Gerald Gardner

The foundation legend of Wicca was first publicized to the world m 1960, in the biography of the person most prominendy associated with its appearance, Gerald Gardner (Bracelin, 1960). As Gardner himself was the source of virtually all of the information m the book, it is effectively autobiography. It told the story of a long and relatively uneventful working life, spent first as the owner or manager of tea and rubber plantations in Ceylon, North Borneo and Malaya, and then as an inspector m the Malay customs service. Two traits marked him off as unusual in colonial society. One was a keen and active interest in the supernatural, which led him to read widely upon religion and the occult, to discuss them regularly with like-mmded people, and to gam first-hand experience of Freemasonry, Spiritualism, Buddhism and tribal magical practices. The other was an equally active antiquanarusm, which propelled him into becoming a pioneer of Malay archaeology, numismatics, maritime history, and folklore, and an author of respected monographs in these fields.

In 1936, aged 52, he reared to England, and immediately became involved m archaeology there and in the Near East. He also joined the Folk-Lore Society, collaborating with Margaret Murray to present a paper upon a set of apparent relics of witchcraft m 1939. Witchcraft was also a theme m his first novel, A Goddess Arrives, published in 1940. During the following decade he also became a prominent member of the Ancient Order of Druids. For present purposes, his most significant move came in 1938, when he setded at Highcliffe on the Hampshire coast and joined the Rosicrucian Fellowship of Crotona which staged plays at its own theatre in neighbouring Chnstchurch. This represented a mystical branch of the movement of Co-Masonry,, itself an outgrowth of Freemasonry which admitted women. Gardner became especially attached to a set of fellow members who revealed to him in 1939 that they had become part of an old coven of witches, a survival from a pagan fertility religion, which met m the New Forest. He was initiated into this himself in September, at the house of 'Old Dorothy1 a wealthy lady who functioned as its leader. When France fell in 1940 she 'called up covens right and left' for a ceremony in the forest to hold back the threatened German invasion.

In 1946, related Gardner, he visited Crowley, and found him a charming charlatan, who admitted that he had encountered the witch religion but disliked both its feminism and its lack of financial potential. Crowley initiated Gardner into his own Ordo Templi Onentis, but the latter did not want to develop his part in it after Crowley himself died m 1947. Also in 1946, however, the witches allowed Gardner to represent some of their practices in the disguise of a novel. High Magic's Aid, which was published in 1949. In 1950 the first museum and study centre for British witchcraft was opened in the Isle of Man (and soon passed into Gardner's management), and in 1951 the 1736 Witchcraft Act was repealed, allowing witches to advertise their practices without fear of prosecution. These developments made it possible for Gerald Gardner to proclaim the survival of the religion to the world in 1954, with the book Witchcraft Today, in which he posed as a disinterested anthropologist who had been lucky enough to discover its continued existence as a secret and initiatory system.

The religion portrayed in Witdicraft Today was called 'Wica\ from the standard Anglo-Saxon term for a male witch (the name was amended after Gardner's death to the more accurate Old English form of 'Wicca', although the pronunciation remained with a hard !c\ whereas the Anglo-Saxon was a !ch'). Its rites were alleged to consist mainly of dances intended to promote fertility, and of feasting upon consecrated food and drink. The performers were naked, in the belief that this more easily released magical power from the body. They venerated a god and goddess, whose names were secret, the former predominant in winter and the latter in summer. They worked within a circle, formed with a consecrated sword or knife and carefully purified, to contain the energy which they raised. They held the north to be the most sacred of the four cardinal points, believed in reincarnation, and trained to develop latent psychic powers. The religion was organized in covens, led by a high priestess supported by a high priest, which subdivided into coupies for training purposes. Training, like initiation, was always between the sexes. As part of this polarity they revered the life-force within the world and regarded acts of worldly love and pleasure as sacred. They had eight sacred tools, of which the most important were the knife, the censer and the cord. Their seasonal festivals were the four traditional quarter days which opened the seasons, described as the great witches' sabbats by Margaret Murray. Trance and, ecstasy were important components within their ntes, and they aimed not merely to address their deities, but to feel as though they had become them.

No academic historian has ever taken senously Gardner's claim to have discovered a genuine survival of ancient religion, and it was dismissed m the review given to it by the journal of his own Folk-Lore Society, in

1955. The complete collapse of the credibility of the Murray thesis, since 1970, has removed the historical context upon which it was based. These considerations make Wicca very firmly a part of modern history, but until now the only research into its 'genuine' ongms has been earned on withm the Pagan community. In particular, four wnters have earned out work for which any subsequent scholar must be profoundly grateful. Janet and Stewart Farrar collaborated with Doreen Valiente between 1979 and 1984 to make the first textual analysis of the different versions of the standard Wiccan collection of ntuals, the 'Book of Shadows'. Aldan Kelly took this work further m a senes of investigations into Gardner's own papers, which culminated in 1991. Valiente has also conducted some research of her own, and is an- important source of evidence in herself, as a major personality m the early development of the religion. Her testimony can at times be checked against that of another survivor from the first known Wiccan coven, the witch well known m the modern Pagan community under the name of'Robert'.

It should be said immediately that there is nothing inherendy implausible m Gardner's claim to have been initiated into an existing religion. The account which he provides of his earlier life in the biography is sober and understated, and carefully leaves out the more dubious claims which he sometimes made for himself verbally, such as his possession of two university degrees (Valiente, 1989: 41-2). It is striking also that he describes a coven composed pardy of Rosicrucians and led by a wealthy lady, instead of announcing that he had discovered a group of witches hidden in a rural working-class community, presided over by a more conventional cunning woman. In view of the cultural patterns outlined above, it is precisely from this more educated esotenc milieu that one would expect a modern pagan revival to commence.

The problem lies m substantiating any of Gardner's story. He pnvately identified 'Old Dorothy' to his followers m the 1950s as Dorothy Clutterbuck, and in an exemplary piece of investigative research dunng the 1980s Doreen Valiente established beyond doubt that this was a woman better known by her mamed name of Dorothy Fordham, who had lived at Highcliffe in the 1930s and 1940s, and died in 1951 aged 70 years (Farrar, 1984: 282—93). From her family documents at Somerset House, the family graves in Highcliffe churchyard, and the local newspapers, it is possible to piece together a great deal of information about her. What it presents is a picture of a fanatically Tory and Anglican matron, ostensibly a personally devout Chnstian and friend and patron of the local vicar, who lent her energy and money to conventional causes such as the Bntish Legion, the Girl Guides and the Seamen's Mission. She was a leader of respectable local society, an eager proselyttzer for the Conservative Party, and mamed for most of the 1930s to a Tory JP and landed gentleman. He died suddenly m May 1939, leaving her not only prostrate with grief but locked m a legal battle with his relatives for his estate, which she finally lost in 1941. Diaries of hers from the 1940s surfaced in the mid-1980s and went on display; there was nothing in them about witchcraft.

This portrait leaves us with a stark choice; either Dorothy Fordham lived one of the most amazing double lives in history, or else Gardner has played a cruelly funny tnck on posterity by making it imagine the local epitome of respectability standing stark naked in the New Forest and summoning up covens. If the first is true, then it was a deception which extended even to private diaries and beyond the grave, as manifested in her will, which initially either included or was abetted by her husband, and which would threaten at any moment to destroy the whole of the rest of the life upon which she lavished such affection and expense. It would probably be impossible to prove that Dorothy Fordham was not a witch, but a closer consideration of her so far provides doubt concerning Gardner's story rather than support for it.

There was, by contrast, a different woman who certainly links the Rosicrucian Theatre and Fellowship of Crotona in 1938 to the "Wicca which appeared at the end of the 1940s: the one who was Gardner's high priestess in 1950 and is known in published sources as 'Dafo' She was a very different sort of person from Dorothy, a music teacher with long-established interests in occultism and mysticism. Doreen Valiente met her m 1952 (Valiente, 1989: 38-9, 66), and two other members of Gardner's coven did so in 1958 ('Robert', pers. comm.). Her real name was known to them, and has been given to me, but by late 1952 she had already reared from Wicca and was very anxious to conceal her former role in it from her own family. As she is now long deceased, this precludes me from approaching her heirs in the hope- of discovering personal papers, and indeed makes it most unlikely that she would have left any of relevance to this enquiry. Furthermore, when dealing with both Valiente and her two other visitors, she carefully avoided providing an answer to the question of whether Gardner's story about his discovery of Wicca was true (Kelly, 1991: 137—9; 'Robert', pers. comm.). Indeed, she seems to have said nothing about what actually went on before 1950 except to confirm that like Gardner she had been a Co-Mason and involved in the Rosicrucian Theatre.

Independent testimony as to the existence of the coven m the New Forest seemed to have been provided in a history of ritual magic by Francis King (King, 1970: 176—81). The author recounted a conversation with the occultist Louis Wilkinson m 1953, who told him that m the late 1930s or early 1940s he was friendly with some of its members. He then confirmed Gardners story about the ritual to ward off Hider m 1940, and added the details that the witches rubbed bear fat on their naked bodies to ward off the cold 3nd used the fly agaric mushroom to achieve visions. He also repeated the story of Crowley's comments about Wicca, which King heard from two additional sources.

This is not, unfortunately, impeccable evidence. It is a second-hand account, recalled almost 20 years later. Wilkinson's dating of his acquaintance with the coven seems curiously vague, and bear fat has never, at any time in recorded history, been a readily accessible commodity m England. The anecdote about Crowley is the least credible, for at no point in his vast legacy of published and unpublished work, which draws or comments upon the widest possible range of magical and religious systems, did that magician mention.any thing like Wicca; including those documents of his which concern Gardner (of which more below). Possible reactions to Wilkinson's (alleged) words, therefore, range from a literal acceptance of their import, to a suggestion that some of it may be distorted or fictitious, to one that the actual source of all of Wilkinson's information, direcdy or mdirecdy, was Gardner himself.

Was the 'New Forest coven' actually the pagan section of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry, which was active in the right area at approximately the right time, and with some of which (according to an eye-witness, the witch famed as a harper and commonly known as 'Bran') Gardner was friendly? An answer is at present precluded by the closure of its archive to non-members, but at first sight it is likely, again, to be negative. By the late 1930s, as shown above, the pagans had apparendy all left the Order, and there is no evidence that it met m the New Forest between 1935 and 1945. The chronology seems wrong, and the earlier paganism of the Woodcraft Chivalry and the later paganism of Wicca do not seem very alike.

AH this discussion, therefore, has led neither to a positive proof nor a positive disproof of the existence of Gardner s putative 'New Forest coven', let alone any solid information concerning its membership or practices. Instead we are left with the outline of his own career, extending between two of his books. A Goddess Arrives, published m 1940 and so therefore probably written in 1939, is certainly a pre~Wiccan text. It includes a witch, but the reader is not encouraged to identify with her practices, which include human sacrifice. They are represented as dedicated to the service of illusory deities while actually using a force which resides within all humans; the hero, by contrast, calls upon :the Higher Powers' who abominate sacrifice. High Magic's Aid, published in 1949 and so presumably at latest a work dating from 1948, is clearly Wiccan. Although its hero is a ceremonial magician m the medieval tradition, the heroine is a pagan witch priestess of the Margaret Murray kind, working initiation ntuals which are the basis for those used later in Wicca. The historian thus has a maximum of nine years through which to track Gardner in quest for the source of his ideas.

Not much seems to be available for the first half of the penod, in which he seems to be, as he told his biographer, preoccupied with local measures for wartime defence; first writing to The Daily Telegraph to advocate the establishment of a Home Guard ¡and then busy leading an ARP unit when deemed too frail for entry to the Guard himself (Bracelin, 1960: ch. 13). With the end of the war he drops out of sight again, to reappear in May 1947 (not in 1946 as he said) as a visitor on several occasions to Aleister Crowley. Crowley's diary, now in the Warburg Institute Gerald Yorke Collection (MS 23) shows that he introduced himself as a (bogus) Ph.D. Singapore and a holder of the Masomc Royai Arch degree; not as a witch. He was initiated into the Ordo Templi Orientis and chartered to found his own division of it, departing; loaded with copies of the master's works. A letter from him in the same collection, dated 14 June (MS E.21), shows him enthusiastically trying to initiate new members. Then something altered dramatically; by the time that Crowley died at the end of the year, Gardner was living m Tennessee, and when members of the OTO contacted him about the possibility that he might take over as head of the Order in Europe, he was apparendy unwilling to do so; these events are proved by a set of letters to and from Frieda Harris, printed in the modern Thelermte (i.e. Crowleyite) magazine TLC in November 1992. He still had friendly exchanges with members, and published the novel High Magic's Aid under his OTO. magical name; but when he returned to England in March 1948 he seems to have done so as a person committed to Wicca.

Nothing seems to be known about why he went to America or what he did there. It is possible that his change of course occurred as a result of expenences at that time, or that his holiday represented an opportunity to reflect upon his options which led to a decision to pursue the Wiccan one. When the Folklore Centre of Superstition and Witchcraft opened in the Isle of Man in June 1951, he performed the opening ceremony as a member of the Southern Coven of British Witches' (a Northern Coven was never identified) (Valiente, 1989: 13). Thereafter he functioned as the sole authority upon, and publicist for, the witch religion. It seems, therefore, as if the years 1947-8 were crucial to the development of Wicca, but an absence of information for the preceding period leaves any such suggestion insecure.

One further, very important, body of source material remains to be considered; the private papers which Gardner left behind him. Aidan Kelly earned out the pioneering work upon these, and although many of his arguments have been controversial (at least among Wiccans), the present writer cannot fault his textual analysis of individual documents. In particular he deserves credit for recognizing the nature, and significance, of a manuscript which Gardner called 'Ye Bok of ye Art Magical'. Copies of this were made and have been circulated by the Wiccan Church of Canada (the Gardner papers having been preserved at Toronto) against which Kelly's transcript can be checked. It commenced as a repository for notes which Gardner took from various systems, such as Cabbala and Tarot, and then became the repository for the first known Wiccan rituals, initiation rites for three progressive degrees. These were written in large and fair hand, as if to be read and used in actual ceremonies, but were subsequendy amended to provide the form which two of them took in High Magic's Aid. They were subequendy corrected again, and other ntuals added in more careless fashion as if the book was again being used for rough drafts. At some point a set of ceremonies were copied into the first Wiccan 'Book of Shadows', which had been retired from use by 1953. Some further drafts were added which later appear m the second such book, which was employed during that year (Kelly, 1991: 37-94). The second set of revisions, and the later ceremonies, can therefore be located in the penod 1949—51, but there is no way of dating the earlier work, save that the quantity of quotation from Crowley's work in it probably places it after Gardners visits to him m 1947.

The earliest rites, the initiations and the ritual blessing of cakes and wine, assume that only two people, a man and a woman, are present. The intermediate set consists of ceremonies for the four mam seasonal 'Sabbats' and for the consecration of tools, and the first of those are plainly designed for a group. The later additions, which were to go into the second 'Book of Shadows', are far more concerned to set the rites in a historical background by relating explanations and advice to the needs of a secret religion operating under persecution in previous centuries. Over the period in which these first known Wiccan ntes were being written up and then rewritten by Gardner, therefore, their context seems to have developed steadily m his mind from a working couple to a working coven, to a religion with its own historical claims. This does not, of course, preclude the possibility that he was aware of the whole context from the beginning, while only slowly manifesting it in his work.

Aidan Kelly has built upon the previous research by the Farrars and Valiente to analyse the literary components of these first known ntuals, and found that they include largescale direct quotations from Crowley, Leland and the famous gnmoire called The Greater Key of Solomon (in Mathers's Victonan translation), with one borrowing from Kipling, and use of the practices of Margaret Murray's putative 'witch cult' for the Sabbats and of Freemasonry and the Golden Dawn for the initiations. The obvious question for a textual analyst is what is left when these are deducted, and Kelly has suggested that the remaining component was a set of observances designed to induce sexual excitement by flagellation, and that this was m fact the distinctive personal contribution by Gardner to what was otherwise a pastiche.

The process at work seems to be rather more complex than that. Kelly is absolutely correct to emphasize the techniques of binding and scourging which are the principal practical link between all the initiatory and seasonal rituals. Gardner's novels, however, are not works of flagellant fiction, and the operations involved are not standard acts of sado-masochism. What they define instead is a highly idiosyncratic and thoroughly unusual way of attaining an ecstatic trance, which is explained in detail in two of the sections added to the second 'Book of Shadows' (Kelly, 1991: 80—2, 91-3). The cords are used to apply a gende restriction of the blood circulation to produce dizziness, and the scourge is employed very lighdy and steadily to induce a rhythmical tingling sensation. It is one of eight methods for the achievement of trance described in another additional document (Kelly, 1991: 88—90) , and there is no doubt that it was the one which Gardner himself preferred; the same document expresses his distrust of drugs, and 'Robert' informs me that his asthma prevented the old man from engaging m more active techniques such as dancing. A very personal set of circumstances therefore lies behind this major motif in the ntes.

Had this been the only, or even the most important, aspect of the whole sequence, however, then Wicca would never have appealed to more than a small number of asthmatic mystics. What they oudined as well was a very radical system of religious belief and practice which distilled the import of the cultural developments described earlier, m an extreme form. By uniting paganism with the figure of the witch in the Leland and Murray tradition, it automatically pre-empted any easy reconciliation of the result with Christianity or with conventional social mores. This was supercharged by the fact that it paid no reverence to any Great Spirit, Prime Mover or World Soul, who might be equated with Jehovah, but to the nature-goddess and the horned god who had arisen in the nineteenth century as the favourite deities of romantic counter-culture. Their Wiccan names were a secret of initiates, and Gardner drew a blind over them in High Magic's Aid by making his witches in that venerate Jamcot, the witchgod named by Pierre de Lancre, the famous demonolo-gist; m Witchcraft Today, however, he revealed the divine couple as the foci of the religion. Although both were invoked at different times m the various rituals, with equal honours, it was only the goddess who ever made a set reply, speaking through a worshipper. She did so in the text which was headed Teviter Veslis'm 'Ye Bok of ye Art Magical' (Kelly, 1991: 52-4, where it is translated as 'Lift Up The Veil'); in the mid-1950s Gardner altered this to the Masomc expression of'The Charge' From its calligraphy it was contemporary with the initiation rituals and thus one of the first Wiccan rites to be entered m the book. It revealed her to be a combination of the liberty-giving goddess of Leland and the ecstasy-giving goddess of Crowley, inciting her followers to treat wordly pleasures, if given and taken with love, as sacred, and to enter into an eventual mystical union with her.

Like Freemasonry and Co-Masonry, the ceremonies taught knowledge and skills through three progressive degrees of initiation, and included 'working tools'. Like Co-Masonry and the Golden Dawn, they admitted women members upon an equal basis, and like the Golden Dawn they operated magic, at times by techniques to draw divinity into, or from, human beings. Unlike all of these, they were conducted by groups led by a high priestess and a.high priest, whose relationship mirrored that of the two deities, m that the priestess was slighdy more important. Freemasonry, following long-established Christian tradition, shunned the north as the place of darkness; Wicca made its mam invocations to that direction. By forcing its members to confront and recognize the merit in the dark, as in its feminism, its unqualified paganism, its counter-cultural deities, and its insistence upon complete nudity for its devotees during their rites, it was challenging a whole series of norms in the most dramatic possible way. The self-image of the witch performed a crucial function here again, as a means of nerving people up to do so. Like all the magical or quasi-magical secret societies which had flourished since the seventeenth century, it concealed innovation under a language of continuity or of restitution; except that it went one better than the lot, by claiming to descend from the Palaeolithic. Beneath Leland's label of 'the Old Religion1 was an extraordinarily novel one. In its own way, it was seeking to drive a battering ram against the boundaries of the present, and of the possible.

Who, then, was responsible for it? There seems to be little doubt that Gerald Gardner might have been. The man who had pioneered so many enquiries into the Malaysian past, who was versed in so many different occult traditions, who certainly designed the rituals of the religion in the form m which they emerged into history, and who dedicated the last 15 years of his life to propagating it, was certainly capable of its conception. There is equally small doubt that he was perfecdy capable of the cunning and duplicity involved m making false statements about its origins; both Doreen Valiente (Valiente, 1989: 41—72} and 'Robert' (pen. comm.) agree that he was a loveable rogue, whom they caught out m vanous attempted deceptions. The analysis of his papers has destroyed his key claim to have copied the first 'Book of Shadows' from one belonging to Dorothy Fordham. Whether he actually was responsible for the whole framework of Wicca, however, and if so whether any other people, such as 'Dafo\ actively assisted him in its creation, remains uncertain. In the last analysis, old Gerald is still in control of the early history of his movement.

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