A Bit of Wiccan History: Interview with Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone
Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone represent a remarkably large segment of Wiccan history. In 1970 Janet was initiated by Alex Sanders as Maxine Sanders was initiating Stewart Farrar. Stewart would work with her and later become her husband.
Gavin Bone was initiated into Seax-Wicca in 1986 and would meet the Farrars and become friends with them 1989, becoming an important member of the team, working together with them and nursing Stewart during his several strokes.
As I researched them, I found them to be more fascinating. I therefore e-mailed them with a request to interview them and they were kind enough to grant it.
Christopher: Janet, I am struck by the fact that you and Stewart would get your training at the same time and how this would affect both of you so personally that you would form a life together. What was it like for you and did you have any idea of the path it would lead you on?
Janet: At the time I was this ’60’s ‘hippy chick’ all ‘peace and love beads’. I had no idea that it would lead me into the direction that I took, and I know that Stewart didn’t either. You mentioned training, well, let’s be honest about this, there was very little training at the time, and most of what we were taught was pretty basic: Circle Casting, simple sympathetic magic. We certainly weren’t taught anything in depth and practical work was definitely ‘on the job’ training. You simply joined in the ritual which was being performed on the night. Most of the training that Alex (Sanders) did give his ‘lectures’. These consisted of him dictating notes, but he never answered questions and you never dared ask. I still have all those notes. They make fascinating reading, particularly Stewart’s side notes as to where Alex got his information from.
Christopher: Stewart was a writer and a journalist. How did the book “What Witches Do” come about? How and when did you begin to write together?
Janet: Stewart met Alex and Maxine Sanders at the premier of documentary film “Legend of the Witches.” Stewart was what he called ‘an interested agnostic’ at the time, although he had a few friends, including fellow journalist Francis King who were involved in the occult. Stewart asked Alex and Maxine if he could interview them for his paper Reveille. They agreed, and actually invited Stewart to take part in circle as part of the interview. Now how many Alexandrian covens would agree to that today? Alex was so impressed with the interview he asked Stewart if he would do the voice over for a long playing record of A Witch Is Born. It was during this that Stewart and myself actually met, as I was the initiate for the recording. Alex also used many of Stewart’s photos for the cover of the LP, so it was this that forged the relationship between Alex and Stewart. Several years earlier Alex’s story had been published by June Johns in the book King of the Witches. Alex had never been really happy with the book. He felt it just didn’t contain enough information on ‘what witches do’! He voiced this to Stewart and that’s how the title came about – What Witches Do.
It was a unique book for its time. Certainly others had published books on Wicca but they hadn’t actually talked about what actually went on in circle. This was the first.
Christopher: When you and Stewart left and formed your own coven, at what point did you begin to personalize your practice of Wicca?
Janet: Almost immediately. It was unavoidable as Alex had given us and the other members so little material to work with. We found that we had to fill in the gaps. Sure, we had the ritual framework, the Book of Shadows that Alex had appropriated from the Crowthers, but it just wasn’t enough. The real change occurred when we moved to Ireland. Here was a land rich in mythology and magic. It just didn’t seem appropriate to use the elements of Western High Magic in a country where the gods, goddesses and spirits of the land were still alive. We quickly began to create rituals and practises related to the ancient Irish which we were still seeing practised. We also begun to take material from other sources such as Robert Graves White Goddess and of course, Maura McNeills Rites of Lughnasa. Many people don’t realise that the Holy King/Oak King ritual cycle can almost be fully credited to Stewart’s adaption of it from Graves. You won’t find it being used in Wicca before 1980. Eventually these were to be published in Eight Sabbats for Witches and The Witches Way. The books which became A Witches Bible. What was fascinating was the reaction to them. They were being hailed as landmark works, while others were accusing us of ‘giving away the secrets’ and being ‘oathbreakers’. Well, the Gardnerian Rituals that were in them were already published and the whole festival cycle in the books was actually all our own work.
Christopher: When did you and Stewart begin to give your talks about Wicca?
Janet: We did a few talks in the UK at places like Atlantis Bookshop, but there were really for book promotion. Our actual giving lectures and workshops really started in 1991 when we first visited the United States on a four month tour. We were completely surprised at the effect we had, had on Wicca in the US. All our workshops, lectures and seminars were booked out. For many our books had been their first introduction to Wicca, so they considered us ‘their spiritual mother and father’. That was a bit disconcerting, I can tell you! We really had to get a grip on our egos to stop them over-inflating.
The real touring and workshops began when Gavin joined us in 1993. He immediately joined us on the next three month tour to the US. It was Gavin who really changed everything regarding the way we gave workshops and lectures. Stewart was an excellent author and incredibly literate, but he was not always a good speaker. While Gavin was quite shy at first, he quickly showed that he knew how to engage people, as he took a much more ‘hands on approach’. Since then most of our workshops have been practical and experiential, based on the principle that people want to learn practical techniques as well as have an actual spiritual experience.
We have been back and forth to the US every year since 1993, but we have also visited Australian and New Zealand, South African, and of course, the UK and Europe. In fact, we are doing more and more in Europe particularly in Italy, where there is a resurgence of interest in pagan practice.
Chistopher: Gavin, How did you come to be initiated into the Seax-Wicca tradition?
Gavin: Well, rather like Janet and Stewart it was a case of that was what was on offer at the time! I think people need to remember that Wicca in the UK was incredibly closed off right up until the late 1980’s. People tended to join the first coven they came across. To be honest, I’d have been quite happy joining a Gardnerian or Alexandrian coven if it had been around in my hometown! I joined the Seax-Wica coven in 1986, up until then I had been a solitary witch. In a way I feel lucky that I came into Seax-Wica first. The reason being is that I didn’t have to put up with the b******t over the origins of the tradition – we all knew in the group it came from a book! Of course, I’ve never been able to do things the easy way; the first magical group I joined was an eclectic group consisting of a Ceremonial Ritual Magician, three Spiritualist Mediums, a Sufi practitioner, and a Norse Shaman. I was the youngest in the group, and it was the Norse Shaman who had set up the Seax-Wica coven. I knew my life in Wicca was going to be strange when the young lady initiating me initiated me as a ‘Jesuite’ rather than a ‘Gesith’ (the Seax-Wica name for priest). The Seax-Wica coven very quickly left the material in Buckland’s book behind and we quickly began to use material from Janet and Stewart’s books, as well as the other contemporary writers of the time such as RJ Stewart, Marion Green etc. We also began to experiment with Shamanism, which was just becoming popular and with Chaos Magick. It became very eclectic. All of us in the coven came from different magical backgrounds so we swapped information and what we had learnt. I have a background in spiritual healing and spiritualism, so that was gift to the group, so to speak, and these experiences are evident if you’ve ever attended any of our workshops or read any of the books I contributed to. What was interesting was that once we had learnt the magical rules, it didn’t matter what we did and where we took it from it all seemed to work!
Christopher: How did you come to meet the Farrars and what effect did they have on you?
Gavin: Well, I first ‘met’ them through their books. My first book on Wicca was actually Doreen Valiente’s ABC of Witchcraft. The back cover of the book endorsed several others from the same publisher included The Witches Way, which was the first of their books that I brought.
I first physically met them at an event in England, Pagan Link ’89. It was suppose to take place at Leicester University, but when the head of the University found out he cancelled the event. We ended up having to have the festival in a muddy field on a pick-your-own strawberry farm at a place called Groby. It was September, pouring with rain and cold. The first time I saw Janet and Stewart they were huddled together trying to keep warm, just after giving a lecture in a large tent that the wind was whistling through. Myself and my then wife, Tania, decided they needed warming up so we got them tea. Being Nurses, we had volunteered to do First Aid on the site, so were making sure that speakers didn’t suffer from hypothermia.
I met Janet and Stewart again, about a year later. I had made firm friends with the organisers of the event, and joined their group, Clan Bran, an eclectic mix of people from different Craft backgrounds. When they visited Ireland, I went with them and met Janet and Stewart again.
They weren’t what I had expected when I met them. Most Alexandrians and Gardnerians I had met didn’t accept that I was valid as a witch; in their eyes I simply didn’t have the right ‘initiation’.
Janet and Stewart weren’t like that, they accepted anyone they considered to be genuine in their intent regardless of Wiccan origins. It’s difficult to really quantify the effect Janet and Stewart had on me. Obviously their books were highly influential on myself and the covens I was a member of. The real effect though was when I physically met them. First of all, they renewed my enthusiasm for Wicca which had become jaded by being continually told that ‘I wasn’t Craft’ and needed ‘re-initiation’, but most importantly, they changed my life. I never expected to be where I am today, a published author and giving lectures and workshops.
Christopher: Janet, what was your and Stewart’s impression of Gavin? Did either of you realize that he was going to become a partner with you two?
Janet: Well, I really enjoyed the cup of tea the first time I met Gavin! The next time was a bit different. It was in Ireland and I had been going through a really hard time, which I had been trying to keep to myself. Gavin caught me in the kitchen and said ‘why are you hurting’. I was taken aback and thought: ‘ what an arrogant bastard!’ Later I realised that he was in fact quite perceptive and was the only one seemed to care about the fact I was going through something.
I don’t really know what Stewart’s impression was of him, he certainly liked him. He was much quieter than many of the people around us at the time and only seemed to open him mouth when there was something important to say. I think that impressed Stewart.
Christopher: Why did you decide to move to Ireland that has become your home?
Janet: It wasn’t really for any deep spiritual reason – it was actually financial! The only people who make lots of money as authors are people like Dan Brown! Most of us live pretty much close to the bread line most of the time and would make more money in mundane jobs. This is why we moved to Ireland, they don’t tax writers. Of course, once we moved here we fell in love with the place; with its history and with its people. We certainly wouldn’t consider living anywhere else now.
Christopher: Gavin, You have co-authored books with the Farrars, you became their business manager and then you nursed Stewart after his stroke. This seems to have been strong partnership between you all. Isn’t that close a relationship between partners unusual?
Gavin: Yes, it is unusual. You have to know some of the background to understand why this occurred. Janet and myself became a ‘couple’ in Salem during a visit for the 3rd Centenary of the Salem Witch Trials. It was not intended but it happened. Afterwards we agreed to split.
Janet told Stewart what had happened and that it would happen again. Much to her surprise he simply told her to ‘get him over here to Ireland and we’ll live as a threesome!’
What you have to understand is that Stewart was in his ’70’s and there was a 34 year age gap between him and Janet. He realised he was getting old and that she needed someone younger in her life – now that’s love! We discovered later from one of his oldest friends he had in fact engineered us getting together which is why he hadn’t come with us to the United States.
To live in this sort of relationship, where a woman has to all intents and purposes two husbands takes a certain level of maturity. We certainly wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, it just worked for us. I think that was because we all had the same spiritual beliefs and goals. Certainly, there were ups and downs but in the end it was ‘all for one, and one for all’.
Christopher: Each came in with different talents and training. How has that affected the practice and teaching that you do today?
Janet and Gavin: We think it’s given us a unique approach to Wicca and style. Gavin has a background in Spiritual Healing, while Janet is a practicing medium. We have absorbed those aspects into our group training and workshops. Our emphasis has become much more on experiencing the mysteries through spiritual connection, as well working with spirits and psychic practice. Translated into practice this means energy work, spirit-craft, and understanding spiritual cosmology. We use a quote during many of our practical workshops: ‘it’s not enough to know how to drive the magic car, you have to know how it works so you can fix it!’ We now teach ‘magical mechanics’. This has come out of our joint experience and knowledge of magic and spirituality.
Christopher: Gavin you introduce an idea not heard a lot here in the States, possible ties of Wicca to ancient shamanism. Care to tell a bit about that?
Gavin: I don’t think I was the first to mention the links. Shamanism was mentioned both in Doreen Valiente’s books, and Janet and Stewart’s as the root of magical practice. My interest in the connection stems from my origins in what was really a self-initiatory coven. I think this made us much more open to new ideas. In the early to mid 1980’s the Shamanic revival was just getting started due to the influence of Michael Harner. Several writers on witchcraft had started to adopt shamanic techniques including Starhawk. Many of us just didn’t understand why a clearly pagan tradition such as Wicca was using Judeo-Christian magic such as Caballa. We simply rejected it, this led many to reject Wicca as well in the UK, while others like myself looked at the possibility of merging both practices.
If you look at the history of Wicca it has always been based around the principle ‘if it works use it’! Doreen Valiente the mother of modern witchcraft, had always been clear about this. I think Gardner applied this and used what was around him, and in the 1940’s and ’50’s that meant High Magic. Alex Sanders, of course did, the same, in fact in his case to a heavier degree.
One of things I came to realise was that if you brushed away the modern overlays there is in fact a bedrock of shamanic practice beneath REAL traditional witchcraft, including the use of trance states. This is very clear to anyone is familiar with Robert Cochrane and the witchcraft that he practiced.
If Gardner and Sander’s can adopt High Magic as the basis of practice for witchcraft why can’t we adopt older traditions such as Shamanic practice? Surely that is historically more in keeping with what witchcraft is, working with spirits in magic practice.
Christopher: Since Stewart’s death, you two carry on the tradition and now are married. What plans do you have for the future?
Janet and Gavin: At present we’re pretty much carrying on the way we have over the last few years. We are visiting the UK for three events this year, conferences in Preston, Canterbury and The Day for Doreen (Valiente) in London in September. We are going to be in the US for Samhain; Florida, Washington DC and Delaware. In the meantime we are continuing with our on-line course, and planning one off seminars over the summer. In the meantime we are also running our open circle – Teampall Na Callaighe – as well as our coven. We are looking forward to a glorious hot summer in Ireland after 5 years of rainy summers, so that we can go out with our groups to the ancient sites.
Christopher: Where can our readers learn more about what you are doing, or about your books and traditions?
Janet and Gavin: We have our main website at http://www.callaighe.com . But we also have an open Facebook site under the names Janet Farrar _ Gavin Bone. This is kept continually update with news of our tours, workshops, and online seminars.
Christopher: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?
Janet and Gavin: Wicca and Witchcraft are evolving traditions. They aren’t static, over time they change and they adapt new techniques into them. It doesn’t matter what tradition you are from, or how you started in Wicca, all that is important is your connection to the divine, with the God and Goddess. To quote Gardnerian: ‘There is only one true initiator’. Who is that? Is that a High Priest or Priestess, no it’s the divine itself. It is why ultimately you cannot be a witch unless you make that connection and it doesn’t matter how you were initiated, whether it was from someone who has correct lineage or from a self-initiatory, unless the divine is present, the ‘initiation’ hasn’t happened.
For years Wicca has been about itself. It’s been like a child who says ‘me, me, me!’ It has been completely driven by its own needs rather than the needs of the world.
Now it is beginning to realise that it is a spirituality and spiritualities are not driven by selfishness, they are driven by selflessness. Wicca has to realise in these changing times that it has to be about service to the divine, to the God and Goddess. This is what being a Priestess or Priest is all about, about service not about fulfilling our own drives, otherwise we are just engaging in spiritual masturbation!