Last year I put together a few articles spotlighting the 25 Most Influential People in the Development of Modern Paganism. It was fun and was read by a lot of folks and even resulted in a few other similar lists, most notably a 25 person Canadian list (in my defense Sable I didn’t even list 25 Americans!) and 13 influential figures in Goddess Spirituality. The original articles inspired a lot of comments too, mostly along the lines of “I can’t believe Person Y didn’t make your list!” Usually those criticisms were spot-on, I picked twenty-five folks but a credible case could be made for lots of people I left off my initial list.
In order to fill in some of the gaps from that earlier project, and because I really like history, I’m running a feature over the next few weeks called “Ten Important ______.” This time around it’s Traditional Witches, last time it was Druids. Future installments will look at folks involved in Heathenry and Goddess Spirituality, and possibly more! Other than the time involved in writhing these things (longer than an average blog post) and the extra work of tracking down pictures and inserting links (takes forever!) these lists are fun.
What is a Traditional Witch? Opinions vary. For the purposes of this article a Traditional Witch is either a lineaged practitioner from an established tradition (like an Alexandrian) or a follower of a family or village tradition. No matter what definition of “Traditional Witch” one uses, direct face to face teaching is generally a part of it. For some Traditionalists the Craft is both a spiritual and magical path, for others it might just be a magical system. A lot of very familiar names are not present in this article, and that’s because I wrote about individuals like Doreen Valiente, Alex Sanders, and many others last year.
This list is presented in alphabetical order, placement is not indicative of any sort of ranking. Please remember this is all in fun and designed to simply draw attention to some important figures from our shared past and present. This list is not called “The Only 10 Important Traditional Witches,” nor am I implying such a thing. These are just some figures I find interesting and/or influential. There are dozens more who are worthy of being on a list such as this and if you are of the opinion that I’ve missed someone share that person’s story in the comments section below or write your own list! I’m also not writing complete biographies here. So go easy on me all right? And as always, any list such as this is going to be reflective of the author’s biases . . . . . . .
Eleanor “Ray” Bone (1910-2001) In Triumph of the Moon Ronald Hutton writes that the generally positive depictions of Witches in the English Press after Gardner’s passing were due to: “the efforts of three high priestesses who represented the public face of the Gardnerian tradition in the 1960s: Patricia Crowther, Ray Bone, and Monique Wilson.” Eleanor “Ray” Bone never published a book or founded a tradition but she was such an important part of the Witchcraft Revival that in many circles she was known as “The Matriarch of British Witchcraft.” Bone was initiated into the Cumbrian Tradition in 1941 by a couple of hereditary Witches, later in the mid 1950’s she became friends with Gerald Gardner and was initiated into what would come to be called Gardnerian Witchcraft. Bone also became a confidant of Dafo (Edith Woodford Grimes) a member of the original New Forest Coven that initiated Gardner back in 1939. Throughout the 1960’s and early 70’s Bone was a frequent presence in newspapers and magazines; if someone was writing about the Craft there was a good chance Bone was a part of the story. Bone was the teacher of many prominent Witches (most notably Vivienne Crowley) but slowly retreated from the public eye starting in 1972. Living a mostly private life she returned to the Cumbrian practice she was first initiated into, becoming a mostly solitary Witch. Even away from the spotlight Bone remained influential and important to many English Witches.
Laurie Cabot Few names are as synonymous with American Witchcraft as Laurie Cabot. The “Official Witch of Salem Massachusetts” (proclaimed by then Gov. Michael Dukakis back in 1977) has been practicing the Craft since the early 1950’s. At her initiation she picked up a ritual sword and drove it into the earth proclaiming “I return to earth my wisdom and call myself Witch,” and she’s lived up to that promise ever since. Long before goth culture Cabot walked around the streets of Salem proudly and publicly wearing a pentacle necklace and black robes which she said were the clothes of a Traditional Witch. In addition to being one of the first public Witches in the United States Cabot has penned a great many books (most notably The Power of the Witch and Celebrate the Earth) and went on to found The Cabot Tradition of the Science of Witchcraft and The Witches’ League for Public Awareness, an early Pagan civil rights group.
Patricia Crowther In 1998 I picked up a book entitled High Priestess (published as One Witch’s World in Great Britain) and it was a life changing experience. By that time I had read a lot of books about Paganism, but this was a book about Witchcraft written by a real Witch; hinting at ideas and concepts that felt both old and new to me at the same time. Since being initiated by Gerald Gardner himself back in 1960 Patricia Crowther has been one of the leading lights of the Modern Witchcraft revival. In addition to High Priestess she’s written several other memoirs about her experiences as a Witch. 1980’s Lid Off the Cauldron remains essential reading for anyone interested in British Traditional Witchcraft. She’s also written about tarot and astrology.
Donald “Don” Frew On the West Coast the name Don Frew is synonymous with Traditional Witchcraft. An initiate of several traditions Frew is both an historian and one of Witchcraft’s finest ambassadors on the world religious stage. Since 1993 Frew has been one of the Pagan representatives to the Parliament of the World’s Religions and was instrumental in introducing that body to Modern Paganism. He’s also a two time President of Covenant of the Goddess. As a Craft historian Frew believes that certain Witch traditions (like Gardnerian Witchcraft) contain ideas directly linking them back to ideas from pagan antiquity. Sadly Frew has yet to publish all of his research into the origins of The Craft but he has written several thought-provoking articles which articulate some his arguments. The best of those is Methodological Flaws in Recent Studies of Historical and Modern Witchcraft. I don’t always agree with Frew on matters of history but there’s no denying his intelligence and devotion to the Craft. He recently wrote about Wiccan Privilege and Interfaith work here on Patheos.
Philip Heselton Philip Heselton might be the foremost authority on Gerald Gardner and Witchcraft in the area of New Forest England living today. Heselton’s first two books on the subject: Wiccan Roots and Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration make a very convincing argument that Gerald Gardner was indeed initiated into a coven of witches back in 1939. Thanks to Heselton the argument that “Gardner made it all up” no longer works. Through a great deal of primary research in the area of New Forest Engalnd Heselton builds a case for a strong and vibrant magical and occult community almost literally in Gardner’s backyard. In addition to writing about Gardner and his likely initiators Heselton has also written several other books dealing with topics such as ley lines and earth magic.
Michael Howard The Cauldron is one of the longest running Pagan magazines in the world, printing continuously since 1976. If The Cauldron was all Michael Howard had ever worked on he might still be on this list, but for Howard it’s only the beginning of the broomstick. In addition to founding The Cauldron Howard is one of the leading documentarians of magical British folklore and Witchcraft. I don’t always agree with all of his conclusions, but the amount of material he’s collected in books such as Children of Cain, Welsh Witches and Wizards, and West Country Witches is both extraordinary and a true service to Witches past, present, and future. 2010’s Modern Wicca: A History From Gerald Gardner to the Present (published by Llewellyn) is an extraordinary memoir and history documenting the early days of the Modern Craft to the present day. (I was unable to find a picture of Howard so you get this book jacket instead!)
Evan John Jones (1936-2003) Years ago I used to buy anything with the name Doreen Valiente on it. If she had endorsed a set of pentagram ear-rings I probably would have picked them up. While visiting a local Witch Shop I found a book with her name and that of Evan John Jones on the cover, what a find that was! That particular book Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed wasn’t a Valiente book it was a Jones book, and was all about the Craft as practiced by Robert Cochrane and the Clan of Tubal Cain. I’m certainly fond of British Traditional Witchcraft in the tradition of Alex Sanders and Gerald Gardner, but I also love discovering different interpretations of the Craft, which is definitely what A Tradition Renewed provided. When Cochrane passed away in 1966 it was Jones who succeeded him as Magister and kept many of the old Magister’s ideas and teachings alive, all while adding new elements to the mix. He stepped down as Magister of the Clan of Tubal Cain shortly before his passing in 2003 handing leadership off to a new generation. In an interview with The Cauldron published in February of 2003 Jones spoke of change in his strain of Witchcraft and how The Craft should progress: “The one thing that would disappoint me is if I came back in 50 years time and found it was unchaged. Because it would mean that Tubal Cain had become static and hidebound, instead of moving with the times it was in . . . . . . The basic tradition is there and should remain unchanged, but what people do with it should be the important thing.” Wise words.
Dr. Leo Martello (1931-2000) One of the reasons I write these pieces is to draw attention to individuals who might otherwise get lost in the shuffle of history, Leo Martello is one of those figures sometimes overlooked in 2014. Martello was never the most prolific of writers, but he did write several early books about Witchcraft. His most well known Craft book, Weird Ways of Witchcraft was re-released in 2011 with additional material and it’s the first Martello work available as an e-book. In addition to writing Martello founded The Witches Anti-Defamation League and arranged (as far as I know) the first ever “Witch-In” at New York City’s Central Park . Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon is full of quotes from Martello, most of which I find myself readily agreeing with. Martello is on this list because he claimed initiation into a Family Strega tradition, a claim that many find dubious, though if this quote from Drawing Down the Moon is any indication that wouldn’t have bothered Martello: “Let’s assume people lied about their lineage. Let’s further assume that there are no covens on the current scene that have any historical basis. The fact remains that they do exist now. And they can claim a spiritual lineage going back thousands of years. All of our pre-Judeo-Christian or Moslem ancestors were Pagans!” Martello was a fierce defender of gay rights, civil rights, women’s rights, religious rights, and Witches rights.
Lady Gwen Thompson (1928-1986) Ever since reading The Rede of the Wiccae by Robert Mathiesen and Theitic I’ve been unable to get Lady Gwen Thompson and the “long form” of The Wiccan Rede out of my head. Many Wiccans only know the Rede as two phrases “an it harm none, do what ye will” but there’s a second, much longer version of The Rede as well, a version gifted to the Pagan Community by Gwen (Gwynne) Thompson. Thompson’s account has her finding the long Rede among her Grandmother’s (Adrianna Porter) papers tied up with a red ribbon. Those papers were the basis for Thompson’s Witch Tradition which first went public in the late 1960’s and formally became The New England Coven of Traditionalist Witches in 1972. Thompson’s story sounds somewhat extraordinary but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest its validity. I’ve written about Gwen Thompson and the Wiccan Rede in the past, and humbly suggest browsing that article if you haven’t already. (I have been unable to find a picture of Thompson that I’m comfortable using, legal stuff, but that’s her at an obviously very young age with Adrianna Porter on the cover The Rede of the Wicca.)
Joseph “Bearwalker” Wilson (1942-2004) Joseph Wilson was the founder of the 1734 Tradition, a Witchcraft tradition built around a combination of sources. The most famous of those sources are a series of letters from English Witch Robert Cochrane (real name Roy Bowers) the founder of the Clan of Tubal Cain and his own unique style of Witchcraft. In addition to the influence of Cochrane Wilson’s 1734 Tradition was also shaped by the teachings of other individuals. The most famous of those was Ruth Wynn-Owen a Welsh actress who gave Wilson’s tradition a “seasonal construct.” In addition to starting the 1734 Tradition Wilson was a founding member of Covenant of the Goddess and was a proponent of shamanism. He also studied hoodoo, becoming a student of Catherine Yronwode.
I am exceedingly grateful to The Encyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism written by Shelley Rabinovitch and James Lewis and The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca by Rosemary Ellen Guiley for helping me write these little life sketches. (Especially the first book in regards to the information about Ray Bone.)