Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Witch's History: Sybil Leek

Lately there have been rumblings and grumblings amongst several Pagan blogs that our community's teaching methods have become a bit washed out. To put it better way, that quickie-witch books have taken over the shelves and have cheapened the extremely hard work, extensive training and research that many high priests and priestesses have gone through. You know the books  - the ones on display at Barnes & Noble that declare, "Turn your boyfriend into a toad!" Or the ones that have a six page chapter on the basics of Wicca and then jump right into, "Now you're a witch! Here's a spell for money! Here's a spell for love! Here's a spell to make your cupcake recipes even more cute!" Okay, that last one could be kind of fun.

In the spirit of improving my own training, I have been on the lookout for books outside of the Llywellyn genre - I just find that they publish a good chunk of the quickie-witch books without concise bibliographies or good editing. This completely explains why I picked up a copy of Sybil Leek's autobiography, Diary of a Witch. I really didn't know anything about her before I bought the book, but here's a very quick summary of what she writes. 

Sybil Leek was born in England to what I gather to be a fairly well-off family. She is a hereditary witch, and learned the arts of herbalism, astrology and transcendental meditation from her grandmother as a girl. She married early and after only two years her husband passed away. Afterward she went to live with a group of gypsies for the better part of a year - adding their lore of herbs to her own knowledge. Later in life she traveled around the U.S. doing TV appearances, ghost hunting, and connecting with the flower children of the 60's. 

I am not one to readily believe in psychics or ghosts, so it was difficult for me to get through parts of DoaW. Especially hard for me was her insistence that astrology is a science and should be fully researched and used for the good of humanity. She writes that astrological charts should be given to babies at birth, so that doctors can know what illnesses will come up in their lives and when. I think she gives way to much credence to astrology, and sort of reminds me of the girlfriend in "This is Spinal Tap" who bases the band's schedule off astrological charts. :)

Sybil Leek is also a proponent of reincarnation to the point where she is convinced that one day science will be able to prove its existence. She claims to have gone on a ghost hunting trip where she discovered a human thigh bone in a previously undiscovered secret passage, and then says she brought the thigh bone home to her young son as a gift. She also believed that the Krishna Conscious group would become a very influential force in the future.

Despite the fact that I am skeptical about her views on psychic abilities and the role of mysticism in science, not to mention that all her adventures went exactly as she claims, I did enjoy the book as a way of looking at the evolution of witchcraft through the mid 1900s. It's interesting to hear about how she is perceived in European vs. American culture. I also enjoyed her description of the flower children during her jaunt in Los Angeles:

"I liked the flower children with their naive approach to life and their childlike energy. Yet there is something infinitely sad in seeing so many beautiful young people leading aimless lives, playing around with bits of clay, making collages from garbage cans in the belief that they are entering a great new renaissance. I found that few of them seemed able to cope with life without the aid of drugs which took them to a world of fantasy as an escape route."

It is also extremely interesting for me, a witch in her 20's, to see the divide starting between traditional witchcraft - often passed down through families - and more modern-day teach-yourself witchcraft. Sybil Leek wrote that the vast majority of the flower children interested in witchcraft could not maintain the discipline it took to be a practicing witch, and most of them were more keen to hear stories about Leek's encounters with Aleister Crowley. Hm. Could this be the beginning of life-long fluffy bunnies? :) (I use the term "life-long fluffy bunnies" because, let's face it, we were all that once. We just always hope we grow out of it with experience. And yes, I too thought it was "athame" that rhymes with game and "tarot" that rhymes with carrot.)

I haven't read any of Sybil Leek's other books. I'd be interested to hear from others who have.  This book really doesn't talk about her husbands or children much at all and I'd like to know more about her personal life rather than hearing her arguments on the validity of mystic practices. If you haven't read anything by her though, I think DoaW is a good place to start. It's a definite escape from, "Achieve astral projection in only five minutes!"

Oh, and on a complete side note, Celia over at Adventures of the Striped Stockings is hosting a giveaway from some very beautiful faerie prints. Or as my niece would say, "FAERIES! AND PRINCESSES! AND FAERIES! OH MY GOD I'M GOING TO FORGET MY POTTY TRAINING, I'M SO EXCITED!" Hm. It's probably a good thing that kids don't actually talk the way I imagine.


RetroKali said...

I have had this book since I was a kid, passed down from my grandma. It was the first book I read about witchcraft. I do find it a bit "sensationalized" because hey, it was the 60's and being a witch was highly misunderstood and something I am sure the book publishers wanted to capitalize on. I own another of hers and Diary of a Witch is really the only one worth owning.
I am also bored-to-tears with recipe style witchcraft books and stopped buying them a LONG time ago. Instead I look for "instruction" from unusual sources...for instance, read WiseChild by Monica Furlong. Its marketed as a kids book but every witch I know who has ever read it got something out of it. Personal opinion: maturity in witchcraft is leaving the "three steps to spellwork" books behind and having enough faith in yourself and courage to find the craft for yourself. :)

Lilith Noor said...

I have about a zillion books on paganism (librarian for a now defunct pagan group), but for some reason this is not in there. I feel I may need to add it to my collection.

The longer I'm been a witch, the less likely I am to read anything that offers actual spell 'recipes,' unless it's pre 1900s.

Agree with RetroKali's recommendation of Wisechild- lovely book, and much more useful than the actual how to books.

Joxy said...

Aye, same here, Lilith.

Can't be doing with the how to books, mind Im not interested in wicca either. Read a few non wicca witchcraft books, which have been interesting, and rather similar to what I was taught as a kid too. I prefer old books though, trying to tease out and adapt practises, methods for me living in the 21st century and it being something meaningful to pass on to my son - if he's interested.

The Blue Faerie said...

@Everyone: I suppose that leaves the question of instructional books. Are there any good instructional books out there?

@RetroKali: I'll have to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

@ Lilith & Joxy: I'm going to take advantage of a Pagan librarian and an old book connoisseur. :) Are there any you'd recommend?

Tereza said...

Thanks for the write-up on Sybil. I hadn't heard of her before but now I'm intrigued and will be looking for her books.

I just read a book by Amber K called called 'How to Become a Witch'. Some might think it's fluffy-bunny, but I enjoy her style of writing and learned a lot.

Thanks for sharing!

Blessed Be,

Witch of Stitches said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Witch of Stitches said...

I also remember reading this, after my mother finished it, back in the late 60s when it was first published. I have a copy along with her Sybil Leek's Book of Curses, The Complete Art of Witchcraft and Reincarnation, The Second Chance. They are great books. I think she was quite a character.
I agree with Lilith, for spell type books - the earlier the better.
You might enjoy High Priestess, The Life & Times of Patricia Crowther (initiated by Gerald Gardner) and, if you can find a copy, King of the Witches about Alex Sanders - although they say most of his book is BS. Still, they are important parts of the witch's history.

Lilith Noor said...

*peers dubiously at bookshelves* To be honest, most of what i have is the stuff people bought for their own use, realised was dire and donated to the group library for shits and giggles. We used to have a regular bad book review- I always won with Cassandra Eason's Night Magic.

I like Doreen Valiente's Witchcraft for Tomorrow, for a fascinating look at early Wicca, and Rae Beth's Hedgewitch helped me coalesce a lot of my beliefs on life.

I tend to glean information from books on old customs and practices- I have a few on old Scottish customs that drew me into studying sacred wells and offerings. I also picked up a library book some ten years ago on charms and amulets 9might have been Sheila Paine's, can't remember), which fuelled my interest in making talismans and poppets. Also highly recommend the witchcraft museum at Boscastle to see how people used to do it (and stil do)