Practicing witchcraft in 1542 Britain meant death, a punishment enforced globally during the early modern period. Nowadays, after filtering through the pages of Harry Potter and renditions of Defying Gravity, the tradition of witchcraft—or its broader term, paganism—can be demonstrated through the magical collection of Doreen Valiente, widely held as the mother of modern witchcraft.
Folklore, Magic and Mysteries: Modern Witchcraft and Folk Culture in Britain, an exhibit planned in the southern coastal town of Brighton, will display, for the first time, the personal belongings of Valiente. Highlighting her influence on today’s practice, ritual texts and objects—an altar, cloven candlesticks, and divination tools—aim to provide insight into a once-secretive belief system.
“We’re telling the history of traditions,” says John Belham-Payne, co-founder of the Centre for Pagan Studies and the last High Priest to work with Valiente before she died of cancer in 1999, “from ancient times, going right through to modern traditions.”
After Valiente’s death, Belham-Payne inherited hundreds of thousands of Wiccan documents and pieces, cited by some as the most important collection to document the pagan religion, both past and present. In order to preserve these artifacts together—and ensure they could never be sold—Belham-Payne went on to set up the Doreen Valiente Foundation, bringing pagan craft to the mainstream.
“Witches and pagans will come and get one thing from the exhibition,” he tells The Creators Project. “They’ll get to see things they’ve seen in books, as Doreen’s collection has been in lots of texts. But from the general public’s perspective, we want someone to walk in the front door thinking it could be a bit spooky but walk out with the idea that it wasn’t what they thought it would be. In some ways it might seem a little boring, but we’re not trying to shock people.”
The various strands of paganism focus on nature and the spiritual, beliefs that over 85,000 people identify with in the UK, according to 2011 national census data from England, Scotland, and Wales. In 1951, when the country abolished the Witchcraft Act of 1763, witchcraft began to redefine itself to fit into the modern world. An example of this modernity is found in Valiente’s rewriting of The Book of Shadows—a text filled with magical teachings taught to covens.
“The first book, while important, was fragmented and didn’t make sense,” explains Belham-Payne. “Doreen rewrote a great deal of it, giving it a sequence of events and adding poetry. She also made it into a more modern language.”
Some pages of The Book of Shadows will be on display in Brighton, alongside a range of seemingly ordinary—and outright bizarre—items used for magic.
“Things that will excite most people in the collection are a couple of curses, which are still alive,” says Belham-Payne. “They’re two small round glass jars that Doreen took from the floor of two separate buildings in Brighton, said to be haunted. They’re tightly packed with all kinds of horrible things that are meant to tie people up in knots if the cork in the bottom is taken out. Doreen never felt the need to do this. She just blessed the houses and now they sit within the collection.”
Funding the exhibit without help from government grants, Belham-Payne hopes Valiente’s collection will one day be made into a fully accredited museum, demystifying any preconceptions about the practice of witchcraft.
“I dislike the fact that if you if you open up any page of the Internet it’s spread all over,” he says. “It’s losing its importance somehow. People come into this practice for a while but it’s a fad and then they disappear.”
Folklore, Magic and Mysteries: Modern Witchcraft and Folk Culture in Britain runs from April 1st through to October of this year. See more here. Another exhibit, Where Witchcraft Lives, will also display some of Doreen’s collection later in the year.