Living Between Two Worlds:
TWPT Talks to Chas Clifton©
: On the back cover to Aradia the Expanded
edition it says that you have spent 25 years studying Witchcraft and the Occult.
Does this mean that you are a follower of the Craft or simply a researcher of
Chas: My discovery of the Pagan path consciously dates to my
reading of Robert Graves's THE WHITE GODDESS in 1972. I realized that here, in
Graves's description of the poet and the Muse-Goddess, was something I had been
groping towards. I had no idea back then if there was anyone else in the world
who felt the same way. This solitary Paganism lasted me for about three years,
until I joined my first Wiccan coven.
TWPT: What do
you see as one of the biggest differences between the Craft today and the Craft
back in the 70's?
Chas: A large difference between the 1970s Craft and today's
was the scarcity of written material. (That was even truer in the 1960s,
according to those I have talked with about it, such as Raymond Buckland.) There
were very few "how-to" books on the market. Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft Today
was still in print, and Llewellyn had published Lady Sheba's Book of Shadows.
Stewart Farrar's first book, What Witches Do, was available, as were Sybil
Leek's, but Starhawk, Adler, Scott Cunningham, and the rest were all in the
future. People relied more on privately circulated material, such as the
Cochrane-Wilson letters, which were widely circulated. And of course there was
no Internet, which made the few publications of the time, such as Green Egg or
Herman Slater's Earth Religion News or the NROOGD Witches' Trine all the more
TWPT: Can a
solitary Witch be as well rounded as a Witch that has had the coven
Chas: Are witches supposed to be "well-rounded"? <g> I
think formal training always benefits us, plus you can't learn to move energy as
well on your own.
TWPT: Do you
find that today's written material is of an equal calibre as that of material
written when the Craft was younger? Is there evidence of mass marketing finding
its way into what gets published and by whom?
Chas: I think that today's Pagans are less familiar with
original sources. A lot of people have encountered a form of Druidism, for
example. Some of them have read Stuart Piggott's THE DRUIDS, which lists all the
existing written sources about the original Druids. And how many of them have
read the references in Julius Caesar's GALLIC WAR, or Tacitus or Strabo the
geographer or Pliny the elder? Today, we have the opportunity to get a lot more
"processed Paganism" from books. That's not a bad thing; the study of Wiccan
history is not essential to practice. But sometimes it leads to people making
silly statements about where this all came from or indulging in a lot of
19th-century romantic nationalism about "The Celts" or something. "Celtic"
really only describes a group of languages.
TWPT: Do you
believe that Wiccans spend enough time researching their beliefs and where it is
that certain beliefs originated?
Chas: I think we would be better off if we stopped looking at
the past to justify what we are doing today. In North America, we are "mutts"
spiritually and often genetically too. It is silly to make too big a deal about
your heritage, be it Norse or Yoruba or Lithuanian.
Yes, you should know where you came from, but after that, you have to figure
out how to live your Pagan spirituality *here,* on Turtle Island.
Furthermore, the United States in particular is a nation founded on
abstractions such as "freedom" rather than "heritage," which is why discussions
of heritage always end up sounding like they exclude somewhere, whether that is
intended or not.
TWPT: What is
the purpose of trying to find evidence that shows Witchcraft to be the remnants
of an ancient Goddess religion? Would Witchcraft be any less of a valid faith
system if it were to be proved that it was created in the 40's and 50's by
Chas: Ancient people cannot help us, and we just look silly
relying on outdated scholarship (Sir James Frazer, or Mellaart's writings about
Religious people always look for a Golden Age. Some of the classical Greeks
(such as Strabo the geographer) were interested in Druids because they thought
that they--rather than the Greeks--preserved elements of humanity's Golden Age.
The idea that there was a Golden Age of matriarchy came along in the 19th
century. Karl Marx espoused it, but he saw History (capital H) as moving away
from it in its inevitable progress towards communism. But the desire for a sort
of spiritual precedent seems to be a built-in human urge: The ancestors did it
this way, and so do we.
We can be interested in the past, but we have to be flexible and adaptable
too. If you get dogmatic about interpreting the past, you run the risk of having
your dogma overturned by new archaeological finds or something. If you
concentrate on what nature teaches, on plants, the seasons, on all the cycles,
you are better off than making unsupportable historical claims.
TWPT : Have you
always been open with students and faculty as to your interests and did it cause
you any problems?
Chas: When I began graduate school in 1984, I was up front with
the religious studies faculty at the University of Colorado that I was a Witch.
Since this was *not* a theology program and since CU is a public, secular
university, I had no problems to speak of.
TWPT: What do
you teach at the University of Southern Colorado?
Chas: I began teaching at the University of Southern Colorado
in 1992. USC has no religion department, so I teach in the English department. I
have always listed my Pagan-related publications, such as the Llewellyn Pubs.
WITCHCRAFT TODAY series, on my curriculum vitae (academic resume). When the new
ARADIA was published and the library held its annual reception for faculty
members who had new publications to announce, it was displayed with the
When it comes to teaching such classes as "Religion in America" or "Nature
Writing in the West," however, my emphasis is on helping students to explore
issues, to think, and to write. Like the professors whom I had in undergraduate
and graduate classes, I do not wear my faith on my sleeve. I have, however, been
willing to discuss Paganism and witchcraft with students whom I no longer have
in class, but I do not want the classroom relationship to be complicated by a
student's fascination with or horror at my own practices. students to explore
the complexity of religion in America
TWPT: Tell me
how you became involved in the expanded edition of Aradia the Gospel of the
Witches by Charles Leland? Why is this an important book to the Craft
Chas: I was invited to contribute a chapter by Doug Brown, the
head of Phoenix Publishing. Phoenix is a small publishing house that produces a
short but carefully selected list of books on Witchcraft. They have also
reprinted Leland's ETRUSCAN ROMAN REMAINS, which he wrote before ARADIA, and
which goes along with it.
In both books, Leland asserted that he had found remnants of Roman, and even
earlier Etruscan, Pagan religion among northern Italians. He was clear on the
notion that this "stregheria" or witchcraft was not to be equated with Satanism.
And whereas the Roman Catholic Church normally lined up with the government and
the upper classes, Leland thought that this "Old Religion" was inherently
democratic and even feminist, in a nineteenth-century sense of the term. (He was
somewhat influenced by the French writer Jules Michelet, a fun writer but a poor
historian, who saw the "witches" of the Burning Times as female rebels against
So Leland was talking about an "Old Religion" even before Margaret Murray,
the English anthropologist who so influenced the Gardnerians, thought she had
stumbled across its traces in the witch-trial documents. Perhaps both found what
they hoped they would find-- Murray was somewhat selective about her evidence.
But my chapter in the book deals with ARADIA's influence on contemporary
Witches, not with its historical accuracy.
And in the 1950s and 1960s, when what we call Wicca or revived Neopagan
Witchcraft was taking shape, ARADIA was one of the few source books that offered
a picture of Witchcraft as something other than Satanism, as a genuine,
non-Christian religion. So it would have been influential even if Gerald
Gardner's student Doreen Valiente had not done her famous bit of borrowing,
finding inspiration in one of its incantations for her version of "The Charge of
TWPT: What is it
that Aradia offers to the modern Witch? Is it just a sense of the history of
Witchcraft or some practical ideas on practicing the Craft?
Chas: If Leland is right and his books do record some Pagan
remnants, then they are historically important. We cannot say, however, that
they show pre-Christian practice, since they reflect 1,600 years of Italian
TWPT: Are there
other out-of-print titles that would benefit the modern Wiccan as they seek to
understand where it is their beliefs came from?
Chas: Actually, many
of the older books, such as Gerald Gardner's WITCHCRAFT TODAY, remain in print
or are coming out in new editions. One which I strongly recommend to anyone is
THE FORGOTTEN MAGE, edited by Dolores Ashcroft-Nowicki. It's a collection of
essays by Charles Seymour, who was the model for the "Moon Priest" in Dion
Fortune's classic occult novel THE SEA PRIESTESS. Seymour was Fortune's magickal
partner back in the 1930s, and in his writings you can see a Paganized
ceremonial magic slowing moving towards "Neopaganism."
TWPT: What are
your feelings about the folks like Bob Barr and the crusade that he is
Chas: I think the whole Bob Barr/witches at Fort Hood incident was a gift
to the Craft. Rep. Barr comes off looking small and silly. The Army comes off
looking progressive, and the witches just seem sort of exotic. It's perfect for
a summertime slow news day.
TWPT: You have
edited many volumes, contributed chapters to others, do you have plans to
publish a book of your own in the future? And if so what kind of topic would you
be writing about?
Chas: I am working with Evan John Jones on a companion to our SACRED MASK,
SACRED DANCE. Its working title is THE CASTLE AND THE CAVE: FURTHER STEPS IN
TRADITIONAL WITCHCRAFT, and it continues to lay out the tradition developed in
the 1960s by Robert Cochrane, known variously as The Clan of Tubal Cain/The
I started out in a coven with loose ties to the "1734"
tradition, so in an odd way it's like a homecoming for me to be writing about
I would like to attempt a history of the Craft in North
America after that -- I have about three filing cabinets full of material dating
back forty years. And maybe a sort of "Wicca for backpackers" book!
TWPT: We would
like to thank you for taking the time to talk with us here at the Wiccan/Pagan
Times and we wish you the very best of luck with your writing and