Janet Farrar is one of the most experienced Priestesses in the modern Pagan and Wiccan community. With her late husband Stewart Farrar, she co-authored many books on Witchcraft – including the classic “Eight Sabbats for Witches” and “What Witches Do”, which were subsequently released as “The Witches Bible”. She has been teaching and writing since the early 1970’s and lives in Ireland, from where she continues her work today with her partner Gavin Bone.
You can find out more about Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone by visiting their website: http://www.wicca.utvinternet.com
Interview by Sorita D’Este; Interview Date: January 2007
Please note: Many of the questions you will find below were inspired by questions by members of the Avalonia Community Discussion Forum. (ed. closed Beltane 2008)
All questions are indicated by “Q” and answers by Janet Farrar as “Janet”.
(c) Avalonia & Janet Farrar 2007.
All rights reserved, please do not reproduce this article without the written permission of the author(s). You are however welcome to share this interview with friends by linking to this page.
Without further chit-chat …
Q -. When there is talk about Wiccan books, it is inevitable that one of the many books you wrote with your late husband Stewart Farrar, is mentioned. Looking back over the years, how do you think your own views have changed?
Janet – Both our views (mine and Gavin’s) have changed over the years, but the same is true of anyone who practises a spiritual path. Certainly I am not as traditionally orientated as I use to be. Stewart and myself really ceased calling ourselves ‘Alexandrian’ when we moved to Ireland in 1976. It was impossible to practise in an Alexandrian fashion and connect with the mythology and spirit of the land here. I think I’m broader in my outlook, but that comes I think from meeting witches all over the world as well as having contact with several native cultures, such as the Lesotho Sangoma, genuine Native American and Maori. I think having contact with these cultures has put my practises and beliefs into perspective.
Q – Do you still consider yourself to be a “Wiccan”?
Janet – What does that actually mean? People keep moving the goal posts on the word. It seems to mean something different wherever I go. Some seem to think it means that you are only from a Gardnerian or Alexandrian background; others see it as having a much broader meaning as I always have. It certainly seems to mean something different now to when I first became involved in the Craft in 1970, when it was used as a word of convenience if you didn’t want to frighten people with the term ‘witch’. It is worth noting that none of ours nor Doreen Valiente’s or any of the books of that period for that matter used the term ‘Wiccan’ on the title. They always used the term ‘witch’ or ‘witchcraft’.
Am I a ‘witch’; most definitely and it is the preferred term for myself. I rarely use the term Wiccan for the already mentioned reasons. It now means too many things to be really defining. Must admit, I do like the term ‘Sorceress’, it has a certain ring to it (I’m saying that with a twinkle in my eye!) In the end these terms ‘witch’, ‘Wiccan’, etc are all just words. They really don’t convey our true individual paths. They are useful boxes and we should remember that or we risk falling into sectarian conflict over who is and isn’t a Wiccan. This belongs in Christianity not in paganism.
Q – Opinions on Alex Sanders vary quite considerably – We have heard him called a Magus, a Charlatan, a Mad Man, a Genius and many other things. What are your own opinions on the man and his work?
Janet – I loved Alex, I owe him a lot. He was my original initiator. All of the things you have said about him above I consider being true. He was rogue, he could be kind, he could be cruel, he was a human being. He was what was needed in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s to get the witchcraft movement jump started. His work was incredibly important, as much as Gerald Gardners.
Without him several major ‘movers’ in Wicca wouldn’t be here today including myself, but if he was running a coven like he was in 1970 and I was asked if I would recommend anyone joining I would give a firm ‘No!’
Q – How do you feel your work to date was influenced by the work you did with Alex and Maxine in the early 1970’s?
Janet – It gave Stewart and myself a firm base to work from, but we quickly moved away from the Ceremonial Magic side when we moved to Ireland. After that Doreen Valiente became more of an influence on us. I don’t think people realise how eclectic Alex could be. He was more than happy to go ‘outside the box’ when he needed to. I think that influence has remained with me.
Q- What advice would you give to someone who is newly interested in Paganism or Witchcraft?
Janet – Shop around! Stewart and myself joined witchcraft and Alex and Maxine’s coven because that’s all there was around at the time. Now there’s much more choice: Druidism, Asatru, Chaos Magic and several different forms of Wicca. Don’t try to fit yourself in the box – find the box that fits you. Unfortunately, there are still the egomaniacs setting themselves up as teachers who have only read a few books and have no experience, but you find that in every field. If your looking for a teacher they must have humility, a sense of humour and more importantly say ‘I’m still learning’! But the most important teachers are yourself and the Gods; you can learn more from life than you can from any book or training course.
Q – Who, would you say, inspired you the most in your own path through the Mysteries?
Janet – I think principally Doreen Valiente, for her humour and earthiness. She taught me to stop taking myself so seriously. I think we all do that when we’re young, I certainly did! Doreen called a spade, a spade. Many years ago she gave me a task, and no, I’m not saying what that task was, but suffice to say it was not pleasant to perform. I do not regret doing it; that was my personal ‘honing in fire’. It cost me many friends and left me out on a limb for a while, but by the gods it was worth the flak it caused. One day her private letters to Stewart and myself will be made open to the Craft and then all will be revealed. We have a treasure trove of ‘insights’ from our Renee.
Doreen, Lois, Rae Bone always treated Stewart and myself as people, not Alexandrians. Lois always came over as serene and a very real human being. She and Wilf (her husband) were always special to Stewart and myself. Gavin met her for the first time a couple of years ago and adored her. They got on like a house on fire, probably because they’re both Nurses. It’s one thing he has expressed about these grand old ladies of the Craft ‘They are so grounded!’
Q- As one of the best known Priestesses in the modern Pagan community, how do you think that public opinion of Witchcraft and Paganism has changed over the last few decades?
Janet – This really depends on where you are? Every country is different. Certainly in the UK, Ireland and some areas of the US it has become much more acceptable amongst the general public. Certainly the man or woman in the street is more familiar with the word ‘Wicca’ and generally realises it isn’t devil worship. This certainly wasn’t true in the ‘70’s. As a movement, we are doing better with public relations than ever but we still need to get ‘out of the closet’ and realise that we are part of a bigger society.
Q – If you could go back in time and change one thing you did,
what would it be?
Janet – Hard question. All experiences are learning experiences. So, if there was only one (and I presume the question is Craft orientated), it would be that I could have learnt not to be so soft on people who technically needed a good kick in the Yesods! It has taken me the best part of 50 years to really say ‘No!’ to people. That is what I would want to change the most. As Doreen put it to me ‘sometimes the Lords of Karma wear blue uniforms’. If a person steals from you go to the police, even if that person is Craft. If it in not a police matter, a good kick in the Yesods will suffice! Well, there is one other thing. Back in the ‘80’s Stewart and myself appeared on BBC show one Halloween with several well-known witches as well as born again Christians. I was asked by the presenter: ‘so, what do witches actually do at Halloween?’ and I replied ‘Well we call back the dead ritually and then we play with our nuts…’ I think I might change that!
Q- What do you consider the highlights of your own writing career to be?
Janet – I don’t think there’s ever been just one highlight as such. Definitely co-authoring Eight Sabbats for Witches. It was such a wonderful book to research. The wealth of folklore we discovered and experienced here in Ireland was breathtaking. The market at the moment is flooded with witchcraft books, some good, some appalling. 9/11 in the US had a terrible effect on the book market in general, and sadly many publishers are under pressure from Christian fundamentalism to stop publishing books on the subject. In the long term, however this may have a positive effect. It may mean that only truly new concepts in Craft literature will be published, that gives many of us old writers time to draw breath, learn new skills and ideas and hopefully publish books that will be as challenging for all of us as I have found Eight Sabbats to have been. It will also pave the way for some bright young minds to make names for themselves in Craft literature.
Also, Stewart and I were very proud to be asked by Hayley Mills (the actress) to do a piece on the Craft to go into her book “My God”. We were in the book alongside such famous people and Religious leaders as the Dali Lama. All the proceeds went to the “Save The Children Fund”. But of course, it’s not just a writing career anymore. It’s now also a career as an international lecturer on the subject. It feels weird just saying that, as it was something I never dreamed of happening when I first came into the Craft. In which case, I think I think it also has to be being made honouree Lesotho Sangoma, the traditional healers in South Africa. I was very touched by what they said to Gavin and myself. There was recognition that we were the same regardless of culture or race or practise. The singing and dancing went on for two days, and we were presented on the first day with our elders staffs. I keep my beaded staff proudly next to our altar.
Q- These days you do a lot of your writing with Gavin Bone. How does working with Gavin compare to working with Stewart?
Janet – Stewart was an old school writer. Dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. Gavin isn’t and he’s the first to point out that he regards himself as a researcher rather than a writer. His real forte is in teaching, and this is obvious if you’ve ever been in one of our practical workshops. He has an ability to simplify difficult subjects so that any can understand, making them interesting. Stewart saw this immediately in him when they worked together on the first collaborative book The Pagan Path, so much so that he left all the material content of The Healing Craft to Gavin, apart from some of the rituals. Stewart would also sit down everyday and write a piece, plodding along whilst Gavin is a spontaneous writer. He gets sudden rushes of inspiration from goddess knows where and doesn’t stop writing until he’s finished.
Q- You have travelled all over the world teaching and promoting your work. Do you think that the views held within the communities here in the UK, compared to that of the USA, Europe, Australasia etc are significantly different from each other?
Janet – Considerably, but that is some thing that we should expect within Wicca. It isn’t a stagnant tradition, it’s shaped by the societies and attitudes it comes from. For example, the US is a young vibrant culture, therefore we can expect Wicca there to be enthusiastic and forward thinking. That is not to say that this isn’t true amongst some people in the UK, but it is certainly more noticeable; and there are of course ‘old Guards’ in the US who make most traditional Gardnerians in the UK look positively revolutionary! Australia has an extreme culture and has had to deal with the whole Southern hemisphere issue regarding Circle Casting and Festivals. This has developed in different ways to the UK. No one-way is right, just different according to cultural needs.
Q- One of the questions raised by a couple of people on the Forums were in regards to fees charged for workshops and teaching. Do you feel that it is justified for Pagan Priests and Priestesses to charge a fee for courses, workshops and classes?
Janet – If those teaching weren’t able to charge for their time there would be no incentive for them to teach. Why bother? Why go through all that hassle? This idea of not charging comes from one statement in the Gardnerian Book of Shadows – Do not charge members of the Craft. Well, we certainly don’t charge members of the Craft for spell work, nor do we charge members of our coven for training. But when it comes to public workshops, lectures and teaching ‘The workman is worthy of his hire.’ We do keep our fees down. It’s our policy to go with local rates. This is because at one point we were actually told off by several speakers for undercharging! We were threatening to put them out of business. We also feel it is the responsibility of those charging to have some sort of bursary scheme for those who can’t necessarily afford the fees. We always do this.
Q – Quite a few people from the Avalonia Community Forums were interested in asking you about your book “Progressive Witchcraft” as of course David Rankine who was one of the authors of “Magick Without Peers – a Course in Progressive Witchcraft…” is a contributor to Avalonia (& my partner!). When the book was released there were mixed reviews and also of course an immediate comparison in some circles to the work done by the “Progressive Witchcraft Network” etc. How do you feel about the controversy and confusion caused by the use of the name?
Janet – Actually we weren’t aware of any confusion until this interview. Obviously it was limited to a small group of individuals. We had been in dialogue with David Rankine regarding the term before it was released and he had no problems with its use. We were both coming from the same direction and using the term Progressive as an adjective rather than a term for a tradition. To quote David Rankine on this: ‘We used the term progressive witchcraft to describe practice rather than a tradition as you are now doing’. As progressive witchcraft is a practise, the practise of a form of witchcraft, which is forward thinking no body, can really object to the others using the term. We did of course make a point of referencing David and Karin Rainbird within the book as being the first to use the term.
As for reviews, well on the whole they were pretty positive. I certainly wouldn’t agree that they were all mixed, possibly in the UK but certainly not internationally. Any good review will point out failings in a piece of literature, you should expect this. Likewise, even a very negative review should have a redeeming point. I certainly wouldn’t trust the motives behind a review that is completely positive or completely negative, and any good publisher will also tell you that. The reviewer is far from being objective and they will have some sort of axe to grind. The real tester of a book is sales, and sales of Progressive Witchcraft have steadily increased since its release date. In fact, in the last year we have continually heard positive comments about the book as the word about it gets around.
Q- Whilst we are on the subject of controversies: What are your views on sex, and sexual symbolism in the Craft? Does it, in your opinion, play an important role?
Janet – Certainly within our own practise sexual symbolism continues to play an important part, as it should in any true mystery tradition, which works in the areas of Shadow and Bright-Shadow. We still live in a sexually repressed society, so allowing that repressed nature out is still necessary if you are going to understand yourself and approach the Mysteries. Saying that we certainly don’t galavant around naked all the time in ritual – it’s bloody cold in Ireland – we reserve skyclad for specific occasions. We do teach sex based magic including a revised form of Great Rite, but this is restricted to couples in the Coven and all personal practises are private not public.
Q- How do you deal with people who criticise you for your views and practices?
Janet – To those people who criticise us or anyone else in the Craft just for the sake of criticising, I say ‘get a life!’ If someone has a genuine criticism then I welcome that, it leads or should lead to positive discussion. Unfortunately, in the British Craft scene particularly there is a tendency to ‘begrudgery’; criticism behind people’s backs purely out of envy because someone is perceived as having achieved some sort of higher status. This has come about because individuals have come to see Wicca as some sort of social ladder rather than a spiritual path.
I once heard a wonderfully funny statement: ‘The Farrars are famous, for being famous’. I thought that was hysterical. I always thought Stewart and myself were well known for writing books on witchcraft!
I am well known amongst those who do really know me for having a wicked sense of humour. I enjoy ‘shaking the tree’ to see what falls out! But if someone wants to truly discuss or criticise Stewart, Gavin or myself then I will address his or her criticism seriously. I am happy to answer genuine questions and am willing to back up my arguments. But I will not get involved in interpersonal conflicts or ‘bitchcraft’.
An example, the classic criticism against Stewart and myself is ‘They gave away the secrets of the Craft in Eight Sabbats (A Witches’ Bible) and the contents of the BOS!’ The Sabbats and most of the rituals in these books were contructs of Stewart and myself, with added material from the original BOS. It was Doreen Valiente who wrote the BOS material we were given and it was she who gave us permission to use it. As Doreen said to us in a letter at the time: ‘Some pieces of Geralds and much of it mine. I technically own the copyright PUBLISH AND BE DAMNED!’ Doreen wanted it published so we went for it! As for the technical info. on the Sabbats most of it came from an Irish writer called Maire McNeill and her book Festival of Lughnasa.
It is an old writers saying: ‘Those who can, do. Those who can’t criticise’. Most of the movers and shakers in the Craft get criticised. It’s par for the course, and I think I speak for all of us. Positive critique is good for the soul, it makes us think about our work. Criticism for the sake of itself is water off of a Duck’s back! If you want to criticise someone because they do something different to you, go back to a Christian Church where you belong!
Q- Do you feel that the Wiccan Tradition is at risk of becoming a “Religion of the Book” with so much emphasis placed on lineage, Books of Shadows, “Craft Laws” and “traditional” teachings in some circles?
Janet – There’s been a tendency by some to see these as being essential to being a Wiccan. This has resulted over the years in conflicts and ‘witchwars’ between individuals, covens and traditions on who is and isn’t a Wiccan. I certainly don’t believe just because somebody has the right lineage, a word for word handed down Book of Shadows, and follows the Craft Laws word for word that this makes automatically makes them a ‘Good Wiccan’. Wicca has to be more than just these practises. I have met many people who call themselves ‘Wiccan’ who do not have any of these but to quote Doreen Valiente ‘They have that look in the eye! Wicca has to be about spirituality, and your practises should reflect that, not the other way around. If not, we fall into the same mistakes monotheism made, going first into fixed doctrines and then into dogma. I have seen this already occurring in some areas of the Wiccan community. I’d rather taken on someone in my coven that has that look and no degrees or lineage, than someone who has a 3rd Degree from a good source, but has no understanding of the spirituality of witchcraft in their soul!
Apart from anything else, none of what you have mentioned is really that old: Lineage, Book of Shadows, Craft Laws, etc in witchcraft, don’t go back before Gardner and the 1950’s. They aren’t traditional to witchcraft. Gardner brought lineage in from Freemasonry; the term Book of Shadows is Middle Eastern and Gardner created the Craft Laws after an argument with Doreen Valiente! As for the ‘traditional teachings’ it’s never occurred to a lot of people that these have changed over the years with material added and taken away by various people, which is what should happen. Most of the ‘traditional material’ I have seen over the years, and we do have quite a collection of BOSs from several traditions, was all incorporated from the literature of the period and not from any ancient handed down source. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve seen ‘traditional teachings’ which have included material taken from our books as well as other authors, which they or we had written themselves! Alex once tried to pass off a handfasting ritual written by Stewart as from ‘an old traditional source’ claiming that it was ancient and handed down through his family! We need to stop this sort of self-deception and accept that Wicca is a new and still developing tradition, which is only 50 years young.
I believe that we’re suppose to be emulating Gardner, Sanders etc. not dwelling on their every word as though they were prophets in the same way that Christianity does. If they can create rituals, create systems, why can’t we? Wicca is supposed to be a religion of life, of creativity, of connection to Spirit. It is not suppose to be about replacing old dogmas with new ones because people are not willing to let go or deal with the norms and values they were brought up with in a Christian culture. Once you have come face to face with the underworld mysteries, and have made that connection to a specific face of the divine, you begin to realise that all of these things, lineage, BOS etc. are just a system; icing on the cake, but not the cake itself.
Q- I noticed that you say on your website that your group is associated with the Aquarian Tabernacle Church in Ireland. Can you tell us more about this?
Janet – ATC Ireland was set up to get Wicca and paganism in Ireland legally accepted. Ireland, regardless of its Roman Catholic past is a very progressive country. Most people don’t realise that unlike the UK it is actually a secular state. Church and State are not linked legally. We cannot be attacked for our religion here as the constitution protects us under a law forbidding ‘incitement to religious hatred’. Ireland is also a signatory to the EEC and UN’s charters on human rights.
It was necessary for us though to define Wicca as a religion, which we did under law. Now if Wiccans or pagans are discriminated against or have any form of malicious behaviour used against them, the perpetrators are actually committing a crime.
We are clergy in ATC Ireland. I rarely use the term Reverend to describe myself though. I do describe myself as ‘Clergy’. I consider that to be a job description rather than a hierarchical title. Perhaps I might call myself ‘the Irreverend Janet Farrar!’
Fun / General Questions
What is your favourite colour?
Love them all, but Autumnal colours are my strong favourites; yummy, rich and warm.
Have you got any pets?
Yes, 5 cats and a Goat called Fanny. At one time Stewart and myself lived with my father and two coven members in a huge Georgian House. Between us we had 5 Dogs, 22 Cats, 8 Horses and Ponies, a Tortoise, 40 assorted Chickens, Ducks and Guinea Fowl, a Donkey, 10 Rabbits, a Seagull and a Rook. Thank the God and Goddess for understanding Landlords!
Have you got any children?
Not of my own, just everyone else’s Kids. Oh, the joy of being Aunty Jan!
Which is your favourite Goddess?
Freya is my special Lady. Bast, because of my Cats. Kali and the Durga because I like strong women. Isis because of my darling Stewart. Sekmet because kitty has claws, and Artemis, who saved my life from a psychotic Gynaecologist! Heck, I love them all, but my beloved Freya is my supreme Goddess.
Which is your favourite fruit?
Strawberries, Grapes, Starfruit and Plums.
Do you like Marmite?
Oh, yes! In hot water as a drink. I also adore Twiglets.
What starsign are you?
Cancer. June 24th, so I am close to a Gemini cusp. I have Moon in Scorpio, and Libra rising.
Q- Are there any exciting new projects you are working on that you would like to share with our visitors?
Janet – At the moment I’m very excited about Stewart’s novels being re-released. Both Omega and Twelve Maidens should be in the shops by the end of February. Apart from that we do have a very busy year, in fact our calendar is already booked and we’re already being asked about 2008. At present our main emphasis of work is in Trance-Prophecy. This came out of Drawing Down the Moon initially, but we have since looked at several other traditions including Voudon and Santeria. This is because found several gaps in the Wiccan process from the perspective of trance. We are doing several practical workshops on the subject over the next year and we are currently working on a book on the subject. We are also venturing in multi-media: on-line seminars and DVD-Video.
Another book is also in the pipeline. It’s going to be called “Sex Magic for the Solitary Practitioner”. Not sure who we’re going to dedicate that to yet, but I’m sure someone will come to mind…
We would like to thank Janet Farrar for taking the time to do this interview, and for giving such forthright answers to the questions posed. It has been an absolute pleasure and privilege to be able to include this here for visitors to Avalonia. Best still to see such a wicked sense of humour alive and well within the modern Pagan community, where so many sometimes take themselves way too seriously!
You can find out more about Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone by visiting their website: http://www.wicca.utvinternet.com