A Magician's Blog

A Magician's Blog

Lady Sheba: A Controversial Icon of American Witchcraft

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Lady Sheba was an American Witchcraft celebrity for a moment in the 1970s. Her books still sell well today and are an alluring glimpse at British Traditional style Witchcraft wrapped in a vintage, charismatic package that makes one imagine a cheerful woman burning magical herbs in a censer, mixing flying ointment out of hand cream, lovingly placing an Avon Goddess figurine on her personal altar, and carrying a candle into the backyard under the full moon. For that brief moment in the 70s she helped register Wicca as a genuine religion and ran covens herself, forming her own tradition of witchcraft based on older traditions.

    I've read simple paragraphs in memory of this memorialized witch from her family recalling how she had an herbal cure for just about anything, that she was seen as strange by some yet was loved by many others. Yet like many other witchcraft elders Sheba and her work were not without flaws. For as charming as her books can be they are rife with material stolen from writers like Doreen Valiente, and for these writings the authors received not a dime or credit, not even in revised centennial editions of her books. Simply put, Carl Weschcke of Llewellyn publications, along with Lady Sheba, made the conscious decision to publish work which was not theirs to publish and which they had no involvement in bringing about. We don't know exactly how they received some of these works, but there are a couple plausible theories—what we know is that Lady Sheba obtained material from various sources and published them without permission. Personal poetry and simple rituals treasured by many and held as true religious mementos are now, because of them, sold in bookshops to be either praised, gawked at, criticized, or repeated by untrained hands who don't have the full picture. 

     In publishing her books Lady Sheba betrayed the trust of all of her elders and so many who worked so hard to hold those beautiful words and rituals to the standards they deserve: lovingly passing them down and not selling them for $10 on a bookshelf. In making a name for herself and Llewellyn Publications they betrayed a magical bond on a very human level, let alone one of potent magic. Was this new strategy for an occult tradition one of American Freedom, or of American Consumerism? Did it remedy the limitations of a small and personal initiatory cult, or nurture and fertilize a newer mindset of entitlement and a fast-food, I-want-it-now approach to Witchcraft? As evidenced by the mass approach to witchcraft common today, I unfortunately have to side with the latter. 

     Yet always in rebellion of what would seem like harsh blows to the staunch witchcraft traditions, leaked “Books of Shadows” have never hurt the traditions but only seem to heighten the glory of their oral teachings and strengthen the sacredness of the bond between teacher and student. Furthermore, witches being occultists and “The Book” being “of the Shadows,” do you really think simple steps and poems is all there is to it? The Book of Shadows is a tiny stump atop a vast sprawling city of hidden, ancient roots of Craft. The more how-to books that are published the stronger it becomes, not the other way around: the treasuring of non-published material strengthens the hidden roots of the tree while the uninitiated view a small stump and say, “Is that all?”

    Lady Sheba's books, some first edition, some centennial, sit on my shelf. When I shuffle through the pages and smell that old book smell and see the smiling woman printed in black and white along with her simple magical instruments, I know that Jessie Wicker Bell, Lady Sheba, was a truly magical woman. I only wish she would've used her moment and her magic more wisely and followed the advice of the words she so vehemently published.

by Austin Shippey