We recently had the opportunity to speak with Ashely Mortimer, a trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation, and a speaker on the history of Paganism and modern Witchcraft.
Ashley collaborated with Gerald Gardner’s primary biographer Philip Heselton in order to produce the new biography Doreen Valiente: Witch, about the most influential woman of modern witchcraft.
Q: You’ve recently been on Pagan Federation on BBC1’s “The Big Questions” in a debate about polytheism.
Could you tell us a little more about this, how did it come about? What is your broader history as a speaker on the history of Paganism and modern Witchcraft? In other words, how did this fascinating work begin to first manifest in your life?
A: Well I’ve been involved in the Pagan community for many years, helped to organise a few things and have represented the Pagan Federation a few times. For this programme the BBC were looking for someone local to represent Paganism, they contacted the Pagan Federation and after a bit of an interview with the producers they decided I’d be good at it.
My colleagues at the DVF / CFPS encouraged me on and I guess I just started doing more and more interviews and media. People tell me they think I’m doing a good job of showing the wider community that Pagans are well-adjusted, normal, balanced, sensible and articulate people (which has been a whole long battle to achieve in itself) but I think it’s because I talk a lot and have the perfect face for radio!
Q: What are the earliest memories of the Craft in your life? When did you first begin your practice?
A: I think really as a teenager, disillusioned with the religion I’d been exposed to – I felt that if God existed and was going to be prepared to have any sort of dialogue with me it would be “out there”, in the woods and the fields, by the rivers and “in the wilds”, not in a stuffy building once a week. I think I found I was right but not, perhaps, as I might have expected.
And, I confess, there was a sort of rebellious teenage fascination with something mysterious and occult too which prompted much more study and exploration and it was through this combination of magical techniques and desire for spirituality that I suppose I cam to realise that the closest thing to describe me was “pagan” or even “witch”.
Q: In what ways do you perceive the subject of witchcraft making an impact on the academic and general world of readers today? Are you optimistic about a more positive outlook on the subject for the future?
A: I think the subject is one that connects to everyone’s ancestry and ancient roots, our predecessors followed and experimented with different religious and spiritual paths and that makes it a fairly obvious aspect of history and anthropology to study as it addresses what they did and what they believed. I think witchcraft has received much more serious academic study over the last few decades and the subject is both broad, deep and diverse for the general readership so I don’t see any reason to think this growth in interest won’t continue for a while yet.
A friend said recently that it used to be difficult to even find books on the subject but that he thought the real Craft was actually even harder to find nowadays because, while it is much easier to find books on the subject, the real stuff is now buried under a huge plethora of inaccurate, whimsical, commercial nonsense” but of course it’s still there to find for the sincere seeker and, I hope, always will be.
Q: What do you feel are still some of the biggest misunderstandings about the role of witches in society that are around today?
A: Well I think the word itself comes with a lot of stigma, people in different cultures mean different things by “witch”. I accept that my view of it as a reconstructionist revival of ancient pagan spirituality/religion is only one view – if you go to places in central Africa, for instance, you’ll find a very different interpretation of what witchcraft means.
So compared to that I don’t feel witches like me should consider ourselves quite so misunderstood, and we are certainly being seen by our own culture much more sensibly and, dare I say, accurately (not perfect yet, of course!) as practitioners of the Craft did, say, 20 years ago.
Q: Do you feel that the actual possession of Doreen’s sacred ritual items lends a charge to your own practice and journey in personal healing? In what ways does following the Old Religion influence your creativity?
A: No, absolutely not. Doreen collection is wonderful and amazing and is definitely at the heart of modern Wicca and Witchcraft with which I am certainly connected. But the collection is historical and it’s my desire (and duty) to make use of it to educate the whole public about its meaning and significance.
Of course as a practitioner I am very closely connected to many of the documents, they are after all the originating source material of much modern day witchcraft practice and I do, as many others in the pagan community do, feel very personally connected to what they embody. If I can help a fellow practitioner to find something useful in Doreen’s works then I will but equally I will help a non-practitioner to find some piece of research or explanation which broadens the public understanding and, in many ways, this should (and often does) take priority.
My own creativity has certainly found new channels of expression as a result of being involved in the Doreen Valiente Foundation but my spiritual and religious practice and the creativity within that has, I hope, evolved more naturally. It would be trite to say that the two don’t cross over on all sorts of levels on a daily (hourly?) basis though!
Q: What are some reasons why Doreen Valiente remains such a powerful figure for the Craft today?
A: I think she did so much to set the platform for modern paganism to be taken seriously and unsensationally by the wider world, as well as making it’s practice so accessible to those seeking to explore it more personally. I think her unique and inherent talent was to be so personable, she was plain-speaking, down to earth, honest and sensible and that really endeared her to millions – when you read her books you feel like she’s writing just for you, and I think that was a true gift from the Gods.
Q: Could you tell us a little more about what your role in collaborating with Philip for the publishing of the recent biography of Doreen Valiente? The book itself is quite big at 357 pages, how long was this process from the beginning conversations to final product?
A: Well I have a bit of technical knowledge about layouts and design for magazines and such like and after a few tips from a couple of people I know who work in the world of book publishing we started to produce some of Doreen’s copyrighted material that she owned and passed to John (Belham-Payne) and which now belongs to the Foundation.
Of course it was a learning curve but once we got Philip on board with writing the biography we were completely confident we’d do a good job of producing the book. From there it was a matter of helping him to access the collection and the material and we had many discussions about the information he was uncovering and setting into order. One thing I felt I could contribute was a more instinctive speculation about motivations people in the narrative might have had for their actions.
This isn’t the realm of the biographer himself, Philip very much saw his task as to get to the facts and present them but by having people like me (and actually many others) he was able to present them in a context that assisted in the possible understanding of why things happened as much as what actually did happen and I think that makes a biography much more readable for the general public. Philip started working on the book 3 or 4 years ago, we really got into helping with access to the collection and that sort of thing about a year in to the project and we were discussing first drafts probably 9 months to a year before publication.
Q: Is there anything you would be able to tell us about the relationship between The Centre for Pagan Studies and The Doreen Valiente Foundation that is not in print, or the broader history of how these both came about?
A: Well the story of how they both came about is well documented, the Foundation sprang up from within the CFPS as a separate charity organisation with the sole aims of protecting and preserving the collection and making it accessible to the public. The CFPS is more like the “front end” of the operation where stuff gets “done” and is “seen to be done”. I don’t really think there’s anything to tell that isn’t in print or made public, both are public non-profit charitable organisations run by volunteers and everything we do is really as transparent as as we can make it.
Q: We enjoyed reading about events like the one held at Preston Manor this summer and it really surrounded wonderful and inspiring. Do you feel that live events like these helps to keep the pagan spirit alive? What other events will you be organizing for the future?
A: I think things like the Preston Manor exhibition, which is running for the whole summer and probably into the autumn and November too is very important indeed, not because it keeps the pagan spirit alive so much as it shows that, through Doreen & Gerald Gardner’s story (and her amazing collection) there are clear links to both the past and the present (and future) of paganism. The “pagan spirit” is being documented, displayed and explained/explored by the exhibition rather than being actively promoted and if it does attract additional interest as a consequence of its exposure then that is entirely separate, to be honest, it’s certainly not a goal or aim of the exhibition.
We think the unique relationship with a recognised and highly reputable and respected museum organisation like Royal Pavilion & Museums is one that allows us to present our collection in a proper and professional light, we’ve had a massive learning curve on our journey towards opening with them and we hope to put these skill sets to further use.
I certainly think more exhibitions to the same exacting standards recognised by world class museums would be something we should strive further for . . . and indeed are actively preparing right now.
Q: In the age of the internet, do you feel that the most effective rituals are still best to be done in the traditional solitude of nature? Or do you think that effective ceremonies can be conducted within the home, provided the right tools and state of mind are present?
We’re reminded of p. 266 of your biography where it states that Doreen had the “…idea for book – The Lone Witch. How a practitioner working alone…can be more powerful than a coven…”
A: I do think that effective magical rituals and celebratory religious/spiritual ones absolutely require the right mindset, attitude, atmosphere and “current” to work best, all of which is influenced by the venue, location, people present, timing and many other factors. So, like Doreen, I think that it “works” anywhere these factors are present and have been properly considered and induced but, also like Doreen, I do feel that in connecting with the divine manifest in nature one might find that actually being immersed in nature when one does so would be most conducive to this!
As for solitary vs communal practice then there’s probably a whole set of books required to explore that! I do believe, like Doreen, that finding something that IS effective is the most important thing and that exploration, fine-tuning, experimentation and having others to talk to about these things and compare notes with are essential. Doreen believed very firmly in everyone’s right to connect with the divine, however that came about (and provided of course that it did not harm anyone or anything else) but she also believed that the mechanism for making this happen was something that one needed to teach and learn, and she helped to establish a pagan community across the globe where this could be facilitated.
My attitude is to try everything, see what works for you, if you’re constrained by circumstances, then maybe consider if there is a reason for that and that you are being guided to either make the best of them or to make them change.
Q: We would imagine that having a career so intimately connected to the craft is very fulfilling. This may be an obvious question but, do you consider the work you do at the foundation to be a kind of magical act in itself? It seems that pagans of the past always respected and revered their ancestors and it’s always nice to see this tradition be carried on with such amazing passion!
A: Actually my career isn’t intimately connected with the Craft, I’m a pure volunteer in every aspect and I never receive payment for anything I do with the Craft, the DVF, the CFPS or the Pagan community. I have a day job that pays the bills, running my own small business and I’ve worked in the music industry for many yearsâ€”so I really spend a lot of my energy just juggling my schedule to allow me to do so many diverse things.
But yes, I DO believe strongly that the work for the DVF/CFPS and the Craft is a magical act, like many others I feel compelled and called to it and now that I’ve been given the opportunity and responsibility for protection and furtherance of the things I am so passionate about I’m determined to do my very best to succeed in them! In the Craft there is a strong sense of ancestry, even through initiatory lineage which mostly only traces back a few generations – tradition is important but I read recently someone very wise saying that he believed in a spiritual and religious ritual sense that “tradition” should be seen as “a dialectic between past practice and contemporary need “. . . so we do what is needed in the here and now, even if it’s not exactly the same as what our ancestors did . . . however we make damn sure we are as informed as we can about our ancestors and understand why we need to evolve our traditions . . . oh dear . . . here’s me going off on a tangent again, opening up another fascinating topic for further discussion!
Q: What do you think are some of the central differences between practitioners in the UK and in America? We haveÂ always felt that paganism is taken much more seriously in Europe overall, but maybe that is my own cultural bias showing.
A: I do think it’s influenced by culture, as the discussion of “tradition” in the previous question. I think there’s a sense of earnestness in American culture, especially related to things people are passionate about, that is less pronounced in British culture, brits tend to be less overtly enthusiastic and outwardly expressive, maybe more demure and, dare I say “private” about their passions. I think this reflects in the way paganism manifests and I think both perspectives have great merit. This may be controversial but when I think of American Paganism I don’t immediately connect to images of witch trials in Salem or modern day practitioners of witchcraft but to the vast and ancient culture of indigenous paganism that existed on that continent for centuries before western civilisation imposed itself so abruptly and discompassionately. And again, I guess I’ve opened another can of worms and topic for thought . . . !
You can find more about Ashley Mortimer and Philip Heselton’s work at: