I had the opportunity to interview Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone who were guests at Heartland Spirit Festival near Kansas City this past Memorial Day Weekend. They took several hours out of their hectic schedule to simply hang out in our merchant booth and chat about a wide range of subjects, for which I am extremely grateful!
There are few people left who directly experienced many of the legendary figures of the rise of Neo-Pagan spirituality. Janet has a wealth of knowledge and stories from this era, and vivid descriptions of what they have experience. Gavin articulates where their practice has led them since he became part of the most famous Pagan triad, and the subsequent passage of Stuart Farrar. Together they represent a vision of an evolving practice of deity centered witchcraft.
This interview is about 9000 words long, but to me it is just too interesting to edit much content out. It will appear in three parts over the coming weeks. First some history and an overview of their current work, then more details about their current practice, and finally a look into the future.
Nels (N): You’re back in the states. How long has it been since you have been in the states?
Gavin (G) : Nine months.
Janet (J) : Yeah, nine months. We actually travel here a lot.
G: We’re generally in the states every year. The last time we were in the Midwest was about 2002-2003. We did INATS (International New Age Trade Show) the big trade fair in Colorado promoting Progressive Witchcraft. Before that we were in Wisconsin, so we haven’t done much in the Midwest for a while. But there’s been a lot more interest. We’ve been invited out towards Ohio August/September next year. Generally we spend a lot more time on the East Coast: New York, Connecticut, Florida. Those areas, mainly because we have connections there.
J: We are actually linked to a group of covens in these places. We don’t actually call them “our covens,” they are covens in their own right, but they are all linked together through us.
G: Because they are covens that all follow the same philosophy.
N: What is your philosophy for ritual, coven work, and magic now?
J: Ok, well let’s start at the beginning. Thanks to knowing, long before Gavin ever met her, Doreen Valiente, I had a totally different perspective on Witchcraft. Even if you look at that book, The Witches Bible. When we started off, Stewart and myself, we started off with Alex Sanders. After that basic training, we were running an Alexandrian coven. Far too short, to be honest, to have real experience. We winged it, as they say, but we learned as we went along. And when Stewart and I moved to Ireland in 1976, Stewart took a look through our Book of Shadows and said “There’s no meat on the bones of this. Let us start by investigating old Irish folk customs, and from that comes a great rise in Celtic mythology, and a lot of people are becoming fashionably Celtic.
We lived, for the most part, in the most beautiful Celtic land, and a lot of those old festivals are sadly dying out now. We actually started resurrecting them ourselves, village folk festivals. We used to go along to them, and we used to experience them, and from 1976 to 1981 we traveled in various places across Ireland renting property to learn about what the locals still kept alive. Including the Midsummer bonfires, the Lughnasadh/Lammas festival, and we would glean knowledge. We would talk to the local people, the older people who remembered “ back in the days of my youth we did this, that, and the other.”
We put all that into the first book we wrote, before it became The Witches Bible it was Eight Sabbats For Witches. And with Doreen Valiente’s permission, I hasten to add, because a lot of the original Book of Shadows was her work. She took one look at the work we were doing, because we got to know her, and we said “Look, do you approve of this?” And she said “Well, there’s a bit more to it than that. A lot of this is my material, the Charge and etc… You have my permission to print it and be damned!” We said, “Well, fine if we’ve got your permission it goes into the book.”
Now prior to her, a lot of the stuff was given away to Stewart by Alex Sanders. Stewart at that time was not initiated. He was commissioned to write a book by Alex Sanders, and it upset a lot of witches. An awful lot of witches. You know, they’re “giving away the secrets.” Well, by the time we’d written the book, Eight Sabbats For Witches, and then later The Witches’ Way, drawing on what we had learned, we got the same accusation. Because before Stewart put together that first book (we worked on it together, I did a lot of research, he did a lot of research… we both, literally, put our heads together on this book) there was no such thing as “The Oak King” and “The Holly King” in Witchcraft. There was no Wiccaning, there was no Handfasting, there was no Requiem.
This was all Stewart’s work. And a lot of what you see in the first of the Laws, in what was originally Eight Sabbats and now the first part of The Witches Bible, we gleaned that from Irish folk customs and Irish folk festivals. We didn’t consider ourselves as creating a system to work with; we just wanted to fill in the gaps. And then it kind of blossomed.
G: What Janet and Stewart would do is, was going into an environment and adapting their work to the environment they lived in. And this is something we’ve seen, people doing rituals not necessarily connected to the land they live in. The amount of times we’ve gone to places where people are invoking the Corn King, and there’s no corn-growing… It serves no purpose. So, when I came to work with Janet and Stewart it was pretty clear we had pretty much the same philosophy. Janet and Stewart had seen the Craft evolve from when they joined in the Seventies up until they met me in the late Eighties/early Nineties. I had also see it evolve from the 1980’s through to the 90’s. And that is the work that is important to our philosophy now: evolution. And we’re not talking about social evolution, we’re talking about cultural evolution. Cultural evolution uses what works appropriate to the culture.
N: Judy and I work with Blue Star, which works all the way from Celtic to Egyptian to…
G & J: Yes!
G: Blue Star is one of the success stories we have watched over the years, which is why we have pointed them out in the book. The reason is because they started out as Alexandrian/Gardenerian and they evolved according to the needs of the culture in their area. And they just blossomed. They didn’t consider themselves originally a tradition. It was a coven. From that became what we call a coven-based tradition. You can see the way it developed and it changed over time. They have a core of training. They adapted, they evolved into what they needed.
This is the real emphasis on what we’re teaching. One of the other things we’re teaching is that it has been an evolutionary process. We’ve really been unlearning from the 1950’s in England. We’ve been trying to drop off the Judaic-Christian stuff that we were brought up with as children. We don’t realize how it affects our vision of spirituality. And this has been changing, and you see from the 1980’s, for example, the influence of shamanism. You see it in England, and you see it in the States. In the states, it’s of course Michael Harner’s Shamanism . If you look at the United Kingdom you see it with the rise of what the shamanism what they call British Native Traditions, which is something I was involved with. And we were trying to get back to the original root, we were trying to gum off all the stuff which was no longer needed. Because we were now from a generation which was already casting off all that Judeo-Christian programming. And of course shamanism had an interesting effect because shamanism was about direct connection. It was something which was really quite lacking in the Craft. It wasn’t being taught. This changed, you see, from the 80’s onwards. Before the 1980’s no one was talking about having personal deities, working with personal deities.
J: That’s when Doreen Valiente came in.
G: Yes. She was a strong believer in that.
J: Oh, and she was advanced for her historical age.
G: Yeah, and what happened is now you see a change at the end of the 80’s. Up to the 1980’s nobody is putting the word “spirituality” in books on Witchcraft. It’s not there. It changed at the end of the 80’s because of this. And now people talk about connection with deity. This is the direction we’ve gone in and that is what we are trying to teach. Our whole purpose is if you are priest or priestess is that connection with divinity in whatever form it takes, whether it be a god or goddess. It doesn’t matter what it is. Power animal, totem animal, it doesn’t matter. It’s about serving the divine. If you make a connection with a divine being… It’s not a slave/master relationship to serve them. It’s an equal relationship. It’s a sort of servant/boss relationship where there has to be an equal exchange of energies, but you’re still serving that divine in some form. So what we teach now is what we call deity centered Witchcraft. And that is, what we do is…
J: And it’s not a tradition.
G: Not a tradition. It is philosophy; a practice.
N: would you call it a description?
G: It’s a description. We used the term Progressive Witchcraft at one point to describe the evolutionary process at work. But we found people started saying, “Oh, Progressive Witchcraft, that’s a tradition. ” No, it’s not. No, it’s not. It’s a description of your philosophy and how you work in Witchcraft. So now what we teach with everybody who comes to us is, we teach them… We feel training is very important. The training is important because the training helps to teach our students how to make the connection.
J: And we don’t use hierarchy.
G: Yeah. That’s changed as well. We felt that didn’t work.
N: Hierarchy as in a coven structure, or as in student – teacher relations?
G: Well, when it comes to teaching a student relationship we believe the only difference between the teacher and the student is that the teacher is just a bit further along the same path.
J: Sometimes along comes the student and they know something we don’t know. And they teach us.
G: It’s really about an understanding of leadership. Leadership is not about really taking control of the situation. A leader is somebody who listens, who has two ears and one mouth, as I was once taught, and listens twice as much as they talk. A good leader, a good teacher, you know, sometimes they have to step back and let the student fall over. That way they can learn the lesson.
J: As we have in the past fallen over ourselves.
G: And the realization, if you believe in deity-centered Witchcraft, it means that you realize that all of your students have their own individual paths. They’re not going on your path, they’re going on their own path. All you can do is help them find their way on it, and guide them on to it, but you cannot always walk alongside them. And like I say, walk alongside them, not in front. Alongside. If you’ve got somebody, for example Janet and myself are priest and priestess of Freya. If we have a student who is working with Diana, that is her path, she has to follow Diana and go in that direction. That is our philosophy on the matter.
J: The thing we have dropped in our own coven, and that we find works really well is that we say to everyone the moment they come in, “You might look up to us because of our knowledge, but please teach us!”. When it comes to ritual for example I have dropped all titles. Technically if I was sticking to the Gardnerian / Alexandrian concept I would be a witch queen many times over, but to me that translates as a “High Poo Baa!” – ego – with me up here and them down there. I am only a High Priestess if I am taking the circle. If a neophyte is taking the circle as high priestess, she is high priestess. Outside that circle, I am just Janet . Witch queen is traditionally an honorary title given when you are running your own group of covens, but there is only really one queen in the witch world and that is the Goddess by whatever way you see her.
N: What have you found the deities to be like?
G: What you find is what you expect them to be and what they are really like is two different things. We have a bit of a problem out there. We have books out there telling you Hecate is like this, Diana is like that, etc. It is like hearing stories about somebody you have never met. Then when you finally meet them you realize it is all rumors! The example I give is Kali, because Kali is not what you think. If you read all the books, when army officers where coming back from the British Raj at the end of the nineteenth century they were telling terrible stories about the cult of the Thugee; with descriptions of Kali being this terrible death goddess who was being invoked to kill British officers. You have to understand that these officers were in many cases were bastards massacring Indian villages, because they had no idea how to deal with the culture of that time. What the Hindu’s, Indians did was invoke their goddess of protection.
J: What many don’t know about the priestesses and priests of Kali was that before you went to kill one of these officers with a garrote around his neck, you had to get to know them as a person. Once you had done the deed, you had to go to the temple of Kali and mourn them, their death.
G: The person about to assassinate this officer knew exactly that they were doing the right thing, that it was karmically correct. Unfortunately every bandit and criminal attacking the British was accused of being a Thugee and devotee of Kali. When the feminist movement got a hold of Kali, they carried on this same idea, continuing the focus on this dark aspect. They just reinterpreted what the British officers were saying to fit their own philosophy, even though that was wrong. This is the problem. How deities are portrayed in books and what they are like when you meet them are two separate things.
N: Does a contemporary picture of the deities you work with appear?
G: We have found in trance work, with the goddess Hecate, you do not get an older goddess. If it is a genuine possession what you get an amazingly young goddess. Hecate can not manifest through as an older form, she can only manifest through as a younger form, because she has to manifest through as possibly Persephone. People get a bit of a shock when they meet her. Deities are an ongoing process, they do not stop growing or developing. What we point out is they are like people, they start out in an expectative form. They expect this deity to come through in one form, the one they have read. That is what they get the first time, being filtered through ego. As they begin to develop, and connect to the dead, they start to dream. The first time they meet Hermes or Mercury, he turns up in fluttery winged sandles with a caduceus. Then they start to dream about him he shows up as a telephone engineer! They get a contemporary form. You forget something about the gods, you are reading the books about them and that may be two thousand years old. They are wearing contemporary dress from two thousand years ago, but they update. They are drawing off of us, so they change. One author who realized this because she was doing trance work portrayed Odin in one of her books, as riding a Harley Davidson, having two German shepherds, and raven tattoos on his back, like a Hell’s angel.
G: Exactly. We have been doing trance work now since about 2004. We have set up several groups quite quietly that were doing this work, and they all describe the same things. The same thing happens when we do the public workshop.
N: Do your groups work within a pantheon?
J: No, because on the whole each individual in those groups works with the deity they have connected with, although the group may have a tutelary god or goddess.
G: We now run Teampall Na Callaighe , we don’t run a coven structure as such. We have reached the point where, to be honest, we want to teach the teachers. We want to be there to support solitaries, and solitary based groups. Groups which did not start within a tradition, maybe started from one solitary practitioner. It has worked. We want to support them, and fill the gaps for them. Why should they be left out there. This is what we do now. That is why we set up the alliance for progressive covens.
Our work in Teampall Na Callaighe is based on the fact that we live in the area of Ireland in which the principal goddess of the area is the Callaighe. The Callaighe in Ireland is a sovereignty goddess, she is the goddess of the land. We live nearby an ancient site which is dedicated to her, Slieve Na Callaighe (The Hill of the Witch).
J: She is an old lady, she represents winter. She rises at Samhain and sleeps again at Bealtaine.
G: Because of the ancient site, and the connection there in the land we connect with her as a coven. The members of the temple each follow their own path of individual connection to deity. If there is certain work going on, and we need to connect to a specific god or goddess, a priest or priestess will say that is appropriate to my god or goddess and we will all work with them. The covens patron is the Callaighe. That is how we do it.
Watch for part two of this interview next week.
A Witches Bible – Janet and Stewart Farrar (Phoenix Publishing)
The Witches Goddess – Janet and Stewart Farrar (Phoenix Publishing)
The Witches God – Janet and Stewart Farrar (Phoenix Publishing)
Spells and How they Work – Janet and Stewart Farrar (Phoenix Publishing)
The Pagan Path – Janet and Stewart Farrar, and Gavin Bone (Phoenix Publishing)
The Healing Craft – Janet and Stewart Farrar, and Gavin Bone (Phoenix Publishing/Acorn Guild Publishing)
The Inner Mysteries – Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone (Acorn Guild Publishing)