A Rock In Turbulent Times
By Andras Corban Arthen ©1989
(Ted Mills died on Wednesday, 21 February 1996.)
(Theodore Mills has been an influential figure in modern American Witchcraft for well over twenty years. “Lord Theo,” as he is affectionately called by his friends, has been a mentor to hundreds of witches from Massachusetts to Arizona. Ted was a frequent contributor to “The Witches’ Almanac” in the 1970s, and an early associate of Sybil Leek. In keeping with this issue’s theme, “FireHeart” sought Ted’s perspectives, as one of the true Elders of the Craft. Now in his mid-60s and in fragile health, Ted nevertheless retains a dynamic personality, an engaging sense of humor, and a level of energy that puts younger people to shame. This interview, conducted at his home in western Massachusetts, ended in the wee hours of the night. While his interviewers had faded considerably, Ted showed little sign of slowing down.)
FH: How did you get involved in the Craft?
TM: I think it’s something that I’ve always been interested in, perhaps without quite understanding what it was. We have a history of witchcraft in the family, having descended from Alice and Mary Parker, who were hanged as witches in Salem, and by marriage to Rebecca Church Nurse. But that isn’t what really got me interested. It’s just something that I evolved into.
From the beginning, I had an innate awareness that I was different. I even asked my mother if she had adopted me. She said, “No, you were the only one born in the hospital that day and you made me miss my lunch besides,” which gave me a guilt trip for the rest of my life. [Chuckles] I was born in Ludlow, Massachusetts, in 1924 on November 19th at 11:35, around noon. We had standard time back in the ’20s. Some people are surprised that we even had clocks. You feel like a dinosaur. I grew up in Indian Orchard, Mass., and I was brought up in a very traditional way, but I think I was fortunate because nobody seemed to put a chain around my mind.
I used to spend a lot of time out in the woods near where I lived, and I suppose I had a vivid imagination because I believed that I could talk to the animals and understand what they were saying. I knew not to mention it to anybody because this little voice said, “They’ll put you away.” [Smiles] Nowadays they will—if you hear little voices, they think you’re sort of flaky. But there was an old woman gathering herbs in the woods and I used to see her a lot. She would walk down by the railroad tracks and she had a big basket under her arm filled up with all kinds of fern. And I said to her one day, “What do you do with the fern?” “I make a potion,” she says, “that cures poison ivy.” “How do you make it?” I says, being curious. She said, “I put it in a big pot over the fire and I stir it and I scoop the top off of it and put it in a jar in the dark and it’s good after three moons pass.” Three moons? She was so old I didn’t question her. But she said something rather interesting to me. She said, “You have the mark., and when you know what the mark is, you’re going to know what you are.” And that was the last time I ever saw her.
I also had an interesting experience when I was about twelve years old—I had diphtheria and almost died. I left my body and I looked back and I could see myself lying on the bed. I said, “Oh, poor Ted, he’s so sick,” talking about that sick person like it was somebody else. [Chuckles] I turned around and started up and there was a man all dressed in black with no face. I’ve seen him once since. I assumed it was death. He reached out his hand and I gave him mine and started with him, and somebody stepped out of the dark and said, “He has to go back; it’s not his time.” I turned around and I remember how hard it was to go back. The doctor said that my fever had broken, and I was back in my body. I think that we all have experiences that lead us in the direction we’re supposed to go, witches or non-witches, and I think we’re the more fortunate ones.
FH: What about your experiences when you were older?
TM:I recall never feeling satisfied with where I was coming from spiritually. I first tried the Catholic Church, and then the various denominations of the Protestant Church, and the one church that I could identify with was the Anglican Catholic. That was because of the incense and the chanting. I loved the magical aspects of it, and even more than that I loved the idea of the Virgin Mary as a source of power rather than the God. (I always referred to God as “the” God.)
I think the first thing that I ever did, though, using the concept of a powerful female deity, was a ritual of protection for my brother who was overseas during World War II. It was makeshift because there was nothing that I could use. There were certainly no books on the subject that I knew about. I took my brother’s picture and I put it behind this statue of the Virgin Mary. In my mind, she would be a shield to protect him. I might have been reading too many Superman comics, but it worked—my brother had some pretty close calls but he still managed to come home alive.
Then I went into the service myself, and was married for ten years. I practiced magic quietly and still kept going to church, became superintendent of a Southern Baptist church, but I never felt that that was where I belonged. I felt something was missing. I had to make a commitment, but to whom? I didn’t know who.
I’d like to say that the Goddess came out of a cloud and tapped me on the head and said, “Go into the world and do my work.” But that isn’t quite the way it was. She came in a little visualization on the wall and I’m grateful for that. I had come home (I was living in New Orleans at the time) to visit my mother after my divorce, and I was lying in bed. I saw a light come on the side of the wall and I thought at first that there was a light coming in through the window and shining on the wall. It dawned on me that I was on the third floor and there were no lights coming in the window. So maybe it was an airplane, but I didn’t hear any motors. Then, all of a sudden, I saw a figure taking shape on the wall, and a woman’s face appeared. She had long black hair and it was moving. Her face didn’t move—just her hair. She had beautiful eyes, green like the depths of the ocean when you look into it. Now I can rhapsodize about it, but her skin was like a pearl, translucent. She had a beautifully shaped mouth. She was gorgeous. And all the time I was seeing this, I was pinching my arm to try to wake myself up. I was already awake but I wasn’t sure about that. She never opened her mouth, but I heard in my mind, “Care for my children.” That’s all she said and then she was gone. I jumped out of bed and I says, “Wow! What was that?” My arm was black and blue. I certainly felt the pain. But I thought I must be having a nervous breakdown. If that’s what you get, it was certainly a good one! [Chuckles]
I know other people who claim to have had visions. The Catholics certainly aren’t the only ones who are entitled to see the Great Mother. Many times she’s never really come right out and said who she was. They’re the ones who gave her the title “Our Lady of Chester Tower” or “Our Lady of Lourdes”. Wherever she happened to pop up, that’s where she was the Lady of. But I was a little bit concerned that I had seen this. I thought it must have been something I ate or that I was dreaming. You start rationalizing these things.
I went back to New Orleans. A year or two passed. I was in the library looking through some magazines on mythology and I came across an artist’s conception of Isis, the Great Mother. It was almost exactly as I had seen her. And it said under it, “I am Isis. I am all that is or has been or shall be. No man hath me unveiled. The fruit which I have brought forth is the sun.” I thought, what do I have to do with Egyptian goddesses? I’m not Egyptian. If she had said, “I am Mary,” I would have understood that. But no, she was Isis. So I said, “Well, all right, but you’ll have to show me who your children are because I certainly don’t know.”
So then I decided I could no longer live in the South and I came back to Springfield. That’s when I came out publicly, in 1967, which was the first time I said to other people, “I am a witch”—without truly understanding even then what the word meant except that it meant I could worship the Goddess and I knew that there were magical powers attributed to the witch. (The only witch I ever saw was the one in the Wizard of Oz and I loved her. Not the good one—Margaret Hamilton! [Chuckles] In fact, I’ve got her in my kitchen holding a thunderbolt.) But when I accepted the reality of the Goddess and accepted that this was what I was, then I felt whole for the very first time in my life.
FH: Did you have any teachers along the way?
TM: There were no teachers in my day, not in this country. You had Leo Martello. He’s been around for a long time, but he always associated himself with the strega of Sicily, and Italian witchcraft didn’t turn me on. Of course, I’ve known Laurie Cabot for many years, since 1973, and she has always been a dear friend and a great help to me. Sybil was, I think, the one person who gave me a lot of advice; and then, of course, Elizabeth Pepper came into my life. She was very helpful.
FH: You say that Sybil was an important influence for you?
TM:The first time I really began searching, I found an article someone had written about this witch in England. I used to think I was the only witch! [Smiles] I used to think there was something wrong with me. So when I realized that there were other witches, I was really interested. I wrote to Sybil while she was in England, and then when she came to this country back in the ’70s, I started communicating with her by phone. I met her when I was down in Florida. One of her followers lived up here and we met because I was having an altercation with this woman who was out to create problems. She felt that the Goddess only spoke through Sybil, which made me rather annoyed. The Goddess speaks through everybody. She doesn’t speak through one individual. I told Sybil about it.
Sybil was very influential in sustaining me, in a sense, by saying, “This is what it is to be a witch. This is what you’ve got to experience. Somebody else has done it before you, and you know that you can do it too.” So you just jumped into the void—that’s exactly what it was. She made some remarks that gave me the idea that it wasn’t going to be all peaches and cream, especially if I went public. One thing was the loss of my privacy. I felt alone in spite of having all these people around me, and I began to become more isolated in some ways in the midst of all these people. I mentioned that to Sybil and she said, “Accept the idea of being alone. That’s the price of greatness in this world,” which is an interesting statement to make, because I knew I’d never be great. But there was the idea that if I was going to accept the public image, then I would have to accept all of the things that went with it, both good and bad, and I think in that sense she helped me considerably.
FH: Could you talk a little bit about your friendship with Elizabeth Pepper?
TM: Elizabeth and I go back a long time too, back into the ’70s. Elizabeth always had a very quiet influence in my life. She’s been sort of a check and balance for me. She’s a very wonderful person. She’s like Sybil to me—in a sense, one of my peers. I don’t see her too much these days, but we keep in touch. We exchange letters and phone calls and that sort of thing. She’s very quiet and very reserved, but she has a lot of contacts throughout the country and the world. Elizabeth has really been a dear friend and sister.
FH: What changes have you seen in the time that you’ve been public in the Craft, from the late ’60s until now, and how do you feel about those changes?
TM: Oh, it’s just like night is from day. I was in the dark compared to today. One of the biggest changes is the degree that witches have put themselves out there as a whole group, and that they’re quick to identify themselves as a religious group.
I think for some young people nowadays, it’s like going into a candy store. Look what you’ve got to check with—books, books, books! So they jump from one theory to another, one ritual to another. The most confusing rituals I’ve ever been to are those where nobody knows their part. So by the time you get through, you’re wondering. They’ll mess up and they’ll laugh. I take it so seriously. But I have to, at this point in my life. Maybe these things are minor and they’re done in fun, but my religion isn’t “fun” to me. It’s my way of life. It’s my salvation. It’s my reason for existing, my reason for fighting. And I can’t take it lightly. I can love it and I can have fun with it, but only up to a certain point. If you treat everything lightly, you’re going to get very little response from what you do ritually.
Another thing I think we must learn to do is to stop using the Great Mother politically. A lot of people say, “I am a witch because I am female.” I am a witch because I am a man. How can I be female? You’ve got to be what you are, but you can be either one and be a follower of the Great Mother. Some people use it just as a political thing. We have to love one another as brothers and sisters. It doesn’t matter what we do in bed. That’s our own business, but we don’t have to use our sexuality as a weapon. That’s one of the few great pleasures left for the poor. At least everybody experiences it.
I also think that we need to be more disciplined. Anything easily gotten is held with less esteem. To become a witch, if you’re going to take vows and do those things, practice what you preach. You’re not joining a club. The first thing we must do is to control ourselves before we can control anything else. We’ve got to learn to discipline ourselves. Some people wouldn’t go fifteen miles if it was raining out to celebrate a full moon. When I was in Texas, the witches came 300 and 400 miles to do a ritual, and they would stay overnight and go back the next day. And they’d celebrate all thirteen moons. That’s thirteen times they’d have to drive all that distance, and that’s a long way to come from Eagle Pass!
I think that my experiences there—back in ’79—were interesting. It was my first dealings with skyclad witchcraft. Being a New Englander, I was always robed, and it was quite an experience. I guess Hans Holzer had been there prior to me, and the High Priestess said to me, “Hans Holzer went skyclad, but that’s perfectly all right. Don’t feel that you’re required to go skyclad.” That night I didn’t, but then I realized why it was safer to go skyclad—because you had candles right behind you and all you were conscious of was that you might go up in smoke. [Laughs] I did go skyclad for a ritual because I thought it was something that I had to experience. It wasn’t all that bad. Maybe at 13 or 14 I would have thought so or been a little less enthused about it. But as it was, I had enough discipline so I was able to keep things under control, you know. [Smiles]
FH: Some people who have been in the Craft for a long time feel that the growth of the Craft in the last 10 or 15 years hasn’t all been positive; that there are so many new people who read a couple of books and go out and start a coven, that there’s been a dilution of the standards of the Craft. How do you feel about that?
TM: I agree with that thought. There are so many books on the subject and so many self-professed witches. “By your work ye are known.” There’s a lot of truth in that. There are people who are into the Craft merely because they’re against something else. They’re not in it because they believe—they’re in it because they want to make a statement against somebody else. That reflects on all of us. Things happen sometimes in the enthusiasm of the moment that in the light of day tend to reflect upon us. What they have to understand is—what are they? Who are they? What do they believe? A lot of new people just don’t have any formal belief pattern within themselves. Everybody says, “Who is so-and-so to speak for me?” Everybody wants to be a leader, important, sought after for information and that sort of thing. We need to present to the public a sense of cohesion, a sense of oneness.
FH: How do you feel about the influence of the New Age movement on the Craft—things like crystals and channeling that have become so popular?
TM: At first, I was concerned about it. But then I realized that it’s playing a very important role. It’s opening up people who might not otherwise open up at all. And if they can take things by steps, then it may lead them into the deeper knowledge of deeper things, patterns of life. I do think that people shouldn’t get involved in things they don’t know about, especially when it comes to the powers.
I was made an honorary medicine brother to an Apache medicine man in 1979. He brought me into his medicine circle and taught me a lot about what Indians believe. I think we can learn from anybody. A lot of people take on Indian names and go to the Medicine Wheels, but you can’t change who you are. You cannot say “I am an Indian” if you’re not an Indian. You can’t say “I’m Black” if you’re not Black. No matter what you do—eat cornpone or whatever, you’re still not going to be Black. I like soul food too, but I’m still who I am. [Smiles]
Of course, we witches have our magical jewels that we wear, and we are aware of the power that particular stones give. Certainly the New Age people—as long as they don’t try casting spells—serve a very useful place within the greater picture for the future. I think that anything that gives out positive energy is useful. Too much negative stuff around us as it is. So in that sense, I think the New Age movement has a very useful place in the Craft and what the world should be.
FH: You are at a stage in your life that would correspond in women to the stage of the Crone. While we may speak of the three faces of the Goddess—and by extension, of women—of Maiden, Mother and Crone, we don’t tend to think of corresponding stages in men. How do you feel about who you are at this stage in your life, how does that power manifest through you, and what do you see your role in the community as being? What do you conceive of as the male counterpart to the Crone?
TM: I think that instead of the Crone, I become the Elder. Mage, perhaps. I don’t think that it’s the same thing for male energy. In ancient times, they didn’t let us live that long. We were usually sacrificed at the end of seven years if we achieved any type of power. Either that, or they let us retire gracefully, depending upon our role. Shades of “Harvest Home”, you know. [Laughs] But I look at myself as perhaps a resource for younger ones who seek me out. I think I represent continuity to the young. When you look around, you see nothing but young people and you wonder if you’ve made a mistake. But young people need a sense of continuity—things going on. Things have happened, here they are now, there they’re going to be. I was young when I started out. I wasn’t always 64 and so they look at me and they say, “There’s an older man, lookit Mother.” As you get older, hopefully you get respect. You know that what you’ve done is important, that what you’re doing is important. You don’t feel like you’ve been put out to pasture—so that you go someplace and your presence is noted and appreciated, if for nothing else but enduring. They know that you’ve been in it for all those years. And I think this is what you have to do—to be a rock in turbulent times, to be consistent, be who you are and be what you are, and people can grab onto that and anchor themselves to that and not be afraid of what the rest of the world may think.
I’m happy being a witch. It gave me happiness. Somebody asked me what I get out of being a witch. I said peace. I have inner peace, and if it didn’t give me anything else, it gave me everything just having that. I can look back over the years and I can see every single step of my life. I can see certain places where I was nudged in the direction I was supposed to go. Things that I didn’t understand at that time I understand now—why I did certain things. They’re all part of the process of growing and learning, and also the process of developing into what I’ve become in the last twenty years. There are a lot of people’s lives I’ve touched who are not witches, because the Great Mother didn’t say I was only to serve my kindred spirits. She said “my children,” and she means everybody. I’ve considered it a joy.
FH: How do you feel being an older person in the Pagan community? Do you find support from other people in the Craft or Pagan community?
TM: For the most part, yes. Being an elder is important and I think that we should be more aware of our elders in the Craft because there are so few of us left. Most of the ones in the Craft are in England. But in the United States, you don’t have that many elders. I think that for us it’s beneficial to go and be with the young, because we get a certain joy out of seeing the young celebrating the life of the Craft and being themselves—things we couldn’t have done, things we never thought of doing. We were placed inside of a square and we weren’t allowed to go here and there, until we got so old that there were things that we just couldn’t feel comfortable with. I can’t see myself swinging from the chandeliers. Or performing the Great Rite in front of a crowd of people, although I certainly could be an onlooker and probably contribute a lot of energy—mental energy, anyway—to what was going on. It’s important, though, that people do it for a purpose and that it should be grounded properly. But other than that, I think it’s wonderful! If you can perform in front of everybody else, let’s get in on the business and make money for the Craft. [Chuckles]
FH: That will be the last thing we print in the interview.
TM: [Laughing] Don’t put that in there! That’s just my humor. If you don’t have humor, you don’t last long. I have a terrible sense of humor and it forces itself out of me.
FH: It possesses you.
TM: It does. It’s awful. It’s something that just refuses to let me be totally old. It just comes out and I can feel it. I was with a group of older people and someone asked me to say something “very profound.” So I thought, “Okay, say something profound…” They were all looking at me and I said, “You know what I don’t like about oral sex? The view!” [Smiles] That wasn’t quite what they had in mind, but there was just something in me that had to do it. You know what I think it is? That people tend to treat me as a living manifestation of the God. And that’s what I had to do to get them in touch with reality, to ground them. I’ve got a letter somewhere from someone in Texas, and you wouldn’t believe the way they addressed me. “To the most this-and-that adeptus maximus, to the most breastplate of the law, defender of the faith.” It was kind of interesting. “Shining planet of the mystic East…” The only way I could deal with that is with humor.
FH: You have been, by your own account, close to death several times in your life. In our society, this is a subject people don’t like to face or discuss. Even in the Craft, we may deal with death in a more symbolic sense, but often we don’t deal with it as close or imminent. Yet, it’s something that you have faced and something that you are constantly aware of. How do you relate to death as a witch? What does it mean to you and how do you feel about it?
TM: It’s part of the whole picture of existence. It’s a normal procedure, just like being born. Going back to that side is another way of being reborn. There’s something waiting to receive you back, so, in a sense, it’s a circle. It’s very important that we do more in educating the young about what transpires at death. Death should be something that we discuss—rebirth and regeneration being part of the theme of the Great Mother. Because who is going to bury the dead? Who’s going to say the rites of passage for us but the ones who are left behind, and those are usually the young. We’ve got to teach them that the dimension of death is as real as this one is, and that it’s important to consider it like going into another room. I’ve experienced it and it’s a wonderful feeling, full of peace and tranquillity. You feel so good you hate to realize you’re not dead.
In fact, I was really bad off in 1980 and it was a very interesting experience. Michael and Jeanine were doing a ritual on the new moon and I didn’t have the strength to go upstairs. I told Jeanine I was just going to lie on the bed. I didn’t feel very well. When they came down, they came into the bedroom. I had my head back and I said to Jeanine, “You’ve got to excuse me if I don’t speak, but I don’t have much strength.” They said, “We’ve got to get him to the hospital.” They got me there, but I didn’t want to stay in the hospital. I wanted to die. This was it. This was my moment. “Well, you’re not going to die in my reception room,” the doctor said, and the next thing I knew I was upstairs and the weirdest thing happened. I was sitting up in the chair and talking to the man next to me who had come in for surgery. Then, the next thing I knew, I was up in the shadow world. I was sitting down waiting for them to let me through this door. I could see people passing through, and so finally I went up and said I wanted to go through the door. They said, “Well, you have to go back. Somebody is waiting to see you.” I went back and opened my eyes and somebody was doing some work on me. So I went back to the shadow world again, and this time the door was open. I saw a bright light down at the end of a hall, and I started walking towards the white light. As I did, this figure of a woman with long hair came out. I reached out to her, and she took my hand and kissed it. And then she pushed me, and I woke up again in my body. When I woke up, I was alert. I didn’t know where I was or what was going on, but my mind was sharp. It’s a wonderful thing not to be afraid of death. It’s wonderful because then you can let people go that you love. That’s a very hard lesson to learn, to help people to die when you see them suffering, to be able to let go of their bodies and say, “Don’t be afraid.” We need to pay attention to life after death because most people are afraid of it, witches and non-witches. Especially when you’re young. You think you’ll live forever.
FH: The rituals that are most often performed in the Craft are the seasonal rituals and initiatory rituals, and then occasionally things like a handfasting or a child blessing, but because the Craft is populated by so many young people, it is not often that we have…
TM: [Laughing] Somebody pop off, right?
FH: I know that you have thought about your own death because you’ve been talking about it for the last ten years, and you don’t seem to be any closer to dying now. But when you do cross over, what kind of ritual would you envision for yourself?
TM:I would want one in which the people would be there to bid me hail and farewell, so to speak. I’d like a very simple one, because I think that we should develop a ritual that could be used by anybody in the Craft. We need that. I want to go in the summer. I don’t want to die in the winter because I want people to stand around and visit. Because I’m going to be there to hear what they’re saying about me. They’re going to know I’m there too. Even if I’m nothing more than a shade that passes before the eye.
I just want people to talk about me, not as dead, but in my new dimension, in my new home, and speak to me, because I’ll hear those that speak. Maybe you’ll hear me answer, but you’ll at least know that I hear. I don’t want to be treated as dead. I want to be treated as passing the body. It’s served its purpose.
I haven’t yet decided whether I want to go up in flames or be placed into the Earth. I don’t know yet. It’s a really weird thing. I want an ankh on my tombstone, or even a pentacle outside the ankh, but I want that ankh on there because that’s the symbol of my faith.
I don’t dwell on my own death that much. People think I do. Maybe I do discuss it a lot, but do you know why? It’s so that when I do pass over, it’s not going to be such a shock. They’ll say, “Well, he said he was going.” But I don’t want my friends to mourn my going. I want them to be happy that I’m at rest in Summerland with all of the others, with Sybil and Aleister Crowley—I’m sure he’s around there somewhere. [Smiles] If they need me, I’ll be there for the Hallowmas ritual. It’ll be the one time I can go because I won’t have any [oxygen] tank to carry, and I’ll be able to do the things that I used to do.
FH: You have traveled a great deal, worked with many different groups, and taught a lot of people in your time. How would you like to be remembered?
TM: That’s an interesting question. I think I’d like to be remembered as a person who did the best that he could for the Craft, who cared about people; that he worked for the good of all; that he lived his faith. There’s other stuff that they can think: he was a grouchy old goat…[Chuckles] But on the whole, I want to be remembered as having been faithful, not only to the Goddess but to my brothers and sisters in the Craft.
I am lucky. My life has been one great treasure. Not money, but the love of good friends. One of my friends came up in his stretch limo and took me down to Newport for the whole day. It was wonderful. We pulled into the yacht club at Port Adams, and someone drove up in the club car, and it was flying its flags. This guy rolled down the window and said, “Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?” “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m fresh out!”