A History of the Craft in America: The Family Tree of the New England Coven of Traditionalist Witches, Part I

A History of the Craft in America: The Family Tree of the New England Coven of Traditionalist Witches, Part I January 4, 2013

The New England Coven of Traditionalist Witches was founded in North Haven, CT, in the late 1960s by Lady Gwen Thompson (Phyllis Healey, 1928-1986), who claimed that her family tradition originated in Somerset, England, and was brought to the United States by way of Nova Scotia. This material, she said, was handed down through many generations and blended with popular occultism to become the present form that she named NECTW. Not all who are born into a family tradition are destined to follow this path, she said. She feared her tradition would die out and fade into obscurity. For this reason, she began fostering students outside the family.

This does look like the sort of dubious “grandmother” story that gets made up all too often, but in this case it might well be true, at least in part. The coven’s members believe that Thompson did have a Family Tradition of some sort, which she ascribed to one Adriana Porter (ca. 1850-1946). The research by Andrew Theitic of the Coven of Minerva and Professor Robert Mattheissen of Brown University, in The Rede of the Wiccae, into the long version of the Wiccan Rede that Lady Gwen sent to Green Egg does support this contention to some extent. However, she assimilated that tradition to the Gardnerian model. Her theology was not the usual Gardnerian duotheism, but much more Manichean, as pre-Gardnerian Witches often tended toward. Although the coven worked robed, it maintained the typical Gardnerian emphasis on ritual discipline: working only in “properly prepared” circles, etc.

Owen Rowley, who had joined the New Haven coven in about 1971 and had served as Lady Gwen’s High Priest, moved with Lady Gwen and her daughter to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, in 1973, where she founded two covens; she later moved to Massachusetts. Rowley had worked for the Ripley’s Museum of Witchcraft in Gatlinburg and accepted a transfer to the Museum in San Francisco in 1973.

Gwen had left the New Haven coven in the hands of Kerry and Stock. Since then it has hived off many covens, and has evolved into the NECTW Tradition. The Coven of Minerva is the most direct successor coven of the original coven; Lady Morgana Davies, a founder of the Keepers of the Ancient Mysteries Tradition (which we will get to soon), has served as its acting High Priestess.

Why Gatlinburg?  Why did Gerald Gardner stay there for a few months in 1948? Why did Ripley’s open their first Witchcraft museum there? Because of the legend of the Bell Witch from the early nineteenth century, the town had long had an association with witchcraft. That association probably also explains the relatively high incidence of Craft and Pagan activity in Tennessee in the 1970s. That included Dick Sells’ Unicorn Grove in Chattanooga; James Darwin’s KAM coven in Nashville; Lady Armanda’s Crescent Moon Coven in Chattanooga; Lynne Hardy’s Children of the Moon in Grandview; and Tony Spurlock’s Feri Heretic coven  in Memphis; as well as Samm Dickens’ CAW nest in Nashville.

Church of Wicca, Bakersfield

 Lady Gwen was quite generous about sharing information with others in the Craft; she was apparently far more interested in promoting the growth of  the Craft movement than in maintaining absolute secrecy about the details of her Tradition. In an email of February 14, 2010, Owen Rowley confirmed that Lady Gwen had shared material with Morgana Davies (who subsequently received a cross-initiation), Mary Story (Lady Etidorpha) in California, and George Patterson (d. 1984), who corresponded with Lady Gwen about 1970; she advised him to name his new Tradition after himself.  As a result, the Church of Wicca, Bakersfield, sometimes called the Georgian Church, is considered an indirect offshoot of the NECTW. In recent years, many Georgian initiates, such as Herb Mitchell in Seattle, have come to consider the NECTW to be their Mother Tradition.

Patterson did claim to have had initiation in a Celtic group in 1940. He settled in California after World War Two, but did not begin to gather a coven until the 1970s. The coven’s rituals were basically Gardnerian, but with elements from many other sources. By 1973 there were four affiliated covens in southern California; these included the Coven of Persephone (later renamed the Coven of the Lights), under Herb Mitchell and Jill Johns, the Aphrodite Coven under Becki Hemmer, another headed by Laine in Fontana, and the Athena Coven headed by Pat and Rick P. Many of the Georgians were active in the formation of the Covenant of the Goddess in 1975. They began publishing a journal, The Georgian News, in 1976. (The Elvenwood Coven of Gig Harbor, WA, under Lady Aquaria, the late Stephanie Cluff, was one of the first covens outside California to apply for CoG membership.)


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