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Obituary: Doreen Valiente

Vivien Grigori
Sunday 19 September 1999 23:02 BST

DOREEN VALIENTE had the odd position of having to defend herself against the charge of starting a new religion. It has been alleged that the contemporary cult of Witchcraft, known to its practitioners as "Wicca", had been invented by her in the 1950s. She flatly denied this, though she was an important figure in the revival, and did admit to having amended and augmented the "Book of Shadows", as the Witches' sacred text is called.

Valiente had a fascination with Witchcraft from her early childhood, having her first spiritual experience at the age of nine. However, she was brought up as a Christian and sent to a convent school, which she walked out of at the age of 15 and refused to return. The general view at the time was that Witchcraft had died out.

In 1952 - one year after the repeal of the last Witchcraft Act - Valiente got in touch with Cecil Williamson, founder of the Museum of Witchcraft in the Isle of Man. Williamson introduced her to a retired colonial civil servant named Gerald Gardner, who claimed to have been initiated into Witchcraft in the New Forest in 1939, and now ran his own coven. Valiente herself was initiated by Gardner at the following summer solstice.

At this time Witchcraft was being attacked from two sides: by Christians who maintained their old opinion that it was all Devil worship, and by rationalists who insisted that there was no such thing as Witchcraft. She quickly discovered that the theology of Witchcraft was purely Pagan, and that they did not therefore even believe in the Devil, whom they regarded as a Christian invention. On the other hand, she felt that the rituals did release a real power from within.

Gardner admitted that the rites he had been taught were "fragmentary". Valiente had a natural gift for poetry, so she wrote many songs and chants to be used in the Craft, such as "The Witches' Rune" and the "Invocation of the Horned God". Gardener's attitude to publicity differed from Valiente's. She believed it was absurd that he demanded oaths of secrecy from new initiates, while giving interviews to Sunday newspapers. She was very quiet about her own involvement at this time, not wishing her Christian mother to know. In 1957 she left to found her own coven.

After her mother's death in 1964, Valiente became more open about what she was. In her home town of Brighton she was a well-known figure, and often gave interviews to the Evening Argus defending the Craft against ill-informed attacks. But from the 1960s the explosive growth of Wicca made her famous around the world. This led to a backlash, with accusations that she was guilty of, as it were, religious forgery.

In response she collaborated with Janet and Stewart Farrax to produce The Witches Bible Compleat (part i 1981, part ii 1984), in which she carefully explained which ritual texts she had written and which she had not. She wrote several other books including An ABC of Witchcraft (1973), Witchcraft for Tomorrow (1978) and The Rebirth of Witchcraft (1989).

Gardner had claimed that his 1939 initiation had been given by "Old Dorothy" Clutterbuck, a wealthy Hampshire woman. In 1980 an American professor alleged that no such person had ever existed. Valiente investigated and eventually proved, not only that she had been real, but that in 1939 Clutterbuck and Gerald Gardner had lived in the same village.

In later life, as the Witchcraft and Pagan revival became a mass movement, she had the strange experience of finding material which she had originally composed for a select few becoming common property. In 1985, whilst browsing amongst stalls at a "Psychics' and Mystics' Fayre", she came across a pile of printed sheets with the title "The Charge of the Goddess". Seeing her interest, the stallholder started to explain that it was a form of Witches' credo. She was obliged to say, "I know, I'm Doreen Valiente; I helped to write it."

In 1997 Doreen Valiente spoke to more than a thousand people at the Pagan Federation Conference. As she remarked, when she had first met Gerald Gardner, 45 years previously, she could never have dreamt that one day she would be up in front of so many people. But the general feeling amongst the audience was that she had done more than anyone else alive to revive the Craft, and they gave her a standing ovation.

She left no close relatives, and her principal beneficiary will be the Centre for Pagan Studies, in Surrey.

Doreen Dominy, witch: born London January 1922; married 1944 Casimiro Valiente (died 1972); died Brighton, East Sussex 1 September 1999.

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