Interviews with Jean
By Ash Russell
on 25 Juli, 2014
They appeared for the first time in WR Imbolc 2005 and Beltane 2005.
An Experienced Vision for the Future – An interview with Jean Williams by Ash Russell, 2004
Jean Williams has been Wiccan since the mid-60s, and High Priestess of Gardner’s original coven since the mid-70s. She has also run Pagan Pathfinders for about 30 years, and worked with the Pagan Federation for about 15 years. She shares some of her experience, as well as some ideas for directions that the Craft could go in future.
What was your reaction to ‘A Witches’ Bible’ when it came out? At the time it was very controversial because so much was going into print for the first time.
Jean: When Stewart Farrar’s book came out, I felt a pang when I saw the Charge published, because I thought that was so beautiful and so precious. It had such a huge impact on me. I would like people to come fresh to it. On the other hand it is something that makes a huge impact on people who read it, because they think “Wow, I want to be where this happens.” So you see both sides, it achieves something, but at a price.
Do you think there is a difficult balance between getting the Craft experience completely new versus having a lot of material prior to initiation? Has it perhaps gone too public?
Jean: I don’t think so. I think we’ve gone past that now, really. I think there are some very good books about, and I have a great respect for people who decide that what they want to do is go it alone, and use Rae Beth’s book or something of that sort to do their own thing. There is such a wealth of books, literature, television programmes, Internet, and every source of information that you want, good written stuff, rituals and poetry available. It’s all part of that ethos of do-it-yourself religion. I don’t think that you have to be put through a training course particularly. I think that people can do their own thing – people can reinvent it. Everybody’s reinvented their religion. Every time it’s revived, it’s a reinvention. Gardner reinvented it and Sanders reinvented it again.
There is a tension between what is Craft and books written by non-initiates. This can cause a tension between what is really Craft and what is Paganism with a more popular name. We want to support solo practitioners, but do we want them to call it Wicca?
Jean: I don’t think it matters what you want, because people are going to do whatever they want to do. They say I follow this book about Wicca, so therefore I am Wiccan. You can’t stop them or copyright a name like that. I’m not sure I can get hot under the collar about this. Some people like to see things in nice, neat categories and they’re never going to get that with the Craft or with Paganism in general. Everything merges one into the other. My field of work was surveys and research, and there you are constantly putting people into categories, and you are aware all the time that it’s a sliding scale. It’s quite arbitrary where you chop things up. It’s the same with the Craft and Paganism.
Would you call that Craft or ‘just’ Paganism, with a hint that Paganism’s somewhat inferior… I don’t go there.
Jean: What really makes me hot under the collar is when people talk about fluffy bunny pagans or fluffy bunny witches. It’s totally lacking in respect for people who are doing or finding their own particular path at their own particular level. They should not be treated with contempt, because it doesn’t happen to be the same view of things. I’ve heard people say ‘Oh, I suppose they’re just fluffy bunnies. We’re not fluffy. We’re not a bit fluffy.” And you think, “My goodness I wonder what terrible things they must get up to, in order not to be fluffy.”
I think there is a difference between fluffy and bad research. I would be disparaging of awful research, because I don’t think people should write things as fact when clearly they haven’t done necessary research.
Jean: Yes, well writing things to tell other people what to do is quite different to finding your own path and doing your own thing. If you want to do that just based on walking around the garden and getting into a transcendental state because of a beautiful flower that you see, or the way the squirrels are behaving, then that’s fine, have your own religious experience.
What about the drive to bring people into the Craft and ensure its survival?
Jean: We sort of take things rather easily in our old age. We don’t feel a pressure to find new members or to bring new people in, but if someone asks we might consider possibly it, but we are rather happy trundling along with our little group of people who are very faithful attendees for a long time now. There is a sort of easygoing comfort and closeness in that.
Jean: Every new person you bring into a coven changes that coven. Hopefully it changes them, too, but there is obviously a sort of shifting around to fit them in, and to get to known everyone in the context of the coven and to show them how things are done and so on, and to let them ask questions if they want to. In a way, too I think that every time you get someone newly initiated, the coven is on its best behaviour for a little while, to show their best side to the new person.
How do you feel about formal outer court arrangements, in terms an outer, outer court for training for people who are just coming into Paganism, and then perhaps a formal outer court for people who are doing the work and training?
Jean: I think that’s quite a good thing, because there is such a demand now for people interested in Wicca. There is a huge need for some way of getting access. We don’t feel that we are necessarily morally obligated to be part of that. You know, I do Pagan Pathfinders and that’s my contribution to the scene.
What about a formal seminary?
Jean: I would hate to see it over-formalised, with initiation certificates at the end of it, but I do think it’s a useful way of training people. In Pagan Pathfinders people get the basic training in meditation techniques, energy raising both within themselves and as a group, and some basics of magic.
So how important would you say aspects of self-discovery are to the Craft itself?
Jean: I think it’s very important. I think any spiritual path is going to be a spiritual path and not just a glade you’re sitting in. You’re going to be moving forward, and there has to be an element of self-discovery, allowing for a sense of growth and development.
You said you were a little bit concerned about things becoming a bit over-formalised.
Jean: I think there is a danger of this when things become very popular. People are doing what they think is the most purist, traditional or firmly original, or have got the secret key, and that they ought to formalise it; they might say, “Well, we’ll call this Wicca” and “we’ll call that witchcraft or Paganism”. And other people say “I’ll call what I do witchcraft because I’m a solo witch, because Wicca is coven witchcraft”. I think it can get over-formal that way. And yet I think that what I would like see is it maintaining very much the sense of freedom but tradition. Traditions evolve and change, so it must never be a fundamentalist sort of thing, such as this is the way that it’s written down in the Book of Shadows, and you must never change a word. That way lies fundamentalism.
You wouldn’t want to see an orthodoxy, but are there certain things you’d like to see retained, because we can’t disregard our past completely, either?
Jean: I think it should be regarded as an organic, evolving tradition or set of traditions. You find what you do, and you take it forward in your way. There are some traditions that perhaps have a stronger personality, maybe because they’ve got a formal and more structured training course that people come through. Therefore they are sent down a slightly narrower path, rather than something that will proliferate out like a tree.
Jean: What I would like to see is like the Pagan Federation has tried to do, to set a general ethos for Pagans with the three principles, so we set a direction, and a way of integrity and self-respect.
Jean: And what I’d like to see is a general sense of what Wicca is about in terms of becoming priests and priestesses of the gods, and that this gives you responsibilities both within and out to the wider community, and that there is some sort of developmental process you go through to reach this, be it formal training or maybe just a period of experience. We regard the first degree as the one where you get this experience, and then the second degree is when you start to learn to take rituals, and to lead a working. The first degree you are just sort of sitting there being told what to do, and encouraged and challenged to understand it, learning what magic is actually about, the responsibilities and the pitfalls and so on, the ethics of it.
So perhaps going forward retaining the ethics, retaining the spirit of the Craft, including this flexibility, but continuing to evolve?
Jean: But also the spirit of respect for differences, I think that’s very important. Obviously, whenever you allow differences you’ve got to be also prepared to draw a line, and say I don‘t like what you are doing, like you’re doing sexual initiations at the first degree. I don’t hold with that. As far as I’m concerned that is outside the boundaries of what we consider ethical. You also have to be free to say that, but not to go further and say “we don’t consider that it’s ethical to omit outer court training.”
So flexibility, but based on respect?
Jean: Flexibility but based on respect, but also knowing that there will be boundaries. I think what is happening too now which is very, very useful is discussion within email groups and things like that, about what is permissible and what isn’t permissible, and ways things should be handled, like things to do with bringing up your children, and when and what sort of meetings you might include them in, what you should exclude them from and why, this sort of thing. And also what to do with young people who approach you from outside your own families and want to join the Craft or whatever; how do you handle that?
Jean: What provision do you make for children or teenagers, either with the permission of their families or sometimes in rebellion against their families to find out? What do you do? Do you just say, “No, you know, you’re too young, go away,” and leave them to struggle on as best they can, or do you provide some help for them?
Jean: Usually after these discussions somebody will pop up and say well, “I’d like to take that on, I think what we should do is x, and I’m prepared to put my money where my mouth is and try and make a go of doing this”, and maybe then make awful mistakes and maybe find that it’s much harder work than they thought it was going to be and so on. That’s a brave thing to do.
To stump up and do the work?
Jean: To start up and do the work and maybe get it wrong, and then it means it all folds up and someone else starts. It’s this sort of process of evolution, of change.
Perhaps that’s another thing you’d like to see carried forward in an atmosphere of mutual support?
Jean: Yes. If you find that you’ve got somebody in your coven or in the Craft who is bringing it into disrepute or behaves very badly – how the really hard-edged problems of that sort are dealt with.
Supporting each other if something goes badly?
Jean: Yes, I would really very much like to see that developed more in the future.
Do you think that’s a trend occurring more frequently now, that you’d like to see encouraged? That people are encouraged to hive off and get on with creating groups and training more people?
Jean: I think that it probably is happening. We were never that close to other working covens. I think it is happening more now. I think it probably is a good idea to encourage people. I rather gather from talking to Vivianne Crowley that she did that quite a lot. She had quite an intensive outer training course with her Wicca study groups, and then people come to an inner training course, and so she would find herself with more covens than she could possibly run. She sort of set them up. I got the impression that she had her own coven meetings of coven leaders that she had set up and then they would discuss ideas.
So perhaps families of covens?
Jean: And that’s what Madge used to do. I think that’s the best way, yes, families of covens within a tradition.
And perhaps sharing materials, so that you get a consistency?
Jean: Yes, and that’s a good way in which groups can form to share ideas and so on. And perhaps they can coalesce with another family group somewhere that is fairly close to them.
And then perhaps sharing an outer court?
It sounds like a pagan temple arrangement, in which some of the priestly duties would be shared.
Jean: And that way you spread the load of the training, too.
How would you feel about people actually founding Wiccan or pagan temples as such?
Jean: I don’t know. It would be very nice to have a sort of a Wiccan centre. I’m not sure what it would do to have a building. A wood seems a much better idea. I’m not sure that a central working temple quite fits in with my idea of the Craft. But you know somebody having a farmhouse with farmlands around it and some woods would have a great deal of appeal. I love the idea of being able to plant your own circle of cypress trees.
How do you feel about Craft- inspired art and poetry getting out into the public?
Jean: I think that it’s one of the things that gives one of the best ideas of what the Craft is about, seeing the art forms and hearing the poetry and so on. I think that it’s up to the individual whether they want to publish what they have written, and what I have seen is that people move on, like they write stuff that is private for their coven, and then they decide to do yet more, and they think, oh I may as well make that lot public because I wrote it 10 years ago. I think Vivianne Crowley has done this; when writing her first book, she put quite a lot of inspirational poetry and invocations and so on that she had written earlier.
So you see that as a positive development?
Jean: I see that as a positive development. And when Vivianne Crowley talked at the London Pagan Federation conference last February, she read some of her latest stuff – her explorations of the goddess at various times of the year. I found that very moving. I thought there was some really lovely stuff there. I think as far as pictorial arts go, that if people are really artists, they will want to do things and be fairly prolific. They may have things that they keep private, and things they will also put out.
How do you feel about the role of public priesthood? Whom do we serve, and whom should we be serving?
Jean: I suppose it’s in concentric rings. Firstly your coven, secondly your inner circle of friends and fellow pagans, and from there doing your bits for the evolution of humanity towards self-realisation. I don’t think that for humanity as a whole you should present yourself as a priest or priestess – you’re just a human being. Any authority you express is purely what comes through you, not what you status say you have.
So behave as a priest or priestess?
Jean: Behave, but don’t declare yourself as such. Even within the pagan community, don’t declare yourself as a Wiccan High Priestess. That this is your authority for doing x or y. You might be declared as a Wiccan High Priestess for giving a talk or running a workshop, because it’s relevant, but not because you have a divine right of authority over anybody else. Your authority is what you can exert, and is to lead by example and by your own rhetoric and magical personality to achieve things in the outer world. Remind yourself that this is what you aspire to be, and you’ve got to rise to the occasion as it were.
So sometimes put aside your own desires because you’re there to serve.
Jean: That’s right, yes, and put aside your own fears and self-doubts, and get on with it, stick your neck out.
How do you feel about organisations such as Liferites, , who are specifically around to help people who need assistance for funerals, rites of passage and this sort of thing?
Jean: I think that’s fine. I think that’s a good idea. It serves a particular need for people who are diffident at about that sort of thing. We have performed funerals for people and I hope that when I die my friends and coven members and so on will do the same for me, and not have to call Liferites, but I can understand that many people are not in that lucky situation.
Jean: I think a lot of pagans would like a pagan wedding and they are not members of groups, and they don’t have anyone else to call upon and they want someone who has the resources to give them the support they need, I think that’s fine.
So instead of swanning about being a High Priest, go and join Liferites,
Jean: If that’s the work you want to do. If you want to do something of that sort.
If you want to make a contribution, don’t assume authority and play a role, instead get in an organisation where they are doing the work, and do the work.
Jean: But don’t feel you have to get in an organisation to do the work. If that’s what you want to do, and you feel that you want to be that public and open about what you’re doing, and you’re prepared to travel and help strangers do things, then join Liferites, but otherwise, you know, just live your life and remember always that you are a priest or priestess of the Gods.
By Ash Russell
on 25 Juli, 2014
Pagan Pathfinders, a Humanistic Outer Court, An Interview with Jean Williams by Ash Russell, 2004
The idea of an ‘outer court’ as a place where group leaders can meet potential initiates, give them some basic training, and then decide if people are ready for initiation, is growing more common. I spoke with Jean Williams about how Pagan Pathfinders evolved into an outer court, and got her views on how this has happened and what value it has added.
I understand that you became acquainted with the Craft as an experiential tradition back in the mid-1960s.
Jean: That’s right. The coven was not a training coven. It didn’t have any formal training and was sometimes informal in other ways: this notion that you have to ask and you have to wait a year and a day, it was more like “We are going to initiate you tonight unless you say no.”
And you later became High Priestess of the group?
Jean: Yes, in the mid-‘70s; this was about the time that I started Pagan Pathfinders. I started that partly as a result of all the work I had done in Humanistic Psychology.
How did you get involved in Humanistic Psychology?
Jean: As a psychologist who was also on a spiritual path, I became very interested in the ideas about human potential and personal fulfilment beginning to be put forward by the avant garde psychotherapists. Humanistic Psychology emerged from a synthesis of new “whole person” approaches in psychotherapy and the consciousness-expanding psychedelic adventures of the ‘60s. People began to realise that everyone, not just the neurotic, can benefit from these new therapeutic techniques and that we all have enormous potential for personal development. In fact, this application of the new therapies was called “the Human Potential movement”: it used mainly group work, using the therapeutic techniques but in a context where every individual was responsible for their own participation and for going at their own pace. There was no one-to-one patient-therapist relationship. The group work included personal interactions such as problems dealing with anger, expressing emotions, assertiveness etc., as well as working through personal hang-ups.
How did these tie up with being on a spiritual path?
Jean: People tend to find, when they embark on a quest for personal fulfilment, that they experience high states of expanded consciousness, a sense of oneness with everything. It arouses their sense of the spiritual, but not necessarily a desire for the monotheistic religions. In the ‘70s people in the Human Potential movement went in their droves to India or joined the Rajneesh organisation in Britain. I was already a witch and couldn’t understand why they couldn’t find what they were looking for in our own Pagan traditions. The reason, of course, was that Pagans were disorganised and witches (including me) tended to be very secretive about our spiritual activities.
How did you come to start Pagan Pathfinders?
Jean: I think it was Fred’s first wife said to me, “When are you going to start teaching some of the things you’ve been learning?” “Um, um, um, what am I going to do with this?” I thought well, the Humanistic Psychology people really need some sort of a link with indigenous British spiritual paths, and not always have to go off to the Far East. At the time I could see there were Wiccan groups falling out with each other and splitting up and members not speaking to each other, and things like that, so I thought, “They need Humanistic Psychology”. So I thought I’d try to make a sort of blend of the two. So Pagan Pathfinders became our exoteric training and sieving process, because we got quite a few members who came through Pagan Pathfinders at that time.
It wasn’t meant to be an outer court as such?
Jean: It wasn’t meant to be that in the first place. I thought I would rather like to try my hand at something of this sort, and then found that I had a bit of a gift for it, because I used to find all these ideas popping into my head as things do when you’re on the right path. So it felt as if it were taking on a life of its own. I thought, “Well if I can do it, anybody can do it. Why aren’t more people doing this sort of thing?” Gradually I suppose people have started doing the same type of thing. Pagan Pathfinders has always had a hefty Humanistic Psychology input: we use body awareness, dance and meditation for inner exploration of ways in which we limit ourselves and then use pagan myths and images as sources of archetypal inspiration, wisdom and empowerment.
So if you were interested in mythology and archetype, was this British myth?
Jean: No, it wasn’t actually, because my whole educational background had been much more in Greek and Roman myth. They were the stories I had read, and they had been sort of built into my education. Traditional, old-style classical education I suppose. Then I was very attracted by Egyptian myths. And iconography. In fact I have never been that much immersed in the British myths. I always found it extremely confusing. I suppose somehow it was never very clear with me, the archetypal personalities haven’t emerged. I suppose it is partly that the Greek and Roman myths and gods and goddesses are so woven into astrology, the naming of the days of the week and things of this sort.
So, Pagan Pathfinders started out as a way to express and teach some of the Humanist training you’d had before.
Jean: Yes, that’s right: to explore that particular type of creativity using meditation and pathworkings, and I found I could actually lead a group and get people going into themselves and having an experience. That again has always been experiential.
So members have the opportunity to learn to about tools for self-exploration, such as pathworking?
Jean: The idea of Pagan Pathfinders is that people gain insights about themselves, gain new perspectives on their problems and to get inspiration for the way ahead: what they might do to change things in their lives or to let aspects of themselves flower more – that sort of thing. So hopefully I will be giving people tools for doing that and for empowering themselves, and exciting them about the possibilities and giving them optimism about their lives; but also I hope to show how really easy and simple it is to pass this sort of thing onto other people. I hope from this that people would be able to prepare their own pathworkings, their own rituals, and manage their own inner exploration and empowerment.
Jean: Pagan Pathfinders isn’t a one-woman show. I encourage people who have been attending for a while to have a go. I might say, “Who’s going to volunteer do a Samhain ritual for Pagan Pathfinders this year?” Some people, who come, also have experience of other forms of spiritual development. There’s somebody very much into the Gabriel Roth dancing thing (five rhythms) and so once a term she does an evening of dancing and movement. We have had evenings on Norse seidr, the Celtic tree alphabet and a whole short tarot course.
So instead of being just a guided meditation shop for inner exploration, it has become a place for people with varied skills to come and share them.
Jean: That’s right, amongst other things. Some people just come along for the experience. Each Pagan Pathfinders session usually starts off with some sort of movement, like moving meditation, dancing or chanting, which gets the energy moving, and then there is a sitting meditation followed by either a pathworking or an informal ritual. That’s the general sort of pattern.
So how have the years of experience in PP fed into the group experience?
Jean: If something has really worked well in Pagan Pathfinders, I will introduce into a coven meeting, without telling them that that’s where it started.
What about people? Have you felt a difference in the way that people come in and the way it feels when you get them in with that kind of background?
Jean: Yes. It used to be very laborious process bringing people in before, unless they were part of our circle of friends. Because we had to sort of bring them into our circle of friends, and if they lived outside of London, that often took quite a long time. So it might well be more than a year and a day, before we knew them well enough to say, “Right, we’ll initiate you.” There wasn’t much of a route for them to come in, and we relied very much on somebody knowing somebody.
Pagan Pathfinders allows us to get to know people much more. A lot of people who come to Pagan Pathfinders aren’t that aware that there’s a coven. We don’t publicise it or say there’s a coven. There are people who are already initiated who come – they tend to talk a little more uninhibitedly than we would. So other people pick up that maybe there is a coven here.
We sort of take things rather easily in our old age. We don’t feel a pressure to find new members or to bring new people in, though if someone asks we might possibly consider it, but we are rather happy trundling along with our little group of people who are very faithful attendees for a long time now. There is a sort of easygoing comfort and closeness in that. I was very happy to see a couple of initiates set up their own coven, consisting entirely of people from PP.
So when did Pagan Pathfinders start?
Jean: I started Pagan Pathfinders in 1974 or ’75 – that’s almost 30 years.
Are people sometimes passed into a various groups via a single, linked outer court?
Jean: I think it does happen. I have heard of it, yes. We’re not part anymore of a network of covens – at one point we used to all meet up in a wood outside of Guildford. That group of covens used to discuss things a bit. I can’t recall that we ever passed people to each other. Certainly Madge W. used to do that. Madge was a great trainer of people. We could never bear to throw people out, to say, look, go away, and start your own coven. But Madge would say, look, you’ve got to start your own coven now. Here’s your High Priest, you two get together and you start a coven, and here is your first initiate.
So perhaps families of covens within lineages.
And that’s what Madge used to do. I think that’s the best way, yes, families of covens within a tradition.
So much of what I have read that has been absolutely both inspired and inspirational, has come to me privately and quietly. I don’t think we share our inspired art publicly very often. We seem to be hanging onto that privacy.
The Americans are much more open about this. I think that the Starhawk tradition has a lot of very lovely stuff in some of her rituals in her books.
I’m amazed actually at what can sometimes happen in Pagan Pathfinders: we’ve meditated on a particular goddess or god, or a particular personification of some aspect of a season. I get them to go into it and feel a yearning to contact that deity, and then say “Now, write an invocation.” I’m amazed at the quality of the stuff. We draw a circle and then do a pathworking and then everybody reads their invocation, and it’s really powerful, and amazing quality. Each person has written maybe only about five lines but they all add together to something that’s very beautiful. People get these wonderful images, and so individual, too. They all have different perspectives. I try to encourage Pagan Pathfinders people to let me have copies of what they wrote, so that I can then put them in the Pagan Pathfinders book: they discover that they too can write wonderful things. They can find that little thread of inspiration within themselves.