This article, written circa 2005, was accepted by Diva magazine but not published due to a change in editor. It was then accepted by Sage Woman (a North American Pagan magazine) but never appeared, for reasons still unknown (they never responded to my enquiries).
The Cornish Witch
Julie Travis Meets Cornish Writer, Conservationist and Witch Cheryl Straffon
Cheryl Straffon has the air of a matriarch about her. At the age of 58, she has certainly lived and learned, having written several books on the sacred sites of Cornwall and the Goddess culture that dominated many civilisations thousands of years ago, as well as editing Meyn Mamvro (Stones of our Motherland) and Goddess Alive! magazines and is one of the main forces behind the Cornish Earth Mysteries Group. Her home, on the cliff tops in the far west of Cornwall, has a calm and comfortable atmosphere and it was there that we met, just a few days before the Winter Solstice, to talk about her life and work.
Straffon has lived in various parts of England and Scotland, but has spent most of her life in her native Cornwall. Her long interest in ‘alternative’ beliefs developed from theory to practise in the late 1970s. Witchcraft and Paganism was very different during the time she was growing up. “The Witchcraft Act was still on the statute book. It wasn’t repealed until the late ‘50s, so covens were very hidden and secretive. It’s hard to believe nowadays, with bookshops heaving with every intimate aspect of Paganism that you could wish to find! The turning point for me came when I was doing an evening course in witchcraft and mythology in London.” The tutor was always being asked by the students where to find a coven, and he’d claim he didn’t know, but after talking to him one night in the pub after class, he rang her and invited her along to a mysterious ‘event’ being held that night. She laughed at the memory. “He wouldn’t say what it was, he just told me to wear a good pair of boots, and to bring along a torch and a candle. It was one of those key points, where I could have said yay or nay, but I did go along, and that was the first ritual I took part in. That was as part of a group that practised in the open air in Highgate Woods in north London. It blew me away – you never forget your first ritual! When I came back to Cornwall, in around 1985, I looked for other like-minded people. It was very hard, so I started my own group. I got more and more into Goddess, and it snowballed from there.”
Cheryl began to work with other women and found it a much more intense experience than the mixed group she’d began with. “By and large, women’s covens are much less structured, more organic. Women are naturally connected to the rhythms of the universe and the cycles of nature anyway, without having to go through formal groups. Some of the deepest and most powerful rituals I’ve done in my life are in women’s groups. To me, the Goddess is the universe – every flower, every tree, plant, human, animal, is an aspect of the Goddess, and the Goddess’ energy flows through all of us. But it’s female, because the universe is female, you can see it around you. We’re the same, as women, we contain all of those energies within us.”
I struggled with my spirituality until quite recently, when I left the confines of London for Cornwall. Cheryl understands the difficulty. “It’s easier down here. You can see the pattern, the wheel of the year turning and you can connect with it that much more… you can observe the sun moving around, the phases of the moon. I know some good Goddess women who live in the city; it doesn’t preclude you from connecting with the Goddess if you live there, but you have to find other ways, other approaches.”
Cornwall has a feeling of magic about it. Cheryl puts it down to a combination of its remoteness from the rest of the country and the number of unspoilt ancient sites here. “It was only two generations ago that Cornwall would be completely cut off during the winter. Places that are less exploited, less developed, like the west of Ireland and parts of Brittany, are more in tune with nature. The ancient sites are more of a pilgrimage, you have to go out and find them. Cornwall is special, though not necessarily unique.”
Her passion for her work – in particular Goddess Alive!, the only Goddess-focussed magazine in Britain – and her beliefs, radiates from her. She’s inspired by the images she’s seen of matrifocal society in ancient Crete, a complete contrast to the violent images we’re surrounded by here. “Goddess is not just something that’s historical, to me it’s political, it’s about creating a different kind of world to the one we live in.” She has described the patriarchal religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam as a ‘blip on the horizon of the last 2000 or so years’. Her perspective is reassuring; does that mean she believes things will change?
“It’s hard, it gets demoralising, and yet it’s clear that the whole Goddess movement is growing, it’s feeding in to the attitudes people have to the society they live in. Look at the huge, huge protests in this country against the war in Iraq. I think society is changing.” I tell her I think she’s remarkably patient. Perhaps that comes of having her eye on the bigger picture. “We live in a fast changing world, but underneath it, the Earth has very long rhythms. The things I’m pissed off with in the world are transient, they can easily change. I may not live to see those changes, but I’m certain deep inside myself that they will happen. I think we’ve gone as far as we can go with the society we’ve got. We can’t go on as we are; we wouldn’t be the first civilisation to destroy ourselves, but the Earth will survive and hopefully we will too.”
All images and text ©Julie Travis unless otherwise stated.