Who Was Gerald Gardner?
Gerald Brousseau Gardner (1884–1964) was born in Lancashire, England. As a teen, he moved to Ceylon, and shortly prior to World War I, relocated to Malaya, where he worked as a civil servant. During his travels, he formed an interest in native cultures, and became a bit of an amateur folklorist. In particular, he was interested in indigenous magic and ritual practices.
After several decades abroad, Gardner returned to England in the 1930s, and settled near the New Forest.
It was here that he discovered European occultism and beliefs, and – according to his biography, claimed that he was initiated into the New Forest coven. Gardner believed that the witchcraft being practiced by this group was a holdover from an early, pre-Christian witch cult, much like the ones described in the writings of Margaret Murray.
Gardner took many of the practices and beliefs of the New Forest coven, combined them with ceremonial magic, kabbalah, and the writings of Aleister Crowley, as well as other sources. Together, this package of beliefs and practices became the Gardnerian tradition of Wicca. Gardner initiated a number of high priestesses into his coven, who in turn initiated new members of their own. In this manner, Wicca spread throughout the UK.
In 1964, on his way back from a trip to Lebanon, Gardner suffered a fatal heart attack at breakfast on the ship on which he traveled.
At the next port of call, in Tunisia, his body was removed from the ship and buried. Legend has it that only the ship’s captain was in attendance. In 2007, he was re-interred in a different cemetery, where a plaque on his headstone reads, “Father of Modern Wicca. Beloved of the Great Goddess.”
Origins of the Gardnerian Path
Gerald Gardner launched Wicca shortly after the end of World War II, and went public with his coven following the repeal of England’s Witchcraft Laws in the early 1950s.
There is a good deal of debate within the Wiccan community about whether the Gardnerian path is the only “true” Wiccan tradition, but the point remains that it was certainly the first. Gardnerian covens require initiation, and work on a degree system. Much of their information is initiatory and oathbound, which means it can never be shared with those outside the coven.
The Book of Shadows
The Gardnerian Book of Shadows was created by Gerald Gardner with some assistance and editing from Doreen Valiente, and drew heavily on works by Charles Leland, Aleister Crowley, and SJ MacGregor Mathers. Within a Gardnerian group, each member copies the coven BOS and then adds to it with their own information. Gardnerians self-identify by way of their lineage, which is always traced back to Gardner himself and those he initiated.
In the 1950s, when Gardner was writing what eventually become the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, one of the items he included was a list of guidelines called the Ardanes. The word “ardane” is a variant on “ordain”, or law. Gardner claimed that the Ardanes were ancient knowledge that had been passed down to him by way of the New Forest coven of witches. However, it’s entirely possible that Gardner wrote them himself; there was some disagreement in scholarly circles about the language contained within the Ardanes, in that some of the phrasing was archaic while some was more contemporary.
This led a number of people – including Gardner’s High Priestess, Doreen Valiente – to question the authenticity of the Ardanes. Valiente had suggested a set of rules for the coven, which included restrictions on public interviews and speaking with the press. Gardner introduced these Ardanes – or Old Laws – to his coven, in response to the complaints by Valiente.
One of the largest problems with the Ardanes is that there is no concrete evidence of their existence prior to Gardner’s revealing them in 1957. Valiente, and several other coven members, questioned whether or not he had written them himself – after all, much of what is included in the Ardanes appears in Gardner’s book, Witchcraft Today, as well as some of his other writings. Shelley Rabinovitch, author of The Encyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism, says, “After a coven meeting in late 1953, [Valiente] asked him about the Book of Shadows and some of its text.
He had told the coven that the material was ancient text passed down to him, but Doreen had identified passages that were blatantly copied from the ritual magic of Aleister Crowley.”
One of Valiente’s strongest arguments against the Ardanes – in addition to the fairly sexist language and misogyny – was that these writings never appeared in any previous coven documents. In other words, they appeared when Gardner needed them most, and not before.
Cassie Beyer of Wicca: For the Rest of Us says, “The problem is that no one’s sure if the New Forest Coven even existed or, if it did, how old or organized it was. Even Gardner confessed what they taught was fragmentary… It should also be noted that while the Old Laws speaks only of the punishment of burning for witches, England mostly hanged their witches. Scotland, however, did burn them.”
The dispute over the origins of the Ardanes eventually led Valiente and several other members of the group to part ways with Gardner. The Ardanes remain a part of the standard Gardnerian Book of Shadows. However, they are not followed by every Wiccan group, and are rarely used by non-Wiccan Pagan traditions.
There are 161 Ardanes in Gardner’s original work, and that’s a LOT of rules to be followed. Some of the Ardanes read as fragmentary sentences, or as continuations of the line before it. Many of them do not apply in today’s society. For instance, #35 reads, “And if any break these laws, even under torture, the curse of the goddess shall be upon them, so they may never be reborn on earth and may remain where they belong, in the hell of the Christians.” Many Pagans today would argue that it makes no sense at all to use the threat of the Christian hell as punishment for violating a mandate.
However, there are also a number of guidelines that can be helpful and practical advice, such as the suggestion to keep a book of herbal remedies, a recommendation that if there is a dispute within the group it should be fairly evaluated by the High Priestess, and a guideline on keeping one’s Book of Shadows in safe possession at all times.
You can read a complete text of the Ardanes here: Sacred Texts – the Gardnerian Book of Shadows
Gardnerian Wicca in the Public Eye
Gardner was an educated folklorist and occultist, and claimed to have been initiated himself into a coven of New Forest witches by a woman named Dorothy Clutterbuck. When England repealed the last of its witchcraft laws in 1951, Gardner went public with his coven, much to the consternation of many other witches in England. His active courting of publicity led to a rift between him and Valiente, who had been one of his High Priestesses. Gardner formed a series of covens throughout England prior to his death in 1964.
One of Gardner’s best known works, and the one that truly brought modern witchcraft into the public eye was his work Witchcraft Today, originally published in 1954, which has been reprinted several times.
Gardner’s Work Comes to America
In 1963, Gardner initiated Raymond Buckland, who then flew back to his home in the United States and formed the first Gardnerian coven in America. Gardnerian Wiccans in America trace their lineage to Gardner through Buckland.
Because Gardnerian Wicca is a mystery tradition, its members do not generally advertise or actively recruit new members.
In addition, public information about their specific practices and rituals is very difficult to find.
Gardnerian Wicca, or Gardnerian witchcraft, is a tradition in the neopagan religion of Wicca, whose members can trace initiatory descent from Gerald Gardner. The tradition is itself named after Gardner (1884–1964), a British civil servant and amateur scholar of magic. The term “Gardnerian” was probably coined by the founder of Cochranian Witchcraft, Robert Cochrane in the 1950s or 60s, who himself left that tradition to found his own.
Gardner claimed to have learned the beliefs and practises that would later become known as Gardnerian Wicca from the New Forest coven, who allegedly initiated him into their ranks in 1939. For this reason, Gardnerian Wicca is usually considered to be the earliest created tradition of Wicca, from which most subsequent Wiccan traditions are derived.
From the supposed New Forest coven, Gardner formed his own Bricket Wood coven, and in turn initiated many Witches, including a series of High Priestesses, founding further covens and continuing the initiation of more Wiccans into the tradition. In the UK, Europe and most Commonwealth countries someone self-defined as Wiccan is usually understood to be claiming initiatory descent from Gardner, either through Gardnerian Wicca, or through a derived branch such as Alexandrian Wicca or Algard Wicca. Elsewhere, these original lineaged traditions are termed “British Traditional Wicca”
Beliefs and practices
Covens and initiatory lines
Gardnerian Wiccans organise into covens, that traditionally, though not always, are limited to thirteen members. Covens are led by a High Priestess and the High Priest of her choice, and celebrate both a Goddess and a God.
Gardnerian Wicca and other forms of British Traditional Wicca operate as an initiatory mystery cult; membership is gained only through initiation by a Wiccan High Priestess or High Priest. Any valid line of initiatory descent can be traced all the way back to Gerald Gardner, and through him back to the New Forest coven.
Rituals and coven practices are kept secret from non-initiates, and many Wiccans maintain secrecy regarding their membership in the Religion. Whether any individual Wiccan chooses secrecy or openness often depends on their location, career, and life circumstances. In all cases, Gardnerian Wicca absolutely forbids any member to share the name, personal information, fact of membership, and so on without advanced individual consent of that member for that specific instance of sharing. (In this regard, secrecy is specifically for reasons of safety, in parallel to the LGBT custom of being “in the closet”, the heinousness of the act of “outing” anyone, and the dire possibilities of the consequences to an individual who is “outed”. Wiccans often refer to being in or out of the “broom closet”, to make the exactness of the parallel clear.)
In Gardnerian Wicca, the two principal deities are the Horned God and the Mother Goddess. Gardnerians use specific names for the God and the Goddess in their rituals. Doreen Valiente, a Gardnerian High Priestess, revealed that there were more than one. She said that Gardner referred to the Goddess as Airdia or Areda, which she believed was derived from Aradia, the deity that Charles Leland claimed was worshipped by Italian witches. She said that the God was called Cernunnos, or Kernunno, which in Celtic meant “The Horned One”. Another name by which Gardnerians called the God was Janicot (pronounced Jan-e-ko), which she believed was Basque in origin.
The Gardnerian tradition teaches a core ethical guideline, often referred to as “The Rede” or “The Wiccan Rede”. In the archaic language often retained in some Gardnerian lore, the Rede states, “An it harm none, do as thou wilt.”
Witches … are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol, “Do what you like so long as you harm no one”. But they believe a certain law to be important, “You must not use magic for anything which will cause harm to anyone, and if, to prevent a greater wrong being done, you must discommode someone, you must do it only in a way which will abate the harm.”
Two features stand out about the Rede. The first is that the word rede means “advice” or “counsel”. The Rede is not a commandment but a recommendation, a guideline. The second is that the advice to harm none stands at equal weight with the advice to do as one wills. Thus Gardnerian Wiccan teachings stand firm against coercion and for informed consent; forbid proselytization while requiring anyone seeking to become an initiate of Gardnerian Wicca to ask for teaching, studies, initiation. To expound a little further, the qualifying phrase “an (if) it harm none” includes not only other, but self. Hence, weighing the possible outcomes of an action is a part of the thought given before taking an action; the metaphor of tossing a pebble into a pond and observing the ripples that spread in every direction is sometimes used. The declarative statement “do as thou wilt” expresses a clear statement of what is, philosophically, known as “free will.”
A second ethical guideline is often called the Law of Return, sometimes the Rule of Three, which mirrors the physics concept described in Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion: “When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.”This basic law of physics is more usually today stated thus: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Like the Rede, this guideline teaches Gardnerians that whatever energy or intention one puts out into the world, whether magical or not, some response of equal effect will return. This teaching underlies the importance of doing no harm—for that would give impetus to a negative reaction centered on oneself or one’s group (such as a coven).
In Gardnerian Wicca, these tradition-specific teachings demand thought before action, especially magical action (spell work). An individual or a coven uses these guidelines to consider beforehand what the possible ramifications may be of any working. Given these two ethical core principles, Gardnerian Wicca hold themselves to a high ethical standard. For example, Gardnerian High Priestess Eleanor Bone was not only a respected elder in the tradition, but also a matron of a nursing home. Moreover, the Bricket Wood coven today is well known for its many members from academic or intellectual backgrounds, who contribute to the preservation of Wiccan knowledge. Gerald Gardner himself actively disseminated educational resources on folklore and the occult to the general public through his Museum of Witchcraft on the Isle of Man. Therefore, Gardnerian Wicca can be said to differ from some modern non-coven Craft practices that often concentrate on the solitary practitioner’s spiritual development.
The religion tends to be non-dogmatic, allowing each initiate to find for him/herself what the ritual experience means by using the basic language of the shared ritual tradition, to be discovered through the Mysteries. The tradition is often characterised as an orthopraxy (correct practice) rather than an orthodoxy (correct thinking), with adherents placing greater emphasis on a shared body of practices as opposed to faith
Gardner and the New Forest coven
On retirement from the British Colonial Service, Gardner moved to London but then before World War II moved to Highcliffe, east of Bournemouth and near the New Forest on the south coast of England. After attending a performance staged by the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship, he reports meeting a group of people who had preserved their historic occult practices. They recognised him as being “one of them” and convinced him to be initiated. It was only halfway through the initiation, he says, that it dawned on him what kind of group it was, and that witchcraft was still being practiced in England.
The group into which Gardner was initiated, known as the New Forest coven, was small and utterly secret as the Witchcraft Act of 1735 made it illegal—a crime—to claim to predict the future, conjure spirits, or cast spells; it likewise made an accusation of witchcraft a criminal offense. Gardner’s enthusiasm over the discovery that witchcraft survived in England led him to wish to document it, but both the witchcraft laws and the coven’s secrecy forbade that, despite his excitement. After World War II, Gardner’s High Priestess and coven leader relented sufficiently to allow a fictional treatment that did not expose them to prosecution, “High Magic’s Aid”.
Anyhow, I soon found myself in the circle and took the usual oaths of secrecy which bound me not to reveal any secrets of the cult. But, as it is a dying cult, I thought it was a pity that all the knowledge should be lost, so in the end I was permitted to write, as fiction, something of what a witch believes in the novel High Magic’s Aid.
After the witchcraft laws were repealed in 1951, and replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, Gerald Gardner went public, publishing his first non-fiction book about Witchcraft, “Witchcraft Today”, in 1954. Gardner continued, as the text often iterates, to respect his oaths and the wishes of his High Priestess in his writing. Fearing, as Gardner stated in the quote above, that witchcraft was literally dying out, he pursued publicity and welcomed new initiates during that last years of his life. Gardner even courted the attentions of the tabloid press, to the consternation of some more conservative members of the tradition. In Gardner’s own words, “Witchcraft doesn’t pay for broken windows!”
Gardner knew many famous occultists. Ross Nichols was a friend and fellow Druid (until 1964 Chairman of the Ancient Order of Druids, when he left to found his own Druidic Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids). Nichols edited Gardner’s “Witchcraft Today” and is mentioned extensively in Gardner’s “The Meaning of Witchcraft”. Near the end of Aleister Crowley’s life, Gardner met with him for the first time on May 1, 1947, and visited him twice more before Crowley’s death that autumn; at some point, Crowley gave Gardner an Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) charter and the 4th OTO degree—the lowest degree authorizing use of the charter.
Doreen Valiente, one of Gardner’s priestesses, identified the woman who initiated Gardner as Dorothy Clutterbuck, referenced in “A Witches’ Bible” by Janet and Stewart Farrar.Valiente’s identification was based on references Gardner made to a woman he called “Old Dorothy” whom Valiente remembered. Biographer Philip Heselton corrects Valiente, clarifying that Clutterbuck (Dorothy St. Quintin-Fordham, née Clutterbuck), a Pagan-minded woman, owned the Mill House, where the New Forest coven performed Gardner’s initiation ritual. Scholar Ronald Hutton argues in his Triumph of the Moon that Gardner’s tradition was largely the inspiration of members of the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship and especially that of a woman known by the magical name of “Dafo”. Dr. Leo Ruickbie, in his Witchcraft Out of the Shadows, analysed the documented evidence and concluded that Aleister Crowley played a crucial role in inspiring Gardner to establish a new pagan religion. Ruickbie, Hutton, and others further argue that much of what has been published of Gardnerian Wicca, as Gardner’s practice came to be known, was written by Blake, Yeats, Valiente and Crowley and contains borrowings from other identifiable sources.
The witches Gardner was originally introduced to were originally referred to by him as “the Wica” and he would often use the term “Witch Cult” to describe the religion. Other terms used, included “Witchcraft” or “the Old Religion.” Later publications standardised the spelling to “Wicca” and it came to be used as the term for the Craft, rather than its followers. “Gardnerian” was originally a pejorative term used by Gardner’s contemporary Roy Bowers (also known as Robert Cochrane), a British cunning man, who nonetheless was initiated into Gardnerian Wicca a couple of years following Gardner’s death.
Reconstruction of the Wiccan rituals
Gardner stated that the rituals of the existing group were fragmentary at best, and he set about fleshing them out, drawing on his library and knowledge as an occultist and amateur folklorist. Gardner borrowed and wove together appropriate material from other artists and occultists, most notably Charles Godfrey Leland’s Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, the Key of Solomon as published by S.L. MacGregor Mathers, Masonic ritual, Crowley, and Rudyard Kipling. Doreen Valiente wrote much of the best-known poetry, including the much-quoted Charge of the Goddess.
Bricket Wood and the North London coven
In 1948-9 Gardner and Dafo were running a coven separate from the original New Forest coven at a naturist club near Bricket Wood to the north of London. By 1952 Dafo’s health had begun to decline, and she was increasingly wary of Gardner’s publicity-seeking. In 1953 Gardner met Doreen Valiente who was to become his High Priestess in succession to Dafo. The question of publicity led to Doreen and others formulating thirteen proposed ‘Rules for the Craft’, which included restrictions on contact with the press. Gardner responded with the sudden production of the Wiccan Laws which led to some of his members, including Valiente, leaving the coven.
Gardner reported that witches were taught that the power of the human body can be released, for use in a coven’s circle, by various means, and released more easily without clothing. A simple method was dancing round the circle singing or chanting; another method was the traditional “binding and scourging.” In addition to raising power, “binding and scourging” can heighten the initiates’ sensitivity and spiritual experience.
Following the time Gardner spent on the Isle of Man, the coven began to experiment with circle dancing as an alternative. It was also about this time that the lesser 4 of the 8 Sabbats were given greater prominence. Brickett Wood coven members liked the Sabbat celebrations so much, they decided that there was no reason to keep them confined to the closest full moon meeting, and made them festivities in their own right. As Gardner had no objection to this change suggested by the Brickett Wood coven, this collective decision resulted in what is now the standard eight festivities in the Wiccan Wheel of the year.
The split with Valiente led to the Bricket Wood coven being led by Jack Bracelin and a new High Priestess, Dayonis. This was the first of a number of disputes between individuals and groups, but the increased publicity only seems to have allowed Gardnerian Wicca to grow much more rapidly. Certain initiates such as Alex Sanders and Raymond Buckland who brought his take on the Gardnerian tradition to the United States in 1964 started off their own major traditions allowing further expansion.