Modern Pagan Witchcraft

Modern Pagan Witchcraft

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Paganism is an umbrella term for a wide variety of extended animistic beliefs, ideas, spiritual paths, religions and practices, often with roots in antiquity and typically (but not exclusively) used to refer to non-Abrahamic, indigenous and often polytheistic religious traditions. “Modern Paganism” (or “Neo-Paganism”) often refers to the survival, revival or reconstruction of such traditions. Animism is the belief that all living things have a non-physical aspect to their nature and most pagans believe that through this non-physical part of their nature they are connected to the whole of the natural world around them and indeed the divine itself.

One of the more prevalent modern pagan religions is Witchcraft, said to be Britain’s ancestral, pre-Christian indigenous spirituality and religion. Witchcraft came “out of the broom closet” so to speak in the 1950s after the repeal of the last of the 1735 Witchcraft Act, which had previously made it illegal to practice it. Two of it’s earliest and most influential pioneers were Gerald Brosseau Gardner and Doreen Valiente. Gerald, a retiree to his native Britain after a long life working in the rubber industry in the Far East, was initiated in 1939 into a practising group of witches in Hampshire on the edge of the New Forest and he became the first witch to publish books about the Craft as an insider. Doreen Valiente was one of his early initiates into the Craft and between them they pioneered the art of explaining openly and accurately about the Craft as a mystery religion while still preserving its mysteries and oath-bound secrets.

Doreen described herself as a “student of the occult” since childhood so when she came across Gerald Gardner in a magazine she bought from the local newsagent in the early 1950’s she was startled and excited to read claims that Witchcraft was still alive in Britain and she wrote at once to Gerald to find out more. She met him in 1952 and, presumably seeing in her the qualities that embody a valuable member of the Craft, he initiated her on Midsummer’s Eve 1953. Doreen started to notice the rituals of the Craft had influences directly attributable to previously published authors such as Charles Leyland, Aleister Crowley and even Rudyard Kipling and Gerald must have realised he had his hands full when his new priestess boldly pointed this out to him! Gerald explained how the rituals he had received from his initiators had been too fragmentary to be easily passed on in written form and so he had deliberately embellished them to better bring out their meaning. He told Doreen snappily “If you can do better, go on then!” He must have been surprised and delighted when she did just that and, together, they produced the remarkable ritual texts that now comprise the secret rites of the Craft of the Wica (as they always called it) more commonly known today as “Wicca”. Of their publicly published works Gerald’s “Witchcraft Today” and Doreen’s “Witchcraft For Tomorrow” are, rightly, the first step for many on the road to Witchcraft and Pagan spirituality. Doreen wrote pieces like “The Charge Of The Goddess” and “The Witches Chant” and you would be hard pressed to attend a modern Pagan ritual and not hear someone quote something that she either wrote directly or influenced heavily.

Doreen continued to represent the Craft after Gerald passed over in 1964 and she founded an organisation that later became the Pagan Federation, established to give Pagans a voice in the wider community and defend their rights not to be discriminated against. She found herself, somewhat reluctantly, shouldering the mantle of dealing with the world’s press and media with her disarming interview style, often reducing the outrageous allegations of many a reporter to “silly nonsense” while delivering grown up, rational and accurate representations of the principles and practices of modern Witches, often in the face of fierce antagonism. She is remarkable, unique and revered in Pagan circles as she absolutely embodies the hearts and minds of Witches and Pagans demonstrating appropriate measures of mirth and reverence, and of course, a massive store of knowledge and experience. Her fame and achievements are only surpassed by her popularity and respect among the World’s Pagan community.

Towards the end of her life Doreen encountered an organisation near her hometown of Brighton being run by John Belham-Payne and his wife Julie called The Centre For Pagan Studies. Having attended a talk hosted by the CFPS she approached John & Julie to inform them that she thoroughly approved of their vision which was to offer down to earth, un-exploitative and accurate information about magic, Paganism and its practices and Doreen offered to “get involved”. John, already an initiate of the Craft, became her last High Priest and continued to practice the Craft with Doreen through to the end of her life. He and Julie nursed her through her final illness and were there at her bedside when she passed over in 1999 and John presided over her funeral.

The Doreen Valiente collection lies now in the care of the Doreen Valiente Foundation, a charitable organisation whose primary objectives are to share, celebrate, research and preserve her legacy, eventually in a permanent museum. “I’ve left you the lot” she told John just before she passed over, and when he asked her what she wanted him to do with it she enigmatically told him “Do the right thing”. Among the vast collection of artifacts and objects, many of which are the most iconic and most photographed Witchcraft items in the world, she left a library of over 2,000 books and all of her documents, papers, letters, photographs, manuscripts, diaries and magical writings. Oh, and the original old book of Gerald Gardner’s that became known as The Book Of Shadows, a handwritten grimoire containing the core rites and rituals of modern Witchcraft, regarded as the most important document in modern Witchcraft, if not modern Paganism.

As time went on John began to understand more of the significance of the collection she had bequeathed him and, following some frighteningly substantial offers to purchase some of it, he finally realised what Doreen had meant by “doing the right thing”. He enlisted the help of Ashley Mortimer (myself) to create a charitable trust in 2011 called The Doreen Valiente Foundation to which he donated the entire collection and put it beyond the legal powers of any possible future owners to break up, sell or otherwise damage. We also made it a condition of the trust that we should strive to share, research, preserve and protect Doreen and Gerald’s legacies and making them accessible to the wider public. The foundation and the CFPS has continued the work by putting on talks, exhibitions, conferences and events and we are now seen in the Pagan community among the foremost authoritative and representative organisations of the modern Craft as well as the keepers of Craft heritage and legacy.

The Foundation has been in talks since it’s inception with various government bodies, international museum organisations and local councils to establish a permanent home for the collection in the form of a properly accredited museum. Doreen’s hometown of Brighton, nestling in the county of Sussex, a landscape described as “oozing Witchcraft”, is seen as the most natural home for the museum and a proposed Centre For Pagan Studies but the road to such ambition is filled with red tape and bureaucracy and so, in order to keep awareness up, we have maintained a number of other projects. Perhaps the most prominent of these has been the campaign for public recognition of Pagans who have achieved greatness and this came to international attention on Midsummer’s Day 2013 when the world’s first heritage blue plaque for a Pagan was unveiled in Doreen’s honour at her modest council block home in Brighton. Gerald Gardner’s blue plaque at his former home in Highcliffe, Hampshire followed in 2014 and there are plans to move on to other famous Pagans. Meanwhile the CFPS/DVF have been putting on international conferences in our “A Day For…” series honouring Doreen, Gerald, Professor Ronald Hutton and Patricia Crowther, another of Gerald’s High Priestesses of the Craft. Add to this the publication of Doreen’s books including her previously unpublished poetry the commissioning of her official biography by respected author Philip Heselton and a raft of work on TV, radio and in the press on behalf of Paganism and Witchcraft the small team of trustees is kept constantly busy. Throwing its doors open to membership in 2012 the Foundation won the help and support of the very community it serves and eagerly anticipates the day it can have a permanent base to work from as it undertakes the mammoth task of cataloguing, transcribing, conserving and researching more of the many secrets still hidden in Doreen’s magnificent collection.

You can find out more about the Foundation, Doreen herself and the history of the modern Craft at their website, and the Official Centre for Pagan Studies website, where you can also contribute to the blue plaque schemes, become a member of the Foundation and purchase books and merchandise to help the cause.

Images courtesy and copyright of the Doreen Valiente Foundation.

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