“King of the Witches” is a hugely entertaining, if pretty fantastical, biography of one of the leading figures of modern pagan witchcraft, Alex Sanders. Published in 1969 by June Johns, an author described as having “made a living from writing sensationalist, poorly-researched and somewhat titillating books in the late 60s/early 70s”1, and using photographs allegedly taken by her photographer husband without the permission of at least one of the major participants2, this slim book is a wild romp through Alex Sanders’ early life with a focus on exploring his interest in all things magical.
Sanders was the consummate showman and trickster, and a grain of salt is required when reading this biography. It’s hard to say whether Johns believed everything Sanders told her, or whether she was simply writing in the vein of the sensationalist journalism so prevalent at the time, but nonetheless she does a good job of making some extraordinary events seem plausible. It’s likely that the exact details of Sanders’ life will never be fully revealed, but this book certainly covers many of his most interesting stories (at least, up until the publication date – Sanders went on to live for almost another 20 years).
To begin with, Johns covers Sanders’ version of the “grandmother” story; Sanders claimed that in 1933, after stumbling upon his grandmother performing a rite in her kitchen, he was initiated by her as a hereditary witch. The whole thing seems wildly unlikely, especially considering that even Sanders himself would give contradictory accounts of his introduction to witchcraft, but it does make for a fun read.
Johns covers much of Sanders’ childhood, spent training as a witch and seer, before moving on to his expanding interest in the occult, including a foray into spiritualism and, later, black magic. Sanders eventually receives his comeuppance, and returns to the “white witchcraft” fold following the suicide of a lover, and then the terminal illness of his closest sibling.
A lot of the subsequent stories, where Sanders is an adult (and expert witch), are weird and wonderful snippets featuring sex and the supernatural, and the effects of both on the people in Sanders’ life. It is also about this point that Jack Smith’s photographs are used to illustrate the book: pictures of Alex and his then wife Maxine, either robed or nude, leading their coven in rites, surrounded by the exotic regalia of the witch. These rare photos are truly magical.
The book covers Sanders’ tumultuous relationships with several of his apprentices and coven members, his marriage to Maxine Morris and the birth of their daughter Maya, and the party where five covens’ worth of his initiates crowned him King of the Witches.
A direct interview with Sanders rounds off the biography, before a series of appendices offer a brief glimpse at exactly what practicing witchcraft actually involves.
What I liked: Fairly non-judgmental discussion of Sanders’ bisexuality, and use of sex magic. Appendices including information on “The Law” (a.k.a. the Old Laws or the Ardanes in other forms of Wicca), the witches’ calendar (eight sabbats), the Charge of the Goddess, the Witches’ Rune, initiation, magical correspondences – all of which make this one of the first Wiccan books to include actual information on how to practice.
What I disliked: Racist nonsense about “priests of Kali” coming over from India to hire Sanders to return with them and dedicate a temple to Kali by committing murder (human sacrifice), before training them in European ways of raising and using magical power. More racist nonsense about voodoo being for “the seduction of women or the destruction of men by death or insanity.” The absolute lack of mention of Gerald Gardner, the founder of Wicca, and just exactly how Alex Sanders came to have a Book of Shadows!
Conclusion: This book is worth reading because it provides a look inside the head of a storyteller, magician, and founder of one of the earliest traditions of Wicca – Alex Sanders. Seekers and practitioners of Wicca alike will find something of interest in these pages, provided they’re willing to read critically and separate the wheat from the chaff. At the very least, it will be helpful to familiarise oneself with the stories and experiences discussed here. My recommendation is to relax and enjoy the ride!