6 Famous Witches From the Twentieth Century: Valiente, Leek, Gardner, and More
The Rise of Modern Witchcraft
If you haven't heard, witchcraft is making a comeback in modern times. Some call the craft a magical practice, while others say it is their religion. Still others call it a discipline or a way of life. Whatever the actual definition, there are those who claim to be modern-day witches who practice the craft in their daily lives. The present witchcraft movement can be attributed to certain courageous individuals in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Here you will read about six old-school witches from the twentieth century who made a name for themselves and brought Wicca and witchcraft into the public eye. They also generated more interest in witchcraft as a religious movement. Some of their motives and morals are questioned, but what will be presented here are simply the facts.
Doreen Valiente: The Mother of Modern Witchcraft
Doreen Valiente is now known worldwide as the mother of modern witchcraft, but her beginnings were as humble as any. Doreen Edith Dominy Valiente was born in 1922 to a middle-class family living in Surrey, Southeast England. Doreen's father was a civil engineer who also happened to be Methodist. Her mother was a Congregationalist. Despite her Christian upbringing, Doreen became interested in magic in her adolescent years. In her young adults years, she studied and practiced magic with a friend and also came across literature from a deceased doctor who was a part of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (a ceremonial magic group of which many occultists got their start). This book intrigued her, as well as Aleister Crowley's books on ceremonial magic. In addition, Doreen studied esoteric religions including Spiritualism. Her passion for the mysteries only grew.
In the 1950s, Doreen Valiente reached out to Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern day Wicca. He invited her to join the Bricket Wood Coven, and she eventually became High Priestess. Following her time with Gardner's coven, Valiente joined the Coven of Atho and also the Clan of Tubal Cain (both well-know covens in their own rite). But Valiente isn't known for the covens she joined, she is most well-known for her writing. Valiente wrote The Charge of the Goddess and The Witch's Rune, both poetic pieces included in the Gardnerian Book of Shadows. Her research into the witch trials and the history of witchcraft helped her produce some amazing works on witchcraft including the ABCs of Witchcraft and Natural Magic. Valiente's presence in the witchcraft community did not fizzle upon her death, and many Wiccans and pagans still honor her contribution to the witchcraft movement.
Rosaleen Norton: The Witch of Kings Cross
Rosaleen Norton is one of the most interesting and controversial witches from the twentieth century. She was born in 1917 in New Zealand but would end up living most of her life in Kings Cross in Sydney, Australia. Rosaleen claimed she had a normal upbringing, yet she hated being a child and disliked the children she was forced to be around in school and at play. A three year period of her childhood was spent living out of a tent in her backyard, making friends with the wildlife, even having a pet spider. As she got older, her interest in the occult grew and she began painting demons and pagan gods. Her paintings were more than controversial - they sparked outright contempt. Norton lost jobs with various newspapers and magazines because her artwork was too lewd or provocative. She also had the police riding her coattails at every art exhibition, sometimes confiscating her work under various outdated laws to protect the public from anything too racy. Norton claimed she was a pantheist pagan who worshiped Pan, although the papers and mainstream media spread rumors that Norton was a Satanist who engaged in animal sacrifice. Norton denied this to the end of her life.
Rosaleen is known as the Witch of Kings Cross, and she started her own form of witchcraft which was termed "The Goat Fold" by Doreen Valiente. Valiente ran her own coven, and she said she was influenced by the Qabalah, Thelema, and the darker side of magic. Despite saying she wasn't a Satanist, it was difficult for people to separate her interest in demons and the dark side of magic from her claims of being a pantheist pagan. Her artwork has gone on display a few times in Sydney since her death in 1979, and a few biographies have been written on her life.
Stewart and Janet Farrar
Stewart and Janet Farrar were an English married couple who also led a Wiccan coven in the late twentieth century. They are most well known for their literary contributions to the religion, including A Witches Bible, The Witches' Way, and Eight Sabbats for Witches. In the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, Stewart and Janet appeared on a few Television shows to do interviews in which they answered questions about their Wiccan religious beliefs and practices. You can watch one of those interviews below, and notice how well they keep their composure in the face of adversity.
The Farrars were both initiated and a part of the Alexander and Maxine Sanders' Coven; however, in the early nineteen-seventies, the Farrars started their own coven. Stewart passed away in the year two-thousand, and Janet re-married in 2014 a man named Gavin Bone who had already been in a polyfidelitous relationship with she and Stewart before his death. Janet continues to write books and lecture on Wicca in various countries along with her husband Gavin.
Sybil Leek: The Ordinary Witch of New Forest
Perhaps one of the most interesting figures in modern day witchcraft was the self-acclaimed "Ordinary Witch of New Forest" Sybil Leek. Sybil was born in nineteen-seventeen to a middle class family living in Staffordshire, England. She claimed to have met many famous individuals as a child including the "most wicked man in the world" Aleister Crowley. She would go on to write a book called Diary of a Witch, in which she described her coming to witchcraft and being influenced by her time with a band of gypsies in the New Forest area. She also was said to have been sent to join a French coven by her grandmother after returning from a short-lived marriage with her music teacher (he died only two years after the wedding). Sybil was a witch, psychic, and astrologer and was well-known for being eccentric and having a pet jackdaw that perched on her shoulder. Her Russian grandmother was a huge inspiration for her interest in the Old Religion. Sybil claimed she was a descendent of Molly Leigh, an accused witch who died in England in seventeen-forty-six.
Throughout her life she would undergo much fame and scrutiny, and she wrote more than sixty books on the topics of witchcraft, astrology, and the occult. She eventually moved to the United States to a comfortable, warm home in Florida. Sybil died in nineteen-eighty-two at her home in Melbourne, Florida. She was sixty-five-years-old and died of cancer. Despite those who would smear her name, Sybil was rather humble and referred to herself as an "ordinary witch".
Gerald Gardner: The Founder of Wicca
Gerald Gardner is probably the most well-known name in the religion of Wicca, because he is the founder of the modern day witchcraft religion. That being said, his name is not without controversy among the Wiccan community.
Gerald Gardner was born in eighteen-eighty-four in Lancashire, England to a middle class family. As a young man, Gardner traveled the world and collected inspiration and traditions from various indigenous peoples in his travels. He became an amateur anthropologist and archaeologist, and his interest in cultures fueled his desire to study esotericism and alternative religion. He claims to have been a part of a Rosicrucian Order, and while being a part of this group he met witches from the New Forest Coven. He was initiated into the coven in nineteen-thirty-nine. Gardner moved to London in the nineteen-forties and began discussing his system of beliefs with the public, garnering much attention to this Old Religion that supposedly survived centuries of persecution.
Gardner would come to be known as the Father of Wicca, as he was the very first to talk about Wicca in a public arena. He founded the first modern tradition of Wicca known as Gardnerian Wicca. Gardner would write a few books on the topic and do interviews about his religion. Throughout his days as the Father of Wicca, he would come in contact with various individuals like Doreen Valiente (of whom he initiated into his coven), Aleister Crowley (he studied Thelema and included some of the rituals in his practice), and others. Gerald Gardner died of a heart attack in nineteen-sixty-four while in transport on a ship to Lebanon.
Gardner's methods have come into question by modern day Wiccans and new-agers, but his tradition of Wicca remains strong to this day. Many Wiccans who are initiated into a true Gardnerian Wiccan coven can claim lineage back to Gerald Gardner.
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© 2018 Nicole Canfield