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Ray Bone, high priestess of the London witch coven, raises sword and asks 'Mighty Ones of the East' to protect the ritual circle in which they gather near Chipping Norton. Witches behind her hold up knives.
Caption from LIFE. "Ray Bone, high priestess of the London witch coven, raises sword and asks 'Mighty Ones of the East' to protect the ritual circle in which they gather near Chipping Norton. Witches behind her hold up knives."Terence Spencer—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Ray Bone, high priestess of the London witch coven, raises sword and asks 'Mighty Ones of the East' to protect the ritual circle in which they gather near Chipping Norton. Witches behind her hold up knives.
In a thousand-year-old rite, the witches dance around bonfire within prehistoric Rollright stone circle that stands in Oxfordshire.
Witchcraft in England in the 1960s
Beneath cabalistic symbols, nude witches raise ritual knives to invoke their gods at a meeting. Their nakedness outrages many people, but witches claim this represents the putting aside of worldly things.
British pagan, 1964.
A witchcraft initiation ceremony, England, 1964.
High priestess Artemis stirs salt and water mixture which is used to 'purify' the sacred circle in all witchcraft rites. On the table are incense burner, cord and statue of goddess. At right is herb chest containing incense.
Items in an English ruin, 1964.
A witch studying in a museum, England, 1964.
LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964; 'Real Witches at Work.'
LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964; 'Real Witches at Work.'
LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964; 'Real Witches at Work.'
LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964; 'Real Witches at Work.'
LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964; 'Real Witches at Work.'
Caption from LIFE. "Ray Bone, high priestess of the London witch coven, raises sword and asks 'Mighty Ones of the East'
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Terence Spencer—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
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The Wonderful World of Witches: Portraits of Modern English Pagans

Mar 17, 2014

Fifty years ago, in the fall of 1964, LIFE magazine published what must have felt to the venerable weekly's long-time readers like a strikingly weird feature. Titled "Real Witches at Work," the piece included photographs of modern-day British pagans—doctors, housewives, nurses, teachers—celebrating their ancient rites, dancing around fires and generally behaving like perfectly normal, faithful worshippers of the sun, the moon and Mother Nature have been acting for thousands of years.

Today, of course, when magic, the supernatural and the occult are central elements of some of pop culture's most familiar (and profitable) franchises, and Wiccans are more likely to be found serving on the local school board or city council than practicing their beliefs in secret for fear of being "found out," an article on real, live witches would excite little more than a shrug and a meh. In the early 1960s, however—and certainly in much of the United States—the notion of grown men and women getting naked in order to practice their religion would likely have blown a goodly number of puritanical minds.

But then, as Mrs. Ray Bone—a British housewife and pagan high priestess—noted in a nicely reasoned defense of witchcraft penned for that long-ago issue of LIFE: "It seems obvious to me that people can be just as immoral with their clothes on as with them off."

Amen to that, Mrs. Bone. Amen to that.

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