Witches of History: Gerald Gardner

Gerald Gardner is the father of Wicca, a path that has ancient roots but only recently gained acceptance and recognition. Witchcraft, as old as humanity itself, was historically shrouded in secrecy and met with harsh repercussions. Less than a century ago, the idea of Wicca, as we know it today, did not exist.

In our quest to honor our history and acknowledge those who paved the way, understanding the origins of our traditions and the individuals who established them is crucial. By delving into their stories and critically examining our practices, we can enrich our spiritual journey.

With this in mind, we embark on our "Witches of History" series, starting with Gerald Gardner.

Who Was Gerald Gardner?

Gerald Gardner was an amateur anthropologist and archaeologist from Lancashire, England, born in the late 19th century. A curious spirit by nature, Gardner was always attracted to the paranormal. There are conflicting sources about which one of his ancestors was a witch, but the consensus seems to be that the Craft was in his lineage. After joining several military groups in England and abroad in his youth, Gardner became a Freemason, but his interest in advancing through the ranks waned quickly.

While working as a civil servant in Sri Lanka and Singapore, Gardner developed a fascination in occult practices and began writing papers about them from an anthropological perspective at first. When back in Britain, this fascination was further kindled by visiting spiritualist churches and séances, where he became convinced he’d had several encounters with dead family members. For a while, Gardner’s occult interests were channeled into writing fiction: his first published book was a novel titled A Goddess Arrives. But that was going to change soon.

Gardner and Rosicrucianism

In 1936, Gardner returned to Europe, where he quickly realized the British climate was making him ill. He visited a doctor who suggested nudism as a cure, and Gardner quickly embraced the practice. (This will be important later.) After a quick sojourn in Cyprus, which inspired his novel and rekindled his belief in reincarnation, Gardner moved near the New Forest area, where he came across Rosicrucianism.

Rosicrucianism was one of the prominent spiritual and cultural movements of the time, combining the premises of Kabbalah, Hermeticism, alchemy, and Christian mysticism. Much like his experience with Freemasonry, Gardner joined enthusiastically at first but quickly lost interest—as he became convinced that the movement did not hold any real wisdom or power. Through this movement and its proximity to the New Forest, Gardner made an acquaintance that would change his life.

Margaret Murray and the Coven of the New Forest

One night, Gardner and the Fellowship of Rosicrucianism visited a local woman’s house where a ceremony took place. The ceremony felt like an initiation of sorts, and later Gardner claimed that this is where he first heard the word Wica (with one c) as an alternative to “witch.” He never revealed what actually took place during that ceremony and the ones that followed. Still, he spoke about one particular ceremony that took place in the New Forest woods, where the witches “formed a circle to raise a cone of power,” apparently to make it so England would never be occupied by the Nazis during WWII.

This experience was clearly transformational for Gardner, but it wasn’t the first time he came in contact with the idea of witchcraft as an ongoing, secret practice. The idea that some families of witches had escaped the burnings at the stake that took place during the Middle Ages and maintained their practice in secret was popular since Charles Godfrey Leland published Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, in 1899. And during Gardner’s time, archaeologist Margaret Murray published two seminal works, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and God of the Witches (1931), which hypothesized that an ancient Pagan religion devoted to a Horned God existed in different forms since antiquity and that the persecution of witches was an organized attempt to erase that religion.

The Horned God, according to Murray, was a god of fertility that Christians conflated with the devil—and it was this idea that made Gardner think that the coven he joined in the New Forest was part of the pre christian religion Murray talked about.

Gardner and the Birth of Wicca

After WWII, Gardner moved to London, where, continuing to pursue nudism as a way of life, he bought a plot of land that would operate as a nudist colony near Bricket Wood in Hertfordshire. When one of his friends, a Christian mystic who was also the proprietor of the Abbey Folk Park, Britain’s oldest open-air museum, showed Gardner a 16th-century cottage he called “a witch’s cottage,” Gardner bought it and transported it into his own land. In that cottage, now reconstructed, Gardner started organizing and hosting his first rituals with an emphasis on ceremonial magick, with The Key of Solomon grimoire as the main source.

Yet as time went by and Gardner joined even more occult groups (from the Ancient Druid Order to the Ancient British Church, the Folk-Lore Society, the Society for Psychical Research, and eventually, Aleister Crowley’s Thelema), his own thoughts about the old religion of magick and the New Forest coven were cementing. His second novel, High Magic’s Aid, was published in 1949, and it already blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction, as many of the rituals described in the book stemmed from his own practices. This is where Gardner’s love for nudity takes a new angle, as most of his rituals were supposed to be performed “skyclad” (naked).

For a while, Gardner was very invested in his peer relationship with Aleister Crowley and in climbing through the ranks of Ordo Templi Orientis, Crowley’s organization. Gardner was inspired by Crowley’s own writings, and (it has been said that) many of his rituals were basically adaptations of Crowley’s ones. But when Crowley died, even though he crowned Gardner his successor, other prominent members of Crowley’s organization disputed the decision. Denied the opportunity to follow in Crowley’s footsteps, Gardner turned his focus into his own version of the Craft—what would soon become known as Wicca.

Wicca Texts and Wicca Legacy

By 1951, Gardner was “out of the broom closet” as a witch in newspapers and the media, and by 1954, he even purchased a museum on the Isle of Man, which he named The Museum of Magic and Witchcraft. But one of the most important encounters of his life would take place in 1952 when he started exchanging correspondence with Doreen Valiente. Valiente soon became an essential member of Gardner’s coven ascending to the esteemed role of one of its high priestesses. it was with her assistance that he managed to compile his various notes and turn them into the seminal works of Wicca. His first book, Witchcraft Today, was published in 1954 with a preface by Margaret Murray—who basically legitimized Gardner’s claims of a secret coven in the New Forest and connected it to her own theories about the God of the Witches. His next book, The Meaning of Witchcraft, was published in 1959.

During the late ‘50s, Gardner established his coven in London, and his influence grew. He often invited the press to write about his “New Old Religion,” but the results were often defamatory. It wasn’t until the ‘60s after Gardner met the poet Robert Graves, whose book The White Goddess helped change people’s perception of magick and the Divine Feminine, that Wicca would start generating positive reactions from people.

Gerald Gardner died in 1964 from a heart attack while on a ship, traveling back from a vacation in Lebanon. After his death, some of his coven members carried on his tradition, which was renamed “Gardnerian Wicca.” In contrast, others, particularly those who moved to the States, started their own branches of Wicca. Gardner’s texts are considered the closest thing we have to “sacred texts,” but today, it is understood that some of the rituals described in them are more a product of Gardner’s own mystical and personal preferences. For example, the focus on nudity during rituals is now considered unnecessary by many—and we understand that Gardner insisted on it because of his own views on nudity as a health regimen. Similarly, although Doreen Valiente rewrote a significant part of Gardner’s texts to “remove Crowley’s influence,” there are still many similarities between Crowley’s and Gardner’s teachings, as they both draw from earlier ceremonial magick texts.

In the end, Gerald Gardner was a complicated, imperfect man who looked for meaning in many different places without much success. He took his eclectic tastes and various influences and used them to forge his own path and become the usher of a much-needed Neo-Pagan movement. Although today, historians have disputed both Murray’s and Gardner’s own claims about a continued line of witch covens that escaped the burnings, one thing is certain: humans will always have a need for witchcraft, something the Father of Wicca succeeded in was reminding them—and us—of that fact.

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© 2024 Wicca Magazine - All rights reserved.