The Mother of Modern Witchcraft

Cristen Conger

Doreen Valiente, the mother of modern witchcraft.
Doreen Valiente, the mother of modern witchcraft.

On June 21, 2013, Britain unveiled a new 'blue plaque' historical marker commemorating the block where Doreen Valiente resided before she died in 1999. The ceremony falling on the summer solstice was intentional and significant since Valiente is considered the "mother of modern witchcraft," and the summer solstice coincides with the Wiccan celebration of Litha.

Under the Witchcraft Act, practicing witchcraft was illegal in England from 1736 until it was repealed in 1951, and a year later Valiente, who was raised Christian and briefly attended convent school, was initiated into Wicca by its primary founder Gerald Gardner. The witchcraft Gardner introduced to Valiente wasn't the sort of stereotypically witchy dark arts readers encounter in Harry Potter or witness in "The Wizard of Oz." Wicca, with its motto of "if it does no harm, do your own will," is a much gentler-spirited system of nature worship and energy work, as summed up in How Witchcraft Works:

Wicca is one of the modern Pagan religions that worships the Earth and nature, and it is only about 60 years old. It was created in the 1940s and '50s by Gerald Gardner. Gardner defined witchcraft as a positive and life-affirming religion that includes divination, herblore, magic and psychic abilities. Wiccans take an oath to do no harm with their magick.

Along with Gardner, Valiente was instrumental in sparking the growth of modern witchcraft after it was officially decriminalized, largely through her assistance rewriting Gardner's seminal "Book of Shadows" that outlines Wicca spells and rituals. In the United States, Wicca has been cited as the country's fastest-growing religion, but firm numbers are difficult to come by, as The New York Times reported in 2007. And even if that metric is correct, mainstream religions like Christianity and Islam easily dwarf the American Wiccan population of roughly 134,000.

Similarly, Doreen Valiente isn't a household name, but her role as a woman at the helm of a religion is noteworthy, regardless of what brand of spirituality one ascribes to. The book "Enchanted Feminism" notes how "[Wicca's] practitioners not only welcomed women as priestesses, they also employed female symbolism to represent the face of a God/ess and seemed to organize in an anti-hierarchical manner, almost in conformity with the egalitarian principles of the "consciousness-raising groups in the women's movement." How directly Valiente is to thank for that female friendly structure is unclear, but her enthusiasm for seeing other women involved in its leadership was clear in 1988 when she said, "We are seeing a much greater development of feminist witchcraft, with women taking a much more leading role, and I think this is a good thing."