Damn the Manhattan life-style (sometimes!) It was with the most intense frustration that I was unable to attend “Progressive Witchcraft: A Lecture with Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone,” discussing “the Evolution of Witchcraft in the 21st Century,” which took place Sept. 4, 2012, in a midtown studio-space in Manhattan, and was presented by Novices of the Old Ways, a super Witchcraft group led by my friend, and super-talented High Priestess Courtney Weber. (Novices of the Old Ways, by the way, is presenting the Main Ritual weekend-after-this, Sept. 29th, at NYC’s Pagan Pride, held in Battery Park, in view of the Statue of Liberty, and a bunch of confused tourists: Rock on, Pagans!) “Novices” always has a ton of exciting stuff going on, few as fascinating or as major as this presentation by Witchcraft Elder (and Neo-Pagan Rock-Goddess) Janet Farrar and her husband, Gavin Bone.
For those who may not be aware, Ms. Farrar (then Miss Owen) and her future-husband Stewart Farrar were initiated into Alexandrian Witchcraft by Alex Sanders in the early 1970s. They went on to publish a series of extremely influential early books on Wicca; if you have ever seen pictures of Witches from the early 1970s, likely as not, you have seen Ms. Farrar (who married Mr. Bone following Mr. Farrar’s death). She remains among the most significant of the Early Days High Priestesses; this lecture was a truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, causing me to gnash my teeth all the more that I had to miss it.
However, my friends Cory and Delphi were there (along with, as Delphi puts it, “half the Witch World of New York”), and they reported back to me what was said (the proceeding is based upon Cory’s written recollections, bolstered by his and Delphi’s verbal descriptions to me). In the first place (and they were both kind-of amazed and delighted that these words came out of Janet Farrar’s mouth): British Traditional Witchcraft is a “load of bull-crap.” Well, a load of bull-crap in the sense that, there are no British Traditional Witches to be found before Gerald Gardner, and certainly no British “Traditional” Witches to be found in the Witchcraft Traditions of British Culture before Gardner. (There are plainly British Witch “Traditions” to be seen in the British Isles before the 20th century; none, however, correspond to the Gardnerian- and subsequently Alexandrian- Traditions of Witchcraft, which again, as Ms. Farrar noted, do not exist prior to Mr. Gardner.)
In short, first Gerald Gardner, and then Alex Sanders, “made up” a fictitious, non-existing “history” of Traditional British Witches. No more than what any Progressive Witch has noted at least since the mid-90s- but how bracing (as my friends found) to have it acknowledged so forthrightly by such a notable Elder in the Witchcraft Movements.
According to Cory, Ms. Farrar and Mr. Bone described Sanders as a “complete whack job,” who would hold all sorts of public rituals, inviting both the press and the police, for the publicity. Apparently, neither Mr. Gardner or Mr. Sanders were above “pulling someone’s leg,” and apparently Mr. Sanders, in particular, would tell the most outrageous lies to American Witches about the “authenticity and antiquity” of his Tradition, and then have a laugh over the “stupid Americans” when they had left. The problem became, these Americans would bring these stories home, and apparently some of them are now enshrined in American Traditional Witch-Lore- this stuff that Alex Sanders “made up” in a prankish mood.
As an example of Mr. Sanders’ character (who, I’m getting the impression, was sort of the P.T. Barnum- meaning, the American circus-showman- of modern Witchcraft): consider Ms. Farrar’s story of how she met Mr. Sanders. It was 1970; the Swinging Scene in London continued, fueled by Beatles-mania, and Alex Sanders (kind of like the Andy Warhol of the British Witch Happening, I’m getting), Mr. Sanders is giving a lecture on Witchcraft- meaning, being a part of an ancient, undiscovered Lineage of British Traditional Witches. Well, as you can see from the photos above and below, Ms. Farrar remains a strikingly attractive woman (and a lady who plainly does her yoga). Imagine Ms. Farrar as a Young Miss in the bloom of her twenty-year old beauty- who possesses, as Alex Sanders quickly determines, spying her in the audience- a photogenic presence that will subsequently yield dozens of significant early Wicca photographs. Seems that Mr. Sanders had agreed to perform a Witches’ “Initiation” for a photographer, and approached young Ms. Farrar (well, I guess, not Ms. “Farrar” yet) to be his model for the young “Witch Initiate.” As Mr. Sanders possessed a personal charisma, Ms. Farrar agreed. The journalist-photographer for that shoot, by the way, was Stewart Farrar. He and Ms. Farrar were initiated (for real) by Alex Sanders, married- and the rest, as they say, is Wiccan history.
According to Cory, Ms. Farrar and Mr. Bone told how there was very little training in those days for initiation, and sometimes very little preparation. Apparently, one person who was initiated in a pub with a plastic knife, and a glass of whiskey, which the British Witches hold it to be valid. (I’m not sure that NYC Witches can complain too much, as I’ve heard stories about initiations being performed after nights in a bar.) Another Myth-Debunker was provided by their information that British Witches do not actually take titles. This apparently came about as an innovation, because just one of Gardner’s High Priestesses, Monique Wilson, had fantasies of being an aristocrat (Ms. Wilson was apparently of modest birth). Out of this desire for regal nobility, Ms. Wilson began the use of “Lord” and “Lady” for Third Degree High Priests and High Priestesses. Monique passed this notion to her Down-Line in America, which is why there are all manner of “Lords and Ladies” running around the supposedly democratic United States, while British Witches are dumbfounded by it all. (If not actually offended, perhaps, some being “Working Class,” at the thought of “Poshing themselves off like a Toff.”) Cherished American Lineage Tradition, bites the dust as a Brits Witch’s presumption.
Ms. Farrar and Mr. Bone talked about how originally, there were no “Books of Shadows,” as such. Such books as Witches kept were meant to be each Witch’s personal diary and recipe-book. No Book was ever meant to be identical to another; they were never intended to be a “Sacred Text.” According to Cory, “They told how the Craft in Britain evolved, and adapted in relation to the times that surrounded them; how they took what they had received, and used it as a starting point in their own journeys.” (Which sounds very much like the “Eclectic” Movement in America.) They discussed how there was no interaction between Witches or Traditions until the advent of the Pagan Federation- a British development modeled on the Pagan Way of America (therefore, America’s own contribution to British Witchcraft).
But- and here is what I find inspiring, so I’m quoting Cory flat-out- ”But in all of this, they never gave the slightest notion that the Craft itself was fake or invalid. Rather their words and stories conveyed the deep-set belief that the Craft is a deep and beautiful expression of its followers’ spirituality. To the question of why the Goddess picked Sanders and Gardner to do the job, the answer was that these two individuals had the egos needed to drive the work through. Their egos, their flamboyance, and even their outrageous stories were what was needed to get the revival of Witchcraft off the ground. The birth of anything is seldom neat, clean or discreet. Rather it comes with much mess, much screaming and drama. Birth is after all a human thing, and Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders were just the humans to do the job set forth by the Goddess.”
Such inspirational words. I gather that if Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders had been running around going, Let me initiate you into this Syncretic Magickal System which I devised last week- maybe they would not have had many takers. It was the fascination with the idea of “surviving medieval Witchcraft” that drew people in- to the extent that Neo-Paganism is a force of its own, now.
It is interesting too, to reflect that the first emergent form of Neo-Paganism (British “Traditional” Witchcraft) was actually the first exercise in Eclectic Witchcraft. Listening to Cory and Delphi describe the evening, I remembered what Cory concluded in his guest-review of our friend Michael Lloyd’s Bull of Heaven, regarding Eddie Buczynski- he discovered that it was not the authenticity in the Craft that counted; it was the sincerity.
My admiration to Janet Farrar as a gracious lady, and as one of the Highest Priestesses in the Craft- one who both personally and through her books, has inspired a Generation of Witches.
Great thanks to Courtney Weber and Novices of the Old Ways, for arranging this excellent and important event.