book notes

Reading – What Witches Do: Introduction

What Witches Do by Stewart Farrar was first published in 1971, after the author, a journalist, was sent to interview Alex Sanders, the founder of Alexandrian Wicca. Farrar was charmed by Sanders and his witch cult, and set about writing this book with the blessing of Alex and his wife & High Priestess Maxine after being initiated into the first degree.

So this book is not an outsider journalistic exposé, nor is it a how-to introductory book. It’s the experience and knowledge of one witch and priest, as evolved through his learning from both teachers and own researches, filtered through the lens of a professional writer. This book is an anthropological ethnography of initiatory pagan witchcraft, particularly a type of Wicca, by a participant observer.

It’s very much a book of its time – the language used, sources of history provided, and a lot of the themes are straight out of the 1960s & ‘70s. But the information provided is timeless, and just as relevant to 21st century pagan witchcraft in general, and Traditional Wicca in particular.

Notes made while reading “What Witches Do” by Stewart Farrar

In the intro, Farrar gives a brief rundown of Sanders’ personal history, particularly as told in the June Johns biography that had come out in 1970. In true hereditary witch fashion, Sanders whips out the witch-gran story before talking about his exploration of witchcraft and magic in general, after which he and Maxine began initiating others into Witchcraft & using the word Wicca in the mid 60s. Missing from this narrative is any detail about Sanders’ foray into Gardnerian Wicca, and yet he claimed to have been initiated in 1962 by a priestess (Medea?) downline from Patricia & Arnold Crowther, and thus had a copy of the Book of Shadows. The accuracy of this claim is rather publically debated even today, and some of the alternate versions are hilarious: there’s one about Alex in the garage with the BoS (while the Gards partied inside the house).

Farrar divides Witchcraft into 4 strands:

  • Hereditary witches; the fam-trad type that was often some kind of idealised form (the “my grandma was a witch” story was, and still is, common).
  • Traditional; particularly Robert Cochrane & the Clan of Tubal Cain, also Sabbatic Craft, Feri (in America), Luciferian Witchcraft, and other culture-based folk magic practices.
  • Gardnerian (Wica): developed by Gerald Gardner following his initiation into a coven in the New Forest, combined with folklore and other occult teachings to create a structured system of ritual.
  • Alexandrian Wicca: Alex Sanders’ particular blending of various witchcrafts, including and perhaps primarily Gardnerian Wicca, with ceremonial “high” magic.

All of these strands basically had a similar purpose: to develop an effective practice of modern witchcraft. The purpose of Wicca in general was the spiritual evolution of the Witch.

These days, it’s not so easy to divide witches up. Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca often get lumped into a category variously called “Traditional Wicca”, “British Traditional Wicca/Witchcraft”, and “initiatory Witchcraft”. From the 1980s onwards, a new form of Wicca arose – no longer coven-based or requiring initiation, this came to be known variously as “Eclectic Wicca”, “Solitary Wicca” and “Neo-Wicca”. In the 50s-70s, this was more often called simply “Paganism”. Traditional Witchcraft too has flourished, and in the last ~5 years in particular has had a boost in popularity.

Sanders’ views about publicity are discussed, and the author quotes him as saying “He that hath ears to head, let him hear” while also refusing to reveal certain things except to an initiate of the appropriate grade. I should imagine it was a fine line to tread: being open about Witchcraft in order to help people find their way, without breaking any oaths made to one’s initiator and/or coven. I also think there’s a lot of value in the “Silence” part of the Witches’ Pyramid (to Know, to Will, to Dare, and to Keep Silent) and how that particularly pertains to rituals that function as Mysteries. Both Sanders and Farrar have been accused of bending, if not breaking, their oaths – but then, Gardner has been accused similarly, so it’s beyond my scope as a non-initiate to comment.

Farrar addresses Alex Sanders’ controversial “King of the Witches” title briefly, saying that it was given to Sanders unasked by a gathering of 16 covens in his tradition, and that Sanders only claims to be king of his own witches. The title “Witch Queen” has some traditional basis, in that most Gardnerian Wiccan covens trace their lineage through the High Priestess, (albeit via cross-gender initiation) and so a WQ is a HPs who has at least 3 full working covens downline (i.e. she has initiated 3 witches to the 3rd degree, who each then have their own individual working coven). Sanders’ title, however, came across as rather obscenely grandiose, especially given his publicity-hound nature – his enthusiasm for Witchcraft easily rivalled Gardner’s, and Sanders’ coven was primarily a training one for the purpose of bringing in new Witches.

I laughed at, but also really liked, Farrar’s disclaimer towards the end of the intro where he begs possibly offended Witches to not throw the baby out with the bathwater, when it comes to the accuracy of details in the book. He’s right – the whole picture is more important than any single detail – but given that the details make up the whole, it’s inevitable that his words were/are picked apart.

I also really liked that he finished by encouraging would-be Wiccans to find a responsible teacher and/or coven – it’s such an old school detail that is anathema to Witches these days, with all the ensuing watering-down and misunderstandings that could be expected to occur. However, there are a shit load more books available now, so we’re less reliant on being able to learn from another person – it’s still up to the individual to separate the wheat from the chaff and I don’t know if that’s a skill everyone has. Certainly, it’s not something I learned until I studied anthropology at uni.


Lilith Mulier says Alex was initiated on March 9 by Medea from the Derbyshire Coven, after being taken there by Pat Kopinksi, and he was given the 3rd by Sylvia Tatham (d/l Loric & Olwen aka Scotty & Monique Wilson). Sylvia and Alex were working partners in the Manchester Coven until Maxine was initiated & raised, then Alex and Maxine split to move to London.

This info also suggested in “Craft of the Wise: A Practical Guide to Paganism and Witchcraft” by Vikki Bramshaw & “The Evolution of Alexandrian Witchcraft” by Frances Billinghurst.

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