Philip Emmons (Isaac) Bonewits, priest, magician, scholar, author, bard, and activist, is best known for his leadership in modern Druidism and for his serious scholarship in the fields of the occult, metaphysics, and witchcraft. Born in Royal Oak, Michigan, the Bonewits family moved to Southern California when Isaac was nearly 12. His mother, a devout Roman Catholic, emphasized the importance of religion and hoped that Isaac might enter the priesthood. With an I.Q. tested at 200, Isaac went back and forth between parochial and public schools, largely due to the lack of programs for very bright students.
Bonewits's first exposure to real, rather than stage, magic came at age 13, when he met a young woman whose abilities as a practitioner of voodoo and as a diviner of the future convinced him that her abilities were genuine. After attending a Catholic high school seminary in ninth grade, Bonewits realized that he could not fulfill his mother's hope that he would become a Catholic priest. He graduated from public school a year early, spent a year in junior college, and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley in 1966. It was at this time that he truly began practicing magic, creating his own rituals based on those that he was able to find in books.
Bonewits entered Berkeley as a psychology major but through the individual group study program was able to fashion his own course of
study. Robert Larson, Bonewits's roommate, introduced him to Druidism and initiated him into the Reformed Druids of North America. Bonewits was ordained as a Druid priest in October 1969. In 1970 he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in magic and thaumaturgy, the first person to do so at a Western educational institution. The media attention revolving around Bonewits's degree resulted in his obtaining a book contract, and in 1971 Real Magic was published, presenting his insights on magic, ritual, and psychic abilities.
In 1973 Bonewits moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he married folksinger Rusty Elliot, and where he assumed the editorship of Gnostica, a neopagan journal published by Carl Weschcke of Llewellyn Publications. The job lasted less than two years, but Bonewits remained in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area for about another year and established a Druid grove called the Schismatic Druids of North America. During this same period, Bonewits combined interests with a number of Jewish pagans and created the Hasidic Druids of North America.
In 1973 he stated publicly that the alleged antiquity of Wicca could not be supported by historical data. Bonewits asserted that the craft as it was practiced in the twentieth century did not go back beyond Gerald B. Gardner and Doreen Valiente—no earlier than the 1920s. Although such views were controversial at the time, by 1983 many scholars within the field began to acknowledge that neopagan Wicca may well be a new religion, rather than the continuation of an old one.
In 1974–75, Bonewits founded the Aquarian Anti-Defamation League (AADL), a civil liberties organization for members of minority and alternative belief systems. Bonewits and his wife divorced in 1976, and he decided to return to Berkeley, where he was elected archdruid of the Reformed Druids of North America. After disagreements with longtime members, Bonewits left the organization, and the Druidic publication that he had established, The Druid Chronicler (later Pentalpha Journal), soon folded without his involvement.
In 1979 he married Selene Kumin, but that relationship ended in 1982. In 1983 he
Bonewits worked for a few months as a computer consultant in Kansas City, then moved to New York with his intended fourth wife, Deborah Lipp, a Wiccan high priestess, whom he married in 1988. The couple conducted a Gardnerian Wiccan "Pagan Way" group in New York and New Jersey, and in 1990 their son Arthur Shaffrey Lipp-Bonewits was born at their home in Dumont, New Jersey.
In that same year, Bonewits began showing symptoms of Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome. Bonewits became unable to work or to perform archdruidic duties, resulting in his loss of employment in 1992 and his assumption of the archdruid emeritus title on January 1, 1996. Although Bonewits began to recover from the more debilitating effects of the disease in 1997, the long bouts of convalescence had caused damage to his marriage with Deborah, and in 1998 they separated. Bonewits has resumed a schedule of writing and lecturing and remains a potent force in the neopagan community.