour Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders.

About Elinor Prędota

Elinor Predota was born in London in 1970, and was raised in England’s second city. Her hippy parents took her on endless, wonderful visits to birdwatching hides, Iron Age hill forts, Medieval Castles and ancient stone circles across Britain, which kindled her longing for green hills. She finally moved to the country in the year 2000, where the land has taught her more magic than any book or human being ever could. She is a priestess, a poet, a scholar, an accidental comedian, and lives in southern Scotland with her partner, a very big dog, and a vast range of more-than-human neighbours. She can also be found online at elinopredota.com.

  • Nick Rowley

    Delightful. :)

    • epredota

      Thank you, Nick :-)

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    Great post. I love to see writers dealing with influential Pagan leaders in their historical context — and I think Valiente’s context is one that Americans especially aren’t really aware of.

    • epredota

      Thanks, Christine. Yes, it felt really important to give the context of the time. There aren’t many Brits of younger generations who understand that, let alone people from other countries.

  • Paul Pearson

    Why did Doreen live for so long in an apartment in Brighton? It’s actually a fairly easy question to answer if you have lived in Brighton – until a few weeks ago I myself lived there for over 2 decades. The reason is that Brighton is a city that is renowned for its liberal acceptance of outsiders; those who are deemed different. It has a vibrant Pagan populace, and is surrounded by the beautiful countryside of the South Downs. Brighton is somewhat addictive – the fact that someone like myself – a restless person who likes to move often – lived in the place longer than I lived anywhere else in my life is a testimony of how easy it is to settle in such a place. Sussex is a hotbed of Pagan activity, Crowley and Alex Saunders ended their days there. Doreen had stunning views from her home, overlooking the sea in one direction and towards the rolling downs in the other. The fact that it was a flat in a tower block was just a means to an end.

    The fact is, people are drawn to the place, and once there, find it difficult to move away. It’s just too Pagan friendly!

    Paul Pearson (Editor: Greenmantle)

    • epredota

      Paul – indeed! I *almost* moved to Brighton once, but Scotland had already got beneath my skin, and ruined me for the ‘softer’ energies of southern England. (Although the breeze off the sea on that bit of Sussex coast is bracing to say the least!)

      • Paul Pearson

        Yes, Brighton is like that – once it has a grip on you it’s hard to break free! I moved to Brighton over 20 years ago and was immediately drawn into the soft underbelly of the Pagan community, which in turn led to the creation of Greenmnatle. As such, we were thrilled to be involved with the Blue Plaque planning along with the CFPS and the Doreen Valiente Foundation – the fact that they purposefully chose the same date as our 20th Anniversary celebration shows how close-knit and cooperative the Brighton pagans can be. Granted, John and Julie now live in Spain, but their spiritual heart, I believe, is in Sussex and Brighton.

  • Henry Buchy

    I suppose the paradox depends on whether one thinks of the ‘built world’ as unnatural.

    • Traci

      It and we are all made from the same stardust.

    • epredota

      I both do and don’t. It’s not as simple as an either or.

      In day to day parlance, most of us – even/especially Pagans – think of ‘nature’ as ‘the non-human world’; that is the relationship that many Pagans are attempting to nurture as part of their practice, even if they never set foot out of a city.

      Both in my academic work and in my Pagan practice and conversation I attempt to disrupt this dominant notion of ‘nature’, but it appears to me in Auntie Doreen’s tradition, Wicca, that dominant notion is not only not questioned, but also reified and deified. Hence the paradox.

      • Henry Buchy

        For me, as witch, it is very simple. There isn’t anything that isn’t part of nature, ‘built’ or ‘human’. I suppose Auntie Doreen, as a witch would not have thought any different than that, regardless of whether her tradition held that dominant notion. So to me it’s only a seeming paradox based on the notion that the ‘human world’ is distinct from nature. of course for me, as a witch, there are no paradoxes.


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