Sybil's Leeking Ego


Author: Sybil Leek
Publisher: Prentice Hall
Review:
I remember reading Diary of a Witch when I was around 10 or 11 years old. I checked it out of the Louisville Free Public Library, and when I got it home, I was transfixed by the story of a woman who has been called “Britain's most famous witch.”

Since Diary of a Witch is the book that ended up in my profile icon, and since I recently found a lovely hard backed copy of it in a used book shop, I thought that it was time to revisit it to see if it could withstand both the test of time and a more critical approach. Before I go any further, I need to tell you that I was really hoping it would withstand a critical read. This is not only he book that introduced me to Sybil Leek, but it was probably the second book I had ever read that mentioned Alister Crowley. It presented Crowley in a way that has colored my perception of him for the past 22 years.

To begin with, you don't have to fear any false modesty from Ms. Leek. She begins her book with a dedication to her two sons and in this dedication, she calls herself a legend. Now, arguably, this is true. Sybil Leek is indeed a legend in various occult circles, particularly for those of the Horsa tradition. And, it is apparent from the text of her biography that she worked really hard to be a legend. She forgot the key element of writing: show, not tell. Any time anyone calls themselves a legend, I start to get annoyed.

And the rest:

Before writing this review, I discussed it with my beloved friend and bastion of occult knowledge, Ivan. He wanted my early thoughts on the book, and I grumpily listed several facts that Ms. Leek states and that I found either patently untrue or completely beyond the ability for anyone to prove. And these aren't even claims about her occult powers (though I do find it difficult to believe that Ms. Leek's grandmother sacrificed a beloved pet owl in order to cure Sybil of diphtheria). Rather, these are claims about some of the basic facts of her life.

It's startling to realize after you've read an autobiography that you aren't really sure of the full name of either of the writer's husbands, or the name of the school she claimed to attend. The entire book is very vague, and the sketchy autobiographical details serve only to link together several apologist mini-essays on such topics as ghost hunting, psychic healing, astrology, life among the New Forest gypsies, and various other topics near and dear to her heart. Her summation of each topic is woefully predictable, with no real insight into any of them.

Ms. Leek tells us that ghost hunting is difficult yet rewarding, psychic healing is exhausting and requires the target's cooperation for best results, astrology is accurate, and that life among the New Forest gypsies is more pure and peaceful than our modern ways of materialism. And, though these may have been startling revelations in the 1960's, they seem hackneyed and worn out today. One would hope that a life-long witch would have something more insightful to say.

And, what of witchcraft? This is after all a Diary of a Witch, so when it's all said and done, we should have learned something about witchcraft, no? Well, no. Though Ms. Leek professes her love of the “Old Religion,” and states over and over again that witchcraft is more than just casting spells and making potions, she never really tells us anything about her religious beliefs. “I believe in a Supreme Being” she tells us, but then neglects to tell us anything at all about it. I found this to be the most puzzling part of the book, a gaping void that is confusing and disappointing.

And sadly, her behavior doesn't reinforce the positive image of witches that modern practitioners like to espouse. Ms. Leek delights in her gypsy friends stealing both stud services for their horses and vegetables for their dinner, insinuating that doing so was okay, since the Gypsies never took more than they could use. She gleefully recounts horse selling scams that worked like charms. She confides to us in her piece about astrology that, “mostly people's lives are dull.” She tells us about finding a human thigh bone on a ghost hunt, and bringing it home for her son as a souvenir, since he has “a school boy's avid interest in collecting such oddities.” In a sudden reversal, she rails against New York psychics for charging for services, yet her earlier description of New Forest Gypsies who “built up a regular clientele,” traveling the countryside to tell fortunes held no criticism of the practice. In her astrology section, she tells us how “sexual aberrations...can be pinpointed” in order to identify homosexual tendencies. All in all, Ms. Leek doesn't seem to be the nicest person to know.

What of Mr. Crowley? Sybil makes several claims about him throughout the book. She states she knew him early in her childhood, and that he proclaimed her his successor. She even states she was with him near the end of his life. Crowley scholars have made it quite plain that not only is there no record of their meetings in any of Crowley's notes, but that the two were not even in the same country at the times of their supposed meetings.

Upon reflection, I have no idea if Ms. Leek was blatantly lying or had slipped into believing her own razzle-dazzle when she tells us things such as, “every Black Magick group had invited me to their 'festivities' offering to make me their 'Queen of Darkness'” or when she calls receiving six month's notice of the end of her lease and her landlord's refusal of renewal “persecution.” All I do know is that the book is not only a poor reflection of modern Witchcraft in any of its forms, but a telling picture of someone who seemed to be more interested in notoriety than the truth.

58 comments:

Dalim said...

It must be hard to have had such a fond memory of something and the harsh light of ecperience turns that memory to something less. Dunno if you felt this from, and I realise that you can have two distinct memories of something...
Anyhow I enjoyed the review and I will keep checking it out as part of my daily/weekly blog feast!
Cheers
You inspire me to get back to my blog...
Hmmm

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Hate the book

TMI_love said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Constance Parker said...

TMI_Love,

Your claim has just about as much to back it up as fact as all of the claims in Diary of a Witch -- so, if you are speaking the truth, at least the lack of support for your claims runs in the family.

TMI_love said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
aurora said...

I am now a wiccan elder, and knew Ms Leek when she lived in Florida for several years. She was a lovely and entertaining mentor, and I find it amazing that you could trash her so blatantly without even knowing about her. She knew her craft and lived it. Didnt parade around in velvet robes, she was a great old fashioned witch without the window dressing and I found her inspiring. Read her books,had some informative weekends with her as a mentor and went on to study other trads, and still find her no nonsense approach is the most workable, reliable and sensible (more details are in the Art of Witchcraft) Of course she didnt reveal in print information that she shouldnt. That speaks to her strength of character, not to ignore her oath and write about workings inside her coven for money. She assisted many to find their way on the path and in my mind she is indeed a "legend".

Constance Parker said...

I appreciate your comments, aurora. However, what would have improved this book greatly would not be revelation of any oath-bound secrets, but revelation of information like the names of schools, people, and other confirmable information. I'm not a wiccan elder in by any means, but I'm sure that information wouldn't be oath-bound.

Thanks for your viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading "Diary of a witch".I did wonder though about some of the things she said,one of her family members could call birds out of the trees,her Grandmother killed Sybil's pet owl to cure her of diptheria and yes it seemed Sybil had quite an ego but I think that just adds to her charm.Sybil was a pisces:)most of the people in my life are pisces-they can spin a tale from just one word,they like to build things up.I just agree with most everything they say even when I know they made most of it up-because they are so darn loveable.

Anonymous said...

Constance,

I just now finished reading Diary of a Witch and immediately tossed it in the pile to send it back to where it came from: the thrift store. Whether what she says is true or not, she's a terrible writer and completely egocentric and, yes, vague. Perhaps she needed to use a ghostwriter to relate her extraordinary tale. haha.

Cheers,
Maureen

btug said...

C'mon, you're killing me! Historical Fantasy is a huge part of our Western culture. Did 300 Spartans stand and fight to the death against a million Persians exactly as we have read for thousands of years? I seriously doubt it. Please don't tell me Davy Crockett pissed his pants, begging for mercy at the Alamo. I want to believe he went out swinging. Sybil Leek was an inspiration to many and deserves better than this! Kudos for actually reading the book and retaining enough to pick it apart quite thoroughly!!!

Constance Parker said...

Why, btug, thanks so much for admiring my reading comprehension skills. I assure you, they are truly "leet" as the kids say today.

I'm sorry, but I just can't agree with your view about the nature of biography and how it functions. I don't care who is doing the writing, biographies should be honest and accurate. Otherwise, write a novel.

Thanks for reading, though!

btug said...

You are quite right! Perhaps a "novel" or fictional approach of real life events would have been more feasible. Maybe along the lines of Richard Bach's Illusions, or the Bible?

Who knows her actual intentions of publishing this book, and calling it an auto-biography. Did she actually state it was auto-biographical? Sorry, it has been several years since i have read it myself. Perhaps it was an actual diary she started as a little girl, things written through the eyes of a child, then continued to be elaborated upon when opportunity arose.

"White Witch", Wiccan, or whatever, ego is a powerful aphrodisiac. Some of the most evil people I have ever run across have been "an it harm none" Wiccans!!! Never assume someone wearing the cloth of the faith are perfect in what they preach!

And you are welcome. I meant that as a compliment, not a smart ass remark. :)

SoulFire said...

Hi, One of the problems in verifying her association with Crowley is that her critics often use incorrect birth data to determine whether they could have been in the same place at the same time. To wit: It is often reported--erroneously--that Sybil was born in 1923 and died in 1983. In fact, she was born in 1917 and died in 1982 (I have a copy of her funeral card and would be glad to email a scan to you, as well as the newspaper article from '82). Now, it didn't help matters that Sybil publicly gave her date of birth as 1922, but I'm not one to fault a lady for lying about her age. ;) The main source for the rumor that she was born in 1923 also gives the 1922 date in the *same* article, so I can only assume that "1923" was a typo, but it has spread like a virus over the Internet. At any rate, what I was told by Sybil's last living initiate is that Sybil's father knew Crowley, and that is how the two met. I am not a Crowley expert, but it would be interesting to research whether Sybil and A.C. could have been in the same place around 1933, which the correct year that she turned 16, not 1939. As for the names of her two husbands, Sybil took them with her to the grave. Anyway, I enjoyed reading your review, even if I disagree with some parts. I still appreciate your quest for truth, regardless. B*B,

Constance Parker said...

Hey, thanks so much for sharing this information -- if true, it's really interesting.

Do you know why her birth and death data has been so widely misreported? (I'd love for the skeptics to be proven wrong on this issue, as the meeting between the two of them is one of my favorite events in occult history.)

Thanks so much for sharing!

SoulFire said...

Hi Constance,

I apologize for the slow response, but I just saw your reply to my post.

As I said, I believe the disparity between the reported dates can be easily explained by the fact that a) Sybil herself lied about her age, often giving her dob as 1922; and b) in recent years, an amateur biographer goofed and reported her dob as 1923 (though he also lists it as 1922 in the *same* article). However, anyone may view her NY Times obituary here, which is clearly dated 1982, and gives her age: 65, at the time of her death.

http://www.nytimes.com/1982/10/29/obituaries/sybil-leek-ordinary-witch-from-new-forest-dies-at-65.html

Doing the math, she would have been born in 1917, which is actually the date on her funeral card.

What's more, you can view her dob and death at the Social Security Death Index here:

http://ssdi.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/ssdi.cgi

Hope this helps!

B*B,
SoulFire

SoulFire said...

Oops, I apologize, the SSI Death Index URL did not copy and paste correct. Just go to:

http://ssdi.rootsweb.ancestry.com/

and type in her Last and first name, and press "Submit", and it will bring up her record.

When viewing the NY Times obituary, be sure to copy and paste the complete URL, as it's rather long.

B*B,
SF

Jacquie McKenzier said...

Hi, I'm fairly sure I know the name of Sybil's second husband. Her second husband's son, by his first marriage, is my father - which, I think, makes her my step-grandmother... Why would Sybil Leek not want to divulge who she was married to?

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Kal T. said...

"However, what would have improved this book greatly would not be revelation of any oath-bound secrets, but revelation of information like the names of schools, people, and other confirmable information. I'm not a wiccan elder in by any means, but I'm sure that information wouldn't be oath-bound."

Actually, such information was--still is--considered oathbound in BTW.