Robert Cochrane (1931-1966) Controversial hereditary Witch at the forefront of the revival of Witchcraft in Britain in the 1960s. Robert Cochrane, whose real name was Roy Bowers, founded the Clan of Tubal Cain, which became the 1734 Tradition in America. Cochrane’s flamboyant life ended in what may have been a ritual suicide. Doreen Valiente called him “perhaps the most powerful and gifted personality to have appeared in modern witch- craft.” Had his life been longer and more stable, said scholar Ronald Hutton, a strain of “Cochranian” witch- craft may have emerged to rival the tradition founded by Gerald B. Gardner.
Cochrane gave his birthdate as January 26, 1931, at 3 A.M., to a Methodist family in London. Little is known about his early life; his own accounts in his surviving letters have been vague. At the time of his death, Cochrane had set down his life and work only in letters and a few articles; his widow, Jane, destroyed most of his letters.
Cochrane claimed to come from a line of hereditary witches that included his great-grandfather, great-uncle, grandmother, aunt and mother. At different times he claimed to have learned the Craft from his great-uncle, his mother or his aunt.
In a letter written to the English ritual magician William S. Gray, founder of the Sangreal tradition of magic — with whom he collaborated later in life — Cochrane said his great-grandfather was the last of the Staffordshire witches, a family tradition going back to at least the 17th century. His grandparents renounced the old gods and be- came Methodists, causing his great-grandfather to curse them. The Curse decimated the family, and “nearly all of them died in misery or violence,” he said.
Cochrane said he had his first mystical awareness of the gods at age five. One windy night of a full Moon, he was alone upstairs in his house and went to the window to gaze out. The eerie atmosphere of broken clouds racing past the moon and the sounds of the wind enabled him to have a mystical experience in which he knew that the old gods were real and that the goddess of the Moon was real and alive.
After his father’s death, his mother told him the truth about the family. He turned to his aunt Lucy, who taught him the hereditary tradition. He said that only witches can bear witches, and that witch blood, which reoccurs every second or third generation, must be possessed in order to gain the ear of the gods.
By his early teens he was fascinated by ancient Celtic and Druidic lore. He may have found a mentor or teacher. He was in his early 20s when Britain’s Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1953, and he formed his own coven, the Clan of Tubal Cain. Cochrane had worked as a blacksmith, and Tubal Cain is in lore the first in the trade.
A talented poet, Cochrane loved to teach in stories, riddles and poems rather than in straight instruction. His coven worshiped the Goddess and Horned God and practiced their rituals outdoors in remote areas. Unlike the nude Witches in Gardner’s skyclad tradition, members wore black hooded robes. They “called down the power” in rituals and used guided meditation to create astral temples. Cochrane was particularly close to a man who went by the name of “Taliesin,” who said he was a West Country hereditary witch.
Cochrane was married for at least 14 years to Jane, and they had a son. Jane practiced his tradition with him and helped him to develop psychic and healing abilities. He had no interest in money and status, but, after the arrival of his son, took office work as a designer. They lived in the Thames Valley west of London.
Cochrane was charismatic and, if not for the emergence of Gardner, might have become the dominant fig- ure in the Craft revival. He held Gardner in contempt and was an open critic of him. He called Gardner “an out and out fake, who through various degenerative habits first came into this field.” Gardner was “driven by a desire to be whipped and to prance around naked” and “devised his own religion which he called ‘witchcraft.'” No real authority except one ever accepted him as the genuine article, Cochrane said.
He was equally contemptuous of Gardner’s followers, stating that they gave witches a bad name, were thor- oughly disliked by real witches and might be responsible for starting a backlash against witches.
In 1962, Cochrane, Taliesin and another person placed a newspaper ad inviting people interested in Rob- ert Graves’ White Goddess to contact them. In 1963, Cochrane gained attention by writing an anonymous article for Psychic News in which he described himself as a hereditary witch and defended witchcraft against critics.
In 1964, Valiente met Cochrane, on the recommendation of friends. She had been looking for evidence of a pagan witchcraft tradition that was older than the one alleged by Gardner, and she initially was impressed by Cochrane’s hereditary claims. She was initiated into the Clan of Tubal Cain. She went to his home and participated in rituals both outdoors and indoors.
Valiente, Cochrane and Taliesin were among the witches who became involved in the Witchcraft Re- search Association, formed by Sybil Leek after the death of Gardner. Cochrane and Taliesin wrote for the WRA’s journal, the Pentagram, which attracted the attention of an American witch Joe Wilson. Wilson wrote asking for cor- respondence, and Cochrane responded. Wilson founded the 1734 Tradition based on Cochrane’s material.
Valiente soon became disillusioned with Cochrane, concluding that he was full of fiction about his hereditary lineage and probably made up rituals as he went along. She also grated at his sharp criticisms of her friend Gard- ner, his increasingly controlling and autocratic behavior and an extramarital affair with a coven member. And she discovered that Taliesin really had been a member of Gardner’s tradition and was not a hereditary witch.
Cochrane said he was leery of Valiente and her intentions and engaged in an intellectual sparring with her via letters. He said she seemed pleasant enough, but she asked him so many questions about his interpretations of witch history, rituals, symbols and tools that he felt pressed to answer them and admitted dodging some of them. Exasperated, he said, “I shall have to work with the woman so that she will understand.”
In his letters to Gray, Cochrane expressed an inter- est in giving Valiente fictitious material just to fool with her, “. . . each time I start fooling it up, she takes me seriously,” he said. He shared secrets and rituals with Gray, but asked him not to pass certain information to Valiente because he did not want to see it in print. He did admit to passing fake material to Justine Glass, the pen name of a journalist sympathetic to witchcraft and the author of Witchcraft, the Sixth Sense — and Us (1965).
Valiente knew about the Glass situation and disapproved, and she also strongly disapproved of Cochrane and Taliesin’s use of herbal psychedelics, which Cochrane referred to as “witch’s potions.” She was furious with Cochrane when he performed a handfasting for a young couple and gave them a drink laced with deadly nightshade, telling them that they should drink it to determine if they were accepted by the gods or would be rejected, in which case they would die. Fortunately for the couple, they only became violently ill.
Valiente said that the breaking point for her came one day when Cochrane was railing against the Gardnerians to his coven. She told him she was fed up with his malice and had better things to do. She stopped working with the coven. Soon thereafter, Jane left, and the coven stopped functioning. Jane started divorce proceedings, but the couple never actually divorced. Later, Cochrane wrote to Valiente and apologized for his arrogant behavior.
Cochrane’s relationship with Gray was an important part of his life; they shared ideas, rituals and material. He told Gray that he felt the two of them were brought together for a purpose, children of the Sun and Moon seeking the same truth. He diagnosed Gray’s health prob- lems via clairvoyance and even performed a healing at a distance on him. Gray suffered from an abscessed tooth, which he had removed, but his health did not improve. Cochrane conducted a magical healing circle ritual. He told Gray to be asleep by midnight on a certain night, to take no sleeping aids and to not be surprised by any dreams he might recall. Gray did as instructed. Sometime during the night he became aware of a sensation of being tossed around like a small ball by the coven while they chanted or sang. He then felt a piercing pain under his ribs, which moved around his body and then faded. When he awoke, he was free of pain, and his health was restored.
Cochrane was not so good with his own health. He pushed physical, mental and spiritual limits, skirting in- sanity by his own admission. The sacred Water of Life drunk in his rituals sometimes was laced with fly agaric or peyote to induce visions. Much of his spiritual pursuits were devoted to accessing the Akashic Records, the universal repository of all thoughts, emotions and events, to recover mystical wisdom.
In his work on the inner planes, Cochrane met his spiritual master and had a powerful encounter with “the Power we call God, or at least a representative of Her.” He said he awakened in the middle of the night to find himself half in and half out of his body. A dark form was in the room, and it frightened him. He then was force- fully taken out of his body to a wood, where he saw his master for the first time. He was dressed in 16th-century clothing and a cloak. The master announced the arrival of “the Lass” and said, “Let us worship Her.” All the col- ors around Cochrane were brilliant. A white light came through the oak trees and revealed a naked woman on horseback in pure light. Flooded with mystical feelings, Cochrane was shot back into his body with a “thundering crash.” He got out of bed, trembling and shaking. Years later, he realized that what he had seen was “the cosmic power we call truth.”
Cochrane lamented England as “psychically dead” and felt that he was one of the last of his kind. In a bizarre offhand observation in one of his letters to Gray, he foreshadowed the 1980 shooting murder of John Lennon in New York City. The noise and sexual hysteria generated by rock music was a dangerous force for teenagers to play with, he said, “and that is what the Beatles are do- ing. I would never be surprised to read that . . . one of the Beatles has come to a very bloody and untimely end, a la primitive magic as the God of Vegetation.”
Cochrane came to an untimely end himself. Early in 1966, he began telling friends that he planned to commit ritual suicide on Midsummer’s Eve. Few took the threat seriously, and Cochrane himself seemed to back off the threat a few days before the solstice. He followed through with it, though, and was found unconscious on June 21, 1966. He was taken to the hospital, where he died comatose. The cause was poisoning by belladonna leaves combined with sleeping pills. It is not known whether he intended to kill himself or his death was accidental. Some of his friends and supporters believed that he had committed ritual suicide by offering himself as a sacrifice on Midsummer Eve.
Valiente was not convinced that Cochrane actually intended to kill himself. Several days before the solstice, he wrote to her, saying that by the time she read the letter, he would be dead. Valiente believed that Cochrane intended for her to get the letter in time to send help, but it sat unread at home for several days while she was in the hospital. She also thought that he might have been playing a game to see if the gods accepted or rejected him. Either way, it was a gamble with a heavy price. Valiente composed “Elegy for a Dead Witch” in honor of Cochrane.
Cochrane’s letters and papers that Jane kept were bequeathed upon her death in 2001 to Evan John Jones, one of Cochrane’s original coven members; Jones died in 2003. Most have been published in two collections, The Roebuck in the Thicket (2001) and The Robert Cochrane Letters (2002).
“When I am dead, I shall go to another place that myself and my ancestors created. Without their work it would not exist, since in my opinion, for many eons of time the human spirit had no abode, then finally the desire to survive created the pathway into the other worlds. Nothing is got by doing nothing, and whatever we do now creates the world in which we exist tomorrow. The same applies to death, that we have created in thought, we create in that other reality.”
- Cochrane, Robert, and Evan John Jones. The Robert Cochrane Letters: An Insight into Modern Traditional Witchcraft. Somerset, England: Capall Bann Publishing, 2001.
- Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Jones, Evan John, and Robert Cochrane. The Roebuck in the Thicket: An Anthology of the Robert Cochrane Tradition. Somerset, England; Capall Bann Publishing, 2002.
- Jones, Evan John, with Chas. S. Clifton. Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1997.
- Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London: Robert Hale, 1989.
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