Saturday, July 7, 2012

Alex Sanders - A Pagan Magus

Recently, I ordered a copy of what had once been a rare British film that had been produced and released in 1969. That film was a documentary with the curious title of “Legend of the Witches,” which was produced by an obscure British film company (Border Films Ltd.) and written and directed by Malcolm Leigh. The modern witches depicted in this hour and a half black and white documentary were from the primary coven run by Alex and Maxine Sanders. While it’s not unusual today to find video of witches on U-Tube, at that time it would have been quite astonishing for a practicing witch coven to allow a film crew to document actual witchcraft practices. However, considering the fact that Alex Sanders already had a notorious reputation as something of a gratuitous public promoter of witchcraft, such a revealing film is somewhat less amazing than it might seem. In fact, you could say that Alex Sanders was one of the original “Glam Witches” of the 1960's.

While there were a few other witches who had become publically known at that time (such as Sibyl Leek, Lady Sheba or Louise Hubner), an actual filming of witches practicing their craft would have been completely unthinkable. Witches were sworn to secrecy, and their rites, along with their Book of Shadows, were held as an inviolable oath-bound lore known only to initiates. Yet here was Alex Sanders allowing a crew of outsiders to film his workings! It should not be too surprising that Alex was disparaged from the beginning when he started to open up to the British press and perform public ceremonies. Alex seemed to love the notoriety that such actions gained for him, and that included the bad press as well as the vilification he received from the largely British Gardnerian Witchcraft community. He was perceived by other witches as a public exhibitionist, thief and possible oath-breaker, and they quickly decided to dispute his right to be considered a legitimate member of their community. It’s likely that Patricia Crowther and some other British Gardnerian witches began their program against Alex after he had gone too far with his public religious immodesty. Unlike today, in the late 60's there were very few traditions and covens for individuals to engage with, and in the U.S., there were only a few Gardnerian covens overall, and these were located on the East Coast. (Of course, there was also the Feri tradition fully formed by that time on the West coast.)

The tenor of this documentary reminded me of some excruciatingly boring and pedantic elementary school film about nature, the kind that nearly everyone has been subjected to at some point. The exception was that this film had plenty of strange oddities, weird music, psychedelic effects and nude bodies to make it quite provocative and alluring. The subject matter and the title were both highly sensational at the time, so it would have been a notorious film had it been widely released. Now it’s a relic of a very important period in the evolution of practical witchcraft, where the specific Alexandrian form of the Craft was being developed in what appears to be a highly creative and fluid environment.

When witchcraft was being pursued and promoted back in the 1950's and 60's, there was little actual historically verified lore. Most of what was practiced as witchcraft was derived from other sources (and this practice has continued into the present times). For Alex Sanders and his coven, this meant assembling a wide spectrum of various traditional practices and mixing them with very modern affectations to produce a purely experimental methodology. In other words, he was attempting to see what worked and what didn’t work, developing the former and discarding the latter. In this way, Alex Sanders and his coven were engaging in a task that is analogous to what I have presented here in this blog. As the leader of this group, one could correctly claim that Alex Sanders was functioning as a Pagan Magus, and his experiments and discoveries became the basis of a whole new tradition of witchcraft.

It would seem that Alex wasn’t interested in just modestly performing the various sparse rituals as would have been found in the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, but instead he sought to fill out and spice up his tradition with whatever stimulated his very creative imagination. This film truly captures Alex and his coven in the middle of that creative process and it is fascinating to observe this phenomenon as it was happening, although captured on film. Alex didn’t just throw together a bunch of outlier ceremonies to titillate the gratuitous public hunger for occult voyeurism. He actually and sincerely presented himself and his coven engaged in their religious and magical work as a true representation of what they believed and did in those days. What we have in this film is a valuable time capsule, a kind of snapshot of modern witchcraft in the process of evolving and mutating into the many traditions and variations that exist today. Others would later go through this very process of developing and determining their spiritual lore and personal praxis, and from that would occur the many lineages of the Witchcraft movement. (I, myself, have and continue to go through this very same process.)

The movie starts out discussing the myth of Diana, the Moon Goddess, and Lucifer, the Sun God, who became the dual-theological pair known by various names today. It is a rendition of the creation myth that passes as common (and even public) lore today, but then it was obscure and little known. This creation myth was given an excellent backdrop in the film, consisting of a natural setting somewhere in the coastal area of England, with the full moon illuminating a lovely forest setting. The movie promotes the idea that witchcraft is a natural religion founded on the belief that nature itself is the source of all that is sacred, which is life itself. While the movie talks about the Goddess and God pair named as Diana and Lucifer, the actual names that I received through my Alexandrian initiation were quite different, and perhaps here is where the public was given outer-court names instead of the actual names used within the covenstead. The use of the name Lucifer is understandable and perhaps it even has some traditional weight, but it has become something of a embarrassment for witches today, so it is seldom used now.

Here we see the coven consecrating a circle in an outdoor grove with a central fire. All are nude except the High Priestess and High Priest. While Maxine was wearing a filmy bit of wrap-around sarong that left little to the imagination, Alex was wearing a full robe and cincture, looking something like a hooded monk. Alex often said that he wore a robe to distinguish himself as the coven’s priest, and if it weren’t for the fact that there are some pictures of him skyclad (like everyone else), one might think that he was squeamish about being nude in front of others. The purpose for this gathering is quickly explained, for it is an initiation circle. 

A young man, whose name is given as Michael, is led and coaxed blindfolded through a difficult terrain to demonstrate his worthiness to become a witch. He has to pass bravely through the four elements depicted as a series of ordeals. The first is water, where he crosses a stream and then has his head briefly dunked into the flowing water by his guide. He has to pass difficult terrain and to literally at times, feel his way through the obstacles. He has to jump down from a short outcropping of rock and trust that he will land safely (air), he passes through a cave and overcomes his fear of being lost or entombed (earth), and finally, he crosses what seems like a wall of flame (torches) to safely enter the coven circle, only to be subjected to the point of a ceremonial sword. With a kiss, he is brought into the circle, bound by cords and then presented to the four directions. He is charged and consecrated, then the blindfold is removed and he is presented the craft tools. As the light of dawn begins to wax, the witches (with their bare feet) smother the fire with dirt and obliterate any signs of their work.

Then the film presents the history of witchcraft, which is based on what craft leaders believed at that time. As yet, there was no Ronald Hutton or Philip Heselton, so the history of the craft took on a rather mythic and overly glorified revisionism. The history of magical practices and beliefs may have had a direct line extending from pagan antiquity to the present, but as far as any evidence of a religious movement, little has been found to support this belief, at least in the UK. Still, what was presented as a history of witchcraft was based more on the lurid fear and prosecution of diabolism, particularly as it occurred during the years of the reformation.

Witchcraft PR, beginning with Gardner himself, had pretty much accepted the theories and explanations put forth by Margarete Murray, but these have been more or less rejected by present-day historians. Even so, it is likely that some of Murray’s theories may turn out to be correct in regards to the cunning folk and their origins. The basic tropes of the burning times, the overlaying of Christian beliefs and practices upon a pagan foundation, and the association of a religious witchcraft with Robin Hood and maid Marian, William the Conqueror, Joan of Arc, and the origins of the Knights of the Garter are the basic staples of this history. This presentation is unfortunately now more fancy than fact, but still, other future developments might shift things in a somewhat different direction.

Another interesting vignette in the film is where Alex and his coven form, charge and give life to a fithfath, or poppet. The movie segues from the terrible burning times to the supposed fact that witches had the knowledge and power to strike back at their persecutors. Here we see the modern coven performing the various steps of creating a fithfath out of bees wax for the purported use of projecting a death spell. Whatever the real reason for creating the fithfath, it is obviously being used to harm someone instead of heal, which would have been untypical of a later Alexandrian coven. This gathering is indoors, conducted within a built up temple complex used for both ceremonial and witchcraft magick. There is a witchcraft circle (drawn from ceremonial themes) as well as a goetic triangle, and each are used for some aspect of the working. Each step of the process of creating this fithfath is carefully depicted, almost as if it were to be used in a scholastic test later on.

The fithfath is hollowed out with a long nail from the head down through spine and then on to the two legs. Then bits of metals, herbs and semen are inserted into the aperture, and finally it is sealed up. What follows is the performance of a sympathetic birthing process, where the High Priestess lies within the circle in a pose that is known as the pentagram form. She holds in her teeth a charged cord, which is placed down her body and wrapped around the fithfath that is set between her legs, like an umbilical cord. The High Priest wraps the other end of the cord around his waist, and he then lays upon the High Priestess in a simulacrum of the Great Rite. Once the combined powers of these two celebrants is fully realized within the fithfath, it is believed to have been given life, much as the first human pair were given birth by the Goddess and the God. Once this is done, the fithfath is ritually drowned by the person who is acting as the link for the actual victim, thereby setting up the potential for an actual drowning of the victim. The killing of the fithfath is done in a special basin held over the goetic triangle, as if to somehow utilize its demonic association.

A startling scene change then presents to the viewer, in graphic detail, all of the strange and lurid contents of the Boscastle, Cornwall, Museum of Witchcraft, owned and operated by Cecil Williams (now deceased). What is focused on in this film vignette are a series of gruesome images of the tools and fetishes that were obviously used to inflict pain, sickness and death on various unknown victims. This trope is pursued relentlessly, including the repeated word “hate” as each article in the black magic collection is perused. I don’t know why this theme was pushed, except perhaps to justify the use of black magic by witches. Little is discussed about the justification required for such work, and it is more likely that these articles were produced by either supposedly good Christians or employed cunning folk rather than witches.

What these scenes appear to promote is that modern witchcraft (like its older ancestor) was not above working this kind of magic when it was called for. That witches could do good as well as harm if they so desired. This is completely contrary to what Gerald B. Gardner publically stated as well as what he told his initiates. It would seem that Alex was helping to promote the idea that witchcraft had no moral foundation, and that the practice of supposedly “white” magic went hand and hand with the practice of “black” magic. Witches were therefore to be perceived as individuals who determined their own fate, and could, if provoked, do harm to others as part of their craft. You can see that this particular perspective is quite different than what is popularly spoken of today as the tenets of the religion of Wicca. In Alex’s version of witchcraft, there was no Wiccan Rede, and this is likely to be more an accurate portrayal of real witchcraft than what passes for a white-washed rendition of the Craft today.

This leads the viewer to the next scene, which is where Alex and his coven supposedly perform a Black Mass. We see a darkened indoor temple with a witchcraft circle in the center, but there is an altar set before a large forward leaning crucifix on the far end. Alex Sanders is fully clothed in what appears to be opulent church vestments. He is assisted by an acolyte properly dressed in choir robes and a surplice. Alex goes through the movements of performing a mass, invoking the Christ on the cross as Lucifer, and presenting incense, lustral water and the entwined flowers of the lily and the rose. Then he is assisted in removing the outer covering of his vestments, leaving him dressed in his under-robe, called an alb.

Maxine is sitting off to one side of the temple, scantily clad, but then she is brought before Alex, who helps her to sit on the altar, giving her salutatious kisses and helping her to disrobe, while she reclines fully upon the altar. A “scarlet” woman brings a chalice of wine and a host, and the consecration is performed upon the naked body of the High Priestess as Diana, representing the consort of the Dying God, Lucifer. The chalice of wine is placed between her legs, and the host is blessed and kissed by both the Priest and Priestess. Then Alex, as the celebrant, takes his athame and pierces the host, and then he dips it into chalice of wine. He then takes the host, still pierced by the athame, and tosses both into the center of the witches circle, to be followed by the entwined lily and rose. He then assisted Maxine to rise and leave the altar, taking her in hand to the witches circle where they both sit. They are joined in the circle by the scarlet woman, now completely nude, who brings the chalice of consecrated wine. The two women help to divest Alex of his alb and then they share in the wine and host. We are told they are then to perform the Great Rite as a threesome, but of course, the scene ends before that act can be consummated.

Mixing the rites of the Mass with the works of magic and witchcraft is not a new theme in today’s world, and it is interesting that Alex experimented with this kind of magick. While I would not necessarily call it a Black Mass because the sacraments or tools aren’t actually desecrated, such a supposed parody of a holy rite would by itself be offensive to many. Witches today might wonder at why such a ritual was performed in the first place, and then, captured on film. Some might consider that it was done to merely to scandalize the public, and that it wasn’t an actual exploratory working.

Still, this rite was performed more than once by Alex, and there are even some colored photos of him dressed with these very same robes. Was there something of key importance that made Alex overlay his witchcraft practices upon a Christian ritual? Did he make this concoction of creeds part of his particular witchcraft tradition? I can’t answer these questions, but I can state that such mixed workings were not uncommon in the early Alexandrian tradition. I can also say that I myself not only engaged in this kind of magick, but that I even managed to receive both an ordination and a consecration in the Old Catholic church. What I would do differently than the depiction of this rite would be to omit the large Crucifix before the altar. I would also omit tossing the host and athame into the circle, and of course, I would avoid the mental overlay of witchcraft upon the Christian symbols and practices. To Alex, there was no difference between Christianity and its holy symbols, and the symbology of Witchcraft as he understood it. However, I and many other Witches and Pagans do make a distinction between our faith, and the faith of other creeds. I respect other religions, so I would ensure that what I did was quite distinct from what others might do using an analogous liturgy.

Alex was doing something that he thought was important and relevant in his time, but it is also relevant in our present time. This is because I, too, make use of reworked and rewritten pagan versions of the Mass liturgy that are specifically performed for magical uses and ritual empowerment. I would suspect that Alex was experimenting with the same kind of ritual working, done for a similar purpose. When I did my experimenting many years ago, there was already a precedent for this kind of work, but it is likely that Alex was something of a pioneer when he did it. There are a number of things that I can’t talk about in regards to this kind of working, but I have determined for myself that it is a valid use and employment of the Mass rite.

The final scene in this documentary concerns itself with the affects of both sound and light on the mind. There are implications that altered states of consciousness, as produced by modern devices and methods, were something that modern witches made use of as a part of their regimen of tools and techniques. In the movie we see a science lab with various tools that produce unusual optical effects, such as the whirling spiral or the strobe light. Perhaps a bit too much time is spent viewing this whirling spiral (I found myself looking away from it), as if to put the viewer into some kind of trance state. Then we see another glimpse of the witch coven putting out the fire in the outdoor grove with their feet, and seemingly not being burned by this act. This seems to indicate that witches perform their rites in some kind of trance state that allows them to deal with the elements and not be hurt by them.

Then the scene shifts again, and we are once more in the indoor Witch temple, and this time the object of the working is to place a person in a deep trance so that he might peer into the future, a form of active divination called skrying. In a dimly lit temple, a whirling spiral image is projected on one wall. We are told that this operation will be employing a combination of old and new techniques, thereby incorporating ancient witchcraft with modern technology to accomplish the desired end. I would also consider that such a mixture of old and new techniques is a prominent feature of the post modern age. Such a mixed regimen represents the creative foundation of what a Pagan Magus would incorporate in the modern world.

The skrying subject, in this case a robed male witch who is sitting in a cloth circle, is subjected to the hypnotic powers of the whirling spiral and an intermittent strobe light. He is assisted to disrobe, his arms and ankles bound with cords, and then he kneels in front of a simple altar. We see that lying before this altar is an elaborately painted octagram floor piece, and upon it, a pulsating strobe light. The skryer is lightly scourged with a whip while kneeling, and then the chief celebrant, dressed in a robe and with the head of a goat, assists the skryer by completely wrapping him up in the cloth circle. He then unwraps him after a brief period. The skryer is then helped to move forward to the altar, where he makes an obeisance to the God Lucifer. He is given a drink from the chalice, and then helped to stare deeply into the strobe light as all of the candle lights are extinguished. Only the strobe light is intermittently pulsating its bright beam of light and all else is completely dark. 

Then suddenly a sun mirror is revealed, with a brilliant light reflecting off of its surface, dazzling ones eyes with its light. At that moment in the film, the scene melts into the image of the dawning sun appearing through clouds and overlooking the sea. It is the same coastal area shown in previous scenes, with a naked man standing on a rock before the surging tide. We are told by the narrator that the path of Witchcraft is completely beyond all life and death, as if the vision instilled by the skryer has been revealed to be this pristine image of the dawning light, greeted by the naked worshiper.

While this final rite was likely staged, since not enough time was taken at each step to ensure that the trance effects were wholly realized, it did demonstrate the technique used to produce a profound trance state where a clairvoyant vision might be received. The process of trance induction used a combination of light and music to aid the skryer in acquiring that state, and so too, did the disrobing, binding, scourging, cloaking and uncloaking. One might assume that there was more in the chalice than wine, but that remained unstated. A true skrying effort would have taken at least an hour or two to complete, but as this was a short documentary, and the last scene, it was merely a demonstration of what might have actually been done. The fake looking goat head mask that Alex was wearing seems almost ludicrous today, but perhaps it represented that he was operating under a godhead assumption, adding the power of the Deity to the overall working.

This entire documentary showed that the Witchcraft practiced in 1969 was highly experimental and creatively motivated. Modern and traditional methods were seamlessly incorporated to produce the most effective results. Lore and liturgy were appropriated from other traditions, but the essence of what was done was still within the pure spirit of the original creed of modern pagan witchcraft. Since the lore of this tradition was sparse and likely from questionable sources, replacement lore was developed and used to fill out that tradition so that it had a more complete and comprehensive praxis. This is not any different than what others later did with their original but sparse traditions, particularly those that evolved into the many forms of modern Paganism and Witchcraft today. Gaps in the lore and supposedly lost methodologies required the incorporation of new perspectives, regardless of their source.

The final result was a wholly new system and praxis, incorporating both traditional and new elements. While this documentary is quite dated and obviously promoting myths and self-serving beliefs instead of historically verified facts, the resultant creativity was neither compromised nor made spurious by this association. By viewing the film, we get to see Alex engaging in a very creative approach to his beliefs and practices. He was not yet an Alexandrian witch, but he had already broken away from those who represented the witchcraft orthodoxy of the time. Alex Sanders was in the process of creating a new tradition and praxis by merely allowing his creative imagination to have the opportunity to freely associate ideas, to experiment and explore new ground.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this obscure documentary is that it shows us all how to be a Pagan Magus, by showing the experiments and exploits of one of the better known pagan magi of our time. Alex Sanders passed away in 1988, but he left behind him a considerable legacy, even though he never wrote or published any of his thoughts, beliefs or practices. Instead, he used the media to document what he was doing, and he left it to his followers to write his biography and to present to us his legacy. While it might be true that Alex didn’t have the gift of being a writer, he did manage to leave behind, through the writings of others, his many different perspectives and beliefs. There is also an entire tradition of witchcraft called the Alexandrian, which Alex left behind, although it wasn’t either his purpose or desire to create a new tradition. Alex and Maxine called themselves witches with no other descriptive adjective, and it was only their later followers who distinguished themselves as Alexandrians, in honor of both Alex and Maxine. 


We can see echos of their work throughout the decades following the time of this film, and in fact, in the 1984 documentary, “The Occult Experience” produced by Nevill Drury, we can see the same initiation of the four elements being enacted in the segment on Janet and Stewart Farrar. An older Alex Sanders performed a godhead assumption in that film, briefly becoming the embodiment of an Aztec Fire God. He also accidently started his breech clout on fire with a candle torch that he was brandishing, but he deftly put it out with his other hand, all without missing a beat. 

Alex was still experimenting with his creed and extending his knowledge into domains that most witches would never have even dreamed of entering, even to the very last years of his life. It’s for this reason that I venerate his memory and consider Alex Sanders as a true Pagan Magus. I have been conducting my practice of witchcraft and ritual magic in the same creative and mutable manner that he did years ago, whether I realized it or not. Perhaps, I am seeking one day to be known as a Pagan Magus, just as he was so many years ago.

Frater Barrabbas 

1 comment:

  1. Looking at Alex Sanders' workings and the faux-history that was promulgated around it brings to mind this article from back in 2009. Sanders was not passing on ancient techniques - it's clear from the film that he was doing a lot of experimental work and inventing them as he went along based on his results.

    To me, though perhaps not to others, this is a much more significant accomplishment than passing along a bunch of dusty lore.