Before the Gardnerians: Four More Precursors

Before the Gardnerians: Four More Precursors October 22, 2012

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.


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