Jean Williams 1928 – 2015

Heather Greene —  December 31, 2015 — 1 Comment

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On Saturday, it was announced the Wiccan High Priestess Jean Williams had died on Friday, Dec 25. The announcement read, “Gracious, sociable and non-dogmatic, [Jean] relished the variety of paths and personalities in paganism. Also in some ways a very private person, in her personal spiritual life she was a Wiccan high priestess of the Gardnerian tradition, with a quiet and close-knit coven who are very much her intimate family.”

Jean Elen Williams was born in the village of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, and was the third child of a Church of England vicar. From a very early age, she attended private boarding school, and then later enrolled at theUniversity of College London, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, then want on to have a very successful career as a social researcher.

In the late 1950s, Jean became interested in consciousness expansion, as both a spiritual seeker and a psychologist. Through that interest she met members of Gerald Gardner’s original coven, now known as The Bricket Wood Coven, in 1961. She studied with them, eventually being initiated.

Over the next decade, Jean found her professional and spiritual interests merging. In a 2004 interview, she said, “As a psychologist who was also on a spiritual path, I became very interested in the ideas about human potential and personal fulfillment beginning to be put forward by the avant garde psychotherapists.” This new thought developed into the “Human Potential movement” or Humanistic Psychology.

As Jean explained, many involved in this movement “went in their droves to India or joined the Rajneesh organisation in Britain.” She said, “I was already a witch and couldn’t understand why they couldn’t find what they were looking for in our own Pagan traditions.” Observing this trend, she saw a need to connect “the human psychology people” with the “indigenous British spiritual paths,” so they wouldn’t have to visit the Far East. At the same time, she saw the need to connect local Wiccans, who often struggled in maintaining community relationships, with the concepts in the Human Potential movement.

As a result, in 1974, Pagan Pathfinders was born. Meetings were held in London in Jean’s newly purchased Victorian home. For years, she and her husband, Zachary Cox, facilitated Pagan Pathfinders, but, as she said, the group was not “a one woman show.” Jean handed the group over to younger Pagan leaders in the early 2000s. It continued to remain active until 2011.

Around the same time that she founded Pagan Pathfinders, Jean also became High Priestess of the Bricket Wood Coven with her husband as priest. Her friend and initiate Christina Oakley-Harrington said that in the 1980s, “the coven befriended and admitted the young anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann in the 1980s, who wrote about the group in her famous study, Persuasions of the Witches’ Craft.

But Jean’s work did not end there. In 1977, she co-founded The Companions of the Rainbow Bridge, a ritual drama group in the Western mysteries, “to encourage inspirational and uplifting creation of ceremonies.” The organization was active for 17 years.

Additionally, she and her husband began inviting a small group of people to their home four time each year and performed Crowley‘s Gnostic Mass. She continued this practice well into the 2000s.

Jean Williams speaking at Pagan Federation event [Courtesy WiccanRede.org]

Jean Williams speaking at Pagan Federation event [Courtesy WiccanRede.org]

In 1988, after retirement, Jean focused her energy on helping the UK Pagan community. She became a core member of the Pagan Federation, working through the next two decades as an elder, adviser, teacher and administrator.

More recently, she and her husband authored several books, including The Gods within: The Pagan Pathfinders Book of God and Goddess Evocations (2008), and The Play Goes On (2015).

Despite all of her public work and teaching, Jean was private about her own religious practice and her personal achievements. According to Oakley-Harrington, “Many pagan friends have only recently learnt she was in the Craft; even fewer know she was the high priestess of Gerald Gardner’s first, original Bricket Wood coven, throughout her adult life. For Jean, being of service to paganism was not attached to titles within a particular tradition. She wanted to be known for herself and what she did, not for a title she held in a secret mystery tradition.”

In the 2004 interview, Jean herself said the same thing, “I don’t think that for humanity as a whole you should present yourself as a priest or priestess – you’re just a human being. Any authority you express is purely what comes through you, not what you status say you have.”

Last week, at Whittington Hospital in London with Zach by her side, Jean died of heart failure.

After her death, a public Facebook memorial page was created, where future memorial ceremonies and rites will also be posted. For now, the page is being filled with memories. People are sharing their personal stories of how Jean has touched their lives.

James Scotchford wrote:

Jean was a genuinely lovely and welcoming person, a warm elder in the Pagan community of which she was dedicated. She was a person without ego and never demanded respect, however she got mine. Jean always came and said hello to me at events, like she did others. Sometimes I got jaded at the lack of friendliness and community spirit amongst many Pagans, but Jean was a different matter.

Pagan Federation President Mike Stygal wrote:

Jean had a knack of helping people to be where they needed to be and do what they needed to do. I remember a couple of times when I found myself pointed in the direction of roles serving the Pagan community, it was Jean who had spoken to me about taking on something I really wasn’t certain I could or should do. She referred to it as catching me at a moment of weakness…. something she did with quite a lot of people who have gone on to serve our Pagan community.

Death has caught Jean at a moment of weakness. In life she was an incredible visionary for what could become of individual Pagans and the Pagan community as a whole. Jean was someone who made things happen. It would not surprise me to discover that the gods had plans for Jean and her amazing range of talents.

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Jean Williams and Zachary Cox 

Stygal also added, “My last memory of Jean was seeing Zach and Jean walking, hand in hand, towards a car waiting to take them home after the book launch. Both of them still very much in love with each other in their old age.”

Similarly, Agni Keeling said:

I loved how Jean balanced Zach’s approach to discussing the rituals. On a couple of occasions when I had an opportunity to talk to them after the rituals we did, Zach was always very intellectual about the ritual and wanted to know the ‘ideas’ behind it etc. Jean was always pure feeling and vision. Last summer we did ‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ ritual which both Jean and Zach came to. They wanted to talk to me afterwards, Zach wanted to know whys and whats etc, Jean just said that she closed her eyes at the beginning and was transported back to ancient Greece.. and didn’t want to come back.

Oakley-Harrington said:

Everyone will tell you: she was strong, unfailingly gracious, intelligent and fun-loving. She was committed to the idea that those on a spiritual path have a first task to work on their own development as people. Famously, she refused to participate in gossip, and would not tolerate it in her presence. One of her young friends just wrote yesterday, ‘Bitchcraft could not exist in the air she breathed.’ In her presence, and under her influence, younger pagans had a role model of nobility of conduct: this has had an impact upon the entirety of the British pagan community. It was possible because,whilst taking this line, she was fun, funny and canny. To quote the same young friend, ‘Jean was a cat loving, people-shrewd rockstar of the pagan world.’

Jean was a force within the Pagan world for over 50 years. But she was not one that was loud and flashy; nor did she push her ways on others. As was her philosophy, “Have your own religious experience” and don’t tell others how to do it. She remained flexible and accepting with only boundaries based on simple, unassuming ethics and respect.

Jean’s coven maiden, Ruth, now takes the mantle of the high priestesshood of the Bricket Wood coven. Ruth has been both a member of the group and lodger since 1988. She said, “I learnt how to lead a coven from Jean; she had an understated drive and tremendous ritual abilities; from her we learnt how to experience the Goddess and God in a profound way. And she was a fun friend — we were all involved in many magical projects together. I am honoured to have worked with her all these years.”

Jean also leaves a daughter coven, several grand-daughter covens, and a myriad students and others touched by her honest, vivacious and generous spirit.

What is remembered, lives. 

Heather Greene

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Heather is a writer, film historian, editor, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She is an acquisitions editor at Llewellyn Publishing and the author of the book "Bell, Book, and Camera." She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts.