This is a tale about a witch called Doreen Valiente a researcher, a poet, and an author who is still revered as the ‘mother of witchcraft’.
I moved to Brighton in 1987 and as a young woman, I was enamoured by the number of esoteric shops that existed in the North Laine. There were crystal shops, cafes full of fortune-tellers, and second-hand bookshops containing tomes on the occult. It was in a shop called Unicorn, where I was drawn to a book called Natural Magic penned by Doreen.
The book still sits on my bookshelf to this day. Amongst the pages, she shares her knowledge on topics such as numerology, astrology, and sex magic. When I first read her book, I developed an image of a slight, dark-haired woman sitting outside a cottage with a cauldron and black cat. However, this young naïve thought would eventually be challenged.
It was at a witch’s workshop in an attic of a church in Brighton where I eventually met Doreen dancing in a sacred circle. She was the complete opposite of the image I had formed of her. Tall, broad, with a booming West Country accent, Doreen was an empowered woman who had a down-to-earth nature. In conversation, she was well-read and able to hold arguments; she was a born researcher, with a critical mind who was able to detect nonsense when she saw it. There was no cottage, no cauldron, and no cat; she happened to live in a one-bedroomed council house around the corner from me.
Doreen was born in 1922 to staunch Christian parents. From a young age, she felt she was different as she had an early interest in witches and magic. It was during a trip to Ireland that she was shown a Neolithic burial chamber; the tour guide spoke of the ‘old feminine religion’ and this sent her on a lifetime quest to discover more about this mystery.
Witchcraft has had along and troubled history and its practice remained illegal until 1952. Even after the witchcraft act was repealed in 1951; witches were still feared by general society. Consequently, information was not available to the common person; and so knowledge and tradition were was shared orally or through expensive unobtainable books.
In the early 50s, Doreen was living in Bournemouth with her first husband and she frequented her local library where she weirdly found texts written by Allister Crowley and Dion Fortune.
In her own words, she felt that their magic had died with them and was uncertain that witchcraft still existed. By chance one Saturday morning in 1953, she bought a copy of a magazine called Illustrated, which contained an article about a new Witchcraft museum on the isle of Mann. Doreen quickly wrote to the curator Cecil Williamson, who then put her in touch with a gentleman called Gerald Gardener.
To cut a very long and complex story short, Gerald claimed to have been initiated by a woman called Dorothy Clutterbuck in the New Forest and to have inherited a magical tome called the Book of Shadows. Initially, Doreen was very excited to have joined his Coven and helped him to rewrite some of the rituals within his magical tome, however, she started to detect that he had confabulated his story.
On investigation, she discovered that Gerald had stolen the term ‘The book of Shadows’ from a magazine article written by Mir Bashir and it was an ancient manuscript written in Sanskrit, therefore nothing to do with witchcraft. Doreen was further challenged by his predilection for younger women and how he inculcated them to dance naked in the ritual circle to be closer to the horned god. She soon fell out with him on these matters and left his Coven to pursue her path.
She continued her investigations into witchcraft with an openly gay Brightonian called Lesley.
Roberts. Lesley was a journalist who coined his occupation as an ‘impartial Investigator of witchcraft and black magic’. Together they traversed the countryside of old Sussex to find old witch marks on old gravestones and evidence of Puck in Rudyard Kipling’s gardens. Doreen had a deep affection for Lesley, but he caused her trouble. One afternoon he went to the police station and told them that there had been a child sacrifice in Rottingdean. This caused a media storm and Doreen had to go and rescue him along with the magical tools that he had borrowed from her. She never understood why he did it, but of course, this outed her in a way that she did not expect, Nevertheless, they remained good friends, until his death in the early 60s I believe that her friendship with Leslie inspired her to write her first publication ‘Where Witchcraft lives’.
In her autumn years, Doreen met her second husband Ron who became her magical kismet and they practiced solely together until he died in 1996. She went on to write many books including ‘The Rebirth of Witchcraft and The ABC of Magic.
Through her writings, Doreen shared the belief that the Age of Aquarius would overthrow the old patriarchal ways and reignite feminism. She also believed that the outing of witchcraft would initiate the interest in environmentalism. She demystified old tradition and rewrote it to suit the modern mind. By challenging the nonsense of Gerald and Lesley’s imaginariums, I believe that she prevented neo-paganism from being misunderstood.
In addition to her books, Doreen wrote prolifically for magazines such as The Pentagram, The Wiccan, and the Psychic News, advocating for the freedom for witches and pagans to practice without the fear of persecution. As a practitioner she scribed poems such as The Charge of the Goddess; this continues to be an inspirational text used to this day by neo-pagans to invoke the goddess into the sacred circle.
It was after Ron’s death that I met her at the workshop in the church attic. She then became an honorary guest within our Coven helping us to celebrate the wheel of the year and orchestrate the handfast our queer friends by the Longman of Wilmington. It was at this time that she was invited as an honorary speaker at the Pagan federation conference in 1997. During her interview, Doreen endorsed the power of working alone (hedge witchcraft) and discussed that witchcraft should be all-embracing to all sexualities, races, and genders. Although she didn’t like the term ‘mother’ this is where her power as an elder came to fruition. Doreen had gained the respect of an entire generation of witches and pagans due to her research, her ability to challenge old patriarchal views.
Sadly in 1999, she developed pancreatic cancer and this is when I began to get to know her on a more personal level. I offered to help practically with tasks such as her laundry. So it led me to spend many afternoons in her living room, looking through her books and talking about magic and life on her mantelpiece were carved wooden statues of the horned god and horned goddess, it was here that she would tell me her stories of the difficulty of buying her magical tools, shopkeepers would wrap these up in newspaper and push her out of the door.
On the day of the solar eclipse on the 11th of August 1999, Doreen lay in her room dying. To her, her world was doomed because she felt that the eclipse was bringing her bad luck. I pulled her curtains to protect her from seeing the eerie darkness and held her hand to comfort her. She died a few weeks later, on the 1st of September 1999, in a nursing home in Hove.
As an aging woman and an academic, I often reflect on the brief time with Doreen and how I learned from her. After her death, a few people claimed that she had left them her magical powers. This left me feeling very bemused because she was so grounded, so I know that she would find this nonsensical and would hate that responsibility.
The real magical powers of Doreen is that are texts are available to everyone. Through them you can see that she lived her truth and as an elder, she still has plenty to teach us about challenging false myths and tales through research and critical thought. She never had the privilege of higher education, yet in my opinion, she was a natural learner and a great teacher.
The world has wholly changed since her body has left this plain, as we are now bombarded with endless information on Social media. I think what would now shock Doreen, is how the esoteric world has been hijacked by right-wing organisations such as Qanon. The anti-vax movement, the paranoia of 5G and image of Jake Angeli, a white man dressed up as a Shaman would horrify her. Doreen never told anyone to reject modern ways such as modern medicine. Although she advocated herbalism and medication, she did not deny the offer of medical support when she needed it.
For me, Doreen was pragmatic, grounded, and wise. I do not agree with everything she wrote and said. In recent years her good friend Ronald Hutton found that some of her research was incorrect. She would have never minded this and would have happily discussed it as she always took responsibility for her words. She continues as my elder and remains to have a great influence on my thinking. If you are interested in reading any of her books, then I do recommend The Rebirth of Witchcraft as it tells the story of her life and the wonderful people who she met such as Gerald and Lesley…. Enjoy!