Witchcraft – The Word & The Figure – Pt 2: A Memoir of Late Twentieth Century Witchcraft

Witchcraft – The Word & The Figure – Pt 2: A Memoir of Late Twentieth Century Witchcraft October 13, 2015


Part 1 of Part 2…
It’s a big, big topic, friends. Even ‘Part 2’ must be broken up into parts. We’ll bite off the early 20th century through the end of the 1970s. It becomes a memoir in fact in about 1970…

The Dawn of Modern Witchcraft
So how do we begin to see modern occultists self-defining as Witches? Of course with the publication of Leland’s Aradia in 1904 literate occultists could have found a model for practice that embraced both the fashion for classicism on one hand and the romantic political opposition of the poor to the church on the other. The entire hermetic tradition staunchly rejected the term witchcraft at that time, granting it at best a reference to remnants of folk-magic and at worst to imagined Satanic ‘black lodges’ of the Dennis Wheatley sort.

We can see a few pre-1950s examples, perhaps Cunning Murrell and Pickingill, perhaps some other revivalists or village practitioners in Britain who might have quietly admitted “some would call us witches”.  The Australian artist Rosaleen Norton was inspired with occult, witchcraft and diabolist romanticism, and certainly referred to herself as a witch, and kept a coven in King’s Cross into the 1960s.

There’s an interesting side note in the Thelemic interest in the term. While Crowley himself discarded the word, both Frater Achad (in 1923) and John Parsons (in c.1950) wrote descriptions of a kind of Neo-Pagan ‘witchcraft’, and both in a time-frame that would have made their writings available to Gardner. (I’ve recently seen hints of a trip by Gardner to California and possible meeting with Parsons, which would help sew up a little theory of mine… more to come…) I’m still fairly willing to assume that Old Gerald found something going on in the woods, and combined it with his own occult knowledge to make his cult. As far as I can see the first occultists in the English speaking world to openly endorse the term ‘witch’ for their practice were Gardner’s new covens.

I must mention that there is some evidence of self-identified ‘witches’ in (neo) folk-magic sects in the new world. Appalachian and Ozark mountain traditions may have been conducting group ritual initiations involving swearing to ‘the devil’, sexual rites and other late Christian witch motifs for some while before the 1950s. There is an interesting by-road in the story of the US’s first ‘Satanic Panic’  in the 1930s and 40s which could, itself, have produced self-proclaimed ‘witches’. The legends of Ozark witchcraft are contemporary, and it’s possible that the sensationalist journalism of the times produced early self-defined ‘witches’. Once again little hard evidence exists.

The question of the real origins of Gardnerian (and thus of much of Neopagan) Witchcraft is being dealt with by historians even as we speak. Whatever one thinks of his claims to have discovered a coven in the woods, his system has proved to be a seed from which a whole category of modern occult practice and Pagan religion have grown. Gardner’s system influenced the practice of nearly every self-defined witch in the following 30 years, as home-grown North American groups assimilated his new model. To me it makes sense to view Gardner’s Witchcraft (and its same-generation imitators, such as Sanders) as the “original Witches” in modern occultism. For convenience let’s think of the date for that as around 1950 – it’s clear that Old Gerald has his thing cooking by then.

At about the same time that Gardner was solidifying (and publicizing) his new system, a man remembered as Robert Cochrane was doing the same, with a different flair and perhaps less concern for the newspapers. Cochrane brought an interest in Celtic and British lore (soon imitated by Gardnerians) and harked back, perhaps, to the Bacchic rites, with the Staff planted in the north to mark the sacred space. In some ways Cochrane seems to me to be a reaction to Gardner’s work, but that may be selling short the man’s life-long interest in reinventing the Old Ways.  Cochrane enjoyed referring to his work as older and ‘more authentic’ that Gardner’s, and attempted to invoke the authority of the “old witch families” of England. There’s been little evidence for any such families (outside of testimony from their last surviving representatives), or of their maintenance of ‘witchcraft’ traditions that can’t be accounted for by the popular occult or folklore literature of their times. Family traditions of occultism – common enough; family traditions of a ‘witch-cult’ – no serious evidence has been presented.

The Secret 70s
The Gardnerian initiatory lineage arrived in North America in 1966, brought by Raymond Buckland and his priestess. It immediately encountered the various strands of American occultism that were already using the term ‘witchcraft’, and sometimes even adapting practices from Gardner’s earlier writings, which had reached across the water before then. It’s possible that strains of folkloric witchcraft had survived in the Appalachian and Ozark mountain communities, and if so these were probably satanic in a sort of post-medieval sense. Of course the other major influence that merged with the new witchcraft was the countercultural ideology and its environmentalism. This phase has been very well documented and discussed by Chas Clifton in his book Her Hidden Children.

My own awareness of the Pagan scene as a participant begins in around 1976. Having been a student of ‘the occult’ throughout my youth I had begun my own ritual experiments based on several published sources. In 1970 a writer named Paul Huson published Mastering Witchcraft: A Practical Guide for Witches, Warlocks and Covens. Huson wrote as an independent occultist with no connection with either Gardner or Cochrane, or to any ‘old family traditions’. He created a system of practical magic and a model for creating covens that allowed small groups across the US to begin working as ‘witchcraft’ groups. Some of these adopted Gardnerian bits, some less so.

In 1974 an American woman named Jesse Wicker Bell published The Grimoire of Lady Sheba. This book contained much of the material in the Gardnerian ‘Book of Shadows’, the secret ritual book of the Gardnerian Witches. What Mastering Witchcraft had begun was energized by the publication of material that had been secret for 20 years, and the creation of covens continued throughout the decade. In this phase the word ‘Witch’ was earnestly contended for by these Neopagans – the message in the 70s was “Witchcraft is a religion”.

These bootstrap traditions tended, at first, to imitate the ‘mystery religion’ model of Gardner’s Witchcraft. They were secret and initiatory, and created their own secret books, rituals etc. This was also the period of the most ridiculous ‘witch wars’ in which these construct traditions compared pretentious origin stories and tried to one-up each other in the nascent Pagan press. It would be impossible in this format to list all the dedicated and effective new groups of the period. Two that had an ongoing presence in the development of the current idea of ‘the witch’ should be mentioned.

The work of Robert Cochrane’s inheritors continued, both in the UK and then in the US. In the UK ‘The Regency’ began to offer semi-public Pagan rites, adding dramatic staging to traditional circle-forms. In the US Joseph Wilson, an early member of the witchcraft writing community, exchanged letters with Cochrane during the late 60s, and in 1973 and 74 founded what is known as the ‘1734 Tradition’, the numbers being an occult code rather than a date. Continuing the tradition of secrecy and exclusivity, this tradition and its later offshoots and inheritors have remained out of the eye of the Pagan public until very recent years.

In California a unique stream of self-described Witchcraft came from the teaching of Victor and Cora Anderson. Victor Anderson was a poet, and combined an eclectic mix of Huna, Voudoun, western occultism and folklore, and Tantra with a California 1965 attitude toward sexuality and personal experimentation. While traditional witchcraft was often infused with middle-class prudery Anderson’s teachings wend a few classes and maybe even attend seasonal rituals that resembled traditional witchcraft rites. From the other side many young people were simply taking the results of their own study and putting it into practice. Not all of these chose to imitate the secret and initiatory covens – some, such as the Church of All Worlds, and Circle Wicca chose to be open to seekers, and they also tried on the word ‘witch’ to see how well it fit with their new approach. In 1975 traditional Witches founded an effort at national organizing, the Covenant of the Goddess, which is now one of the largest Traditional Wiccan organizations in the world.

The Reveal
During the middle and later 70s public interest in witchcraft and the newly-coined ‘Paganism’ was high. Any local teacher who could competently help students had more applicants than could be handled. This led to the previously secret covens of the 1960s creating ‘Outer Court’ study and worship groups.

The paradigmatic tale of development at the turn of the 80s might be the Pagan Way temples in Chicago. These grew from the work of the Gardnerian lineages in the US. Arriving in the middle sixties, by as early as 1972 there was a visible need for a ‘holding room’ for students, and various acceptably not-traditional liturgies were composed. The most durable of those was the material later published in 1978 as A Book of Pagan Rituals. My own first formal ritual group was a Gardnerian outer court in Cleveland Ohio (run out of the Kentucky lineage, for those with a score-card) and we worked directly out of the Book of Pagan Rituals.

To draw on my own history I was acquainted with a traditional-style coven in southeastern Ohio in the early 1970s. By the mid-seventies they had generated a student organization at a local campus, and were working innovative dramatic ritual. Experienced, inspired but often uninitiated students from that group helped to begin further organizing in the 80s, and participate in regional Pagan groups to this day.

Traditional Witchcraft had been, up until this time, a private, initiatory and therefore rather exclusive set of systems. Admission was by the personal decision of others, who might choose to bring a student ‘in’ or not according to criteria of their own. However the allure of the idea of Pagan-survival Witchcraft was easily transmitted in publication, and the who-cares-about-rules generation simply took up the patterns as they pleased, will-or-nil the traditional keepers of lineages.

In addition several publications advanced the idea that Witchcraft and especially Wicca, as the religious expression was coming to be called, was something one could join simply through self-identification. As early as 1974 Raymond Buckland had invented a system of Wicca using Saxon mythic forms and published the basic material as The Tree: The Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft. Its most notable element was that students could ‘join’ the tradition by performing a self-initiation ritual, without the need to be interviewed, vetted and approved by a coven’s leadership. In 1978 early Witchcraft voice Doreen Valiente offered the same opportunity in her Liber Umbrarum, tucked into the back of her book Witchcraft for Tomorrow. This notion of self-initiation was met with a range of responses from grudging acceptance to outright rejection by the traditional community, but the cauldron of change was already bubbling.

The Church of All Worlds was a quasi-Pagan philosophical and occult-interest group in the late 60s that grew from the ideas in Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. In the hands of Tim (Latter Otter, now Oberon) Zell the Church became an early expression of a free-form Hippy Paganism, centered on the idea of ‘Gaia’ – the Earth as a living, conscious Goddess. Many members identified as Witches (following Morning Glory Zell’s example) and the four-quartered circle of Neopagan Witchcraft was accepted as ‘traditional’ form. The CAW’s influential magazine The Green Egg was probably the single most important voice and forum for the developing ‘Neopagan movement’ – Zell probably coined the usage Neopagan in its current meaning.

A Moment of Change
In 1977 organizers out of Chicago, the Midwest Pagan Council, created the PanPagan festival, open to anyone who found their way to the place. I began to attend in 1979, and in 1980 more than 500 people attended the fest, including almost everyone who was anyone in the witchcraft and Pagan scene at that time, and many who would become well-known later. For the first time in who-knows-how-long 500 Pagans and Witches danced the circle under the moon. This event inspired the creation of the Pagan Spirit Gathering, the Starwood Festival, the Elf-Lore Gatherings in Bloomington, and inspired Boston’s Rites of Spring to move to the woods.

Just as important as this kindling of organizing, were the various moments when the various Secret Witchcraft Traditions of the 1970s met up with each other over a fire and a bottle. Many a moment of awkward silence (“er… I don’t actually talk about that…”) gave way to an exchange of ideas that both cross-fertilized the practice and myth of various systems and also pulled away the (usually phony) veil of Ancient Secrets that was so customary in the early days. In many ways the festival ‘movement’ put an end to (or a big dent in) the ability of a teacher to pretend to having secret witchcraft teachings passed down from wherever. We’ll discuss the 80s and beyond in our next segment.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the word ‘witch’ was being earnestly fought for by the Neopagan Goddess and God worshipping sects descended from Gardner’s experiments, and their imitators and competitors. Efforts were made to encourage dictionaries to adjust their definitions, and ‘Witches’ made an effort to place themselves as a religious minority in the US. The question of the ownership and meaning of that old word remains disputed, however. In the years since the early 80s the word has been used by a number of occult and Pagan systems.

In my memory two publications, both published in 1979, have special places in the history of this moment. Both were written by women, and both women were active practitioners of traditional witchcraft systems. One helped the growing movement to recognize and define itself; the other was like yeast to the dough of its Pagan and magical practice.

Drawing Down the Moon, written by Marot Adler, is a survey of the Neopagan, magical and Women’s Religion scene as it was known prior to it publication. At that point that covered much of the history of the movement. Adler (an initiate of one of the British traditional systems) was a working journalist at the US’s National Public Radio, and wrote an engaging if lengthy treatment that included the real personalities of the era. Seeing ourselves (Yr Hmbl isn’t mentioned 😉  ) reflected and discussed in this way both legitimated and helped to solidify the newly-defined community.

The Spiral Dance, A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess written by Miriam Simos writing as ‘Starhawk’, was an intersection of traditional magical training (mostly culled from the occult literature of the 20th century, whether by the author or her Feri Tradition teachers) with the left-wing political and social sentiments of the 70s, especially feminism. Starhawk granted readers the freedom to play with the outlines of ‘traditional’ Wiccan ritual, suggested non-hierarchic models of coven organizing, and presented the path not as an exclusive initiatory way but as a ‘magical religion’ that anyone could participate in by doing the work. While it presented the religion as religion it also presented a new comprehensive synthesis of occult training and group practice techniques that helped to define ‘eclectic Wicca’ in the coming years. If Mastering Witchcraft had been the literary seed of an explosion of independent coven organizing in 1970, Spiral Dance was the same in 1980.

By the turn of the 80s the notion that ‘Witchcraft’ (or ‘Wicca’ – the two were used interchangeably by many) was a modern expression of Pagan religion was normative. That expression was understood to be mainly initiatory, but accessible to dedicated students through reading and diligent personal practice. Those of us not yet initiated might seek to make our solitary experimental work ‘as good as’ what we imagined traditional work to be. For much of the newly self-identified population there seemed simply no reason to wait for the authority to be granted from elsewhere. Self-invention was the order of the day – often with invented backstories of varying degrees of comedy.


Browse Our Archives