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[Chalice] A Fine Kettle of Witches; The origins of Wicca, [Chalice]
told through biographies of some prominent witches

Presented October 29, 2006, by Paul Miller

Opening words:

"The Witch Song" by Bonnie Lockhart

Verse 1

Witches knew all about flowers and trees,
How to use all the roots and the bark and the leaves.
People grew weary from hard-working days,
Witches made them feel better in so many ways.

Verse 2

Women had babies, the witches were there,
To feed them and help them and give them some care.
Witches new stories of how life began,
Don't you wish you could be one? Well maybe you can!

Verse 3

Some people thought that the witches were bad,
Some people were scared of the power they had.
The power to heal and to help and to care
Isn't something to fear, it's a treasure to share!


Who were the witches, where did they come from?
Maybe your great great grandmother was one.
Witches were wise, wise women they say,
And there's a little witch in every woman today.
There's a little witch in every woman today.

From "Circle Round and Sing!" available at

First reading:

from the Bull of Pope Innocent VIII

It has recently come to our ears, and not without great pain to us, that in some parts of upper Germany, as well as in the provinces, cities, territories, regions and dioceses of Mainz, Koln, Trier, Salzburg and Breman, many persons of both sexes, heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the catholic faith, give themselves to devils, male and female, and by their incantations, charms and conjurings, and by other abominable superstitions and sortileges, offences, crimes and misdeeds, ruin and cause to perish the offspring of women, the foal of animals, the products of the earth, the grapes of vines and the fruits of trees, as well a men and women, cattle and flocks, and herds and animals of every kind, and hinder men from begetting and women from conceiving, and prevent all consummation of marriage; that moreover they deny with sacrilegious lips the faith they received in holy baptism; and that at the instigation of the enemy of mankind, they do not fear to commit and perpetrate many other abominable offences and crimes, at the risk of their own souls, to the insult of the divine majesty and to the pernicious example and scandal of multitudes.

Second reading:The Charge Of The Goddess

Written by Doreen Valiente

Whenever ye have need of anything,
once in the month and better it be when the moon is full,
then shall ye assemble in some secret place,
and adore the spirit of me,
who am Queen of all witches.

There shall ye assemble,
ye who are fain to learn all sorcery,
yet have not won its deepest secrets;
to these will I teach all things that are as yet unknown.

And ye shall be free from slavery;
and as a sign that ye be truly free,
you shall be naked in your rites;
and ye shall dance, sing, feast, make music and love,
all in my praise.
For mine is the ecstasy of the spirit,
and mine also is joy on earth;
for my law is love unto all beings.

Keep pure your highest ideals;
strive ever towards them,
let nothing stop you or turn you aside.
For mine is the secret door which
opens upon the Land of Youth,
and mine is the cup of the wine of life,
and the Cauldron of Cerridwen,
which is the Holy Vessel of Immortality.
I am the gracious Goddess,
who gives the gift of joy unto the heart of man.

Upon earth,
I give the knowledge of the spirit eternal;
and beyond death,
I give peace, and freedom,
and reunion with those who have gone before.

Nor do I demand sacrifice;
for behold, I am the Mother of all living,
and my love is poured out upon the Earth.

I am the beauty of the green earth,
and the white moon among the stars,
and the mystery of the waters,
and the desire of the heart of man.

Call unto thy soul, arise, and come unto me.
For I am the soul of Nature,
who gives life to the Universe.
From me all things proceed,
and unto me all things must return;
and before my face, beloved of gods and of men,
let thine innermost divine self be enfolded,
in the rapture of the infinite.

Let my worship be within the heart that rejoicest,
for behold, all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals.
Therefore, let there be beauty and strength,
power and compassion, honor and humility,
mirth and reverence within you.

And thou who thinketh to seek for me,
know thy seeking and yearning shall avail thee not,
unless thou knoweth the mystery;
that if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee,
thou wilt never find it without thee.

For behold, I have been with thee from the beginning;
and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.

© John Belham-Payne and the Centre for Pagan Studies. They can be found at:

A Fine Kettle of Witches

Who are the witches, and where did they come from?

My wife, Sam, and I might qualify as witches. She is a pretty lady with long hair that occasionally turns red, and with a wart on her nose. She has the same name as a famous fictitious television witch. She has a garden full of magical and medicinal herbs. I made my fortune as a brewer of potions, or a chemist. We live in a cottage in the woods with a twilight-grey cat, 2 free-range house toads and a salamander. We dance with faeries in moonlit woods. I guess we qualify as witches.

Modern witches and other pagans like to say we walk the path of the ancient ones; we follow the old religion, passed on through generations uncounted from prehistoric times. Well, sort-of.

Modern Paganism is a syncretistic religion. That is, it combines many different traditions going back to American Indian, Greek, Babylonian, Hindu, Hebrew, and other mythologies. It is sort of a tree-hugging, dirt-worshipping Unitarianism. There are all kinds of witches in the stew. Today I want to talk about Wicca, which might be called modern orthodox witchcraft. I propose to tell the stories of some prominent witches, starting in the present, and going backwards as far as we can follow the trail.

I was 30-something when I first attended a Neopagan ritual. It was a spring equinox circle at the Unitarian Church in Princeton, New Jersey. Though I had been to Church hundreds of times, this was my first religious experience. I had to learn more. Though it wasn't all that many years ago, information was harder to find then, especially in Hannibal. Missouri, the buttcrack of the Bible Belt.

Through the mail, I bought a copy of A Witches' Bible Compleat by Stewart and Janet Farrar. Wow! This was the coolest book I had found since I read Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex as a teenager. It's got history, philosophy, and ethics of witchcraft, plus nuts-and-bolts information for rituals. It is still, in this Pagan's humble opinion, the most important book for a witch's library. These authors have done more to clear the fog around modern Pagan witchcraft than anyone else, so I shall begin my story with them.

Stewart Farrar was born in 1916 in Essex, England. Like me, he was raised up Christian, and, like me, he turned agnostic by age 20. After serving as an anti-aircraft gunnery instructor in WWII, he pursued a career as a writer. In 1969, then 53 years of age, and still agnostic, an assignment as a reporter led him to the witch Alex Sanders. At Sanders's request, Stewart began writing the book What Witches Do. He started this project as a skeptical outsider, and ended it as a witch, initiated into Sanders's coven. That is where he met Janet Owen, an intelligent and forceful witch, who was also younger and prettier than Stewart. Stewart and Janet started a coven of their own in London, married, moved to Ireland, started a new coven, and wrote A Witches Bible Compleat. They called their tradition "Alexandrian Wicca" honoring both their mentor, Alex Sanders, and Alexandria, Egypt, the ancient city where Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek magical traditions came together. It was a neat double entendre, and much more marketable than "Sandersian" or "AlexanderSandersonian". The Farrars might have named it Farrarian Wicca, had they been self-aggrandizing megalomaniacs, but happily, they weren't and they didn't.

Stewart departed for the summerlands in 2000. Janet is still leading a coven in Ireland with Wiccan priest Gavin Bone.

A Witches Bible Compleat contains much ancient lore, But, unlike many similar books before, it does not claim to be an ancient text, handed down through generations. It freely admits to being new stuff, based on old stuff from many sources. It also departs from tradition by giving instructions for self-initiation, that is, how to become a witch without the aid of an already existing coven.

Alex Sanders, and his predecessors, taught that just as a Christian priest must be ordained by the church, a witch must be initiated by another witch, implying that any real witch must be of an unbroken line of witches. Alex Sanders said that "only a witch can make a witch", but which witch made Alex a witch? We know that Janet and Stewart Farrar were initiated by Alex and his wife/priestess, Maxine Sanders, and Maxine was initiated by Alex and Alex was initiated by his grandmother so he said.

Alex Sanders, Britain's self-proclaimed "King of the Witches" also known as "British witchcraft's enfant terrible" was born in 1926 in Manchester England. When he was 7, he discovered his grandmother standing naked in the kitchen in the middle of a circle drawn on the floor. She revealed herself as a hereditary witch and initiated him on the spot. She ordered him to enter the circle and take off his clothes. With her knife she nicked his scrotum and declared "you are one of us now". She gave him her book of shadows, which contained the rites and magic of witches.

That's what Alex said. I say it's all fabrication and fantasy. His book of shadows came not from his grandmother, but from the patron saint of Wicca, Gerald Gardner, whom we shall meet as our story continues.

Alex Sanders, King of the Witches, was a drunk, a show-off, a liar, a pervert, and a plagiarist. True enough, he was reputed to have great magical power. For example, he claimed to have created a flesh and blood "spiritual baby" in a rite of ritual masturbation with a male assistant. Alas, the baby disappeared shortly after its creation. Michael, as the spirit was called, was a problem child who would possess Sanders and force him to behave badly in public. Eventually, Michael settled down and became a valuable spirit familiar. Sanders also claimed power as a healer. For example, he said he could cure warts by wishing them on somebody else who was already ugly. Did I mention Sanders was a liar, a show-off, and a pervert?

He tried, and failed, to get admitted to more than one Gardnerian coven. Some churches will let any sinner in the door, but witches have their standards. It appears he was eventually initiated into a coven by a Wiccan priestess named Medea. And this may be how he got the Gardner book of shadows.

Sanders died of lung cancer on Beltane, April 30, 1988. Even in death he was a show-off. His funeral was a media event with an entourage of witches attending. A tape recording was played in which he named his son, Victor as his successor as "King of the Witches". Victor was not interested, and no successor was chosen. Stewart Farrar observed: "Alex was born a showman, but the fact remains that he made a major contribution to the Craft, in his own often bizarre way, and many people (including ourselves) might never have been introduced to it but for him."

So, now back to our backwards trail, which brings us to "the Derbyshire Priestess" called Medea, who initiated Alex Sanders. We know almost no thing about Medea, but we know a lot about Gerald Gardner, who may have initiated Medea.

Gerald Gardner was born on Friday the 13th of June, 1884 near Liverpool. He claimed to be descended from Grissell Gardner, who was burned as a witch in 1610; a remarkably unremarkable claim, for what Englishman doesn't have at least one witch in his family tree?

Gerald traveled a lot in his youth, and he made a bunch of money in the rubber trade in Asia. He was fascinated with archaeology and with local Asian religions and magical beliefs. In 1939 he retired to the New Forest region of England. There he joined the Rosicrucian Theater, which performed plays with occult themes. Some of the theater members claimed to be hereditary witches who practiced a craft passed down through the centuries. I imagine he felt kind of like I did when I found that Pagan Unitarian circle in Princeton. They confided in him, which took more than a little confidence, as witchcraft was still illegal even in 1939. Gerald was initiated into the coven by the priestess he called "Old Dorothy".

There were actually many covens operating secretly in England at the time. Gardner's favorite coven story involved magic rituals directed against Hitler in 1940, when invasion of Britain seemed imminent. He said "Old Dorothy called up covens right and left, although by witch law they should not be known to each other." A great circle was cast at night in the forest, and a cone of magical energy was raised and directed against Hitler. She called it "Operation Cone of Power". Energy was raised by frenetic dancing and chanting. So frenetic that some of the older witches died from the strain a few days later.

There are many versions of the story One version has the British Government requesting Aleister Crowley to arrange the ritual, called "Operation Mistletoe". It involved a flaming dummy in Nazi dress launched along a cable from a church tower, within 2 circles of soldiers wearing robes over their uniforms.

The preponderance of the evidence is against the Crowley version. Gardner's version is probably closer to the truth. Indeed, it would be surprising if some sort of magical effort had not been used to protect Britain. That is the sort of thing witches do. Legend has it that similar rituals were directed against the Spanish Armada, Napoleon, and the Normans. More recently, it was also done in the US against Osama Bin Laden. I know because I led the ritual.

Anyway, Gerald joined the coven. He diligently collected material on magical procedures, and compiled them in a manuscript he called "Ye Bok of ye Art Magical". He liked to tweak words to make them sound ancient and arcane. He expanded on "Ye Bok" in his "Book of Shadows", evidently the same book of shadows that Alex Sanders acquired or stole, and claimed to have gotten from his grandmother. Gardner may have first coined the phrase "Book of Shadows" but secret books of magic are nothing new.

Most witches keep their own Book of Shadows, which is often a beautiful hardbound book full of hand-written rituals, spells, and such. Some modern witches keep their Book on a computer disk, but it is still called a book, not a "Disk of Shadows". Mine is a woefully inelegant pile of photocopies and hand-scrawled notes stuffed into a manila folder. In the old days, when most houses had no books other than the Bible, a book of arcane magical writings was thought of as more than information. The book itself was often believed to have magical power, like a wizard's staff. Possession of such a book would confer power to the owner.

Gerald wrote many books, but it was Witchcraft Today , published in 1954 that launched him out of the broom closet. He would have done it sooner, were it not for the objections of the coven, and for the Witchcraft and Vagrancy Acts, which were repealed in 1951. The book was an immediate success, and new covens started popping up all over England. Gerald enjoyed being celebrated as "Britain's Chief Witch" in spite of the awkward position of publicizing a "secret" religion. He may have been the first to call the religion "Wicca". Many etymological gymnastics have been used to explain the origin of the word, but it is most likely derived from the Old English "wicce", meaning "witch".

In 1963 he went to Lebanon for the winter, perhaps for his health, as he was suffering from asthma. On the boat home, he died of heart failure. He was buried ashore in Tunis on February 13, 1964.

Some remembered him as manipulative and deceitful, not above fabrication to establish an acceptable venue for his personal interest in naturism and voyeuristic sex. Most people give him more credit. Doreen Valiente described him as a man utterly without malice, generous to a fault, with real, but not exceptional magical powers, whose motives were good, and who sincerely wanted to see the "Old Religion" survive. Dirty old man though he may have been, he was said to be devoted to his wife, Donna, until she died, even though she never participated in the Craft.

Now, back to our search for the origins of Wicca. Did Gardner make it all up?

When discussing 20th Century ceremonial magic, Aleister Crowley often raises his ugly impish head. Crowley you may know as the most controversial, bombastic and infamous magician of the early 20th Century; "the wickedest man on earth". Crowley was in the last year of his life when he and Gardner were introduced, in 1946 or 7. Crowley agreed to write down rituals, which he retrieved by "magical recall" (for a fee of 3 guineas per page, it was said). Much of Gardner's book of shadows came straight from Crowley. Later, Doreen Valiente helped Gardner refine the rituals, and in the process she removed most of the Crowleyisms, because she said Crowley's name stank.

Crowley knew a lot about witches, and he rejected their tradition because, according to Gardner, "he refused to be bossed around by any damn woman" and he could not understand the lack of profit in it. Gardner described Crowley as a charming charlatan, which is the kindest thing I have known any Wiccan to say about him.

Legend has it that Crowley was initiated into a witch coven in 1899 or 1900, only to be expelled because the high priestess thought him to be "a dirty-minded, evilly disposed, vicious little monster". Aleister Crowley surely had influence in Wiccan ritual, but he was not of the Wiccan path.

If there is a continuous lineage of witches leading to modern Wicca, it goes not through Crowley, but through the coven whom Gerald Gardner met at the Rosicrucian Theater, and the witch whom Gerald called "Old Dorothy Clutterbuck". So little was known about Old Dorothy, that at one time it seemed doubtful if she ever existed. Was she a fictitious character invented by Gardner to legitimize his claim as a priest of "the Old Religion"? Doreen Valiente believed she was real, and set out to prove it if she could.

How to find a dead person, starting with almost no clues? To a witch the answer is obvious. Invite the beloved dead one to a Halloween ritual. Doreen herself tells the story better than I can in an essay printed in the appendix of A Witches' Bible Compleat:

"I had two companions, Fiona and Dusio We formed our circle and proceeded with our Halloween rites of invoking the Old Gods I told the others what I wanted to do, namely to call on Old Dorothy's spirit. They agreed, and I made a short invocation to her, asking her in particular to show me in some way if she wished me to succeed in my quest.

"I hardly expected an immediate physical phenomenon, but we got one. Shortly after I called on Old Dorothy, the lantern which was standing in the south quarter suddenly turned right over with such force that it broke the glass . . .

"We were compelled to consider at least the strong possibility that it was a supernormal occurrence. I myself believe that it was because I also heard a voice outside the circle, seeming to come from the southern quarter. It called my name 'Doreen!' The others did not hear this, but I heard it plainly, and it sounded like Gerald Gardner's voice."

This is not enough to prove Old Dorothy's existence, but it was enough encouragement for Doreen to diligently search public records. If you want the whole story of Doreen's search, you can read it in the book. To make a long short enough for our attention span; a long search revealed that Dorothy Clutterbuck was born in Bengal, India in 1880. She moved to England, married a Mr. Fordham, and lived an affluent life until she died in Christchurch in 1951.

Old Dorothy had been found, but the story doesn't fit. Dorothy Clutterbuck Fordham was a highly respected, highly conservative, highly visible member of the English upper crust. To be associated with witchcraft would have been a disastrous scandal for someone of her social stature. Her diaries contain no hint of any involvement or even knowledge of the occult. No doubt, Dorothy Clutterbuck was a real person, but if she was a witch, she led an incredible double life, comparable to Batman and Bruce Wayne.

It may be that Gardner used her as a red herring to divert attention from his real high priestess. We will probably never know her real name. He called her "Dafo", probably her craft name. Gerald and Dafo led the coven until 1952. He wanted to publicize the Craft, and she wanted to remain secret, fearing for her reputation and livelihood. Dafo left the coven and disappeared from Wiccan history.

So there was a coven, and there was a priestess, whatever her name was. Did this coven belong to a line of hereditary witches? It could have been one of the legendary 9 covens of the famous cunning man George Pickingill.

Old George Pickingill was in fact a humble farm worker who lived in East Anglia from 1816 to 1909. He hated the Christian Church, as well as local authority, and he openly campaigned for their overthrow. His magical activities bordered on Satanism. He was revered and feared by his neighbors, who would not go to his house without an invitation, and if they went there at all, they did so in fear. They said he was an ill-tempered man who would sit by his hedge, smoking his pipe, while his imps tended the fields. I speculate it is more likely that he bullied the neighbor kids into doing the work.

Imps or no imps, he led covens of witches. Pickingill's witchcraft was very different from modern Wicca. Rituals were led by women, and they worshipped the Horned God, who was not the Devil, but a pre-Christian god of wild nature. Modern Wiccans have priests and priestesses, and they worship the God and Goddess, with the Goddess being "first among equals". It is probable that they practiced black magic as well as white, the rule to harm none being a more recent development in Witchcraft ethics.

It was one of Pickingill's covens that reputedly initiated and later ousted Aleister Crowley.

The priestess who initiated Gerald Gardner, if she was really Dorothy Clutterbuck, died in 1951. If she was really Dafo, she disappeared in 1958, presumably an old woman by then, so it is plausible that she had been initiated as a young woman by Old George himself. He died in 1909.

Here the trail peters out. Many witches have been documented throughout history, but we can't trace a direct lineage, other than by legend, rumor, and speculation. Pickingill claimed to trace his ancestry back to "Julia, the Witch of Brandon", who was hired by the Saxons to use magic against the invading Normans. The Normans retaliated by burning her at the stake in 1071, and they burned her village also for good measure.

History is full of witches, wizards, healers, charmers, cunning men, and wise women. They contributed to what became modern Wicca, though a direct lineage can not be established. Their stories are well worth telling, but we are out of time. Wicca, or witchcraft by any name, does not appear to have been an organized religion prior to Gerald Gardner. Gardner is the star of this story. He did not create witchcraft, but he developed it, and brought it to the public who were hungry for it. I would go so far as to say that Gerald Gardner is to Wiccans what the Apostle Paul is to Christians.

So that's all the story I have time for today. From Old George Pickingill to Old Dorothy or Dafo, to Gerald Gardner, to Medea the Derbyshire priestess, to Alex Sanders the "King of the Witches", and Maxine Sanders, to Stewart and Janet Farrar, to witches all over the world, a fine kettle of witches, indeed.

Closing words:

from A Witches Bible Compleat by Stewart and Janet Farrar

"The development of the conscious mind (certainly in the best examples available to mankind) has reached its peak. Our next evolutionary task is to revive the gift of the Goddess at full strength, with unimaginable prospects for the human race and the planet we live on. God is not dead. He is a grass widower, awaiting the readmission of his exiled consort. And if Wicca is to play its part in this, a special emphasis on that which is to be reawakened is a practical necessity."

© 1981, 1984 by Stewart and Janet Farrar

©2006 Paul Miller

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Miller, Paul. 2006. A Fine Kettle of Witches, /talks/20061029.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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