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As Treadwells in London is in its twentieth year, Christina Oakley Harrington is continually busy creating a very unique space for the esoteric literati and magical communities. Prior to publicly being known as a occultist, Christina pursued an academic track earning a PhD in medieval history as well as privately studying esoteric traditions. Her recent ground breaking books—The Treadwell’s Book of Plant Magic and Dreams of Witches—have quickly become volumes of note in both the Wiccan and Pagan communities.
How and when did Treadwells come into being? What was the initial inspiration for you?
Treadwells in London opened its doors twenty years ago, on May Day 2003. I founded it because I believe passionately in bookshops as places where people and ideas can come together. So much of the 1890s Golden Dawn cultural flowering happened in London because people met one another at Watkins Bookshop, for example. In Paris in the early 20th century, a great deal of the LGBTQ literary scene centred around Sylvia Beach’s bookshop Shakespeare & Co. So the bookshop as a cultural hub, a salon, appealed to me. I was flattered and taken aback to read that Treadwell’s is now considered to most famous occult bookshop in the world. I feel, the more the merrier, but if we are well known, it suggests we’re doing something right. We welcome everyone in a friendly way—old, young, gay, straight, magical, muggle, rich, poor. Inclusiveness is baked into our vision.
How have you seen the occult scene of London change over the years and what do you see for the future?
London’s occult scene has changed quite a bit. In the early to mid-twentieth century, everyone was joining magical orders and Covens. In the 1980s and 1990s a huge social-magical scene flowered which was centred upon fortnightly Pub Moots—gatherings in the rooms of pubs, with speakers, networking, socialising and matchmaking. The most famous was Talking Stick, which ran for a couple decades, and every second Tuesday night some fifty or sixty magical people of all stripes convened to a central London establishment to eat, drink, listen to an expert talk, and socialise. There absolutely was a scene! It has died away, and nowadays people make personal and magical connections online and meet more privately. The continuity since the 1800s, however, is the esoteric bookshops. It’s still normal to meet a friend at the occult bookshop and, striking up a conversation, to make new friends.
For the future, I’m really curious! As London has become more expensive, younger folk are living in East London and now further out in Southeast and Northeast London—it means our central location in Bloomsbury is not a short distance from people’s homes any more, unlike twenty years ago. However, we are around the corner from the British Museum, so we are handy for anyone who might be going there to visit the many Goddess statues and ancient religious icons. As the internet becomes more and more flooded, too, we find folk seeking us out in person to get guidance on what is genuinely good to read! Also our booksellers answer a lot of questions: people get bombarded online with mountains of contradictory information, so we are here as longterm practitioners to help with knowledge.
What are the must-see sites in London if you’re magically inclined?
If you’re magically-inclined, you must go the British Museum, the home of the statues and objects of the world’s pagan religions, ancient and recent. In two hours you can meet Isis, Sekhmet, Pachamama, Aphrodite, Avalokitishwara, Oshun, Ishtar, Inanna, Pan, Dionysos, Ogun, Set, Osiris and other deities whose names are lost but whose images are before you, crafted by their worshippers. There are ritual objects galore, from everywhere—including the scrying and angel-summoning tablets and crystals of the Elizabethan astrologer-angel-occultist John Dee. Everyone who is pagan should visit the River Thames, which runs right through the city. For thousands of years, we have been making offerings into her waters, dropping our magical talismans off the bridges into the flowing currents and—in Celtic times—worshipping her as our local Goddess.
Where did folks go for books in the early days of Wicca (pre internet!)?
Before the internet, the bookshop was the place to go for Witchcraft books, ceremonial magic books—all of it. The bookseller, there in the store, was your guide, your curator, your Goodreads! The bookshops also used to have notice boards and Covens, magical lodges and Druid groups would pin a little card to the cork board. Many, if not most, people found their way into organised groups through those little pinned slips of card—they would copy down the phone number or the postal address onto the back of an envelope, then go home and either phone from the landline or get out their stationery and handwrite a short letter introducing themselves—to strangers. It wasn’t for the faint-hearted.
Treadwell’s has come to be a hub for and impacted the occult and Pagan community over the years. How is that changing your approach to the needs of the community?
Since Day One, we have had a commitment to being a safe space. The UK occult scene, like any subculture, always has a few predatory men who hover around, ready to flatter the young seeker, and to groom them into a compromising relationship. Usually they are great name-droppers, and always extremely charming and—on the surface—gentlemanly. Less common, but still real, are abusive Coven leaders. So our staff, our classes, our parties, make a place where those people are not present, where we make referrals to places that we know to be wholesome and we answer any and all questions that newer folk might have about their experiences in the wider magical community. I myself love books and spent so much of my youth in bookshops, that for me, the bookshop is a kind of temple.
Tell us a little bit about your journey into the Occult.
I trained as an academic for my day job—my undergraduate degree was at an Ivy League College and my Masters and PhD were at University of London, supplemented by tutorials at Oxford. Then I was a professor for eleven years. I’ve always written and researched, and in recent years I get to do more of that. But that’s the outer world. In my personal life, I got involved in Paganism, then Wicca, in the 1980s, and since then I’ve been active both in a private spiritual/magical way, and also involved in the wider Pagan community. I served as an officer of the Pagan Federation in the 1990s and since 2003 have been active in the UK Pagan community through Treadwell’s, which is face-to-face, in person, which suits me best. I’d maybe sum things up by saying that my spiritual life is pretty private, centred upon my relationship with the sacred—but my Pagan community life focusses on being a force
for good in the world to the best of my ability.
In Dreams of the Witches you explore some material from the early days of Wicca and the New Forest Coven and Gerald Gardner. Can you tell us a bit about this?
My current research has me diving into the early history of the religio-pagan Witchcraft revival around the New Forest area in the 1920s and 1930s. It was this small but pre-existing movement of about 20 people that Gerald Gardner joined in the late 1930s. Archival research of recent years demonstrates Gardner didn’t make it all up after all. The findings are presented in Philip Heselton’s books In Search of the New Forest Coven and Witchfather.
The New Forest friends formed an ecstatic practice to be shared with a few close friends, in which people would experience joyful free dancing, trance possession, drumming, song and words of beauty and power under a Full Moon. The small network of suffragette bohemians were forward looking as they revived a life-affirming Paganism, working from what they liked about mystery religions in ancient Greece—in a free, shamanic way. To them, friendship mattered more than polarity did. My recent book Dreams of Witches shares some of the poetry, vision and lightness that made up the world of those Witches. The early Craft in the UK, which came to be called ‘Gardnerian’ was freer, more feminist and fun than anyone can imagine. We now know that two of the earliest covens had a (welcomed and treasured) trans priestess in their direct lineage. And that Patricia and Arnold Crowther, and Doreen Valiente, going way back to the 1960s, were vocal in their inclusion of LGBT folk. So there are quite a few misconceptions about “the early days” we’re finding. It is very revealing and surprising and makes me mindful that we can often under estimate our forbears.