Digging up Roots in the Garden of Witchery

Digging up Roots in the Garden of Witchery August 25, 2016

In my previous post I confessed about the summer I “burned the witch,” going on an obsessive reading binge of the history, biographies and original works of the grandparents of modern witchcraft. Like quests to find the source of the Nile, I trekked back to discover for myself the sources of this witchery stream that had long drawn me back to my genetic roots.

Telluride Colorado view of stream among the mountains
Taking the long view, Photo by Heron Michelle

The Problem of Pedigree

This quest was, in part, a reaction to a…let’s call it an “educational” experience…that I had back in 2012 with a Wiccan priest who touted a lineage that could be vaguely traced back to Alexander Sanders. We know Alex can tag his initiation back to Gerald Gardner (despite his claims otherwise.) That last bit was supposedly the key to opening the door into the exclusive “Wicca” club, per his view.  With no small amount of arrogance this priest offered to teach me the “real Wicca” you couldn’t find in books, insinuating that since I was lacking this crucial pedigree that my work as a teacher and priestess lacked legitimacy in the wider witching world. He offered to help me rectify this problem by training me. Having never before had such an offer to be initiated by anyone else, I was intrigued. In my attempt to “be present to win,” and follow the breadcrumbs of my guides, I listened to what he had to teach.

He began with a class on our modern history as it emerged in England during the mid-20th century and its migration to America since then. He joked that during the 1960’s the Sander’s London apartment was a revolving door of initiations so frequent, and so easy to achieve, that all you had to do was drive by slowly enough on any full moon night, and you were instantly a first degree. While funny, and not without a kernel of truth, that was hardly a glowing recommendation. You can’t have it both ways: using this coven to prop up your own legitimacy, then turn around and demean their practices as a joke. No bueno.

Digging Up Roots

These days Wicca is treated like the bastard red-headed step-child of pagandom, with many entrenching opinions still in hot debate. From what I can tell across the blogosphere, you either love ’em (because you are one) or you revile them. Holy Hermes, people!  Much more bitching about which witch is legit, and I might pull a Cochrane and drink the belladonna.

Any modern synopsis of what “real” Witchcraft is, was, or should be will be biased based on the speaker’s point of view. That is the shtick with a point of view, isn’t it? It is pointy and limited by the distance seen from one’s vantage point. The higher you climb up the teetering pile of well-studied books and experiences, the farther you can see.

Well, I wanted a nice panorama shot so wide I could perceive the arc of the horizon.  Like all the best occult mysteries, its a paradox: to see far, you dive deep. So, I went into the garden of Witchcraft and started digging down to the roots.  To quote Orion Foxwood, you can’t “bless the fruits, and curse the roots.” I LOVE the fruits of modern craft, but I was pretty clueless about the roots, so I went to the sources.

Memoirs of Wiccan Priestesses
Photo by Heron Michelle

To triangulate my way to a truth about where it all came from, I started with the biographies of the founders of Alexandrian and Gardnerian Wicca, namely Alex and Maxine Sanders, and Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente. This revealed the names of their inheritors (I read up on Patricia Crowther, Lois Bourne and Vivianne Crowley), and rivals (namely Robert Cochrane); which led to reading THEIR biographies; which led to many of THEIR original works on various streams of Witchcraft; which led to the foundation occult materials that had inspired their practice; which led to the biographies of the generation of THOSE occultists who’d come before them (namely Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, etc.) It was quite a trip, and the stack of books on my nightstand that I have yet to read continues to grow.

My favorite was The Rebirth of Witchcraft by Doreen Valiente, originally published in 1989; I absorbed every word with gleeful delight.  This is a must-read book, especially for those vying to win the very popular game of “oh witchier than thou.”

Back in the day, Doreen served as Priestess within the covens of both Gerald Gardner, AND his rival Robert Cochrane. She helped to hone both of these traditions. In this book Doreen shares her “Come to Goddess” story and impressive research. Much like a war-correspondent, she shares pointy insights on her first-hand involvement with these men, these covens, the tumultuous times in which they emerged, and how both their good works and dastardly deeds influenced Modern Witchcraft. Plus, she’s a hoot. If I could invite one deceased historical person over for dinner and conversation some Samhain night, it would be Doreen Valiente.

Four Dastardly Bastards

So here we are in 2016, and I’ve long noticed that when talking about our history and traditions, it is easy to focus on the MEN who attracted the spotlight, like Gerald Gardner, Alex Sanders, Robert Cochrane, and the “wickedest man in the world,” Aleister Crowley. I now refer to those four men as the Four Dastardly Bastards.  We are all enjoying this revival because they trotted it out to the press with their signature flare, (or pitched a fit against publicity in the case of Cochrane) so I suppose that deserves some gratitude, but they weren’t the only ones making magick at the time. They had priestesses, who were well-balanced, sincere, discreet, and running the damned show!

You know, while the ego-maniacal face-men were out flirting with tabloid reporters, acting like big- ol’ divas, posing for inflammatory photo-ops, and flat-out lying to everyone, mamas Doreen, Maxine, Patricia, Ray, Lois, Dafo…are back at the covenstead, honoring those vows of silence Gerald took from them before breaking himself. They were creating liturgy, researching, teaching, organizing, running interference for the dastardly bastards and doing the Great Work of the Old Religion with dedication…all while raising up the babies (Maxine was, at least.)  Ain’t that usually the way? <eyeroll>

Photo by Heron
Photo by Heron

Mama Doreen Drops the Mic

I think that a major cause of this imbalance in current discourse is due to the Grandmothers of the craft not being given an equal measure of attention as the infamous Grandfathers early on. The best part about reading the autobiographies of these priestesses, are the scenes they describe where they realize that Alex, and Gerald and Robert have gone off the rails, and are just making shit up to try and control them. My favorite bits in all these memoirs are when these strong women tell the dastardly bastards exactly where they can shove their abuse and sexism, drop the mic, and exit stage left.

Gerald endangered his coven by regularly publicizing what was oath-bound, and then lied about it to them. When they dared to demand some standards of behavior, he manufactured the sexist Ardanes, or Laws of the Craft, in a ludicrous attempt to remove Doreen from her position as High Priestess. Here are a few dandy quotations from Rebirth of Witchcraft:

Doreen wrote to Gerald “I am afraid we have come to the parting of the ways. Because there is no point in trying to do magical work with someone who is going to foist a lot of phoney ‘Laws’ upon us and whose word I can no longer trust.” page 72

In the case of Robert Cochrane, who she reports as being an adulterous, hate-mongering, drug-abusing, madman:

(Doreen) “rose up and challenged him (Robert Cochrane) in the presence of the rest of the coven. I told him that I was fed up with listening to all this senseless malice, and that, if a ‘Night of the Long Knives’ was what his sick little soul craved, he could get on with it, but he could get on with it alone, because I had better things to do.” page 129

Doreen walked out on both Gerald Gardner and Robert Cochrane over their abusiveness. Cochrane’s wife and Priestess of the Clan of Tubal Cain divorced him over infidelity, and Maxine divorced Alex for the same reasons. They both tell the story of how heart-breaking and difficult that was to do, but then they carried on with the business of Witchcraft with distinction, forming new covens with outstanding people whose names you’ve probably never heard, and rightly so. If the people who knew these dastardly bastards so well could tell them to fuck off and walk away, then why are we still arguing under the banners of these men’s names? Why do we not call it the Valiente Tradition? or the Maxinians?

I think I know why; because the wise Grandmothers ultimately knew that The Craft, and The Power and The Divine Forces are nameless and all names, ageless and all ages, owned by no one yet possessed of everyone, and does not particularly care about blood-lines, or lineages, and would never allow such hubris to cloud THE WORK.

‘The Old Religion meant a great deal to us, and we had not stopped believing in its beauty, its magic or its power. Our parting with Gerald simply meant that the quest went on.” Rebirth of Witchcraft, Page 72

When Maxine Sanders was asked what they should the call witches who followed their ways, she said, “We had no idea. To us The Craft was just that, The Craft.” Firechild, Page 164


The Moral of the Story:

I know that the soul is eternal, unbound by genetics or heritage, so why should it have ever mattered to me, or the Old Gods, which stream of Witchcraft floats my boat? To me, pedigree doesn’t matter one lick, not anymore. I solved that problem with a little bit o’ education. It might not have been apparent in all their earlier writings, but the older the Grandmothers grew in their understanding, and the further they wandered, the more they realized that this stream was meant to flow through us toward new horizons, not be dammed up to stagnate in the past. This theme continues through the writings of the Craft’s sons and daughters, and grandsons and granddaughters, to become this thing we call Modern Witchcraft today.

I came to the gates of initiation as a book-trained “solitary.” I’ve now studied in person, on one level or another, with teachers who are every flavor of Witch but I took my initiations direct from Spirit. I’ve learned important things from each of these people, stood on sacred ground and heard the voice of the Gods through their lips. I deem them “legitimate” because of their dedication and the beneficial fruits of their Work, not because some witch up-line from them was or was not trussed, whipped and kissed by a press-whore named Gerald.

Circling back to the story of my training with the Wiccan Priest, I left his tutelage before we even made it to a dedication ritual. However, that experience was transforming and I’m glad I took time to listen. I left with both an appreciation for who he was in his own right, and self-respect for my own wyrdly wonderful, witchy path, to boot.

Teetering pile of books on my nightstand ~ Photo by Heron
Teetering pile of books on my nightstand ~ Photo by Heron

Titles for the Teetering Pile

I highly recommend to any witch that you read the foundation texts for yourself. Why? Because these were some seriously interesting, entertaining and screwed up people, full of shadow and light, but basically no different than the rest of us.  Especially do this for yourself if you are being demonized for your choice of path. You need to know enough about where it came from so that you can defend your choices with accuracy, because ALL THE GODS know that we need a LOT more accuracy up in here.

I’ve read a lot of these works, but the stack of books on my nightstand is still teetering with plenty more I have yet to explore. To that end, click “continue” for a list of the books I recommend that you add to your own teetering pile. I’d welcome your recommendations for other titles to read by the early pioneers of Modern Witchery, if you’d like to add them as a comment.


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