Sins of the Past

“History is a pack of lies we play on the dead”  (Voltaire)

Last week I visited my local library.  I hadn’t used the service since I was a youngster but our local library had recently moved into newer premises and I was keen to check out the improvements.  I was not disappointed!  Although the musty scent of old books, which I love, has been repressed by the overpowering stench of paint and plaster I did stumble upon a book by Doreen Valiente called ‘The Rebirth of Witchcraft’.  After a quick flick through I was even more thrilled to see that Robert Cochrane had an entire chapter devoted to him! “Fantastic!” I thought, a written account of a character that is, at best, hard to pin down, who has become infamous in Traditional Craft circles and who furthermore died so young leaving so much of his legacy and his tradition potted with holes and veiled in mystery.  Here was a whole chapter about a man I held in such high regard, a man who I, if I’m completely honest, had come to idolise and who I often wished many a time I could have met, better still, written by a woman who actually met and worked with him.

After reading the chapter, I can safely say my fairy tale fantasy image of the “Late Magister” has been well and truly thwarted.  To quote from Doreen Valiente:

“For one thing Cochrane was becoming more authoritarian in his attitude, both towards other covens and the members of his own coven…He added to this a characteristic which Gerald had never shown, that is a tendency to threaten anyone who opposed or even questioned him…”

Doreen also goes on to describe an affair he had which eventually led to the breakdown of his marriage, his “shameless” misleading of a fellow author surrounding a brass plate and what he called “a night of long knives” against the Gardenarians (FYI RC supposedly first coined the term ‘Gardenarian’ as an insult to the ‘followers’ of Gerald) and all this before eventually poisoning himself and taking his own life!

Doesn’t sound like an especially savoury fellow does he?! Yet as Doreen admits, he created a system of Traditional Craft which worked and got results, and as far as I’m concerned still does, of that there is no doubt in my mind!

I realised after a little time spent soul searching that we, as human beings, have a strange tendency to idolise people who are just that…people…human and therefore fallible.  Robert Cochrane, to use my personal example, was not some Demigod, just a human being who happened to be blessed with a certain amount of genius, vision and charisma many others lack.  It’s a little like the first time you realise your birth parents are mortal…the first time you see them get hurt or get sick.  As a small child the revelation inevitably comes when you realise your Dad isn’t Superman and your Mum isn’t Wonder woman.  This can be earth shattering… so it was when I discovered that actually Robert Cochrane was not a pleasant man, even to those he supposedly loved.

The thing I struggle with most of all is that we of ‘The Faith’ should strive for a sense of self-awareness.  ”Know Thyself” perhaps the hardest and yet, in my opinion the most important challenge for us all for it is through our exploration of ‘self’ that we come to know the true nature of the divine, so how could someone like RC, who was supposedly so devoted to his Goddess have been, from what I read, often times so cruel and oblivious to or uncaring of the consequences of his actions?

The tragedy, perhaps even more tragic, is that this behaviour, this egotism and political power struggle continues today.  Robert Cochrane died in 1966 yet 46 years on (nearly half a century!!) there are those who outwardly appear to share many of the same traits I’m sure Doreen would have also scathed had she been alive and kicking today.

As a (relative) newcomer to Traditional Craft I, like many others in my position, join many internet forums, Yahoo groups, Facebook groups, follow people on Twitter, read avidly, listen to podcasts and so on and so on hoping that maybe, just maybe there will be something or someone with a morsel of wisdom to share, with time to listen, those who can perhaps offer us a glimpse of that we so desperately and passionately seek.

In rare cases we are lucky and encounter a few who lend just enough aid (without depriving us of our right of self-discovery) to accelerate our progress a hundred fold and these folks are worthy of our respect and admiration as elders and fellow practitioners.  Sadly the majority of the time however, we are faced with the same gross egos, in-fighting and political nonsense which should have died with Cochrane, Sanders and Gardner.  We are confronted with those who still insist on calling themselves “The One!”  There is no ‘The’ Witch, there is no ‘Witch Prince / King / Queen’ and there is no room for ‘disciples’ or a gang mentality in Traditional Craft.  The Truth is not now, nor has it ever been ‘owned’ and there is no one out there who can or even is able to do anything more than anyone else…like I said they are human, that is to say they are mere mortals with all the subjectivity that goes with it, any title they may have has only been bestowed on them by another mere mortal, through human ritual and because of a human system of initiation which means diddly-squat out there in the big bad world!  Truth is revealed gradually by a higher power to all who are willing to work for it, who desire it, who will willingly shed blood sweat and tears in their quest for it.  It cannot be found in the pages of a book, in the words of another, no matter who they think they are.  No one can bestow that which is not theirs to bestow.  Sure books and teachers can provide the means but certainly not the end and the beauty of the latter…it can be achieved without the former!

Honestly, I can overlook Robert Cochrane’s imperfections and my idea of him is perhaps more real thanks to Doreen who wisely points out that had he lived longer RC may have mellowed with the years but sadly we will never know.  I can forgive Bill Gray (another of my ‘favourite’ occultists) for his blatant homophobic opinions in many of his books despite being a ‘homo’ myself; he after all lived in a different era and was of a different age.  What I can’t tolerate are those who insist on perpetuating the mistakes of the past, those who insist on making celebrities or idols of themselves.  We have barely glimpsed the dawn of a new century, a new aeon….yet here we are still bickering over who is right and even who owns the rights to truth and wisdom when in reality we should be adopting the attitude of “who gives a monkeys?!”  I myself am guilty of the occasional, less than favourable dig about the neo-pagan community, in fact there are times I wish we could go back to the days when the Craft was still hidden, but we cannot and should not go backwards, this is where we are and everyone has as much right to the quest for truth as the rest of us no matter how much we may disagree with their methods.  One of my favourite quotes, also from Voltaire says:

 “I may not agree with your opinion but I will defend to the death your right to it”

Wise man that Voltaire!  You see…it’s all about Humility, that is being humble and respectful of others; no one soul is more important than the next, there is no place for Ego around the table of the Old’uns (unless of course it’s being served to Them for breakfast!)

There is truth in the saying “Every Man and Woman is a Star”; the sooner we all realise and wake up to this the better!  We only have ourselves to blame for this current state of affairs.   It is our constant feeding of others’ egos often to the detriment of our own sense of worth and validity, which seems to enable the rank ego to thrive like mould on a stale loaf.  The sad fact is that often we spend so long idolising others, inflating their own sense of importance that we forget that it is us, the individual, who is in charge of our destiny.  Why do we do it?  Because they have written a book or maybe several?  Because they have some ‘title’ passed on to them from someone with an equally bizarre sense of self-importance?  Because they know something we don’t?  We have everything we need to attain wisdom and do not require anyone to show us where or how to obtain it providing we put the effort in of course.  It is laziness, which in turn is a symptom of our 21st century desire to have everything for nothing, which makes us ask a question and expect the meaning of life in return.  Whether you want flying ointment, home brewed mead or wine, all the secrets of the Kabbalah, a band of spirit helpers or even initiation into the old ways then fine but give yourself the greatest gift and learn how for yourself, earn it for yourself…respect those who guide you, don’t entertain those who use your “thirst for knowledge” to their advantage.  The rewards are far greater and only then can we reclaim for ourselves what traditional craft really is and absolve our beloved craft of the sins of the past.


‘The Rebirth Of Witchcraft’ by Doreeen Valiente.  Robert Hale Ltd (2007)

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7 Responses to Sins of the Past

  1. ianthurlby says:

    I think that the ‘Elegy for a Dead Witch’ by Doreen Valiente made it quite apparent that she still thought fondly of Roy Bowers and equally ‘Rebirth of Witchcraft’ showed how certain attributes of his personality were not to her liking. However is this relevant to Downstroddens article which appears to be about discarding juvenile devotion and awakening of self ?

  2. Peregrin says:

    Great article. Raising perennial issues in the Craft. I am not up on the current literature, but the only thing I have seen to seriously address all this were some unpublished articles by Ian Rees from the 80s. Does anyone know any modern works that do the same?

    • downstrodden says:

      “Perennial Issues” have succinctly expressed my concerns in two simple words! I am afraid I am not familiar with Ian Rees’ work (although I am going to look into it) so I am afraid can’t comment. Apologies!

  3. downstrodden says:

    Thank you all for your comments. It’s always nice to know one’s personal thoughts have been well received and reached people on so many levels.
    I am well aware that Doreen Valiente held great fondness for Roy Bowers (Robert Cochrane) and equally aware having read his letters countless times that Roy’s opinion of Doreen was equally mixed in the early days. However the point of this post was not to discuss the personality traits or relationships of our deceased forbearers only how we might learn from them. As someone who might be considered one of the ‘next generation’ I suppose I am, in this blog, simply trying to make an observation that we don’t seem to be learning much from the mistakes of our ancestors, I mention Doreen and Roy to illustrate, as they happen to be among the few who are especially influential to me personally, but I could have focussed instead on any number of characters from their era for the ego seemed as much of a problem then as it remains to be today. It is true that to err is human; “human nature” has a big part to play but is it not our job, our responsibility even to ensure the craft encourages evolution beyond “human nature”? Human nature should not be an acceptable excuse. As an onlooker on various forums I have seen little evidence of evolution or growth, only a perpetuation, even promotion of negative attitudes and superiority complexes which benefit no one and certainly not the ‘community’. In this blog I was hoping to present a possible solution in the form of empowerment of the individual and their right to discovery and not ‘celebrity’, it is only the individual who can make these characteristics redundant in our craft. I have seen for myself newcomers seeking answers and being completely ignored by so called ‘prominent figures’, I have witnessed petty mudslinging and cloak and dagger smear campaigns between groups and individuals and more recently I heard of someone who makes a living from their craft handing out ‘genuine witch awards’ which frankly as a newcomer to Traditional Craft I find distasteful, embarrassing and severely detrimental to the confidence of those taking their first formative steps upon the crooked path! I expect my Elders to behave and treat The Craft with dignity… That is what earns genuine respect; anything else becomes simply a fanclub!! If someone says something disagreeable…I would expect someone of integrity to ignore it or at least debate it with some decorum, live and let live. It is my belief that we should all endeavour to practise what we preach, craft or otherwise and with an element of grace and humility so us of the’ next generation’ can look back on these exciting times with pride and fondness! Perhaps I am an idealist. If I have only one axe to grind it is watching the enthusiastic light of the seeking spirit thwarted by the behaviours of those who should perhaps know better…specific names and examples do not need to be mentioned, as the saying goes “If the cap fits!” It is true that no one is perfect, and so it is then that one should never claim perfection and / or truth.

  4. ianthurlby says:

    Meanderingsofthemuse – I think you misread my post. I am for discarding ‘juvenile devotion’ or blind devotion, not for discarding devotion all together. Who would claim such a thing ?

  5. tony mcleod says:

    It is a shame these issues raise their ugly heads again, all this could have been put aside in respect to actions of the past if lines of communication were not shut down and not by Shani Oates or Robin. There is much that has been left unsaid on this issue and that alone shows the integrity of The Clan of Tubal Cain itself, the pieces you site here Sarah are in truth the tip of an iceberg, the truth itself is far more damming than many of you would consider. The Clan has, I believe, acted with honour and integrity as it would serve no purpose to drag up old conflicts or drag out character assasinations on individuals or groups, the work itself stands or falls on its own merits and not the name of the cuveen or the heritage thereof, as Roy said, the faith must evolve or perish.
    There are many Charletans in the occult world and all has been said to protect those seekers of truth from them, those who would fail to recognise this are fools to them selves, and if that is the case then good luck to them.
    The work should continue and stand or fall by its own machine, those who feel that by percieving anothers failing they achieve success should look at why it is they feel the need to do so.
    All opinions stand as just that, it is a liberty we have in this country and for that at least I am grateful, when the liar has left the party we can listen to the truth, religion/opinion is like the public swimming pool- all the noise is at the shallow end, I keep using that one I know but it does make sense.

  6. downstrodden says:

    I have ‘approved’ everyone’s comments, allowed individual opinions and views to be aired and given everyone right and time to reply as they feel obligated. However I must ask that you try to refrain from commenting on anything which is not directly related to this blog. If there is no more to be said or discussed on my writing specifically then so be it. As has been recommended on the UK Pagan Facebook Group where a link to this blog was published earlier today ( I refer everyone here

    For now, I will say no more, other than thank you to those who have exhibited both here and on various other public forums, exactly the sort of behaviours my blog attempts to warn against. I am pretty sure our forbearers would feel right at home in the year 2012!

    Peace and Regards.

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