Gerald Brosseau Gardner is a controversial but highly influential figure in Neo-Paganism and particularly Wicca. Many of the things we associate with modern Paganism came from him, including the athame, the Book of Shadows, and well-known rituals like Drawing Down the Moon and the Charge of the Goddess. It’s no secret that he could lie his head off, copied the works of other occultists in his rituals without giving them credit, and was a little too eager for the attention of the press. But a closer examination of his work and life show that he was dedicated, creative, and knowledgeable, and Neo-Paganism wouldn’t be what it is today without him.
Gerald Gardner’s Life
Writing about Gardner is tricky because he told a lot of stories that can’t be verified. Ronald Hutton in The Triumph of the Moon has done diligent work in trying to figure out what’s the truth, but even he admits that there’s no way of knowing for certain whether Gardner’s lies are all lies or whether there’s a grain of truth in them. He’s my main source on Gardner’s life and work.
Gerald Gardner was born in 1884 and spent most of his adult life in the Far East. He owned or managed plantations in Ceylon, North Borneo, and Malaya. He was later a customs inspector in Malaya. He had a lifelong interest in the occult, magick, archeology, and folklore and even wrote books about these subjects between 1933 and 1939. He had a special interest in ritual knives, which at least partially explains why he gave the athame (a word he coined, pronounced “athaymee”) an emphasis in Wiccan ritual.
He married a nurse at the age of 43 who never shared his interest in Paganism or the occult. They eventually moved back to England in 1936. This is where it gets complicated. In 1939, he claimed to have been initiated into a witch’s coven that had been practicing for centuries. Hutton has done extensive research trying to verify this and makes a really convincing argument that the woman he named as head of the coven was actually never involved.
This has made scholars wonder whether he was ever initiated into a witchcraft tradition in the first place. Doreen Valiente, his high priestess for a number of years, wrote that when she asked him about material from modern occult sources (Aleister Crowley, for instance) that she saw in ritual materials, he told her that the material he had inherited from the coven was fragmented and thus he had to supplement with other sources. She generally believed him, and Hutton admits that among the obvious borrowings, there’s some original material that he hasn’t found elsewhere.
In any case, a coven that he headed was eventually established. They bought land in St. Albans in Hertfordshire and placed “a complete ‘reconstruction’ of a sixteenth-century witch’s cottage, made of half-timber and having cabbalistic designs upon the inner walls.” This is where they practiced. In 1951, Gardner took his group public when antiquated laws persecuting people for practicing witchcraft were repealed. According to Anthony Kemp in Witchcraft and Paganism Today,
Gardner was genuinely convinced that he had a mission to re-create the old Pagan religion of Britain and make it available to the general public.
At first, Gardner’s group found support in the press, but eventually, they changed their views and decided to cash in on anti-witchcraft sentiments (i.e., devil worship and other nonsense). This caused a rift in the coven. By then, Doreen Valiente was high priestess, and she and some others wanted to withdraw from public view. They figured it was smarter to promote their beliefs and practices through books and other publications they could control. Gardner and others, though, believed they could find some journalists who were sympathetic and would express their views honestly.
Gardner won out, and Valiente and her followers eventually split from the coven. Unfortunately, Gardner placed too much trust in the attention-hungry media and was subsequently crucified. The coven still managed to survive and initiated many who would go on to start their own Gardnerian-inspired traditions. He died on February 12, 1964, of a heart attack, having achieved his desire of exposing people to the beauty of the witch tradition. As Margot Adler puts it in Drawing Down the Moon,
And whatever Gardner had done in England for good or ill, his books had served as a catalyst or springboard for many covens and traditions that did not necessarily “look” Gardnerian.
It’s not possible for me in this short blog post to write a detailed description of Gardnerian Wicca based on my research, but there are a few ideas that struck me. We tend to think of it as an organically original tradition, but it’s pieced together from many ideas. If you’ve ever wondered why there’s a link between “high magick” (like the sort Aleister Crowley practiced) and Wicca, one influence clearly lies in Gardner. He was also influenced by Margaret Murray’s ideas of an ancient “witch cult,” which have since been discredited. Folklore and archeology, lifelong interests for Gardner, also influenced the development of Gardnerian Wicca.
Gardner’s initially shared witchcraft beliefs and rituals (whether his own invention or taken from the coven he was initiated into or a combination of the two) in a novel he published in 1949 (before the laws against witchcraft were repealed) called High Magic’s Aid. Hutton writes that it
stands at a sort of crossroads, for its sympathies are divided equally between the witch religion and the ‘high magic’ of learned magicians; it portrayed some of the rituals of both.
It was likely written at a time when Gardner was attempting to revive the British branch of the organization Aleister Crowley was involved in called Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), of which Gardner was an initiate. Gardner had been in contact with Crowley in 1947, the last year of Crowley’s life, for this reason. It didn’t go so well, though, and he abandoned the project a year later.
Gardnerian Wicca was more fully established by the time Gardner published his book Witchcraft Today in 1954. In the book, he poses as an archeologist who discovered an ancient Pagan religion that had survived for centuries. Coven work focused on trance-like rituals performed in the nude to encourage fertility. The coven worshiped a Goddess and God and believed in reincarnation. The group also worked on using their inherent psychic abilities. Rituals were performed, Hutton writes, “not merely to address their deities, but to feel as though they had become them.”
The first distinctive feature of Gardnerian Wicca is the view that sexual energy is sacred, which Hutton attributes at least partially to the influence of Crowley. An example is the ritual where the athame (symbol of the male phallus) is lowered point downwards into a cup of wine (symbol of the female womb). This also appears in Crowley’s materials, but Gardner’s modifications are interesting. Crowley has the high priestess holding the cup and the high priest holding the athame. Gardner has the high priestess lowering the athame into the cup the high priest is holding, which to me demonstrates the inherent “male” and “female” within all of us.
The second distinctive feature of Gardnerian Wicca is the use of binding and scourging. Many are familiar with these through sadomasochistic sexual practices, but the use of these in Gardnerian Wiccan rituals has nothing to do with sexual gratification. Hutton describes their use as
a highly idiosyncratic and thoroughly unusual way of attaining an ecstatic trance….The cords are used to apply a gentle restriction of the blood circulation to produce dizziness, and the scourge is applied very lightly and steadily to induce a rhythmical tingling sensation.
Gardner had, in fact, identified various ways to enter a trance state and simply preferred this one for various reasons.
The importance of the trance state in ritual links to the third distinctive feature of Gardnerian Wicca, which is the performance of magick. Given his lifelong interest in it and involvement with other magickal orders, it’s not surprising that each seasonal ritual left room for magick to be performed by the group. Gardner, in fact, made working magick in a small group popular with techniques such as dancing in a circle to build a cone of energy and then releasing it towards a specific purpose.
Gardner as Teacher
I want to end this post on Gardner by discussing two things that struck me as I read about his life. The first is his complete dedication, even obsession, with his path. He was constantly reading books and periodicals on topics that would help him shape his worldview and practices: the occult, magick, folklore, archeology. He was also inspired by literature and poetry. In our busy modern lives, it’s difficult to have this kind of focus on our spiritual development, but nevertheless, I see him as a model for trying.
The second thing that struck me was his dedication to his Book of Shadows. This was actually a term he coined that, according to Doreen Valiente, apparently came from an article in The Occult Observer from 1949 that described an ancient manuscript in Sanskrit that taught how to foretell the future from the length of a person’s shadow. It began as a book to be used in rituals but later became a scrapbook for various ideas when ritual material was transferred to another book.
According to Hutton, it originally consisted of initiations into three levels: priestess/witch, twice-consecrated high priestess, and witch queen. These are what appeared in his novel High Magic’s Aid. There was also a blessing for the wine. Other rituals, such as casting the circle, are taken from “high magick” texts that had nothing to do with witchcraft. His sources were mainly on ritual magic; various grimoires, including the Goetia; three of Crowley’s works; and even the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot. Gardner freely copied portions of incantations from these rituals to use in his own rituals as well as modifying them as it suited him.
Hutton observes that there was an emphasis on “high magick” and theory in the earlier parts of the book (likely prior to 1948) and then a shift in focus on witchcraft and ritual after that date. Gardner began incorporating seasonal rituals, again mostly copied from other sources. He was heavily influenced here by Margaret Murray. However, Margot Adler states that Gardner’s emphasis on the goddess and the high priestess as a leader in the rituals and the practice of becoming one with the divine God and Goddess through trance were his innovations. He also added the practices of binding and flagellation and dancing as a means of celebration, trance, and working magick.
Topics covered in his Book of Shadows, according to Hutton, include:
- Magic (theory and practice)
- Tools (including consecration)
- Ritual space
- The human body in ritual
- Ritual practices
- Invoking spirits
He was constantly adding material, expanding his knowledge, and modifying ideas. In other words, the Book of Shadows was for him a dynamic record of his worldview and practices that evolved as he developed spiritually, and I see this as a model for anyone keeping a Book of Shadows.
Hutton acknowledges that Gardner regularly lied and plagiarized the work of others and thrust himself and his coven members into the limelight a little too eagerly at times. However, he’s no less remarkable for his dedication and perseverance in opening up witchcraft to the world.
In the last analysis, the old rascal is still in charge of the early history of his movement.
Here are some online resources for anyone looking to discover more about Gerald Gardner:
- Morgan S. Davis runs GeraldGardner.com, a simple but information-packed site with articles, links to related sites, and archives of some old material, including interviews and news articles from when Gardner was alive.
- Although not very informative, here’s a snippet of an interview with Gerald Gardner from 1957. The program is actually about an investigative reporter named Daniel Farson who went around pushing people’s buttons on hot topics. The snippet with Gardner focuses on the sexual/nude aspect of ritual and runs from 00:40 to 1:22. (Just for a laugh, you can view the snippet with a Dr. Davis following Gardner’s interview as he clumsily stammers through his anti-nudist views.)
- George Knowles has an extensive site on witchcraft, Wicca, and Paganism. His biography of Gerald Gardner is more detailed than others I’ve found online and has some interesting pictures. Note, however, that he believes that Gardner was initiated into a coven in 1939, which Hutton, in his extensive research, couldn’t prove.