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Elders Of The Craft – Isaac Bonewits

Updated: Jan 28

Philip Emmons Isaac Bonewits was born October 1, 1949, in Royal Oak, Michigan — the perfect place, he liked to joke, for a future Archdruid. If you're not a practitioner of modern Druidry, Wicca or various other spiritual paths that take their inspiration from pre-Christian times, it's unlikely you've heard of him. But it's even possible, I believe, to be a practicing Witch, Druid or some other adventurous spirit and never have heard the name Isaac Bonewits. I don't know if he would've taken delight in that notion or if his ego would've taken a hit, but what I do know is that for those of us who fall into the Neopagan camp, we all owe Bonewits a great deal of gratitude whether we've heard of him or not.


The fourth of five children (three girls, two boys), he spent most of his childhood in Ferndale, a suburb of Detroit. When he was nearly 12, the family moved to San Clemente, California.

From his mother, a devout Roman Catholic, Bonewits developed an appreciation for the importance of religion; from his father, a convert to Catholicism from Presbyterianism, he acquired skepticism. In his second semester of ninth grade, Bonewits entered a Catholic high school seminary because he wanted to become a priest. He soon realized that he did not want to be a priest in the Catholic faith. He returned to public school and graduated a year early. His first exposure to magic came at age 13, when he met a young Creole woman from New Orleans who practiced “voodoo.” She showed him some of her magic, and so accurately divined the future that he was greatly impressed.


After spending a year in junior college to get foreign-language credits, he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 1966. At about the same time, he began practicing magic, devising his own rituals by studying the structure of rituals in books, and by observing them in various churches.

His roommate at Berkeley, Robert Larson, was a self- professed Druid, an alumni of Carleton College. Larson interested Bonewits in Druidism, and initiated him into the RDNA. The two established a grove in Berkeley. Bonewits was ordained as a Druid priest in October 1969. The Berkeley grove was shaped as a contemporary Pagan religion; other RDNA groves considered the order a philosophy.


During college, Bonewits spent about eight months as a member of the Church of Satan, an adventure which began as a lark. The college campus featured a spot where evangelists of various persuasions would lecture to anyone who would listen. As a joke, Bonewits showed up one day to perform a satirical lecture as a Devil’s evangelist. He was so successful that he did the act repeatedly, and soon was approached by a woman who said she represented Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan. Bonewits attended the church’s meetings and improved upon some of their rituals but dropped out after personality conflicts with LaVey. The membership, he found, was largely middle-class conservatives who were more “right-wing and racist” than satanist.


At Berkeley, Bonewits created his own degree program, graduating in 1970 with a bachelor of arts degree in magic — the first person ever to do so at a Western educational institution. He also was the last to do so in the United States. College administrators were so embarrassed over the publicity about the degree that magic, witchcraft and sorcery were banned from the individual group study program.


In 1973, Bonewits met a woman named Rusty. They moved to Minneapolis, where they were married. For a year and a half, Bonewits edited Gnostica, a Pagan journal published by Carl Weschcke of Llewellyn Publications, but his scholarly approach was not popular with many of the readers.


Bonewits remained in Minneapolis for about another year. He established a Druid grove called the Schismatic Druids of North America, a schism of the RDNA. He also joined with several Jewish Pagan friends and created the Hasidic Druids of North America, the only grove of which existed briefly in St. Louis, where its membership overlapped with that of the Church of All Worlds. In 1974-75, Bonewits wrote, edited and self-published The Druid Chronicles (Evolved), a compendium of the history, theology, rituals and customs of all the reformed Druid movements, including the ones he invented himself.


Bonewits and Rusty divorced in 1976 and he returned to Berkeley. Bonewits rejoined the RDNA grove and was elected Archdruid. He established The Druid Chronicler (which later became Pentalpha Journal) as a national Druid publication in 1978. After a few clashes with members, he left the organization. Pentalpha Journal folded.


In 1979, he was married for a second time, to a woman named Selene. That relationship ended in 1982. In 1983, he was initiated into the New Reformed Order of the Golden Dawn. The same year, he married again, to Sally Eaton, the actress who created the role of the hippie witch in the Broadway musical Hair. They moved to New York City in 1983.


Since the late 1960s, Bonewits had worked as a freelance journalist, and, since college, had earned a sporadic living from writing and editing. In 1983, he entered the computer technology field as a technical writer for a firm in Manhattan. He left that over an ethical matter and became a self-employed computer consultant for small businesses.


In 1983 in New York, Bonewits met Shenain Bell, a fellow Pagan, and discussed the idea of starting a Druidic organization. The religious fellowship, Ar nDraiocht Fein (“Our Own Druidism” in Gaelic), was born, with no ties to the ancient Druids or to the RDNA. Bonewits became Archdruid and Bell became Vice Archdruid.


Bonewits and Eaton parted company in 1986. He moved to Nyack, New York, in November 1987 with his intended fourth wife, Deborah, a Wiccan high priestess. He continued work as a computer consultant and worked on the building of the ADF. He and Deborah married; a son, Arthur, was born in 1990.


In 1996 he resigned as Archdruid of the ADF due to the debilitating effects of eosinophilia myalgia syndrome, which also prevented him from working as a computer consultant. He retained his life membership in the ADF and devoted himself to his writing. His Authentic Thaumaturgy 2.0, a new edition of Real Magic (revised in 1979) designed for players of fantasy games, was published in 1998.

Bonewits and Deborah separated in 1999 and divorced in 2007. In 2004 he handfasted, then in 2007 married, Phaedra Heyman, a former vice president of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans.


On October 25, 2009, Bonewits was diagnosed with a rare form of colon cancer, for which he underwent treatment. He died at home, on August 12, 2010, surrounded by his family. 


Perhaps what is so impressive about Isaac was his lack of fear. He was exploring what became Neopaganism in the 60’s and 70’s, before most of you were even alive. Back then, such things were highly suspect, if not illegal. As in “go to jail” illegal. Being known as a witch or druid could easily cost you your livelihood, if not your freedom. Churches might gather outside your home, to protest your existence. There was no New Age Crystal shop on the corner, enormous social pressure demanded that you attend church on Sunday and the closest popular culture came to witchcraft was the TV show, “Bewitched.”


It was in this time that Bonewits started his spiritual quest, joining his first Druidic group in 1966 and writing “Real Magic,” a work worth anyone’s time to read, all in his early 20’s. He had an insatiable curiosity about things spiritual and had the courage to dive in the deep end. Not so easy in those days.



·         The Druid Chronicles (Evolved). (1976 Drunemeton Press, 2005 Drynemetum Press) (With Selene Kumin Vega, Rusty Elliot, and Arlynde d’Loughlan)

·         Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Druidism. (2006) Citadel

·         Real Energy: Systems, Spirits, And Substances to Heal, Change, And Grow. (2007) New Leaf – Co-authored with Phaedra Bonewits.

·         Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals that Work. (2007) Llewellyn


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