Today is Beltane, the ancient Celtic festival that marks the beginning of summer, and is celebrated by the Wicca movement. Today we celebrate one of Brighton’s most intriguing women, the mother of modern witchcraft, Doreen Valiente (1922 – 1999).
In April 2016 Doreen Valiente was celebrated at a unique exhibition held at the city’s Preston Manor. ‘Folklore, Magic and Mysteries: Modern Witchcraft and Folk Culture in Britain’ was the first public display of artefacts from the Doreen Valiente Foundation.
Born in 1922 in Surrey, Doreen began exploring her interest in the occult and experimenting with magic spells while still at school. Horrified, her Christian parents sent her to a convent but she left at fifteen, refusing to go back, even more determined to follow her interests.
In the early 1950s she became aware of the work of Gerald Gardner who, after stumbling upon a group of witches in the New Forest and becoming part of their coven, had set up a Museum of Magic on the Isle of Man. She started to correspond with Gardner and in 1953 – just two years after witchcraft stopped being illegal in this country — she was initiated into his coven. Doreen’s contribution to the understanding and accessibility of witchcraft and Pagan beliefs was decisive. Seeing that Gardner wasn’t as gifted with words as she was, she used her considerable organisational skills and creativity to rewrite his interpretations of the old ancestral religions and basic rituals which formed the core of the new Pagan religious movement known as Wicca.
Doreen, who also has books of poetry to her name, was never afraid of talking openly about the subject. She had the gift of making things easy to understand, and her writings and books ‘Where Witchcraft Lives’, an exploration of Sussex folklore, ‘An ABC of Witchcraft’, ‘Natural Magic’ and ‘Witchcraft for Tomorrow’, brought witchcraft into the 20th century and became essential reading for anyone interested in the subject. Her work contributed to the revival of interest in witchcraft and Pagan beliefs that began in the 1960s and her energy and books are credited with opening the door to a new spirituality for millions.
Her following became – and still is – worldwide. In later life Doreen helped establish The Pagan Front, later transformed into The Pagan Federation, which aimed to fight prejudice against Pagans in society and the media. She would also come to serve as patron of the Sussex-based Centre for Pagan Studies, a resource facility for those wishing to learn more about the ancient religions of the world. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, with Doreen Valiente’s energy, Paganism is now the seventh largest faith group in Britain.
With its history of paranormal events and the well-documented séance that was held there in 1897, Preston Manor is no stranger to hosting people with beliefs out of the mainstream. The exhibition opened a further chapter in its history by giving visitors an oversight of Doreen’s work as well as a chance to see some of the accoutrements of a modern day witch, such as an altar and a ‘book of shadows’, a book of Wiccan religious texts and magic rituals.
Doreen was celebrated by having a blue plaque erected at her Brighton home on the Summer Solstice, 21st June 2013. In an appropriately trail-blazing spirit, this was the first blue plaque ever awarded to a witch and the first to appear on a local council owned flat.
In Doreen’s Last Will and Testament, she left all her magical artefacts including 9 Books of Shadows, many ritual items, lots of curiosities, such as spell bottles, statues of gods and goddesses from other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, and objects that represent folklore, like a felt chimney sprite, a hand strung necklace of ‘hag stones’,
These items were put into Trust and this Trust is now a charity called The Doreen Valiente Foundation.
Written by social historian, Louise Peskett. With thanks to The Doreen Valiente Foundation for their input and support.