Honoring Spiritually Powerful Women: Doreen Valiente (1922-1999)

Next month sees an exciting event in the Pagan calendar, when the Doreen Valiente Foundation with the Centre for Pagan Studies publishes Philip Heselton’s long-awaited biography of Doreen Valiente. As someone who had the good fortune to know and take part in rituals with Doreen, I was delighted that Philip decided to undertake the task.

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When we think of religious leaders, our social conditioning biases towards conjuring up images of venerable bearded gentlemen or charismatic male preachers, but through Goddess spirituality, women come much more to the fore. Doreen Valiente is one of the many powerful women whose work has crafted contemporary Paganism.

Emerging from the Shadows

Like many authors and teachers, interest in Doreen’s life and work had gone through a spiral of being at the forefront during the peak of her literary output in the 1960s and 70s, then fading more into the background for a time, only to become more publicly visible from the mid-1990s onwards in Michael Jordan’s book Witches: An Encyclopedia of Paganism and Magic, with its beautiful photographs by Sally Griffyn.
The last five years of her life were busy ones. She became Patron of the Centre for Pagan Studies founded by John and Julie-Belham-Payne, contributing to its events in and around her home town of Brighton. She was then persuaded to venture onto a much bigger stage, that of the Pagan Federation’s 1997 national conference just outside London, where she received a standing ovation from 2,000 people.

Finally, in the years after her death she has been officially honored. Given her importance in the contemporary religious history of Britain, the Doreen Valiente Foundation and the Centre for Pagan Studies successfully campaigned for her to be recognized by the installation of a blue heritage plaque on the last building in which she lived. In June 2013, this was unveiled by the Mayor of Brighton, an event widely reported by the BBC and other media. In 2016, the Foundation and Centre have secured two exhibitions of her artefacts at Brighton Museums, and 2016 kicks off with the publication of Philip Heselton’s biography, Doreen Valiente, Witch.

A Voice for the Craft

Doreen-CoverA passionate believer in the revival of traditional witchcraft, Doreen Valiente made an enormous contribution to contemporary Paganism. Her contributions include books, researches, her vision of Paganism as an inclusive nature religion, and her co-founding of The Pagan Federation, which in subsequent decades gave birth to Pagan Federation International, the Scottish Pagan Federation, Pagan Federation Ireland, and other bodies.

Doreen was a natural wordsmith and her clear prose made Wicca accessible. Her books Where Witchcraft Lives, An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present, Natural Magic, and Witchcraft for Tomorrow were the first reading of a generation of seekers. Her literary skills were doubly important in that Gerald Gardner was elderly when he decided to publicize the witch-cult and there was little time for him to write books. The Craft needed another author to take up the mantle where Gerald left off and Doreen was one of his High Priestesses who did.

Even before she began publishing, Gerald Gardner turned to her to flesh out the skeletal material that he had acquired from his initiators and added to with his own researches. Spells, invocations and rites all flowed from her pen. Although she ultimately left Gerald Gardner’s coven, she maintained her interest in its history and it was her researches that led to the discovery of Gerald’s ‘Old Dorothy’, which opened the doorway to discovering more about Gerald’s initiators.

Simply a Witch

Doreen played an important role in recording Craft history and it is fitting that Philip Heselton has done the same service for Doreen. As the biographer of Gerald Gardner, the ‘Founding Father’ of modern Witchcraft, Philip is ideally placed to continue his historical researches by becoming the principal biographer of a ‘Founding Mother’. As well as fleshing out more of the history of the Craft as Doreen shaped and participated in it, Philip’s research skills enable us to know more about Doreen’s life before Wicca.

His previous career in local government has meant that Philip knows how to find his way to facts buried in government archives. His nose for scenting out hidden information led him to discover, for example, how Doreen had spent World War 2. With his extensive contacts within the Wiccan community, he has also discovered a wealth of fascinating facts about twentieth century Wiccan history. As the early generations of the Witchcraft revival pass through the veil, the treasure store of memories that they hold is easy to lose. Fortunately, the efforts of Philip in particular to capture people’s remembrances has done much to give those of us who are Wiccan, and the wider Pagan community, a sense of who we are and where we came from.

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Philip also brings out an important part of who Doreen was – her great love of the natural world and of being outdoors. As a witch, she felt a deep connection with the landscape of the county of Sussex, her home for the last decades of her life. For all her skill with the printed word, she was never an ‘armchair occultist’, but a very simple and straightforward witch, who loved nothing better than to perform rituals and honor the Gods outside in nature. Rituals that my husband and I shared with her in Surrey woodlands are treasured memories.

One of Doreen’s major concerns was the public image of the Craft. She did an enormous amount of work to overcome negative media stereotypes. It was this that led her in 1971 to become a co-founder of the Pagan Federation, along with my initiating High Priestess Madge Worthington, and John and Jean Score. Pagans all over the world owe much to Doreen and her generation of pioneers who struggled against prejudice and hostility so that we subsequent generations could worship openly without fear.

For anyone who considers themselves to be practicing a form of Traditional Craft derived from Britain, then Philip’s biography of Doreen is an essential read.

If You Want to Know More

Philip Heselton’s book – Doreen Valiente, Witch – wil be published on February 22nd, 2016. Advanced copies are available to order from the Doreen Valiente Foundation, esoteric books stores (do support your local store!), and online retailers.

More about Doreen, the Doreen Valiente Foundation, and the Foundation’s books and events can be found here: http://www.doreenvaliente.com/

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