Column: South African Pagans remember Donna Darkwolf

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[Today The Wild Hunt welcomes guest contributor Damon Leff, a human rights activist, Witch, and editor-in-chief of Penton Independent Alternative Media. Leff is also the director of the South African Pagan Rights Alliance, and owns his own pottery studio called Mnrva Pottery. He is currently studying Law at the University of South Africa, and lives in the Wilderness, Western Cape, South Africa.]

“No living thing can seek the light for ever. Not find it. And not be changed. Donna Darkwolf found The Light. And where she did not find it – she made it.” Moreno Franco

Donna darkwolf Vos, arch-priestess of the Circle of the African Moon (CAM), President Emeritus of the Pagan Federation of South Africa (PFSA) and author of ‘Dancing Under an African Moon’, died July 7, 2017 in her home in Gardens, Cape Town. In remembrance of this pioneering community builder and activist, I interviewed some of Donna’s closest friends in an attempt to demonstrate the profound influence Donna had on those who knew her.

Donna Darkwolf Vos [Courtesy]

“I met Donna in 1992 at a retail company where [we] were both employed to conduct training. We hit it off right away. I was drawn to her infectious laugh, brilliant mind and ballsy approach to life, ” said Angela Northover.

Donna was spearheading HIV/AIDS training for the company’s staff members “with her usual unreserved passion.”

Northover continued on to say, “Donna challenged everything. She was fearless. She never took anything at face-value. She looked at life from unexpected angles. With her, I always had to be on my toes mentally.

“Donna introduced me to Paganism and made me think about things differently (although I didn’t always agree with her). In many respects, she was the embodiment of an empowered and powerful woman. Donna brought Paganism out from under the mattress in South Africa. In a country that was fearful of anything that was not mainstream religion, she encouraged people to celebrate Paganism. And she tried to blow away some of the mystery around Paganism to make people were less fearful about it.”

Cindy Stara Pelser, ArchPriestess of CAM, met Donna after enrolling in her Wicca 101 class in Johannesburg in 1997. She said, “That was the first day of a journey that would shape the rest of my life.”

“Donna was the sister I never had. She taught me how to see the bigger picture and make it work through sheer commitment and dedication. Donna was a hard task master and she did not suffer fools lightly. She believed in bringing the best and worst out in people, and she would push your boundaries until you faced your inner demons courageously. But when you did, she was there to help you along the road to find peace in your life and move on. She never shunned her responsibilities as a mentor, teacher or adviser. She took an active interest in everyone’s progression, within and outside of the CAM tradition, whether you were a student of hers or not.”

“She was the most generous person I have ever known,” Pelser continued. “Over the years I witnessed her help many people in the Pagan community, not only spiritually, but financially as well. She loved those close to her and was very protective of them. People often perceived her as indifferent publicly, but this was not so. Privately she was gentle and caring. She loved animals and supported many animal charities. She was a forgiving person even to those who brutally at times hurt her, whether publicly or privately, she forgave them.”

Donna’s very public activism against discrimination against Witches is well publicised. In 2011 The Sunday Times reported that Donna “Darkwolf” Vos, who wears a pentagram around her neck, left a store in a tailspin when shopping trip in Cape Town. According to that report, Vos had said that the cashier “muttered that the blood of Christ be upon her and went running from the till in tears.”

Darkwolf is quoted as saying, “I have come to realise that the intolerance to Paganism exists mostly in white communities.”

“Paganism was practised in Europe before Christianity. It’s nature-based religions that Christianity has always sought to suppress, but Pagans had such strong beliefs, they could not be suppressed … there are witches everywhere.”

Pelser called her a forerunner, visionary and founder of South African Paganism. “I believe that her commitment to her life work was commendable. […] Donna poured much of her personal wealth into the formation of Paganism in this country. The question is not what her legacy is, this speaks for itself – no legacy is born without blood, sweat and tears with some laughter – the bigger question is, will we honour her legacy with integrity?

“To Donna’s friends who supported her life work and will continue to do so and who had the strength of character to stomach her brutal honesty, I commend you. Know that she loved you all dearly and very often found her strength through your kind words, wisdom and love.”

Andi (Fisher) Graf met husband Gunther through Donna. Graf said, “Donna introduced me to my husband Gunther, who was one of her High Priests at the time. She orchestrated the meeting, insisting that he and I were perfect for one another, although it took us a while to see this too.

“Within 7 months Gunther and I tied the knot with Donna as our guest of honour at the wedding. Donna was possibly the most well connected Pagan and certainly the most influential; she could claim many victories and from a networking point of view almost all roads led back to her.”

Graf continued, “There were many things about Donna that I liked a lot, including her dedication to Paganism and her humility; she was never too proud to apologise and to make amends. I saw a vulnerable side to her that was generally not displayed to the public; hers was often a heavy robe to wear, more so than most imagined.

“Perhaps the most beautiful thing about Donna was her capacity to forgive. She often amazed me with a kind of selective amnesia that she used to wipe clean the slate and to forgive those who had hurt or harmed her. It was humbling to observe. Donna was a close friend and confidant. She despised her celebrity status especially when it meant others walked on egg shells around her. Donna was kind and generous (perhaps too generous) but more especially she was authentic and expected those around her to be equally so.

“She took on many battles, including legal ones, that paved the way for Pagans today. Donna almost single-handedly placed Paganism on the map in South Africa through sheer determination and dedication to her cause. These efforts were financed by her. Nothing deterred her when she was on a mission to obtain recognition and equality for Pagans. There is an entire new generation of Pagans today who will probably never fully comprehend the many sacrifices she made in order to ensure that they can practice their religions freely, without harassment.”

KhemaySekhmet, Kemetic priest and member of The Grove, added, “If you have not been called by Donna at 4 am about some crazy ideas, you do not know her as a person. Donna and I have had many wonderful and deep conversations over the years and when she was in Johannesburg we would often make time to spend it together.

Donna took an interest in what KhemaySekhmet was doing. They shared a lot of things that “were of a very personal nature.” KhemaySekhmet said, “She helped me through a lot of personal turmoil. Like many of my very close friends she was a compass point of a sort. Donna had a profound impact on my life, through her teachings by being ‘present’. She trusted me with so much of her own sadness.

“What really stood out for me was her dedication to her community. She often told me how she hated being in the spot light, she was very private in her life so for her to be exposed like that on a regular basis was terrifying. Donna was also very determined, when she started a project she had a single minded approach and would not be swayed until she had the results she had envisioned.

“I do not think anyone can say that she did not contribute a large part to this very movement. Donna did not believe in sitting quiet. She often said to me “If you gonna ruffle a few feathers you may as well pluck the entire bird while doing it.”

Donna dedicated her life to fighting for Paganism, getting recognition and often at a cost to her own pocket. She believed in pushing boundaries, and she expected those that worked with her to fill their roles as community leaders, as also noted in a message to Donna Darkwolf Vos

Ruan Fourier, High Priest of the South African Alexandrian Tradition, added to the memories. Fourier’s first “acquaintance with Donna” was in Primary school.

Fourier said, “The movie The Craft was coming out and Carte Blanche did a special on Witchcraft in South Africa. Later I was trained by one of Donna’s students. I only had a chance to meet her in about 2013 when I was doing research on a book project that would’ve been about the history of Wicca in SA.”

“Donna was a magical woman,” Fourier added, “She had the development of magical ego down to a tee. Her presence commanded a respect when she walked into a room. Donna leaves a legacy which at times will probably be legendary in proportion. She was an icon within a birthing movement. That birth is still continuing, and her contribution and involvement in its seminal days will be undoubtedly be part of the history and the stories we will tell in the future.”

Arch-Priest of The Notrenlim Phoenix Tradition, Martin Zeo Frost met Donna in 2001. He and his sisters had just started the e-zine The Wiccan Read. “We heard that Donna just moved to Cape Town. At that point I had been following her Pagan career closely and wanted to mail her to ask her if she would like to receive our little magazine.”

Zeo goes on to say, “In the beginning she was the Pagan leader I wanted to be. Then we became teacher and student and it progressed to an incredible friendship. We were incredibly close friends and I loved her with the same intensity you would love your blood family. Warrior, fighter, intelligent, determined.

“These are just some of the words that everyone would use but I can add loving, caring, protective, motherly. She was a formidable person. Her gaze looked into your soul. Of course I have to also use words like loyal, friend and confidant. She was one of a kind. I don’t think that we will get another person like her in our lifetime. Her work is mountainous. She was the face that all of us came to recognise as South African Paganism.

Zeo remembers that she said that “her mission was to make Paganism accessible to everyone and to demystify it just enough so that “Tannie (auntie) Sophie that lives next to you will understand it and not persecute you.”

To a very large extent I definitely think she accomplished that.

Donna Vos will be remembered and venerated as an ancestor of the emerging Pagan movement in South Africa. What is remembered, lives.

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The views and opinions expressed by our diverse panel of columnists and guest writers represent the many diverging perspectives held within the global Pagan, Heathen and polytheist communities, but do not necessarily reflect the views of The Wild Hunt Inc. or its management.