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The Author's Corner


Philip Heselton

2000, Berta A. Daniels


Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival

Earth Mysteries

The Elements of
Earth Mysteries



Wiccan Roots:
TWPT Talks to Philip Heselton


TWPT:  What was your first exposure to Paganism/Witchcraft/Wicca and what kind of an impression did that exposure make on you?

PH:  I suppose I have, in one sense, always been a pagan in that I have had my deepest spiritual experiences out in the woods and wild country, or under a clump of trees. At about the age of 10 I invented my own religion which, looking back on it, I can see was pagan in all its essentials. Indeed, I always say that paganism is the one religion that you don't have to teach - it will arise spontaneously through the individual's experience of nature around themselves.

At the age of 13, in 1960, I read Gerald Gardner's "Witchcraft Today" (my parents had borrowed it from the library, I think). Whilst the book was itself very interesting, it was what it didn't say that attracted me. There was some strange echo that attracted me tremendously - as if it was all familiar to me, perhaps from a previous lifetime. This feeling has remained with me for the rest of my life, and I have now had a book published on how Gardner met the witches, which all seems right somehow - a form of completion.

TWPT:  When was it that you first started to consider this path as something that might make sense for you personally?

PH:  I am always very much someone who forms their own path, rather than follow something else, so it was rather that I came up against organised Paganism and Wicca at various stages from the 1960s onwards, didn't think too much about it except to feel sympathetic, and it was really only in the 1980s that I started to meet people locally that were calling themselves Pagan that I became involved in various groups, etc. Until then I had perhaps wanted to become involved in a group but didn't know how to contact one.

TWPT:  How was it that you first integrated and expressed these new ideas and beliefs in your life?

PH:  First of all, they were never "new" to me. As I explained previously, they were always familiar to me, so it was not a question of integrating ideas into my life but rather recognizing that they were part of my life already.

TWPT:  What kinds of resources were available to you at the beginning of your journey? Books, stores, open groups?

PH:  "Witchcraft Today" was the first book of its kind: there was very little else. This did, therefore, stimulate the imagination - one had to think it out for oneself. There were no stores or anything of that sort - one was very much on one's own. The same with groups. In fact, I went along to meetings of the Churches' Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies - a Christian group, though of a fairly unorthodox kind, because there was really nothing else locally. This was in the 1960s and 1970s.

TWPT:  What was the spiritual climate like at that time in the UK in regards to belief systems which were Pagan or unorthodox in nature?

PH:  In the 1950s, religion equaled Christianity. Nothing else was recognized. In the 1960s, this began to change, with the popularization of Buddhism and other things. But still paganism was largely untalked about - people generally didn't know it existed, or that there were people who called themselves witches. So there really wasn't that much antagonism, except in some of the popular newspapers occasionally, mixing it up with Black Magic and the like.

TWPT:  Do you work with groups or do you prefer to practise alone? What do you think are the primary strengths and weaknesses of each of these ways of practising?

PH:  Sometimes I work on my own, sometimes with one other person, sometimes with a small group and at other times with a larger group. Each has their own characteristics. My deepest spiritual experiences have been when I am on my own. It seems as if I can open up my aura somehow and soar, in a way that I can't when there are other people around, even people I know well.

An attuned group, which is used to working together, is very much more powerful if one is working magic. Also there is a lot more joy in celebrating the festivals with others. It is a totally different feeling from working on one's own. Luckily, I do not have to choose between them!

TWPT:  Give me a brief idea of what makes up your personal belief system and how that translates into your everyday life.

PH:  I'm not really very happy about the word "belief". There are certain things I know from personal experience, other things I'm reasonably sure about from the evidence that I've seen and read about, other things I think are fairly likely to be true, and yet other things which I haven't got the faintest idea about. This is really more of a "scientific" view of things, and certainly stems from paganism being a religion of experience rather than teachings, holy books, etc.

However, I can state the basic principle that the whole universe, at a deep level is one, that there is a non-physical component to all things, including ourselves, that this component survives physical death and is reborn, and that we can live in both ordinary everyday reality and this deeper state at the same time. It is at this deeper level that psychic phenomena occur and in which magic can happen.

I'm sure all this does permeate my everyday life. How, exactly, I find it difficult to say, but I'm sure it does.

TWPT:  What kinds of people made up your initial introduction to Paganism and Witchcraft? Were they what you expected?

PH:  I first met some real live pagans in 1972. Unfortunately, one of them was very dogmatic in his thinking and this rather put me off for another 15 years until I met some marvellous undogmatic Pagans in Hull. They were so varied that I can't remember what I might have expected, but since that time they have become some of my closest friends and I am most grateful to have met them.

TWPT:  When was it that writing became a moving force in your life and what were some of the first subjects that you tackled in written form?

PH:  I suppose I've written for most of my life. Obviously school and university involve a lot of writing and my work, as a local government officer, involved writing letters and reports constantly.

Of course, this was mostly done at the request of other people, but I've never been keen on either idiomatic expressions or jargon, and I have never consciously tried to develop a particular way of writing. I think that over the years I have evolved a reasonably clear writing style, which people have mostly found easy to read and to understand.

Since the age of 15, I've edited various magazines, including "The Ley Hunter" and "Northern Earth Mysteries". These were in the days when one had to type onto a stencil and run off copies on a duplicating machine - very messy on occasions!

I also wrote articles for the magazines which I edited and for others in the earth mysteries and pagan fields. I then started to write and produce independent booklets, including one with Brian Larkman which was an early introduction to Earth Mysteries. When my mentor, Tony Wedd, died, I wrote his life story as a tribute which I published myself, including organising the printing and binding. It only sold about 100 copies, but it did what I wanted.

One thing that I dearly wanted was to have a book published by a "proper publisher". But it was not until 1989 that a friend suggested that I should contact Element Books, who had an "Elements of ..." series on various esoteric subjects. I offered to do one on Earth Mysteries. After submission of a synopsis and sample chapter they invited me down to see them and, in July 1990, they offered me a contract. "The Elements of Earth Mysteries" appeared a year later.

TWPT:  Did you see your writings as filling a gap in the material that was available at the time for those who were searching, even as you did, for information on the Pagan path?

PH:  I suppose in a sense all my writing has been to fill a gap in what was available. I wanted a book on something. It wasn't available, so I collected together information from a variety of sources and then decided that I might as well write a book based on the material that I'd collected. This is really the way it has mostly occurred. But I never really saw myself as an "expert", merely someone who could gather material together and present it in a readable way, which is what I have always tried to do.

TWPT:  What is it about writing that you like the most?

PH:  I suppose that it's the fact that I have a lot of control over the whole process. What I really like is the gradual building up from a few notes jotted on odd bits of paper to the final printed book. I like the process of gathering material together, classifying it and then subdividing the material into chapters and sub-sections, adding information, then putting together chunks of text, adding things in right up to the last minute, and then trying to produce a polished piece of writing which says something that no-one else has ever said before, certainly not in the same way.

Though there is something about standing up in front of an audience that is exciting, most of the time I tend to prefer writing to speaking. Once you've said something, that's it! You can't "un-say" it or add something in at the beginning or half-way through decide to put it all in a different order. I think what it is about writing (and here the word- processing capability of a computer ties in very well) is that I can alter things over quite a period of time, write only the things that I'm interested in at the moment and fill the rest in later.

I would imagine that this works best with the sort of non-fiction writing which I do. I imagine if you're writing a story you probably have to do it in a more chronological way, but perhaps I'm wrong there, as I have no experience of writing fiction. I once asked a fiction- writing friend whether she had ever tried writing non-fiction. She answered that she thought that she didn't know enough to write non- fiction. This was interesting, as one of the reasons I have given for not writing fiction was that I thought that I didn't know enough to write fiction!

TWPT:  Is there a sense of satisfaction from passing on information to others in written form that will benefit them along their life's journey?

PH:  I suppose there is. I'm not sure that I'm that conscious of the ultimate reader when I'm writing a book, and certainly not anything as grand as "benefiting them along their life's journey". What I always tend to have in mind is to write the sort of book that I would want to read myself. If it interests me then there is a fair chance that it might in addition interest others, whereas if I find it boring then it is almost certain that the readers will as well. (And that also goes for giving talks.) In fact, when a new book of mine appears, people often find it funny when they see me sitting down reading it! "Don't you know what's in it?" they comment. I don't think it's egotism, but there is something strangely satisfying about reading one of my own books. Indeed, if I have succeeded in writing something that I would want to read, then of course I will actually want to do so!

I suppose there's part of me that considers it some sort of bonus if other people find my books interesting and useful. I was always rather amazed when I started to give talks that people were taking down notes of what I was saying. And people have said some very nice things to me about my books, including how helpful they have been to them, the feeling generated by the book, etc. and how they have recommended them to other people, which is rather nice, as they needn't have said that.

TWPT:  What kinds of feedback do you receive on the books that you have written so far?

PH:  The reviews which have appeared have, without exception, been very good indeed, which has pleased me because I am very sensitive to adverse criticism. Even the minor criticisms in basically good reviews have worried me. Some reviews have been really good, such as "Go out immediately and buy half a dozen copies to give your friends for a Yule present!"

I haven't had very many letters from individuals who have read my books. I have had a few, passed on by my publishers, and they have been genuinely interested, probably asking some specific query, which I have tried to help with, or putting people in touch with someone specific or an organisation, etc. What I was hoping for was some such letter as: "We'd like you to come and do a lecture tour of the USA. We will arrange venues and will put you up with local people in the towns you visit." I'm still open to such a suggestion!

TWPT:  Since many of your books cover "earth mysteries", how would you define this subject to our readers and what fascination does it hold for you?

PH:  I was interested in "earth mysteries" before it had a name.

I was introduced to Alfred Watkins' ideas about leylines by my first mentor, Tony Wedd, back in 1961, over 40 years ago. These were alignments of ancient sites in the landscape which Watkins claimed to have discovered in his home county of Herefordshire on the England/Wales border, and elsewhere, in 1921, over 80 years ago. Tony Wedd, in his seminal work, "Skyways and Landmarks" linked the leys, or physical alignments, with the flows of subtle energy across the landscape, and with sightings of UFOs.

As a result, I and a school friend, Jimmy Goddard, started what we called The Ley Hunter's Club, and founded "The Ley Hunter" magazine, which only ceased publication in 1999.

"Earth Mysteries" was the name coined in the early 1970s for a set of ideas centred around the principle that the landscape that we see is not the only landscape, that it has a subtler or non-physical component, that the ancient peoples throughout the world were more sensitive than we are to this subtler world and could sense the energy flows along the surface of the earth, which was recognised as a living being.

Many people involved in Earth Mysteries have become very involved with archaeology and with what the ancient peoples were doing, using Earth Mysteries insights in the process.

My own path has been rather different. I have always stressed the importance of our own relationship to the landscape, now. This led me away from traditional earth mysteries and towards paganism, in other words participation rather than observation. I tried to express this in my book "Secret Places of the Goddess", to give what I hope is an evocative feeling of how we can relate to the landscape. It wasn't a guide to actual places but to how we can, wherever we are on the earth, relate to the land where we happen to be. For that reason the photographs which I used to illustrate the book don't have captions saying where they are. This isn't an attempt to be secretive - it is rather using them as examples and saying, in effect, "go out and find the places in your vicinity".

TWPT:  Do you think that there is an adequate understanding among Pagans as to the nature of the energies and spirits that the earth contains? Is this understanding a prerequisite for being able to function as part of this wonderful mystery of life?

PH:  We can understand on different levels, using different parts of ourselves. Clearly, we don't understand very much intellectually, and what I would want to avoid are the "systems" of so-called understanding that many choose to impose on the land. Such things as feng-shui and the various "grids" that dowsers and others have described can be revealing as long as we don't fall for the "package deal" of the complete system. We understand very little about the land, particularly in its subtler levels and it is important that we recognise this. We can only understand a small part, like the story of the blind men and the elephant. The best way of learning is to leave our preconceived opinions behind when we explore somewhere. Indeed, we have to understand the place with our whole being and not just our intellect. We have to keep open to what the place is telling us. I tried to give some hints on how to do this in "Secret Places of the Goddess" and in my book on trees, "Magical Guardians".

Is it a prerequisite? I think it may be, provided we don't limit it to intellectual understanding. There is an instinctive understanding which people who live close to the earth have always had. They are wise and we can learn much from them.

TWPT:  How was it that you came to write your latest book Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival?

PH:  The short answer would probably be "Because it needed to be written"! I'd been interested in Gardner's story for many years, but it was very sketchy to say the least and I frequently wondered about the things which he didn't say - things that were missing. As I became more interested in witchcraft and the Gardnerian craft in particular, my desire to fill in the gaps became much stronger. I started gathering material together and, in a sense, the book arose the same way that they always seem to for me, in other words, because there wasn't a book available I found things out the hard way, by research in archives, going and interviewing people, etc., and then, because I am a writer, it was natural to put this all down as a book. In fact I had much encouragement from such people as Patricia Crowther; Mike Howard, the editor of "The Cauldron" journal; and Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, all of whom were very helpful indeed and gave me the strength to continue.

TWPT:  How do you see Witchcraft evolving in the U.K. and around the world since Gerald Gardner brought the practice back into the light of day in the early 1950's? Do you think that Witchcraft would have resurfaced even if there had been no Gerald Gardner to push it along?

PH:  Part of the process of writing "Wiccan Roots" was to put myself in Gerald Gardner's place and think how I would have responded to the realisation that witchcraft still survived and that I had been initiated into a surviving coven. In fact, I had been initiated into a surviving tradition some years previously and was taught certain things, so I had my own experience to guide me.

I think Gardner would have wanted to find out as much as possible, through asking questions. They would, perhaps, have been reluctant to answer, for several reasons - some things you have to find out for yourself, and it would defeat the object to tell directly, some things they genuinely didn't know, and some were definitely the wrong questions and wouldn't be answered.

Gardner wasn't satisfied with all this. He started (or continued) to read about witchcraft and allied subjects until he filled in the gaps to his own satisfaction, bringing in things that he found attractive from many different sources.

He certainly wanted to publicise things, and we know that, after considerable discussion, he got permission to publish, first a work of fiction and then a work of non-fiction.

In answer to your question, I think that Gardner was very much the right person at the right time - it could well have been someone else. We certainly now know that the tradition that Gardner came upon at Highcliffe was just one of several which were around. Someone else would have come upon one of the others at some time and had a similar response to that of Gardner - to let people know that witchcraft still survived.

Certainly the repeal of the last of the Witchcraft Acts in 1951 would have provided some impetus in that direction.

TWPT:  When the final laws dropped off the books against the practice of Witchcraft, what were some of the immediate and some of the long term results of that event?

PH:  Those witches who wanted to were able to be a bit more open about their beliefs. Fear of prosecution had gone, but fear of persecution remained, and most were cautious about "coming out". Cecil Williamson opened his Museum of Superstition and Folklore on the Isle of Man to coincide with the repeal of the Witchcraft Acts, and there were newspaper articles which were quite open about the existence of witches at that time.

I think really the long-term result was the publication three years later of Gardner's "Witchcraft Today", in 1954. For the very first time, someone had written a book stating that witches were still around. Many people read that book over the years (including me) and it resulted in what I might call an awakening on the inner levels, the strange attraction which Gardner's words had, awakening memories of previous lifetimes as witches and a recognition that one was being drawn back to the Craft in this lifetime. I feel that I am not just speaking for myself here.

TWPT:  In general how is Witchcraft perceived in the modern day U.K.? Are practitioners free to practice without fear of persecution or is it still wise to be cautious as to who you proclaim your spirituality to?

PH:  I can only speak for myself and those people I know. It very much depends on the sort of person you are, I think. I have always been thought of by people as being a little peculiar, of being interested in odd and unorthodox things, which I don't mind in the slightest. So I am quite open about my paganism and witchcraft. I have never had any persecution from anyone because of this. Other people are still very fearful of what others would think, particularly those who are involved in child-care, because they seem to feel that accusations of child-abuse would be levelled at them. I respect the decisions of others, but I would hope that we could be less defensive and just state openly what we think about things.

Often names are a problem, and names don't really matter. I can give a whole talk on paganism and witchcraft without mentioning those names once, if people want me to. The important things are the feelings underlying things.

TWPT:  Do you see any differences in the way that the Craft is practiced between the U.K. and the U.S.?

PH:  I really don't know enough about it. My impression is that there is a tendency in the U.S. to have everything "cut and dried", to know exactly when a ritual will take place several months ahead, to follow strictly with a set form of words, and to have a "polished" version of our history. Doubtless this is unfair and there are many who are not like that.

Again, just speaking from those whom I know in this area, we tend to be very much more spontaneous than that - doing things "in the moment", responding to the God and Goddess as we are moved to do so. We nearly always meet outdoors, in the middle of a wood or something of that sort, or on the seashore.

We are very much people who don't like being told what to do. We try to respect each other's differences.

TWPT:  Tell me where the Craft is headed in the next few years in your native U.K. What would you like to see happen and what would you like to see changed from what has come before?

PH:  This is a very difficult question. I don't know where the Craft is heading. I think one of the things about witchcraft and paganism is that we are content to live life in the moment and not to worry about what might happen (which does not conflict with the necessity to make decisions about our way of life which are ecologically sound and sustainable). We have no grand plan for the future, but are content to follow the seasonal round from year to year, influencing individuals that we know by the way we live. That is probably all that most people can do.

I hope that I respect other people's approaches too much to want to see changes in the Craft.

Although I write books myself and realise how valuable books can be as "mirrors of the soul", I would not like the Craft to get too book- centred. For me the central focus of paganism and witchcraft is going out into the land and communing with Nature, the God and the Goddess or whatever words you want to use. Everything else springs from that.

TWPT:  Do you do speak at conferences and events to put forth your ideas on Paganism and to broaden the understanding of those who are only just beginning their journey?

PH:  I do speak from time to time, though I usually prefer writing to speaking. Although it's obvious, I usually speak because someone organising a conference has asked me to do so, and I usually speak about something I've been doing research on that I think might interest those attending. I don't know that I have any grand ideas like trying to "broaden the understanding of those who are only just beginning their journey". I don't think it's as simple as that. We are all on journeys - they aren't in straight lines and we can often meet each other going in different directions, as it were. We can all help each other in different ways.

TWPT:  What are you working on that the readers of TWPT might want to look for in the coming months and years?

PH:  I am working on what will essentially be a sequel to "Wiccan Roots". It might be more accurate to say three sequels. First of all, there is to be a book on the various influences on Gardner following the Second World War - things like Druidry, Aleister Crowley, the Folklore Society, and much more besides. The form of modern Wicca has been largely determined by these influences. I will also cover the history of Gardner's coven at Bricket Wood and his cooperation with Cecil Williamson on the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft in the Isle of Man.

Secondly, I am working on material for a book specifically on the New Forest coven that Gardner came in contact with in the late 1930s. I now have a lot more information than is contained in "Wiccan Roots" on some of the people involved and what they were doing.

And lastly, I would like to write a proper (i.e. long) biography of Gerald Gardner, to attempt a proper assessment of his life and work. This is clearly a long job which would take several years, but I think it's worthwhile.

TWPT:  To end this interview and leave our readers with a bit more of your wisdom, if you had to describe the principal philosophy that guides your life, what would you say?

PH:  I don't know if I have any wisdom, though I suspect that some pops up unannounced in someof my books.

I also don't think that my life is guided by any philosophy in any formal or conscious sense. I suppose I really do feel that ultimately the whole universe is one at a deep level and that therefore we can get close to each other. Also, I feel strongly that life is a school where we are learning things as we go along. There is nothing wrong with this and there is therefore nothing wrong with the fact that many people are anti-social etc. The only way we can learn is through experience. Ultimately we all have to follow a path, and that is the point of it all - direction rather than destination.

TWPT:  Thank you so much for joining us and sharing your life with my readers and I. We wish you much success and happiness along your chosen path.