Of Witches and History: an afternoon with Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone

Terence P Ward —  May 5, 2016 — 3 Comments

HIGHLAND MILLS, N.Y. –Throngs of people smiling under sunny skies after days of chilling rain, a festive maypole, live music, rows upon rows of vendors hawking their wares.  This was the scene that welcomed Gavin Bone and Janet Farrar to the ninth annual Beltane Spring Festival put on by the owners of Brid’s Closet in the gently rolling landscape of Palaia Winery. The pair were actually on hand for several days, offering workshops, running rituals, presiding over a wedding beneath the ribbons that hung from the maypole and hummed like a flock of the eponymous birds, and talking about their new book, Lifting the Veil. The only potential cloud that might have been cast upon the events was the fact that copies of their book had not yet arrived. Signings were taken off the schedule. If Mercury going retrograde two days earlier had any bearing, no one mentioned it.

[From Farrar and Bone's website www.callaighe.com]

[From Farrar and Bone’s website www.callaighe.com]

A conversation with these two authors, each of whom has had a high profile in Pagan spheres for decades, can wander like an expedition through a hedge maze, with surprises and delights. That includes personal recollections of other well-known Pagans. Raymond Buckland, Gerald Gardner, and Ronald Hutton were all mentioned. It also includes observations about the way the Paganism itself has been divided and transformed, and has multiplied. A fair amount of time was also devoted to talking about Lifting the Veil.

Farrar described Lifting the Veil as a labor of love over many years; indeed, she promised a long wait for this book when the pair was interviewed for The Wild Hunt in 2008. It’s an exploration of trance and possession work that attempts to place these concepts in a Wiccan context. It’s an area of particular interest to Bone, who started exploring these ideas before he met Farrar and her late husband, Stewart.

“I’ve had an eventful life in the craft,” Bone said. He recalled being a solitary Pagan in 1985, and meeting some people to go into the woods near Portsmouth for his first ritual on Halloween. “I was quite Catholic,” he recalled, and he “wasn’t quite comfortable” with the observances. That discomfort may have come from a “nasty elemental,” which had attached itself to him during the ritual; he learned about its presence some time later when the owner of an occult shop made note of it. Then, he said, “I found out that behind every occult shop is a secret group.”

Bone recounted how he built a rather eclectic resume that wove Arthurian elements in with Sufi mysticism, ritual magic, energy work, and spirit contact through mediums. Meanwhile, members of the mainstream Wiccan community in England “shunned” him for not having had an initiation. He eventually was initiated into Seax Wica using a Tree of Life ritual run, he explained, by a dyslexic: “I was the first Jesuit introduced to Wicca,” he joked.

Even as he was exploring esoteric and religious paths, Bone was training as a psychiatric nurse. Studying in these two fields simultaneously placed him in positions where he started seeing patients who had already died and needed assistance crossing over, as well as those who were in trance or ecstatic states induced by conditions such as grand mal seizures and hypoglycemic shock. These altered states of consciousness excited his interest. “I was curious about the physiology” that was tied to these states, he said.

Lifting the VeilThat curiosity led him to look into the seidr practices in Anglo-Saxon cultures, as well as the possessions which take place during Vodou ceremonies. When he met the Farrars in the 1990s, he learned that people sometimes shared with Janet their frustrations about not being able to use the techniques she described for drawing down the moon, in which a deity is invoked into a person. The problem, Bone felt, was that “drawing down the moon was missing training in trance work.”

Farrar and Bone have traveled the world researching this book, including the techniques practiced by Aleister Crowley, shamans of the Russian steppes, Hellenic oracles, Thessalanian and Thracian practices from antiquity. Bone explained that many ancient oracles began their work in caves, and that traces of ethylene found at Delphi validate the hypothesis that subterranean gases helped induce the necessary trance states for them and for similar priestesses such as the Sybils.

Looking into the past and at different modern cultures drew them back to modern Paganism to try to fit together the missing pieces, and they consulted with Diana Paxson about trance work. Seidr priestesses of northern Europe, unlike the Sybils, were traveling seeresses; the methods of inducing trance appear to have included veiling and singing. From other cultures come elements like drumming and alcohol, and gradually Bone and Farrar started to develop the concept of there being four keys to successful trance induction. This includes energy work such as chakra stimulation, recognition of spirits and deities as separate beings, our concepts of mythical cosmology, and exterior elements including drumming, veiling, masking, and use of entheogens.

Even speaking about these topics, Bone can never quite turn off the medical side of his brain. Use of entheogens — hallucinogens — for ritual purpose is not without peril, he warned, just as other intense techniques such as fasting and sleep deprivation can be overwhelming. He recalled a friend who used those last two to have what Bone described as “genuine experiences,” but experiences that his friend “couldn’t come back from” afterward.

“The line between illness and psychic experience can be thin,” Bone said. “Schizophrenics have them, but in that case it’s a symptom, not a cause.” On the other hand, “One person’s madness is another person’s seer.”

Combinations of techniques are most common, and one element — pain — entered into the Pagan communities forcefully in the 1980s, when there started to be overlap with the BDSM community. The release of endorphins caused by those practices are reminiscent of the scourging used in early Gardnerian ritual, he explained, and can be much more intense than entheogens or even substances like opiates. “You can get hooked on it,” he explained.

Some of the work done in writing this book tried to place things like the ecstatic trance of Vodou “in a European context;” not an appropriation, but an attempt to revive practices such as the Dionysian rituals of Italy using techniques which have survived elsewhere in the world when the European traditions did not fare so well.

They did have an opportunity to share views about Paganism more generally, and that’s when Farrar — who took pains to let Bone talk up the book — was more than happy to weigh in. Sometimes described as an oath-breaker for the information she has put into her books, Farrar is unapologetic about her life, and contrasted herself and her husband from English Pagans in particular. Where many of the British “can be stiff-upper-lip people,” they are instead “salty and earthy,” willing to make ribald jokes about well-known figures and otherwise shock their more proper countrymen.

Bone and Farrar describe themselves as polytheists, and count that as part of the Wiccan march away from monotheism. “First it was one god and one goddess,” said Bone. “Then there was a triple goddess. It was awhile before people were polytheists again.”

How they see those gods is as shapeshifters, something which is attested to in many myths and evidenced in the various names and epithets some gods are referred by. “I wear a nurse uniform,” said Bone, but that doesn’t make him a different person. “Do the gods even get a voice?” Many Wiccans, they agreed, get “stuck in the maiden-mother-crone stuff” and seek to mold gods into that model.

“Frey wears an Armani suit and carries credit cards,” said Farrar. “Mercury is a telecommunications worker. Jehovah thinks he’s all alone.” She delighted in announcing that the Venus de Milo statue once bore a name plate of “Eris.” Doreen Valiente, she said, was definitely a polytheist, and likely worshiped Diana. In practice, “she was much more of a hedge witch. She wanted to commune in the forest, not practice high magic.”

Janet Farrar & Gavin Bone

Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone [Courtesy Photo]

Recollections of people who brought modern Wicca into the world include this observation by Farrar: “Gerald Gardner was its mother; Doreen Valiente its father and Alex Sanders smacked its bottom.” Sanders, she said, was a much more complex person than his public persona, but that face was necessary for Wicca to grow.

Farrar practiced with Valiente and is beside herself with excitement over the revelations that she had a secret life working for the British government. “She never mentioned it,” although friends might have had suspicions, and it took the research skills of Heselton to prove it. “I saw Doreen with the Queen Mother, and they were clearly old friends,” she recalled. Knowledge of the occult make creating and breaking codes a natural progression, they theorized, making people with that background more effective than the “chinless wonders” who were otherwise recruited for that work. The Official Secrets Act technically only binds a person for 50 years, but in practice most people take those secrets to their graves, as did Valiente.

On the differences between American and British Wicca, Farrar said the most obvious thing that she noticed when she first visited these shores was a tendency towards titles. “Everyone was lady this and lord that,” she said, but “I’m no lady.” She also said that “American covens tend to watch over each others’ shoulders,” while the British ones are largely left as autonomous units.

They are bemused by the emergence of the term “British Traditional Wicca,” which they say isn’t used anymore in England than the French refer to themselves when frying potatoes. “It started like a group label” around the turn of the century, Bone said, “and now it’s a rejection of it.”

Another interesting evolution is the distinction between Witchcraft and Wicca. When she was initiated by Sanders, Farrar said, “We were Witches and Wicca was the religion.”

Bone said that at one point the aphorism was, “All Wiccans are Pagan, but not all Pagans are Wiccan. Now it’s turned about, so that all Wiccans are Witches, but not all Witches are Wiccan. It’s a generational shifting of the goal posts.”

Generally, they’ve watched as Paganism has matured over the decades. One change they specifically noted is that magic is becoming less the center of Wicca and related practices, and more a tool. The shifting language may at times puzzle them, but they do see a genuine interest in honoring the gods. The path to do so may have changed into an umbrella, and even that umbrella is rejected by many who fall under its shadow, but that may be because like the gods themselves, Paganism is a shapeshifter.

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.