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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.