Doreen Valiente

Vivianne Crowley

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DOREEN VALIENTE TIMELINE

1922 (January 4):  Doreen Valiente was born Doreen Edith Dominy in the southwest London suburb of Colliers Wood, Surrey.

1935:  Dominy carried out her first act of witchcraft, a spell to prevent her mother from being bullied at work.

1937:  Dominy left her convent school and started night school to train as a typist.

1939:  Dominy began working as a clerk-typist.

1940–1944:  Dominy became Temporary Junior Assistant Officer and then Temporary Senior Assistant Officer at the secret Bletchley Park wartime decoding center.

1941:  Doreen Dominy married Joanis Vlachopoulos, a merchant seaman. Later that year he was declared missing in action, and presumed drowned.

1944:  Doreen Vlachopoulos married Casimiro Valiente.

1945:  Valiente moved to Bournemouth, Hampshire, where she pursed her esoteric interests and began practicing ritual magic.

1952:  Valiente met Gerald Gardner, “Founding Father” of Wicca.

1953:  Valiente was initiated as a priestess and witch by Gerald Gardner and Edith Woodford-Grimes.

1954:  Valiente became High Priestess of Gerald Gardner’s coven.

1956:  Valiente moved to Brighton, remaining there until her death.

1957:  Valiente left Gardner’s coven after disagreeing with his approach to publicity.

1962:  Valiente published her first book, Where Witchcraft Lives.

1971:  Valiente co-founded the Pagan Front, later named the Pagan Federation.

1972:  Casimiro Valiente died. Doreen Valiente moved to her last residence, 6 Tyson Place, Grosvenor Street, Brighton.

1973:  Valiente published An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present.

1975:  Valiente published Natural Magic.

1975:  Valiente met her last partner, William George (Ron) Cooke.

1978:  Valiente published Witchcraft for Tomorrow.

1989:  Valiente published The Rebirth of Witchcraft.

1997:  Ron Cooke died.

1997:  Valiente became Patron of the Centre for Pagan Studies in Sussex.

1997:  Valiente gave an address to the Annual Conference of the Pagan Federation.

1999 (September 1):  Doreen Valiente died.

2011:  The Doreen Valiente Foundation created.

2013:  The Mayor of Brighton gave public address at a ceremony to unveil a commemorative blue plaque to the “Mother of Modern Witchcraft” at Tyson Place, Valiente’s last home.

2016:  Philip Heselton published a definitive biography of Valiente.

BIOGRAPHY

Doreen Edith Dominy Valiente (1922–1999) was a British witch who played a leading role in the development of contemporary Paganism and the religion of Pagan witchcraft. Since her death, she has been described as the Mother of Modern Witchcraft and “the greatest single female figure in the modern British history of witchcraft” (Hutton 2010:10).

Doreen Valiente [Image at right] was born Doreen Edith Dominy in 1922 in the southwest London suburb of Colliers Wood, Surrey. Her father, Harry Dominy, was a civil engineer and architect. Her mother, Edith Annie Dominy, née Richardson, was from the English coastal county of Hampshire. Doreen Dominy was proud of her family’s roots in the New Forest, Hampshire’s ancient Norman hunting ground and an area associated with witchcraft. She lived in Hampshire for part of her life and retained a rural Hampshire accent.

In 1937, Dominy left her convent school before matriculating. She had hoped to complete her education at an art college, but her parents were unable or unwilling to support her. Instead, she took work in a factory to pay night school fees to train as a typist. By 1939, her typing skills were sufficient to obtain a job as a clerk-typist. With the outbreak of World War II, new opportunities opened up for women, and in 1940 she obtained more exciting work as a Temporary Junior Assistant Officer at the secret Bletchley Park wartime decoding center.

In 1941, she married Joanis Vlachopoulos, a merchant seaman, but the marriage was cut tragically short when a few months later his ship was sunk by a U-boat and he was declared missing in action, presumed drowned. She continued her work for the Intelligence Services and by 1944 had been promoted to Temporary Senior Assistant Office in the Enigma decryption and D-Day disinformation section. In 1944, she married again to a Casimiro Valiente, a veteran of the Spanish army and the French Foreign Legion (Heselton 2016:39–54).

Doreen Valiente had been fascinated with the supernatural and the occult since childhood. In her early teens she performed her first magic, a protection spell for her mother who was being bullied at work. Her interest in magic continued into adulthood but she was able to give more time to esoteric researches after World War II when she returned with her husband to Hampshire. She tracked down difficult-to-obtain esoteric books, studied Spiritualism, Theosophy, ritual magic, and Kabbalah, and began practicing ritual magic with a friend (Heselton 2016:58–66).

Valiente was fascinated by witches but had no reason to think that there were still witches in Britain until in 1952 she chanced upon a magazine article about the Museum of Witchcraft on the Isle of Man (Valiente 1989:36). The article described witchcraft as a pre-Christian Pagan religion that worshipped goddesses and gods and venerated ancient customs. This had a strong emotional appeal that prompted her to write to the museum, which then forwarded her letter to Gerald Gardner (1884–1964), often known as the “Founding Father” of contemporary Pagan witchcraft or Wicca.

Gardner responded by inviting Valiente to meet him at the Hampshire home of Edith Woodford-Grimes (1887–1975), the High Priestess known as “Dafo.” In 1953, Gardner and Woodford-Grimes initiated Valiente as a priestess and a witch, and she was introduced to Gardner’s coven in London. Recognizing her knowledge and talents, Gardner soon made her the coven’s High Priestess and began to refer to her on occasion as “the head of the witch-cult in Britain” (Heselton 2016:89).

Valiente’s previous research meant that she recognized in the coven’s core texts, compiled in a volume Gardner called The Book of Shadows, material from old ritual magic texts such as the Key of Solomon, but also from modern sources, including material from the controversial occultist Aleister Crowley (1875–1947). Valiente believed she could improve on this material, and with Gardner’s agreement used her skills as a poet and writer to revise and augment the texts. She reduced the reliance on Crowley and introduced material from folklore collections and her own poetry and prose. This included a rewrite of “The Charge,” a core text of Wiccan spiritual teaching created by Gardner from sources that included American folklorist Charles Leland’s translation of an Italian witchcraft text Aradia, Gospel of the Witches (Leland 1899 [1974]).

Gerald Gardner was a passionate promoter of Wicca who took the view that almost any publicity was good publicity. Himself a naturist, he advocated nudity or “skyclad” working in rituals, and he was happy for the press to take photographs of naked priestesses. Valiente had a positive life-affirming attitude to the body and had no objection to ritual nudity in itself, but by 1957 she became increasingly concerned that lurid publicity was damaging the fledging religion. A power struggle developed between Valiente and Gardner, which led to her leaving the coven after a disagreement precipitated by their competing attempts to create a set of “Laws” for the conduct of coven affairs (Heselton 2016:98–100). Gardner’s version aimed to limit the role of High Priestess to beautiful young women less likely to challenge his authority. Valiente commented later that at the time the word “sexist” was unknown to her, but this was how she came to view Gardner’s “Laws” (Valiente 1989:70).

The rupture between Gardner and Valiente caused a split in the coven, with older more cautious members supporting Valiente’s lower-key approach to publicity and younger members being less risk-averse. Valiente and others left to establish their own coven.

In 1956, Valiente and her husband had moved to the seaside town of Brighton, Sussex. In 1962, Valiente produced her first book, Where Witchcraft Lives, an analysis of witchcraft practices in Sussex. This was followed in the 1970s, when Valiente was in her fifties, by a period of marked creativity that saw the publication of three books that made her a well-known authority on contemporary witchcraft in the English-speaking world and beyond: An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present (Valiente 1973), Natural Magic (Valiente 1975), and Witchcraft for Tomorrow (Valiente 1978). In these, she put forward her own views on Pagan witchcraft. These were influenced by her time with Gardner, but also by subsequent experiences in groups led by other men who were promulgating their own versions of Pagan witchcraft, including Roy Bowers, otherwise known as Robert Cochrane (Valiente 1989:117–36).

Despite Valiente’s acrimonious dispute with Gerald Gardner, in the early 1960s they were reconciled and on his death in 1964 she received a bequest in his will. She continued to have close relations with Gardnerian covens and to participate in Gardnerian rituals, as well as those of her own creation. In 1979, she and her third partner Ron Cooke became enthusiastic participants in the woodland “grand sabbats” held by Gardnerian covens in southern England (Crowley 2013). Valiente retained her desire to prove that Wicca did not originate with Gardner, but had older roots. In 1980, at the woodland gathering for the festival of the dead, Samhain or Halloween, she had a clairvoyant experience that inspired her researches. This led to the discovery of an important figure in Gerald Gardner’s parent coven, “Old Dorothy.” She contributed this research to The Witches’ Way, a book that she collaborated on to produce a comprehensive analysis of the texts of Gardnerian Wicca’s Book of Shadows (Valiente 1984).

In the year she reached age sixty-seven, Valiente produced her last major book, The Rebirth of Witchcraft (Valiente 1989). This was followed shortly by her contribution to her friend John Jones’ book, Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed (Valiente 1990). In these, Valiente set out her mature thought and gave the basis for a witchcraft practice that she considered more authentic than Gardner’s “rather airy-fairy view of Wicca” (Valiente 1990:7). Nevertheless, Valiente continued to espouse Gardner’s “founding myth” based on the romantic but discredited views of anthropologist Margaret Murray (1863–1963) that witchcraft represented the remnants of the suppressed pre-Christian religions of Europe.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Valiente became one of Britain’s best-known witches, writing articles for esoteric magazines and responding readily to mainstream media requests for interviews. Despite receiving some positive publicity, witches were still subject to public prejudice, periodic media hysteria, and accusations of Satanism. To counteract this, in 1971 Valiente co-founded with Madge Worthington and John and Jean Score the Pagan Front, a lobbying organization to counter media disinformation and to take a proactive role with government to secure the rights of Pagans of all spiritual traditions to worship without discrimination. Valiente was highly influential but was not a religious leader in the conventional sense. She preferred to operate independently and to inspire others to lead, rather than to head up an organization, and she left the day-to-day running of the Pagan Front to John Score. The organization grew to become the Pagan Federation, an international body, and the main representative body for Paganism in Britain (Crowley 2013).

From 1989 onwards, Valiente continued her personal witchcraft practice  with her third partner Ron Cooke and close friends. As Cooke’s health declined, she withdrew from public appearances in order to devote time to his care. Following his death, she emerged into the public eye once more when she became the Patron of the nearby Centre for Pagan Studies in Sussex, founded by John and Julie Belham-Payne. Here she lectured to enthusiastic audiences and began to realize the extent of her influence. Younger witches were still reading her work and practicing the rites that she had created. Her final major public address was in November 1997 to the Pagan Federation’s annual conference. Here she received a rapturous welcome and a standing ovation in recognition of her contributions to contemporary witchcraft and to the wider Pagan community.

In 1998, she became ill and on September 1, 1999 she died from pancreatic cancer, having bequeathed her writings and witchcraft artefacts to John Belham-Payne. Her death resulted in obituaries in major newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, including the New York Times (Martin 1999).

TEACHINGS/PRACTICES

The work of Gerald Gardner, Aleister Crowley, Robert Cochrane and others was important for Valiente’s practice and she incorporated much of what she had learned, but increasingly she relied on her own experiences and research. An important element of her teaching was the love of nature. The celebration of the seasonal cycle was very important for her, and rituals for the seasonal festivals had been one of her major contributions to Gardner’s Book of Shadows. For Gardner, Pagan witchcraft was a fertility religion; but why, Valiente asked, would a fertility cult based around an agricultural cycle appeal to contemporary people living in cities? Valiente argued that witchcraft was not a fertility cult but a nature religion. It appealed to people because modern city life cut people off from their kinship with the world of nature and eroded their sense of individuality. The growth of Pagan witchcraft was a reaction against industrialization and the feeling of being just “another cog in a huge, senseless machine.” Through celebrating the seasonal sabbats, people could rediscover a sense of oneness with nature, “the exhilaration which comes from contact with the One Universal Life” (Valiente 1964:6).

Valiente continued to evolve a practice that represented for her a more “authentic” witchcraft closer to how it would have been practiced by ordinary, uneducated country-dwellers. While she honored the Divine in the form taught her by Gardner (as Goddess and her consort the Horned God), she preferred to carry out her rites outdoors in the woods of southern England by the light of the moon and stars with “the scent of the bonfire, the midnight wind in the trees, the occasional cry of an owl in the dark woods” (Heselton 2016:285). Close contact with nature and the natural energies that she experienced in trees, rocks, and the landscape around her was the basis for her spirituality.

Her attitudes towards deity were similar to those found in the writings of psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961), whom she quoted in many of her works. Like Jung, she believed that, “The gods and goddesses are personifications of the powers of nature; or perhaps one should say, of supernature, the powers, which govern and bring forth the life of our world, both manifest and hidden” (Valiente 1978:30). Deity forms such as that of the Great Mother Goddess worshipped by witches may have been born in the human imagination but over time they became powerful archetypes in the collective unconscious of humankind (Valiente 1978:30). Likewise, the sacred space in which the rites of Pagan witchcraft took place (a circle with a central altar) represented for Valiente a mandala, [Image at right] an archetypal symbol “which Carl Gustav Jung regards as of deep significance to the collective unconscious . . . an archetypal figure which conveys the idea of spiritual balance. . .” (Valiente 1973:65–66).

Although there were differences in emphasis between Gardner and Valiente, these were more akin to different denominations within an overarching tradition. Valiente, Gardner, and Cochrane all viewed witchcraft not purely as the practice of spells and magic, but as a radical religious alternative to the dominant Christian paradigm. This eschewed religious organizations and their power structures, rejected monotheism, and venerated the divine immanent in nature rather than as a transcendent “other.” The rites and practices they taught offered adherents a sense of empowerment that came from identifying as witches, individuals with special powers to control their own destinies and to change the world around them. Inherent in the teaching was the message that joy and enchantment could be experienced in the here and now, as well as in the hereafter. Valiente taught reincarnation and that the Goddess “gives rebirth in due time, until we need this world and time no more” (Valiente 1989:136). Like Gardner and Cochrane, she believed that many of those drawn to witchcraft had been witches in previous lives.

LEADERSHIP AND LEGACY

A strong-minded woman, Valiente was characterized by her honesty, candor, enquiring mind, and independence (Hutton 1999:246). Valiente’s practical, down-to-earth personality confounded the stereotypes of those who thought Pagan witches must be sinister or delusional. She was courageous enough to embrace the derided title of “witch,” and was sufficiently committed to brave the social ostracization that could be the fate of those who publicly espoused such a controversial set of beliefs. Her clear prose provided a persuasive entry point to those seeking to find their way into contemporary witchcraft, and her inspired poetry appealed to the imagination of those seeking a Pagan spirituality that was attuned to nature. Hutton comments that Valiente’s “enduring greatness lay in the very fact that she was so completely and strong-mindedly dedicated to finding and declaring her own truth, in a world in which the signposts to it were themselves in a state of almost complete confusion” (Hutton 1999:383–84).

After Valiente’s death, John and Julie Belham-Payne were determined to foster her memory; they worked to ensure that her artefacts, which included an early handwritten Book of Shadows, went on public display. After organizing several exhibitions and a conference devoted to Valiente’s work, in 2011 the Belham-Paynes established the Doreen Valiente Foundation to promote her memory and teachings and to publish her works.

While Valiente’s importance was acknowledged among Pagans, more recently she has become a recognized part of Britain’s cultural history. In June 2013, sixty years after her initiation as a witch, Valiente was publicly honored by the Mayor of Brighton at a ceremony for the unveiling of a commemorative blue plaque on the outside of the Tyson Place apartment block that was her last home. [Image at right] The plaque, donated by the Centre for Pagan Studies, is inscribed “Doreen Valiente (1922–1999) Poet, Author and Mother of Modern Witchcraft Lived Here” (BBC News 2013).

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Valiente’s autobiography, The Rebirth of Witchcraft, not only described her experiences in contemporary witchcraft, but also provided an exposition of her approach to it. The book conveys how her early interest in folklore and ritual magic was the basis of her practice, but by the 1980s she was also influenced by developments in environmental activism and feminism. Valiente devoted a chapter to feminist witchcraft, in which she argued that the most influential spiritual movements of modern times were founded by women and that women-led movements were the future of spirituality (Valiente 1989:179–95).

She revealed some of her own journey into feminism, writing that while she had long considered herself an upholder of women’s rights, it was not until she read the feminist book Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist by Robin Morgan (1978), that it struck her that in most societies women had status only as appendages to men and were taught that they mattered “insofar as they can be attractive to men” (Valiente 1989:180).  She pointed to the women’s ordination movement in the Christian denominations as an example of how women were rebelling against male hierarchies but, citing Merlin Stone’s The Paradise Papers: The Suppression of Women’s Rites, she criticized major religions such as Christianity for encouraging male domination and supported Stone’s view that, “At the very dawn of religion, God was a woman” (Stone 1977:17). Valiente welcomed in particular the positive attitudes of feminists towards women’s bodies and bodily functions. She cited as “epoch-making in the advance of feminist witchcraft” (Valiente 1989:187) Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove’s The Wise Wound: Menstruation and Everywoman, which depicts the menstruating woman as a woman of power (Shuttle and Redgrove 1978). Valiente argued that it was likely that menstrual blood was peculiarly sacred to the goddess of the witches and enabled witches to work magic (Valiente 1989:188–89).

Valiente commented that although witchcraft had now become “specifically feminist,” in the early days of the witchcraft revival, while the Goddess and women were accorded an exalted status, priestesses had “started off playing the role that men such as Gerald Gardner designed for them” with “men running things and women doing as the men directed” (Valiente 1989:182). Valiente praised feminist witches, such as Zsuzsanna Budapest (b. 1940) and Starhawk (b. 1952, Miriam Simos), for challenging such views and approved of how feminist witches were playing leading roles in environmental activism (Valiente 1989:186–87, 189–92).

Unlike many feminist witches of the period, Valiente was not enthusiastic about matriarchy, which she considered could lead to just as much societal imbalance as patriarchy (Valiente 1989:184). She commented that she had not chosen, as had many feminist witches, to reject male influence by becoming a member of an all-female coven, but she recognized that there was a case for mystery and magic that was exclusive to women, and conjured an image of how it must have been “when women gathered by moonlight in dance on hilltops, or in the forest groves, calling upon the secret soul of Mother Earth” (Valiente 1989:195).

IMAGES

Image #1: Doreen Valiente. Courtesy of Doreen Valiente Foundation.
Image #2:  Doreen Valiente at her altar. Courtesy of Doreen Valiente Foundation.
Image #3: The blue plaque devoted to Doreen Valiente erected on her former home, the tower block of Tyson’s Place in Brighton, East Sussex. Photo by Ethan Doyle White. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

REFERENCES

BBC News. 2013. “Brighton Witch Doreen Valiente gets Blue Plaque.” BBC News, June 13. Accessed from www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-22861672 on 8/1/2018.

Crowley, Vivianne. 2013. “Doreen Valiente.” Pagan Dawn: Journal of the Pagan Federation 189:25-27.

Heselton, Philip. 2016. Doreen Valiente, Witch. Nottingham: The Doreen Valiente Foundation and Centre for Pagan Studies.

Hutton, Ronald. 2010 [1962]. “Foreword.” Pp. 9-10 in Doreen Valiente, Where Witchcraft Lives. Maresfield: Whyte Tracks/Centre for Pagan Studies.

Hutton, Ronald. 1999. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leland, Charles Godfrey, ed. 1974 [1899]. Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches. London: C. W. Daniel Company.

Martin, Douglas. 1999. “Doreen Valiente, 77, Dies; Advocated Positive Witchcraft.” New York Times, October 3. Accessed from http://www.nytimes.com/1999/10/03/world/doreen-valiente-77-dies-advocated-positive-witchcraft.html/ on 1 August 2018.

Morgan, Robin. 1978. Going Too Far: The Personal Chronicle of a Feminist. New York: Vintage Books.

Shuttle, Penelope, and Peter Redgrove. 1978. The Wise Wound: Menstruation and Everywoman. London: Gollancz.

Stone, Merlin. 1977. The Paradise Papers: The Suppression of Women’s Rites. London: Virago.

Valiente, Doreen. 1990. “Preface.” Pp. 7-13 in Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed, by Evan John Ones and Doreen Valiente. London: Robert Hale.

Valiente, Doreen. 1989. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London: Robert Hale.

Valiente, Doreen. 1984. “Appendix A: The Search for Old Dorothy.” Pp. 283-93 in The Witches Way: Principles, Rituals and Beliefs of Modern Witchcraft, by Janet Farrar and Stewart Farrar,. London: Robert Hale.

Valiente, Doreen. 1978. Witchcraft for Tomorrow. London: Robert Hale.

Valiente, Doreen. 1975. Natural Magic. London: Robert Hale.

Valiente, Doreen. 1973. An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present. London: Robert Hale.

Valiente, Doreen. 1964. “After Dinner Speech: ‘Fifty at Pentagram Dinner.’” Pentagram: A Witchcraft Review. November: 5-6.

 

Posted:
3 August 2018

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