A History of the Craft in America: California and Councils, Part III: The Council of Themis

A History of the Craft in America: California and Councils, Part III: The Council of Themis February 2, 2013


As described in previous blogs, the attempt to create an umbrella, church-like organization for Pagans was begun by Michael Kinghorn in Los Angeles in 1967. His work led to the creation of the Council of Themis, which, after being founded in 1969, acquired an international membership steadily until 1972. Rather than just list the members, I’ll discuss the important groupings. By 1972, according to various lists and announcements in Green Egg, the Council’s members included the following.

The covens led by Sara Cunningham, Rita Norling, and  Martha Adler in Pasadena and Hawthorne, CA

Joe Ferrante’s Alexandrian coven in Lawton, OK; he published the Witch’s Broomstick

Don F. Sawyer’s Atlantion Wicca coven in Liverpool, NY

John Score’s Coven of the Wiccan and Gerard Noel, publisher of Pentagram, in London, UK

Leo Louis Martello’s Witches International Craft Association in New York City

As far as I know, all of these followed the Gardnerian model.

Next, the groups that constituted Pagan religions as currently understood. These included:

Three nests of the Church of All Worlds: the Mother Nest headed by Tim & Julie Zell in St. Louis, MO; Lance Christie’s nest in Venice, CA; and Michael Hurley’s Ninth Way Nest in Vietnam

The Church of the Eternal Source in Burbank, CA; the Delphic Fellowship in Los Angeles was still listed in 1972 as being a separate organization

Two Feraferia chapters, that of Fred Adams and Svetlana Butyrin in Altadena, CA, and Richard Stanewick’s Dancers of the Sacred Circle, Redway, CA

Two Pagan Way groves, that of Ed Fitch in Minot, ND, and that of Penny and Michael Novack in Philadelphia, PA. (Ed can also be classified as Gardnerian, of course, and moved on to southern California in 1972.)

There were another nine groups that might or might not be considered Pagan by current standards. Five of these were explicitly concerned with sacred (or maybe not so sacred) sexuality. These included:

Jefferson F. Poland’s Psychedelic Venus Church in Berkeley, CA (which labeled itself Libertarian);

P. Pawlowski’s Hellenic Group in London, UK, essentially a British branch of the Psychedelic Venus Church;

Emmanuel Petrakis’s Religion of Venus in France (apparently very similar to the PVC);

W. Holman Keith’s Neo-Dianic Faith in Los Angeles (apparently the one remaining vestige of Gleb Botkin’s Church of Aphrodite); and

The Ordo Templi Astarte (Califia Chapter), headed by Poke Runyon and (perhaps) Nelson H. White in Pasadena, Ca. The OTA described itself as Thelemic, like the OTO, and was devoted to the worship of Astarte, the historic prototype of Aphrodite, but apparently differed radically in nature from the other four groups listed above.

There were three chapters of the Parathea-anametamystikhood of Eris Esoteric (POEE), a.k.a. The Discordian Society, that of M. S. Medley’s Omniune Church in Texarkana, TX, one in New York City, and one in Venice, CA, which I believe overlapped with Lance Christie’s CAW nest.

Finally, there was First Universal Life Church of San Diego in Alpine, CA, which also described itself as Libertarian.

As I’ve said, the purpose of the Council was to create an umbrella organization for Pagans, magicians, and members of similar religions that could provide the benefits of having a legal church but without creating problems of orthodoxy or orthopraxy. However, notice that eight of the groups identify themselves as being Gardnerian-style Wicca, about nine are Pagan groups of the same general type as Wicca, one is Thelemic, and five are radical groups that used the concept of a Goddess philosophically but did not worship her. Given the profound theological differences between these groups, it should not be surprising that their coalition was inherently unstable.

The Council of Themis functioned until early 1972, when Poke Runyon and Fred Adams spearheaded a successful effort to eject the Psychedelic Venus Church and the Church of Aphrodite from the Council. Runyon later wrote:

 In 1971 Fred Adams and I took emergency action to expell Jefferson F_ _k Poland’s Psychedelic Venus Church from the Council of Themis, which Fred had founded, in order to protect the nascent Pagan Movement from radical political (drug and sex-perversion) exploitation blatantly instigated by a self-proclaimed professional agitator. In looking back on this action—regardless of its outcome, which was to destroy the Council—I have no serious regrets. In actual fact, what subsequently happened to Mr. J. F. Poland tends to make Fred and me look rather sage and wise in retrospect.

However, Runyon’s statement does not explain why the obviously harmless Church of Aphrodite was also expelled. There was then a secondary blowup over the autocratic way in which the expulsion had been carried out, and the Council soon schismed into two separate organizations, largely, according to Otter Zell’s comments in Green Egg at the time, because the more hierarchic organizations found it difficult to cooperate with the more democratic organizations.

The Peregrination of Tim and Julie

 In August and September 1972 occurred an event that has had repercussions ever since: Tim Zell and Julie Carter toured California for their annual vacation. How very ordinary that sounds. The importance of the event arose from the fact that by 1972, CAW’s newsletter, Green Egg, had become the most important national journal within the Pagan movement. Its letter columns served as a national forum for theological and political debate in the movement; it achieved a peak circulation of about 2000 copies an issue in the mid-1970s. During their trip, Tim was meeting face to face, for the first time, with people he had known only through letters, and in the process was weaving together many disparate strands in California into a self-aware network of Pagans. The events of that trip (as described in a following issue of Green Egg) were as follows:

Aug. 26—They leave St. Louis.

Aug. 27—Lawton, OK; they visit Joe and Kim Ferrante, of The Witch’s Broomstick.

Aug. 29 – Reaching Los Angeles, they stay with Lance Christie, another founder of CAW and High Priest of the CAW Nest in LA. They meet Harold Moss and Donald Harrison of the Church of the Eternal Source, and Michael Kinghorn of the Delphic Fellowship, and discuss the problems with the Council of Themis. Zell suggests dividing it into two organizations: one for hierarchic groups, the other for democratic groups; and this suggestion is adopted by all concerned during the next few days.

Aug. 30—They attend a CES ritual at Don’s house, meet Ed Fitch, and discuss plans for the association of democratic groups that would become the Council of Earth Religions.

Aug. 31 – In Pasadena, they visit Fred Adams and Svetlana Butyrin of Feraferia, and there meet Nelson White, Poke Runyon, and other members of the OTA.

Sept. 1—Tim and Julie visit with other Feraferia and CAW members.

Sept. 2—They attend LACON ’72 (the 30th World Science Fiction Convention), where, costumed as Cernunnos and Cerridwen (that is, Julie was wearing Tim’s pet snake, Histah) at the annual masquerade ball, they win the Best of Show prize for their costumes. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that some women at LACON were actually in town for a women’s political convention and took word of this religion of the Goddess and Priestesses back to their own meeting, thus setting off the first flurry of interest in the Craft within the Women’s Rights movement.

Sept. 3—They attend a “Pagan Summit Conference” organized by Alison Harlow of Nemeton; it is also attended by Harold Moss, Ed Fitch, Isaac Bonewits, and others, and focuses on how to improve Pagan public relations and intergroup communication.

The next three days were spent on social visits, Disneyland, packing, and driving north.

Sept. 7 – In Berkeley, they stay with Ruth Clifford and Dub Blackwood at the communal home known as “Harrad West,” named for the visionary novel by Robert Rimmer.

Sept. 8—They visit with Alison and Cynthia, visit the feminist bookstore “A Woman’s Place,” and hang out with Ruth and Dub.

Sept. 9—They drive with Alison and Cynthia up to Coeden Brith, Nemeton’s land on the Greenfield Ranch outside Ukiah, where they meet Gwydion and an old CAW friend from Chicago, Dan Norman.

Sept. 10—In the afternoon they visit Rae and Jack Hurley at the CAW Nest in Sausalito; after dinner they visit Aidan and Alta Kelly in Oakland, who thus first learn of the existence and importance of Green Egg.

Sept. 11—Tim spends much of the day in Berkeley with John Hopkins, Secretary of the Universal Party, which is based on contact and communication with flying saucers.

Sept. 12—They visit Victor and Cora Anderson, founders of the Feri Tradition, in San Leandro, and spend a very intense evening with them.

Sept. 13—They meet Jefferson F**k (Poland) and Mother Boats of the Psychedelic Venus Church in Berkeley, and discuss the relations between religion and political activism, and between Kali and Cerridwen.

Sept 14.—They head for home, with a stop in Sacramento to visit Robert and Eve Boggs.

Synergy soon begins to manifest. [To be continued.]


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