J|8ra||i|n 1938, a retired British civil servant, amateur anthropologist, E/yrl and Freemason named Gerald Gardner met the members of the R o si crucian Fellowship of Cro-tona and their Rosicrucian Theatre. The Fellowship had started as a Co-Masonic lodge from the mixed gender form of Freemasonry founded in the 1920s by Annie Besant, well known as an early Theosophical leader. But inside the Fellowship there supposedly existed an inner circle, this one calling itself the New Forest Coven and claiming to be a group of Fam-Trad Witches who had kept "The Old Religion" of Witchcraft alive.
It seems that the lodge, the theatre and the coven — which may have been overlapping, rather than subsets of one another — were, as Fred Lamond, a surviving member of Gardner's last coven (see below), puts it:
.three experimental groups practicing Theosophy, Rosicrucian magic, and reconstructed witchcraft according to the theories of Margaret Murray. It was the latter group that Gerald joined, and in which he found
'everything he had longed for all his life,' according to his biography Gerald Gardner: Witch [written by Sufi scholar Idries Shah, under the name of journalist Jack Bracelin].
Gardner was later to say that all of the members of the coven were very old and apparently the last of their kind. Having decided that their beliefs and practices were fragmented and incomplete (whether as overt or covert reconstructions), Gardner began to research and write new rituals, customs and beliefs for himself in a highly eclectic fashion. In 1939, Gardner published his first (bad) novel, A Goddess Arrives, based in part on a vision he had of the Goddess some years earlier in Cyprus. She was to become ever more central to his life's work. Lamond told me:
Gerald admitted that the group's membership consisted largely of middle class intellectuals with a large element of ex-colonial administrators like him. And he said its rituals were 'sketchy.' Where Gardner starts being creative with the truth is when he claimed the New Forest coven included among its members a couple of hereditary cunning men and that these provided the continuous initiatory link to Stone Age witchcraft. While I have not seen the New Forest Coven's membership list — for obvious reasons, this was highly oath bound — I must say that any cunning men among their members kept their knowledge very much to themselves. The stock in trade of British cunning men was horse-whispering (a benign horse training method recently publicized by Monty Roberts) and weather magic, while their partners the wise women were (or are as some of them are still around) highly knowledgeable of medicinal plants. None of this was ever passed on by Gerald: his spell casting was strictly and only mental thought projection boosted by the raising of physical/emotional power...
...I visited Cecil Williamson in 1994 and asked him about his recollections of witchcraft groups in the New Forest area. He told me that after Margaret Murray published her Witch Cult in Western Europe in 1924, many magical groups started looking for hereditary cunning men and/or wise women to join their groups and instruct them about what witches actually did. According to Cecil, these cunning men listened carefully to what the magical groups' preconceptions were and then fed these back to them, but didn't volunteer any information that the magical groups didn't already have. So it is quite possible that the Cro-tona Fellowship went hunting high and low for genuine horny handed sons of the soil to join their experimental witchcraft group and got two, but this would explain why these cunning men never passed on their herbal and weather control knowledge. Gerald probably genuinely believed that their presence gave his group a lineage back to the Stone Age because that is what he wanted to believe himself.
Gardner worked on his project throughout World War Two, taking material from any source that didn't run away too fast. He was on friendly terms with the (in-)famous occultist, poet, "pervert," and Mesopagan prophet Aleister Crowley, whom he met only a few months before the latter's death in 1947. Crowley gave him a charter to found a branch of his ceremonial magic organization, the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), and granted him membership (with or without initiations being performed or money changing hands) in the Fourth Degree of that eleven-degreed organization. After Crowley's death, Gardner apparently spent at least a year trying to revive the moribund British O.T.O., before giving it up to concentrate on his Witchcraft project instead.
Crowley may also have given Gardner permission to use some of his poetry and ritual materials, which Gardner certainly did in any event, leading to claims years later by critics that Gardner had paid Crowley to write rituals for him. As some folks have said, this charge is ridiculous on the face of it, for if Crowley had written them, the poetry would have been much better.
Lance Sieveking, in his autobiography, The Eye of the Beholder, claims that in 1922, Montague Summers (author of several credulous books on werewolves, vampires and the Inquisition), told him that Crowley and he were "both honorary members of several of the best covens" and had attended "many a sabbat" together. Oddly, there is no mention of this unusual membership or activity in Crowley's obsessively detailed and thoroughly "shameless" diaries, which are otherwise quite blasé about many ideas and activities that even today are shocking to some.
There is an old rumor (still being told today) that Crowley had been "kicked out of" covens for refusing to obey their priestesses. This story was started by some of Gardner's less-scrupulous competitors, who were trying to assert the existence of pre-Gardner priestess-led covens. When author Gavin Frost asked Louisa Leek, who was a friend of Crowley's, about these stories, he tells me,
She laughed her head off. [She said,] 'Crowley could never have stood the middle-aged housewife types that were in the later covens.' Apparently, he held out for young, succulent, and intelligent.
According to Frost, Louisa Leek (mother of Sybil Leek) was a member of a British occult group, the "Pentagram Club," that competed with Gardner and his friends in the Witchcraft-inventing process.
Today there remains zero evidence that Crowley had any conscious hand in the creation of Gardner's religion of Witchcraft, or its rituals, and even less that he had ever been initiated into or practiced any form of witchcraft. He would have cheerfully bragged about them if he had! The people who invented these tales were simply, to use the technical historical term, lying.
Gardner's Crotona associates may have been, as he claimed, members of a surviving coven of Fam-Trad Witches. Or they may have been, as Fred Lamond, Gavin Frost, Ronald Hutton, and others believe, just a motley assortment of British occultists who had decided to create a new religion based on the books of Murray, Frazer, Leland, and other folklorists (to which Gardner would add the ideas of romantic poets, nudists, and nature religionists). Indeed, there apparently were several groups of British oc cultists, with overlapping memberships — England is a very small island — who were attempting to (re-)create Murray's religion of Pagan Witchcraft at the same time.
Whether or not he had "authority" to do so, from an ancient coven that may or may not have existed, Gerald Gardner founded his own coven during World War II (or shortly thereafter) and went merrily on his way. The war, unfortunately, had a devastating effect on occultism in Europe. The Nazis exterminated at least half the Gypsies in Europe, along with many astrologers, psychics, Freemasons, Rosicrucians, The-osophists, Spiritualists, and other members of minority belief systems. By 1940, if any of the postulated Fam-Trad Witches had been left in Europe, few would have survived, precisely because they had been masquerading as all those other kinds of occultist. Their carefully crafted cover stories would have left them obvious targets.
In 1948, Robert Graves published The White Goddess. Up to this point, would-be witchcraft reconstructionists had mostly been following the works of Leland, Frazer, and Murray, all of whom were at least attempting to be scholarly and scientific, albeit heavily influenced by the academic fashions of their time (unlike modern scholars who are, naturally, immune to such subcultural biases). Now Graves, a writer of historical novels, a classicist, and a roman tic poet, jumped into the act. The results were not pretty — or more precisely, that's all they were.
The purpose of The White Goddess was to prove that the Universal Goddess Worship theories were correct. To accomplish this took considerable acrobatics. He jumped back and forth from the Mediterranean to the British Isles and across great gaps of time. He constantly asked his readers to accept a "slight" bit of illogic and error, then built these up into gigantic megaliths of theory. While admitting he spoke no Celtic language, he appointed himself an authority on Welsh language and customs. He used obsolete and inaccurate translations of Celtic poetry, when there were good ones around in 1948, perhaps because the accurate translations wouldn't have supported his ideas as well. Graves' enthusiasm for the idea that all goddesses are either "Maidens," "Mothers," or "Crones" had a major effect upon what would become the "duo-theology" (see Appendix 2) of the Mesopagan Witchcraft movement.
(Graves, like Murray, is a good example of the "Retired Professor Syndrome," in which a perfectly competent academic retires, gets bored, and decides to write a book on something he or she knows nothing about — with embarrassingly bad results.)
In 1949, Gardner published another bad novel, High Magic's Aid, under the pen name of Scire ("knower"). He apparently wanted to advertise that he was a member of Crowley's magical order, since the note "4=7" appears under his name, indicating to the cognoscenti that he had reached the level of "Philosophus" in the O.T.O. Then as now, it was rare for anyone to actually work through the middle grades of the system (nepotism and graft always being a much faster way to rise), and as we have seen, Crowley had given him that rank after knowing him only a brief time. Perhaps Gardner wanted people to assume that he had a solid background in the Golden Dawn and tantric-based O.T.O. system of occult theory and practice, or perhaps he was sincerely studying them and intended to integrate them into his Witchcraft religion.
In 1951, the British Witchcraft Act (aimed at those who "pretended" to be witches) and the Vagrancy Act (aimed mostly at "Gypsies" and other traveling diviners who were assumed to be frauds) were both repealed (along with all the previous witchcraft laws in England) and a variety of "witches" surfaced. The most famous of these was the previously mentioned Sybil Leek, who claimed to be what I have called a Fam-Trad Witch (she may actually have been one if we consider her mother's supposed activities with the Pentagram Club).
In 1951, Gerald Gardner moved to the Isle of Man, settling into a building known as the Witches Mill, and running Cecil Williamson's Folklore Centre of Superstition and Witchcraft there as the "resident witch." Since Gardner had come to believe that a priestess must lead every coven, he began initiating likely candidates, and in 1953 initiated Doreen Valiente — one of his best decisions.
She rewrote most of his early ritual materials, dumping much of the early borrowings from Crowley, whom she loathed. Later she wrote her own excellent books, including An ABC of Witchcraft Past and Present, Witchcraft for Tomorrow, and Witchcraft: a Tradition Renewed. After she left the coven, Gardner worked with several other women as priestesses, including Patricia Crowther (also author of several books, including Lid off the Cauldron, Witches Were for Hanging and High Priestess), Monique Wilson, Elea-nore ("Ray") Bone, and others.
In 1954, Murray published The Divine King in England, in which she claimed, essentially, that every king of England had died ritually, as in Frazer's Golden Bough. By this time there were few scholars in the world who would believe her arguments, based as they were on obsolete theories, selective evidence and sloppy logic. But there were plenty of would-be witches happy to accept it all.
From the middle 1950s on, new covens split off from Gerald's original one, both le gitimately, through the process known as "hiving-off," wherein a Third Degree woman with other members leave amicably with permission to begin a new coven, and illegitimately, through the process known as "stealing a copy of the Book of Shadows." This last term, often abbreviated as BOS, was the name Gardner gave to his magical, initiatory, and pseudo-historical text.
Many versions of texts claiming to be from Gardner's original Book of Shadows have been published at one time or another, either by Gardner himself, his followers and spiritual descendants, or various plagiarists trying to cash in on his work. Gardner himself sent (badly) typewritten copies of his early drafts of rituals for the holidays, poems and theological meditations, etc., to his initiates, asking for corrections and advice on whether the material "felt right."
I obtained copies of some of these in 1973 (see Chapter 9), long before I was initiated into any tradition of Wicca (those initiations include one into a supposed Polish Fam-Trad in the late 1970s, into NROOGD — see below — in the 1980s, and into Gardnerianism in the 1990s). They supported many suspicions I had long had about the history of Wicca.
That said, it should also be noted that there is no such thing as "the" Gardnerian Book of Shadows! This is true not only because Gardner was constantly changing his own copies, but also because every Gardnerian initiate is supposed to be encouraged to add new materials and to pass these down to her or his own students in turn (with everything noted as to author and date of addition). So, no two copies of the BOS are identical and no one will ever be able to publish a "complete" edition.
Gardner's vision of Witchcraft was of a structured system with elders knowing more than newcomers, but with the members considering each other as more-or-less equals, in keeping with the "peasant religion" mythos. His earliest initiation scripts, as seen in his novel High Magic's Aid, had each member being labeled a "priest (or priestess) and witch" at their very first "Degree." Gardner had borrowed the Masonic pattern — and much of their scripts — of three "degrees" of initiation. However, he soon discovered the "90/10" rule common to most organizations, large or small: 90% of the work gets done by 10% of the members (while 90% of the complaining is done by a different 10%). So he soon had to invent the terms "High Priest" and "High Priestess" for the people actually fulfilling leadership roles.
The first splitting of one of Gardner's covens was apparently when the priestess (Valiente) left with most of the members and formed her own coven. Soon the term "hiv-ing-off" was coined, on the metaphor of young female bees leaving a successful hive with a few males to start new hives. Eventually, the High Priestess of a coven that had experienced successful hivings-off was known as a "Witch Queen." In a royalist nation, that was bound to cause problems, but not as many as it was to cause later in democratic countries.
The first hiving happened because Valiente and the others were opposed to the increasingly lurid interviews Gardner was giving to the British tabloid press (note to most Americans: these made — and make today — the National Enquirer look like the New York Times). Ironically, just such a lurid interview had attracted Valiente's attention to Gardner in the first place! Doreen and company also disapproved of some of the women Gerald was initiating (he did have a sweet tooth for young, attractive women, no matter how talentless).
I can offer two arguments in Gardner's defense here. (1) a stronger than average libido is extremely common among both male and female founders of new religions throughout history, and (2) I believe he was working on what we could today call a "Witches' Pyramid Scheme." By initiating as many young people as possible, and encouraging all of his initiates to do the same, he hoped that out of the large numbers who would eventually be initiated, enough of them would prove to have been good choices and would be able to keep his religion going.
This strategy worked surprisingly well. For example, one of Gardner's daughter covens initiated a couple named Rosemary and Raymond Buckland to all three Degrees. The initiations happened in a relatively short time, but this was (and still is) common in Masonic and other fraternal lodges, so Gardner allowed and encouraged quick initiations. The Bucklands then went to the United States and founded a coven in Long Island, New York. This coven became the source of one of the most distinguished (and prolific) of all the Gardnerian "family lines" of initiates in the United States. Indeed it's the line in which I eventually received my Gardnerian Wiccan initiations — not that I'm biased, of course...
When the Bucklands divorced sometime later, Rosemary got custody of the coven and quickly handed the High Priestess position down to another woman in the group. This left Raymond Buckland in a tight spot, for under the rules that had by then been created, a High Priestess must preside at all initiations. To solve his dilemma, Raymond Buckland invented Seax (or "Saxon") Wicca as an admittedly new denomination — or "Tradition" as all such new sects became known — into which anyone could initiate him- or herself. That let the rabbit out of the hutch and apparently she was already pregnant! Buckland's stamp of approval on self-initiation set off a population explosion of Witches. Meanwhile, other initiates of Gardner's various High Priestesses and daughter covens took his religion to Canada, Europe, Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere around the world.
The less-legitimate, light-fingered groups mentioned earlier commonly claimed, as did members of other competing Witchcraft revivals/inventions in England, to belong to traditions of Witchcraft that pre-dated Gardner's efforts. Yet somehow almost all of them wound up using rituals, customs, and vocabulary that were obviously derived from early drafts of Gardner's.
One of the early competitors, Robert Cochrane, was the one who in 1964 started referring to Gardner's new religion as "the Gardnerian Tradition" or "Gardnerianism." Gardner himself called it by several different names over the years, including "the Art," "the Craft, "the Old Order," and "Wica" (with a single "c"). Eventually just about everyone settled on the last term, restoring the missing second "c" and making "Wicca" (with a "k" sound) the more-or-less official generic term for what was to eventually become Neopagan Witchcraft (see below).
The first and most famous of those to schism from Gerald was Alex Sanders, who was later to make a career for himself as the purported "King of the Witches." Some have said that Alex's initiation was "not valid" since a First Degree priestess rather than one who held the Second Degree gave it to him. Lamond says:
As if that mattered! Alex was a natural medium and had been practicing ceremonial magic for a considerable time before his entry into Wicca, which is why he imported more kabalistic practices into his tradition than there are in Gardnerian Wicca. Like many ceremonial magicians who practice too much ... he had lost the ability to distinguish between planes of reality and really believed the whoppers he told people, like being initiated on the kitchen floor at the age of six by his grandmother.
Later, Alex or someone from his coven initiated (probably to the Second Degree only, and probably by mail) an American woman named Jessie Wicker Bell. She later became the "Lady Sheba" of Lady Sheba's Book of Shadows — which simply plagiarized parts of Gardner's BOS (a popular sport for a few decades). Bell also took part of the Frosts' Church and School of Wicca correspondence course (as have a surprising number of supposedly authentic holders of Ancient Wiccan Traditions). Her attempts in the early 1970s to get herself declared
"Queen of the Witches" in America met with little success, however (see next chapter).
I cannot in this short study give an adequate history of how Gardner's followers carried the faith to America and elsewhere. Suffice it to say, that by the middle 1960s, there were a handful of Gardnerian covens operating in the United States and Canada, and other parts of the English-speaking world. By the 1970s there were dozens more independent Traditions of Wicca flourishing throughout the English-speaking world. Both Aidan Kelly's Crafting the Art of Magic, though severely flawed, and Margot Adler's classic Drawing Down the Moon cover this material well (at least for the United States and Canada). The growth in numbers of Traditions and their members since has been astronomical.
The many current varieties of Wicca can be ranged on a spectrum of orthodoxy-to-heterodoxy thusly: on the conservative or orthodox side we will find:
• other groups that call themselves "British Traditionalists"
Groups that would be on the liberal or heterodox end of the spectrum would include:
• The New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn (or NROOGD, a tradition proudly self-invented in Berkeley, California in the 1960s, which chose a silly-sounding name to keep out people with no sense of humor)
• the gay and/or bisexual and/or straight groups who call themselves "Elvish" or "Fairy/Faery" Traditions (including that of Starhawk, author of The Spiral Dance)
• various Feminist Witchcraft groups discussed in Chapter 10.
Most Wiccan groups, of course, fall somewhere in between.
Many on both ends of the spectrum like to create a dichotomy (often a dualism) between (1) the "Traditionalists," who are the members of conservative groups with a legitimate (or purported) lineage back to Gardner or other British covens, and (2) the "Eclectics," who are those who are liberal in their practices, following the technique of using anything that works no matter where it comes from.
Some Wiccan groups cheerfully call themselves Eclectic, but the word is often used by the conservatives to imply that the liberals don't have The Real Truth and have to make things up as they go along (as if that were a crime).
Similarly, the liberals often use the word Traditionalist to mean "stuffy and rigid." The vast majority of Wiccans are religiously neither conservative nor liberal (on this particular spectrum), but somewhere in the middle, so in keeping with the principles of Western Dualism (see Appendix 2), they are usually accused by Wiccans at each extreme of belonging to the "enemy's" camp.
Beyond all the arrogance and egotism of these arguments, the primary difference between the eclecticism practiced by both the orthodox and the heterodox Wiccans, going all the way back to Gardner himself, is not the amount of material borrowed from other sources, but rather the speed at which new material is accepted as a permanent part of each Tradition/denomination.
I should point out that this chapter — indeed all of this book — is greatly indebted for the clarification of the Gardner-Crowley relationship, as well as much else in the complex background of Wicca's creation, to Ronald Hutton's magnificent work, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. This meticulously documented book by a sympathetic historian pounds the final nails into the coffin of the claims Gardner made (and others inflated) that Wicca was an ancient surviving British Pagan religion of Witchcraft.
None but the most stubbornly fundamentalist of orthodox Wiccans can deny
Wicca's true history any longer, though I'm sure that some of them will continue to try. See Ashleen O'Gaea's comments on Hut-ton's work in Appendix 7 for a detailed review of Hutton's work and some similar conclusions to those I've expressed here.
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