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~ Alexandrian Witchcraft ~
"Was Alex initiated by his grandmother?
Remarks on the recent ancestry report of Alex Sanders"
Emmanuel College, Cambridge
It is very welcome that Maya, daughter of Alex Sanders, has organised for an ancestry report to be drawn up on the family tree of her late father. These documents, prepared in 2018 and recently made publically available through the Alexandrian Witchcraft Timeline & Archive, show beyond a doubt that the story of Alex’s childhood initiation at the hands of his maternal grandmother Mary Bibby (née Roberts) is not credible as an accurate historical account of events. Records show Mary passing away in 1907, when Alex’s own mother would have been only four years old. The report puts it succinctly: “Mary could have had no direct influence on Alex as she did not live long enough to raise her own children so that [Alex’s claims to have had interaction with her] are demonstrably false” (Wibberley 2018, 16). My remarks are concerned with separating the fact from the fiction of Alex’s “grandmother story.” Mary existed, but she never met Alex and consequently her influence on his study of witchcraft was limited.
This being the case, the larger question is whether the fact that Alex was not initiated into witchcraft by his grandmother discredits the story of witchcraft that Alex weaves, so skilfully, into the narrative of his (most certainly fictitious) time with Mary. If the “grandmother story” is all deception, does it have any value? My argument is that while Alex’s account of his childhood initiation does not hold up as factual history and was deliberately invented, this should not detract from the important role the “grandmother story” still fulfils as a spiritual history of Alex’s witchcraft. As such it remains a valuable document from the Alexandrian tradition by one of its founders and should be of continued importance to historians of modern witchcraft. I incline to understand the grandmother story not so much as a lie as a fable.
1. Separating fact from fiction
Alex Sanders claimed, on numerous occasions, to have been initiated into witchcraft at the age of seven by his maternal grandmother, Mary Bibby (née Roberts), and to have received, from her, additional initiations (second and third degree) when he was fifteen. Mary and her teachings are given a prominent place in the first three chapters of June Johns’ King of the Witches: The World of Alex Sanders (1969), a biography based on interviews with Alex and widely circulated during his lifetime. In chapter 1, “The Young Initiate,” we are introduced to “Grandma Bibby,” a widow who has just moved to Manchester from Wales in order to be near her daughter. Alex visits Mary often and one day, ignoring the instruction that relatives should knock before entering, he walks in on his grandmother, stark naked, performing a ritual in her kitchen:
[I]nstead of ringing the front-door bell, Alex went round to the back. […] The sight that met his eyes in the kitchen dumbfounded him. An old, old woman, with wrinkled belly and match-stick thighs, stood in the centre of the room surrounded by a cloth circle in which curious objects had been placed. Only when she spoke did he recognise his grandmother. […]
“Take off your clothes,” she commanded, and when he hesitated after removing his coat and shoes, she added, “All of them – every last stitch.”
Teeth chattering with fright, he peeled off his vest and pants and stood there like a lamb about to be slaughtered. The old lady bent down and picked up a small sickle-shaped knife from the edge of the circle surrounding her. […]
“Bend over,” she said, and forced his shoulders towards his knees. There was a searing pain and the boy felt blood trickle down from his scrotum.
“You can stand up now.” She let go of him and dried the blood from the knife. “You’re one of us now, and all the power of heaven and earth will strike you if your break your promise. Don’t look so scared, lad –“ she realised suddenly that he was white and shaking – “you’ll live to thank me for this. I’ll teach you things you never heard of, how to make magic and see the future.”
Instead of being comforted, Alex was even more terrified.
“You’re not a …witch?” he whispered, remembering fairy tales about old hags who could turn children into toads.
“Of course I’m a witch, and so are you now” (Johns 1969, 11-13).
In chapter 2, “A Magic Childhood,” we learn more about “Grandma Bibby.” Mary, we are told, grew up in Bethesda, “in the foothills of Snowdon,” where she was part of a coven with an unbroken tradition stretching back to the fifteenth century (Johns 1969, 17-18). In an antique strong chest Mary keeps her ritual tools, among them a sword decorated with rubies and a Book of Shadows, which Alex is allowed to copy. Under the pretence of tutoring Alex in Welsh (his mother, Hannah, is unaware of Mary’s true identity) Mary gives him weekly lessons in witchcraft. He receives his own witch-name, Verbius, and learns Mary’s witch-name, which is Medea. At fifteen, when Alex is beginning to show an interest in girls, Mary decides it is time to elevate him to the second and third degrees. In chapter 3, “The Haunted Hill,” we are given a glimpse of the ceremony itself, which involves ritual incest between Mary and her grandson:
On the night of the initiation ceremony she laid out a new robe she had made for Alex. They both bathed themselves before entering the circle. By the light of two candles on the altar – a draught-board table on which the regalia were arranged – she lay down on the floor and drew the boy to her until their bare bodies touched. They were united. There were no gestures of affection or passion; it was strictly ritual and Alex did not feel the slightest repugnance at losing his virginity to a woman of seventy-four. Afterwards she opened a bottle of wine and, in his new robes, Alex poured a libation to the moon goddess and drank to his future as a witch (Johns 1969, 28).
The story is colourful and several aspects of it – the idea that Alex alone among Mary’s relatives new her true identity; that Mary was the secret member of a centuries-old witch cult; or, for that matter, the notion that Mary saw fit to have ritual incest with her fifteen-year-old grandson – seem difficult to believe. As Ronald Hutton observes, “some of it has to be fictional” (Hutton 2019, 343). Others have voiced similar opinions (see the bibliography in Hutton 2019, 487, n. 35). Yet precisely how much of the account is fiction has been surprisingly difficult to ascertain. Late in his life Alex decided to burn a number of personal documents, making it almost impossible for historians to corroborate his claims (Hutton 2019, 343). Excepting the more sensational details of the story (ritual molestation and incest), then, there has been no substantial evidence to suggest that Mary was not “skilled in cunning craft” and “[important]…in kindling [Alex’s] interest in magic and in spiritualism” (Hutton 2019, 343; for a defence of the “grandmother story” see di Fiosa 2010, 37-44.).
Until quite recently, that is, when Maya, Alex’s daughter, commissioned an ancestry report of her father’s family tree. The report confirms the existence of Mary Bibby but also shows beyond doubt that the story of Mary initiating Alex was, in toto, a fabrication – for the simple reason that Mary died at the age of thirty-two, in 1907, more than a decade prior to Alex’s own birth (Wibberley 2018; see also Carter 2011). The report also shows that several additional details in the story reported in King of the Witches, such as the time and place of Mary’s birth (and, of course, her death), are incorrect. According to the records, Mary Bibby was born Mary Jane Roberts in the June quarter of 1875, or possibly 1874, not 1867 as Johns implies. Her birth was registered at Bangor, to Richard and Emma Roberts, not in Bethesda, as claimed in King of the Witches (this detail is repeated by Hutton 2019, 343). By 1901 Mary appears in the records again, now married to Thomas Bibby and the mother of two children, Emma and Thomas. Hannah, who is to become Alex’s mother, has not yet been born. The next entry records Mary’s death, also registered at Bangor, in 1907. In King of the Witches, Mary dies in 1941, shortly after having elevated Alex to second and third degree. There is also no mention, in the records, of Mary ever leaving Bangor. In King of the Witches Mary moves to Manchester in order to be nearer her daughter. According to the ancestry report, Mary was born, lived and died in Bangor. As far as I can tell, only one part of Alex’s story matches up to the report: his grandmother’s proficiency in Welsh. In King of the Witches, Alex’s pretext for the frequent visits he made to his grandmother’s house was that he wanted to learn to speak Welsh (Johns 1969, 15). In the ancestry report, the entire Roberts family was indicated as fluent speakers of both Welsh and English (Wibberley 2018, 16).
It goes without saying that none of this rules out the possibility that Mary may have been, as Hutton puts it, “skilled in cunning craft” or that stories of her could have inspired Alex. She may have been interested in spiritualism and passed on the interest to her descendants. Given that knowledge in specialised subjects often runs in families, this seems likely, but such details are not recorded in a census. Maxine, for one, recalled that Alex’s mother, Hannah, was a gifted medium (Hutton 2019, 343). Even so, considering that Mary died when Alex’s mother Hannah was only four years old, any influence she could have had on Alex (let alone on Hannah) would have been extremely limited, mediated through hearsay rather than through direct contact. At the most, stories of her psychic abilities may have kindled in the young Alex a desire to learn more about occult phenomena.
But what of the other half of Alex’s family tree? Might the stories of “Bibby” be referring to his paternal, rather than his maternal, grandmother? Here the ancestry report yields some unexpected connections, though ultimately it is discouraging. Alex’s paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Gandy, died in 1931, two years before Alex was supposed to have been initiated by “Bibby.” Elizabeth was, however, sixty-six years at the time of her death and moreover resided in Birkenhead. Birkenhead, which is not far from Manchester, was Alex’s birth place and the original home of the Sanders family. Sixty-six is the same age that King of the Witches gives for “Bibby” at the time of Alex’s alleged first-degree initiation. Johns also writes that “Bibby” had been widowed for many years when she arrived to Manchester. Similarly, Elizabeth’s husband died in 1903, leaving her a widow for almost two decades. Either Johns was confused regarding the details of “Bibby’s” life or else, as seems more likely, Alex deliberately conflated aspects of Mary’s life and position with Elizabeth’s when composing the fable of his grandmother-initiator, perhaps being attracted to the romance of Mary’s alleged psychic abilities while linking it all the while to some real memory of Elizabeth’s physical presence (Alex would have been five at the time of Elizabeth’s passing). There is no hint, in any of the records, of Elizabeth demonstrating an interest in the occult.
Of course, the observation that neither of Alex’s grandmothers were alive when Alex claims to have been initiated by “Grandma Bibby” does not mean that he could not have been initiated as a child and adolescent by someone else, perhaps by a relative or acquaintance whose identity Alex wished to protect. This does, however, seem unlikely, if not entirely implausible. Initiation into any form of contemporary witchcraft with the ritual tools and degree system described in King of the Witches was not recorded before Gerald Gardner began initiating in the 1950s and Alex’s own Book of Shadows has been shown to be a Gardnerian text, most likely copied by Alex during his brief time associating with at least one Gardnerian group in the early 1960s (Hutton 2019, 333-334). Incidentally, the “grandmother story” seems to be alluding to this period, for “Medea,” the witch-name that Mary is given in the story, is the same name that Alex claimed for the Gardnerian priestess who is supposed to have elevated him to first degree in 1963. Who “Medea” really was (her true identity has not been ascertained) remains an open question, but one that falls beyond the remit of these brief remarks (for a discussion, see Hutton 2019, 333, and Cain 2019, 57-65, a detailed examination). I think it safe to assume, however, that she was not one of Alex’s elderly female relatives.
2. Lies and fables
Given that neither Mary Bibby nor Elizabeth Gandy could have initiated Alex into witchcraft, we must dismiss the “grandmother story” as an outright fiction. Alex was not initiated by either of his grandmothers, not only because their activities predated the modern witchcraft movement by several decades but because, simply, they were absent from Alex’s life during the crucial years in question. They could not have initiated him. The question then is: Why pass off as truth a story that was so easily – too easily, once the records have been accessed – falsifiable? If Alex really had wanted to deceive people regarding his initiation, would it not have been wiser to select the identity of someone who was still alive at the time of the event? Alex, we know, was fond of ruses, and the “grandmother story” – with its sensational details – would have satisfied Alex’s liking for the dramatic. “Alex was very tactical,” remembers one of his coven members, “[he] told a lot of stories and would laugh when people believed them.” (di Fiosa 2010, 33). By combining aspects of his two grandmothers, neither of whom was alive at the time of his alleged initiation, the story seems less a desperate lie and more a considered fable.
But a fable of what? On this matter, the role played by Mary in June Johns’ King of the Witches may provide some clues. Fables often have a dreamy, symbolic quality to them and the character of Mary in King of the Witches is nothing if not dreamy and symbolic. Throughout the first three chapters of King of the Witches Mary speaks in pithy phrases that have about them the quality of the adage, instructing Alex on the need to attune to nature and revere it: “The true religion, she explained, was the love of life and the love of the giver of life,” and so on (Johns 1969, 26). Moreover, in the story, Alex repeatedly strays from the example set by his grandmother’s teaching. The adolescent Alex is eager to show off his skills, and when Mary dies he spends many years using magic for nefarious ends. When he finally recognises the error of his ways it is when he remembers his grandmother’s teaching and begins again to practice the witchcraft of his childhood. He is then able to understand its mysteries fully, having experienced the consequences of breaking witchcraft law and abusing the sanctity of nature.
In other words, the fable of Mary is a quest narrative. Mary and her teachings represent the original, true path from which Alex, the hero of the story, has strayed but to which he must one day return if he is to come into his full powers. That Mary is Alex’s relative by blood is not essential to the story, though it certainly contributes to the fable’s logic. Like original truths, blood relations are not chosen but given, and in quest myths a hero’s discovery of their true path typically coincides with their coming into some form of blood inheritance (Frye 1957, 187-190). Evidently Alex felt that witchcraft and its mysteries were something he had an intuitive grasp of; they seemed, to him, an inheritance rather than a privilege. Alex himself attested to this fact (Hutton 331-332), which seems the deeper motivation – aside from providing a conveniently unverifiable validation of his status as an initiate of witchcraft – for composing the “grandmother story.”
Cain, B. (2019) Initiation into Witchcraft. New Orleans: Warlock Press.
Carter, L. (2011) “Email correspondence between Leslie Carter and Vanessa Greenslade, 30 August 2011.” Alexandrian Witchcraft Timeline & Archive. www.alexandrianwitchcraft.org/emial-correspondence-between-leslie-carter-and-vanessa-greenslade-6377a-e/
di Fiosa, J. (2010) A Coin for the Ferryman: The Death and Life of Alex Sanders. Boston: Logios.
Frye, N. (1957) The Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hutton, R. (2019) The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Johns, J. (1969) King of the Witches: The World of Alex Sanders. London: Peter Davies.
Wibberley, C. (2018) “Report on the Ancestry of Alex Sanders 1926-1988.” Alexandrian Witchcraft Timeline & Archive. www.alexandrianwitchcraft.org/report-on-the-ancestry-of-alex-sanders-1926-1988/