Isaac Bonewits

Philip Emmons Isaac Bonewits is a leader in modern Druidism. He is a priest, magician, scholar, author, bard, and activist who dedicated his life to reviving Druidism as a «Third Wave» (New Age) religion for the preservation of «Mother Nature and all Her children.»

He was born on October 1, 1949, and spent most of his childhood in Ferndale, a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. He was the fourth of five children (three girls, two boys). The family moved to San Clemente, California when he was nearly twelve.

His appreciation of the importance of religion came from his mother, a devout Roman Catholic, while his skepticism came from his father who converted to Catholicism from Presbyterianism. He drifted between parochial and public schools because neither had curriculums for very bright students, his I. Q. was tested at 200.

His first exposure to magic was when he was 13, when he met a young Creole woman when practiced Vodoun (Voodoo). She showed him some of her magic and accurately divined his future that impressed him. In his adolescence he read extensively about magic and parapsychology. He also read science fiction, which often contains strong magical and psychic themes.

In the ninth grade he entered a Catholic high school seminary, but soon realized he did not want to be a priest in the Catholic faith. He returned to public schools and graduated a year early. He entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1966. During this time he started devising his of magical rituals, which he got from books and observing people in various churches.

His roommate at Berkeley was Robert Lawson, a Druid and an alumnus from Carleton College, where the Reformed Druids of North America (RDNA) had been founded in 1963. Lawson initiated Bonewits into the RDNA. The two formed a grove in Berkeley, and Bonewits was ordained a Druid priest in 1969. It later became a neo-Pagan grove known as the New Reformed Druids of North America (NRDNA).

Bonewits explored the Church of Satan, founded by Anton Szandor LaVey, in San Francisco, for eight months. He improved some of the rituals, but left because of a conflict with LaVey. He also felt most of the members to be middle-class conservatives, who he thought were more «rightwing and racist» than Satanist.

He was going to be a psychology major, but through Berkeley’s individual group-study program he fashioned his own course of studies. In 1970 he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in magic, the only person to do so from a Western educational institution. He is the last to do so too, because the university administrators were so embarrassed over the publicity about the degree in magic, witchcraft and sorcery that they banned it from the individual group-study program.

The publicity got Bonewits a book contact. Real Magic (44), an offering of Bonewits’ view on magic, ritual, and psychical abilities, was published in 1971, updated in 1979 and reissued in 1988.

In 1973 Bonewits met a folksinger named Rusty who worked in the Berkeley cafes. The moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota, were they were married and Bonewits took over the editorship of the Gnostica, a neo-Pagan journal published by Carl Weschcke of Llewellyn Publications. Bonewits gave the journal a more scholarly touch that made it become a leading journal in its field; but, this also defeated it because it decreased in circulation because readers stopped reading it because they thought it had become too high brow, which resulted in Bonewits losing his job after one and half years.

While remaining in Minneapolis for about another year Bonewits started a Druid Grove called the Schismatic Druids of North America, a splinter group of the RDNA. He also helped Jewish pagan friends establish the Hasidic Druids of North America, which was the only grove that existed briefly in St Louis, Missouri, and its membership overlapped with the Church of All Worlds (CAW) in 1974-1975. Bonewits wrote, edited, and self-published The Druid Chronicles (Evolved), a compendium of the history, theology, rituals, and customs of all the reformed Druid movements, including the one he invented himself.

Bonewits also is founder of the Aquarian Anti-Deformation League (AADL), a civil liberties and public relations organization for members of minority belief systems, such as the Rosicrucians, Theosophists (see Theosophical Society), neo-Pagans, Witches, occultists, astrologers, and others. Bonewits’ goal was to convince these groups that they had more of a common interest than they thought, and by banning together they could more effectively fight, through the press and courts, the discrimination and harassment of the Judeo-Christian conservatives.

When serving as president of the AADL Bonewits devoted most of his income to its operation. The organization achieved some small victories in the courts such as getting back an astrologer’s apartment after she had been evicted for practicing «black magic.» Bonewits and Rusty were divorced in 1976, following which he decided to return to Berkeley. The AADL disintegrated shortly after his departure.

On returning to Berkeley, Bonewits rejoined the NRDNA and was elected Archdruid. He established The Druid Chronicler (which later became Pentalpha Journal)as a national Druid publication in 1978. His attempt to make the Berkeley grove neo-Pagan, like those in Minneapolis and St. Louis, caused strive among longtime members, which led to Bonewits’ departure from the organization and the folding of the Pentalpha Journal.

In 1979 he married a woman named Selene, his second marriage, which ended in 1982. In 1983 he was initiated into the Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn. In the same year he married again, this time the actress Sally Eaton who created the role of the hippie Witch in the Broadway musical Hair. They moved to New York City, in 1983, when Bonewits and Shenain Bell, a fellow neo-Pagan, discussed the idea of forming a Druidic organization. The new fellowship called AR NDRAfOCHT FEIN («Our Own Druidism» in Irish Gaelic), was born as a fresh neo-Pagan religious organization with no ties to the ancient Druids or the NDNA, which by that time was apparently defunct. Bonewits became the Archdruid while Bell became the Vice-Archdruid.

In 1986 Bonewits moved to Kansas City, Missouri, after he and Eaton separated, where he worked for several months as a computer consultant. He then returned to Berkeley and looked for employment in the Silicon Valley, which was experiencing a slump at that time. He moved back to Nyack, New York, near Manhattan, in November 1987, with his intended fourth wife, Deborah, a Wiccan high priestess. There he continued working as a computer consultant and the building of the Ar nDraiocht Fein. He also started working on a book on the creation, preparation and performance of effective religious rituals.

Bonewits discovered a «10-year gap,» which he claims is a time frame between many of his views and their acceptance by many neo-Pagans. For example, in 1973 he was the first neo-Pagan to state publicly that the alleged antiquity of neo-Pagan Witchcraft (Wicca) was «hogwash.» The Craft, he said, did not go back beyond Gerald B.Gardner and Doren Valiente. Although he was held in contempt for that by many, by 1983 neo-Pagans were generally acknowledging that neo-Pagan Witchcraft was a new religion, not a continuation of an old one. A similar case could be put forth for the Aquarian Anti-Deformation League. In 1974-1975, most neo-Pagans were not willing to admit that they needed public relations and legal assistance; but a decade later a number of such organizations were in existence.

By 1985 Bonewits began addressing the social needs of neo-Pagans such as domestic and personal needs as well as drug dependencies. He felt these needs had to be addressed by social services. As he pointed out, the neo-Pagans represented a cross section of the population, and such problems cut across religious lines. He estimated that nearly 80 percent of neo-Pagans come from «nonfunctional family» backgrounds. Neo-Pagans, he observed, are brighter and more artistic than the average, but also, therefore, «more neurotic.» The neo-Pagan community had quickly tried to help.

Bonewits also began lobbying for financial support for full-time neo-Pagan clergy (the priesthood is essentially a volunteer job), but his cry fell on mostly uninterested ears. In 1988 Bonewits was pursuing a goal of buying land on which to establish an academically accredited Pagan seminary. A.G.H.

Source: 4, 33-35.