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A Witch is a Witch is a Witch
Yesterday was the first day of Spring, marked by the Spring Equinox, a complicated astronomical event and a perhaps even more complicated Wiccan holiday. What better time to dive along with Alex Mar into the history and personality of celebrated 20th century witch Doreen Valiente? The following essay appears in our current issue, Faith.
One particular image of Doreen Valiente tells two unresolvable stories at once. In this black-and-white portrait, perhaps taken in the fifties at her home in Brighton, she is, at first glance, a suburban wife seated before a pale curtain, wearing a patterned cocktail dress, a string of stones around her neck. (She was in her thirties then, her jet-black hair cut short in a wavy bob, her lips and brows painted in.) But then the photograph becomes complicated: spread before her on a table is an altar laid out with a crystal ball, a bowl, rope, candles, and incense; in one hand she holds up a large bell, in the other a ritual knife. Her eyes peer at us from behind large librarian’s eyeglasses—she looks dead into the camera, not in a confrontational way, but smiling a strong, tight-lipped smile. Propped on her elbows, leaning toward us (her audience a half-century into the future), she exudes all the confidence that comes with a hard-earned outsider identity, forged in small-town England in a rigid time. She is vibrant. She is the face of every woman with a secret life. She is the Nerd Queen, a person of rare esoteric knowledge. She is Doreen Valiente, the Mother of Modern Witchcraft.
Though a definitive biography of her life has yet to be published—both scholarship and her own writings have focused on her magical life—we know the basics. She was born Doreen Dominy in 1922 in Surrey, outside London. Her parents were conservative Christians; her father was a civil engineer; but Doreen felt marked for a different life. When she was still a child, she had her first mystical experience one night while staring up at the moon. By thirteen, she believed she was having psychic episodes, and she began experimenting with magic. Doreen made a poppet to protect her mother from a local woman who’d been bothering her, and she believed the spell had worked. Hoping to cure their daughter of her interest in witchcraft, her parents decided to send Doreen to a convent school. But before her second year was up, she walked out the door and never returned.
Doreen was seventeen when World War II broke out, and she soon signed up for a secretarial position in Wales. There she met and married a Greek seaman in the merchant navy—only to have him go missing during the war, eventually presumed dead.
Three years later, she married again—a Spaniard who’d escaped the Spanish Civil War and fought with the Free French Forces. The couple settled in Bournemouth in the south of England, where she took an office job and he found work as a chef. Doreen, who already saw herself as an outsider because of her occult interests, became even more set apart from the mainstream for having married a foreigner in a time of desperate national pride.
She began researching magic more seriously, reading up on the practices of the nineteenth-century occult society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and studying Hebrew, a language useful in many rituals. Proving that libraries are dangerous places, she also read up on the relatively new Spiritualist movement, which held that both women and men had the natural ability to become present-day mystics; and when a major biography of Aleister Crowley was published, she was thrilled to read, for the first time, the life story of a notorious, unrepentant magician. Finally, in the fall of 1952, she came across a magazine article that mentioned the recent opening of a place called the Folklore Centre of Superstition and Witchcraft, on the Isle of Man. In the piece, the owner, Cecil Williamson, spoke of witchcraft as “the Old Religion” and plugged the center’s “resident witch,” a man named Gerald Gardner.
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 had finally been repealed just a year earlier, making it legal for someone to publicly claim he worked with magic or communed with spirits, and Cecil Williamson had jumped at the chance to capitalize on the situation. Partnering with Gerald, who had been practicing witchcraft in the New Forest , Cecil immediately launched a publicity campaign for his new museum, which led to headlines like “CALLING ALL COVENS” and the equally exuberant “HE PLANS A JAMBOREE FOR THE WITCHES OF THE WORLD.” For Doreen, the possibility of contact with real-life witches was irresistible. She immediately wrote a letter to Cecil, who in turn connected her with his resident expert.
And what came next was a revelation: lessons in how to practice a living, present-day incarnation of witchcraft.
Through Gerald Gardner, Doreen learned the principles of the Craft: nature is sacred, and our lives follow the changing of the seasons; the universe is equally male and female; there is no such thing as sin—sexuality is a source of power. In a candlelit cottage on the grounds of a nudist club, she took part in rituals with Gerald’s Bricket Wood coven—its latest incarnation still practices today—and learned how to gather in a magical circle, to chant, to worship “skyclad” (or naked), and to use bondage and the scourge (not for pain, but to enter into an ecstatic state). These were some of the rites of the religion soon to be known as Wicca.
Within about two years, Doreen was ready for initiation. She writes of that evening in the cottage in one of her books: Gerald “was tall, stark naked, with wild white hair, a suntanned body, and arms which bore tattoos and a heavy bronze bracelet. In one hand he brandished ‘Old Dorothy’s’ sword while in the other he held the handwritten Book of Shadows as he read the ritual by which I was formally made a priestess and witch.” That night, Doreen took the magical name Ameth. At the age of thirty-two, she’d finally discovered her true nature. As she would often say: “To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, ‘A witch is a witch is a witch is a witch.’”
Gerald invited her to meet the rest of his coven—about ten people—at his London apartment, where they practiced magic together, skyclad. “I had never felt any objection to working in the nude,” she writes. “On the contrary, it was fun to be free and to dance out the circle in freedom.” She trained with them for the traditional year and a day, learning to feel the change of the seasons in her life and in her body; learning to join with the others in “raising energy,” and to call the “Guardians of each direction,” those forces of nature. She built an altar in her home, and lived with the musky smell of incense and the ring of the bell she used to call the gods. She grew accustomed to talking to the dead. She earned her first degree, and then her second and her third. The coven “made me welcome, and I felt that a whole new life had opened up before me.” She soon worked her way up to become their new high priestess.
For a good while, Doreen remained closeted in her practice, not wanting her Christian mother to discover that her daughter had become a Pagan priestess. She was initiated during a time when the Craft was still very secretive—“in the broom closet,” as they say. This was also, of course, pre-feminism: empowered female mystics were an even harder concept to swallow then than today. Women (especially unmarried women) were not supposed to seek out or know anything about sex; nudity was considered obscene; religion was supposed to be a corrective, separate from anything that gave a person pleasure, and certainly not “sex-positive.” Someone who declared herself a witch could lose her job, be made a social outcast, or have her children taken away.
At the same time, Doreen began actively shaping both Wicca and the slow-building Pagan movement. While Gerald claimed that the rites he was teaching had been handed to him directly by a centuries-old coven he’d discovered in the New Forest, Doreen realized that several elements of his Book of Shadows (the coven’s master book of spells and practices) had actually been copied from historical spell compilations: from Aradia, a witches’ “gospel” published by a turn-of-the-century American folklorist; from Masonic ceremonies; from Crowley’s writings; and even from a poem by Rudyard Kipling. When challenged, Gerald explained that he’d used existing sources to embellish what few fragments of written text he’d inherited from the New Forest group. In a bold move, Doreen pushed to rewrite much of the Book of Shadows, removing the most obvious derivative material and creating a new version of “The Charge of the Goddess” (the text read to a Wiccan once she receives her first-degree initiation). Still popular sixty years later, across the many strains of Wicca that have developed, “the Charge” is often used to evoke the presence of the Goddess in circle. The dramatic opening, in Doreen’s original verse form, reads:
Mother darksome and divine,
Mine the scourge and mine the kiss.
Five-point star of life and bliss,
Here I charge ye in this sign
But Doreen’s life with Gerald would be short-lived. Eager to spread the word of the Old Religion, Gerald published his book Witchcraft Today in 1954, announcing Wicca to the world. Over the next few years, Doreen, uncomfortable with the increasing level of exposure, rallied several coven members to her side, insisting that they outline clearer rules for their actions moving forward. Without missing a beat, Gerald replied that there were rules, passed down across the centuries—he’d simply forgotten to mention them. Conveniently, the rules required that he now replace her with a new, younger high priestess.
Doreen called bullshit. She left, moved to Brighton, and, though she continued practicing the “Gardnerian” style of Wicca, formed her own coven (she brought another of Gerald’s coven members with her, as her high priest).
In 1962, she published her first book, Where Witchcraft Lives, about historical witchcraft in her home county of Sussex. She remained in the closet, however, “for personal reasons,” writing the book as a “student” rather than an initiate of witchcraft. (When later asked about England’s Christian majority, she would say with a smile, “They seem remarkably short on Christian charity when it comes to witches!”)
Shortly after the publication of Where Witchcraft Lives, Doreen’s conservative Christian mother died; by the late, liberal sixties, new, much freer ideas about spirituality and sexuality were on the rise. Doreen was finally ready to out herself as a full-fledged high priestess.
In 1971, she took part in the BBC documentary The Power of the Witch. The film opens with an image of a sunlit field. In the distance, coming slowly into focus as she walks toward the viewer, is a witch in a red cape. This is Doreen, striding toward the camera, completely self-assured in her signature bob and sizable eyeglasses. A few minutes later, smiling her half smile, she talks about the heart of the Craft in her West Country accent: “I’d say to a person who really wanted to know what was the spirit of witchcraft that they’ll learn more by, say, going out on the Downs at midnight and listening to the wind in the trees and looking at the full moon. They’ll learn more about the spirit of witchcraft, the real spirit of witchcraft, in that way than they will by reading any amount of books.”
Doreen also began writing as a Pagan priestess, going on to publish a string of seminal books on the history and practice of the Craft, including An ABC of Witchcraft (1973) and Witchcraft for Tomorrow (1978). In ABC, she writes about the spirit and pleasure of the Craft: “I have danced at the witches’ Sabbat on many occasions, and found carefree enjoyment in it. I have stood under the stars at midnight and invoked the Old Gods; and I have found in such invocations of the most primeval powers, those of Life, Love and Death, an uplifting of consciousness that no orthodox religious service has ever given me.”
Throughout the seventies, Doreen campaigned for the religious rights of Pagans, helping to found the Pagan Front advocacy group and laying the groundwork, through her writings and press, for an international Pagan movement. (Today in the United States, perhaps as many as one million Americans consider themselves Pagan.) With the rise of second-wave feminism, she also pushed for stronger, more active roles for women in the Craft: in spite of pioneering “Goddess” worship in the West, Paganism had been dominated (at least on the surface) by its male practitioners. In 1989, she wrote The Rebirth of Witchcraft, in which she traces some of the Pagan movement’s history while also coming down strongly against the culturally conscribed roles of Western women. She uses heated words about how female bodies are viewed, contorted, and abused, and she blames Christianity for plenty of it: “One of the chief weapons used against women has been the Christian Bible, heavily censored as it has been over the years until the references in the Old Testament to goddess-worship have been almost, though not entirely, obliterated. God, we have always been told, is masculine; from which it naturally followed that the male was somehow superior.”
In her later years, Doreen cut the figure of a very cool older lady, in severe, straight-across bangs and a formidable collection of sweater vests. More importantly, ever the iconoclast, she advocated for maximum personal freedom—even among the witches themselves, who had a range of views on secrecy and the right to initiate. In an interview she gave to a fellow witch in the late eighties, she warned against using the traditional secrecy around the Craft as a way of limiting access to practices that could have a greater positive influence if more people were able to discover them. Why shouldn’t normal folks have a chance to learn to cast a magical circle? To make offerings to the gods? To draw energy up through the earth and into their own bodies? She also admitted that she’d grown conflicted, decades after being initiated by Gerald, about what exactly was required for a person to call herself a serious witch. “I don’t like this idea that has started to spring up in some quarters that some people have got a way of saying, ‘Well, but we are the only genuine article, and if you’ve not been initiated by us, then you can’t be a witch,’” she said. “I don’t like this sort of power hierarchy. I don’t see why people need somebody’s permission to follow the Old Religion and follow the old gods.”
After her second husband died in the early seventies, Doreen moved into a nondescript block of Brighton council apartments, where she fell for a man who also became her magical partner (he would die two years before her). She started working at a local pharmacy and, rarely seen by neighbors, continued writing in her small upstairs flat on an old word processor, surrounded by her collection of some two thousand books.
There, early on a fall morning in 1999, she died of pancreatic cancer at the age of seventy-seven. Her body was taken to a barn for an all-night vigil, and then her remains were cremated.
Her obituary in the New York Times carried the headline “Doreen Valiente, 77, Dies; Advocated Positive Witchcraft”; and the Times of London called her the “mother of modern paganism.” In the summer of 2013, she became the first witch in British history to be awarded a blue plaque (used to mark the places where significant Brits lived), unveiled by the mayor. This was a year before Gerald’s home would receive one.
But the Doreen of legend has less to do with historical consensus and everything to do with a kind of radical individualism. “It is important for people not to slavishly follow anyone’s lead, I think. I hope witchcraft never sees any gurus.” The Craft, she said, was about helping people “to develop their own powers”—the first thing Gerald had taught her. Witchcraft “isn’t some sort of gift which people are given by some supernatural force,” she said. “All the trappings of the circle, the magical tools, and so on, are simply there to enable you to do that, to create the atmosphere for you to bring out your own power—which is natural, which is latent in everybody.”
Doreen didn’t need Gerald Gardner to tell her this. Just look to her earliest days: she was raised in a string of smaller English towns by conventional parents; the only unique episodes in her life were experiences she was convinced had taken place deep inside her. Her appetite for the occult, the psychic episodes, her communion with the moon—this was the welling up of abilities that were her very own, not handed down. What is it, this quality that makes a young girl believe she is so wholly different from everyone around her? What is the place this secret confidence comes from? How does a person know in her heart, before she knows the word, that she is a witch?
Alex Mar is the author of Witches of America. She is also the director of the documentary American Mystic.