Written By: Liz Ronk

Fifty years ago, in the fall of 1964, LIFE magazine published what must have felt to the venerable weekly’s long-time readers like a strikingly weird feature. Titled “Real Witches at Work,” the piece included photographs of modern-day British pagans doctors, housewives, nurses, teachers celebrating their ancient rites, dancing around fires and generally behaving like perfectly normal, faithful worshippers of the sun, the moon and Mother Nature have been acting for thousands of years.

Today, when magic, the supernatural and the occult are central elements of some of pop culture’s most familiar franchises (see Potter, Harry), and Wiccans are more likely to be found serving on the local school board or city council than practicing their beliefs in secret for fear of being “found out,” the shock has been tempered for many. But in the early 1960s, the notion of grown men and women getting naked in order to practice their religion would likely have blown a goodly number of puritanical minds.

Mrs. Ray Bon, a British housewife and the pagan high priestess in the story, offered a nicely reasoned defense in that long-ago issue of LIFE: “It seems obvious to me that people can be just as immoral with their clothes on as with them off.”

Ray Bone, high priestess of the London witch coven, raises sword and asks 'Mighty Ones of the East' to protect the ritual circle in which they gather near Chipping Norton. Witches behind her hold up knives.

Ray Bone, high priestess of the London witch coven, raised a sword and asked ‘Mighty Ones of the East’ to protect the ritual circle in which they gathered near Chipping Norton. Witches behind her held up knives.

Terence Spencer / Getty Images

In a thousand-year-old rite, the witches dance around bonfire within prehistoric Rollright stone circle that stands in Oxfordshire.

In a thousand-year-old rite, the witches danced around a bonfire within a prehistoric Rollright stone circle in Oxfordshire.

Terence Spencer / Getty Images

Witchcraft in England in the 1960s

At climax of the dance they leapt over the fire, honoring the sun as the source of life.

Terence Spencer / Getty Images

Beneath cabalistic symbols, nude witches raise ritual knives to invoke their gods at a meeting. Their nakedness outrages many people, but witches claim this represents the putting aside of worldly things.

Beneath cabalistic symbols, nude witches raised ritual knives to invoke their gods at a meeting. The witches claimed that their nudity represented the putting aside of worldly things.

Terence Spencer / Getty Images

British pagan, 1964.

English pagan, 1964.

Terence Spencer / Getty Images

A witchcraft initiation ceremony, England, 1964.

A witchcraft initiation ceremony, England, 1964.

Terence Spencer / Getty Images

High priestess Artemis stirs salt and water mixture which is used to 'purify' the sacred circle in all witchcraft rites. On the table are incense burner, cord and statue of goddess. At right is herb chest containing incense.

High priestess Artemis stirred a salt and water mixture which was used to ‘purify’ the sacred circle in all witchcraft rites. On the table were an incense burner, cord and a statue of a goddess. At right is an herb chest containing incense.

Terence Spencer / Getty Images

Items in an English ruin, 1964.

Items in an English ruin, 1964.

Terence Spencer / Getty Images

A witch studying in a museum, England, 1964.

A witch studied in a museum, England, 1964.

Terence Spencer / Getty Images

LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964; 'Real Witches at Work.'

The story “Real Witches at Work” as it appeared in LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964.

LIFE Magazine

LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964; 'Real Witches at Work.'

The story “Real Witches at Work” as it appeared in LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964.

LIFE Magazine

LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964; 'Real Witches at Work.'

The story “Real Witches at Work” as it appeared in LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964.

LIFE Magazine

LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964; 'Real Witches at Work.'

The story “Real Witches at Work” as it appeared in LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964.

LIFE Magazine

LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964; 'Real Witches at Work.'

The story “Real Witches at Work” as it appeared in LIFE magazine, November 13, 1964.

LIFE Magazine

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