|Julia Phillips at the Rollright Stones|
This interview was conducted by Richard Levy for the Centre For Pagan Studies in February 2018
1 – Could you tell us a little about how you got started in Wicca and why you were drawn to it?
I grew up in a haunted house with family members who were both aware of, and interested in, the supernatural. It was therefore no stretch of the imagination for me to accept that there are many things in this universe that are not currently explicable. I love mysteries!
One of my earliest memories though (aged five/six) was of spending time with my grandparents in very rural Ireland. We stayed with a friend of my grandmother’s in a small hamlet. The farmhouse had no gas, no electricity and no running water. It was one of my jobs each morning to carry billy cans to the spring a couple of fields away to fill with water and carry back to the farm. I also learned how to milk cows and make butter, and to cook on an open fire in cast iron cauldrons.
When Lammas came around and all the work in the fields had been finished, a céilí was held at the farmhouse where we were living. The whole community gathered and played, sang and danced into the wee hours. I have a vivid memory of one of the old farmers taking me outside and, while I was seated on his shoulders, he told me that the lights we could see flickering in the distance were the king and queen of the fairies and all their subjects. He said they were also celebrating Lammas and were in a procession on their way back to their home in hills. It was my birthday night (at midnight I reached the grand old age of six!) and his story telling was one of the most magical things I remember.
Like many others of my generation my formal introduction to practical occultism/paganism came through the Society of Psychical Research in Kensington. A friend and I frequently attended lectures and made good use of the extensive library. That led to me studying the tarot and astrology, which in turn led to me being invited to join a coven and be initiated.
Wicca turned out to be a great choice for me because it combines all those things that most appeal to me within one inclusive pathway. It is magical, spiritual, acknowledges the Mystery, and also provides a core directive to focus upon self-development: “keep pure your highest ideal, strive ever towards it, let naught stop you or turn you aside.”
2- Is there anything in The Craft you recall seeing more of when you were younger and you would like to see return?
For Wicca to remain a relevant, vibrant pathway it has to reflect the society in which it exists so whilst I might have a sense of wistful longing for the days when we relied upon personal interaction rather than Facebook groups, it’s not a realistic option for the 21st century. Indeed, my own branch of the family is so far flung that we rely heavily upon a private Facebook group for us all to keep in touch with each other.
The things about Wicca that I have always valued the most remain a part of my community today; Grand Sabbats, sharing ideas with other Wiccans, meeting up socially, knowing I have a wonderful family who are always there for me, no matter what… so for me, there isn’t anything I would like to see return as it never went away.
3 – Who I the Craft would you say influenced you the most?
There isn’t any one person. I have learned from a lot of different people and I continue to learn from them all today. One thing I treasure about my involvement in Wicca is that it has brought me into contact with some amazing, talented, and inspiring people I would never otherwise have met.
4 – Are there any must read books you would always recommend?
I think it’s good practice for people to read widely and then discriminate effectively! There is no replacement for practical experience and personal growth within a coven, but as a lover of books I am always going to encourage people to read. The classics are never going to go our of fashion – Gardner, Valiente, Crowley, Fortune et al. Vivianne Crowley’s books about Wicca are excellent and for an historical perspective, Ronald Hutton.
I have a particular interest in traditional witchcraft and some of the authors I most enjoy are Norman Cohn, Jeffrey Russell, Christina Larner and Owen Davies.
Tarot (my original area of study) is overflowing with books and tarot decks these days. I tend to go back to Wang, Crowley, Nicholls, and Kaplan, but there are many others I enjoy.
I am also a firm believer in the value of fiction. Studying academic (or at least non-fiction) texts is interesting but sometimes it takes a work of fiction to ignite that spark that leads to revelation.
5 – What other traditions influence your practice? / do you work with?
I teach a system of magic that we call Hermetics – it has nothing to do with Wicca or Franz Bardon, but is a system that has its origins in the ancient Hermetic Schools and developed through the philosophy of Paracelsus and the Renaissance practice of the Art of Memory.
I also practise a form of angelic magic based upon Madeline Montalban’s Order of the Morning Star, with my own interpretation of the Book of Enoch.
6 – Do you have a favourite Sabbat and why?
My favourite would be the Hallows, which is the point of the spiral that encourages Wiccans to explore the Sacred Mystery that is hidden from view. The Mystery remains but we can get a glimpse behind the veil and in my experience this will bring new insights, possibly moments of clarity, and even an epiphany.
7 – As time has gone has your approach to magic changed and dos it continue to change?
Gosh, I hope so! I’d be devastated if I thought I was doing the same things in the same way that I did them 40 years ago. I think a quote from Dion Fortune expresses my attitude to this very well:
“There are things I wrote of Spiritualism twenty years ago which, in the light of wider experience, I would not write today, and to cite these as evidence against me is to deny the possibility of human progress.” (Dion Fortune, December 1942)
I do think that the fundamental principles of magic are consistent though; hard work coupled with persistence and an ability to focus. What tools or techniques one uses are pretty much down to personal choice, but those three principles are critical.
8 – What are some of the lessons training others has taught you over the years?
Well, the first thing is I don’t train others in Wicca. Our coven is a group of equals and we all share ideas, knowledge, techniques, information, and so on. I might have a specific skill to pass on, but then another coven sibling will have something different to share, so it all works out.
In Hermetics, however, I do train others and I encourage (indeed, insist on!) respect for every member of the group so that no one ever feels shy or embarrassed about sharing an experience or asking a question. Also, no matter how abstract it may be, the experience or the learning is what that particular person needs at that moment and it should be accepted as such. It can be discussed and dissected but it should never be dismissed just because it might be something a little out of the ordinary.
9 – What general advice would you give a novice?
Rule One – never ignore your intuition. Rule Two – see Rule One.
I cannot count how many times I have read or heard people complain about a bad experience only to finish with, “he/she always felt somehow off to me.” Trust your intuition and if something feels off or wrong, then it is almost certainly something or someone to avoid.
I would also suggest you consider whether you have anything apart from Wicca in common with the other coven members. In our coven we share interests that go way beyond Wicca (theatre, music, good food, wine, books, movies etc.) and in my experience that’s a very sound basis for an effective group.
10 – What is the main kind of work you do now? Are you writing or training or trying to be less busy?
I retired almost a year ago but there is nothing “less busy” about my life! For the past 25 years I’ve been a CEO in (primarily) sport and I had thought life might ease off a little after retirement but that proved to be naïve on my part.
I’m a bit odd within the Wiccan world as my immediate Wiccan family is in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Canada, USA, and one in Malaysia (he was a member of my Melbourne coven but then moved back home to Malaysia after completing his PhD). I am incredibly blessed to be a part of such an amazing, vibrant family and I love visiting – have wand will travel! During April and May I will catch up with family in Melbourne, Sydney, British Columbia, Ontario and Indiana, which is an absolute delight to me.
Other than travelling, my book about the principles of Wicca (Witches of Oz) was published 25 years ago and I’m currently revising it for a third edition. I will also be editing magical diaries from the Hermetic Temple that Rufus Harrington and I ran in London in the 1980s for publication. It’s a fabulous insight into the magical world of some of the most talented magicians I have ever met and I’m looking forward to getting on with it when I get back to England at the end of May.
A few people contacted me about Hermetics recently and I have a couple of workshops in the diary, so that might lead to a regular group.