The Man, the Myth & the Magick
by Mike Howard
While living in Bournemouth in Hampshire in 1952 a young student of the occult called Doreen Valiente read an article in Illustrated magazine about modern witchcraft in Britain. This article provides a fascinating snapshot of witchcraft in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It mentions groups of witches in Liverpool, Bamet and Cumberland- It also says a coven of three men and four women still met near Meon Hill in Warwickshire, site of the Charles Walton 'ritual murder' in 1945.The article also describes an eye-witness account of a ritual held at the Rollright Stones on May 12 1949 (01d May Eve and a full moon) observed by hidden witnesses. Five cloaked figures were seen dancing back to back widdershins around the King Stone led by a man in a horned mask.
The article also described the 'Southern Coven of British Witches', who worshipped a Horned God of death and a Goddess of fertility. They told the reporter they based their rituals on 'instructions laid down from their EIders and eked out with rituals from The Clavicule [Key] of Solomon'. The 1940 Lammas ritual in the New Forest to stop Hitler was also mentioned. It involved seventeen men and women, some of whom, the article says, were air-raid wardens who because of their expertise tended the fire in accordance with the black-out regulations. The article quotes other members of the coven who told of family traditions of a similar ritual being performed to stop the French invading during the Napoleonic Wars. According to the article: 'Hereditary witches, who have the lore handed down to them, form a proportion of the coven, whose average ages are rather high. they make up the members by inviting certain well-known enthusiasts to join them. These have made a wider study than the locals and constitute the intellectual wing of the coven.' This seems to confirm the stories from various other sources that the membership of the New Forest coven was made up of local country folk and incomers who were middle-class occultists.
This is also confirmed in the Jack Bracelin/Idries Shah biography of Gardner, which states that some of his fellow Co-Masons in the Crotona Fellowship in Christchurch 'had discovered an old coven' in the New Forest which they had joined and had remained there because of it. In Gardner's own words: 'I found that Old Dorothy [Clutterbuck], and some like her, [i.e- Co-Masons], plus a number of New Forest people, had kept the light [of witchcraft] shining...' (1960: 166).The Illustrated article also stated that modern covens were 1ed by women officers. The reason given for this was that there had been a shift of emphasis towards the 'life-goddess' from 'the Lord of Death'. Again this comment seems to confirm claims that the original New Forest coven founded in the 1920s laid more emphasis on the Homed God (see Liddell 1994: 158). This may have been because it was following a 'traditional' line, or because the newcomers had been influenced by Dr Margaret Murray's theories about historical witchcraft.
Cecil Williamson, founder of the witchcraft museum on the Isle of Man in 1950, was also prominently featured in the article. Doreen Valiente wrote to him and asked to be put in touch with the 'Southern Coven'. Williamson passed her letter on to Gardner. In his reply Gardner said he had a friend who lived at Christchurch, a town next to Boumemouth, and he asked Valiente if she would like to meet her. In the late autumn of 1952 Valiente was invited for aftemoon tea at the home of Dafo (Mrs Woodford-Grimes), a private music teacher who had been the Maiden of the New Forest coven. Gardner was also present. Dafo told Valiente that because of ill-health and social reasons she no longer took a prominent role in the Craft. Gardner lent Valiente a copy of his historical novel High Magic's Aid (1949). He said that it would tell her much about the witch cult (sic) and how it had been misrepresented over the centuries. Valiente later realised that he gave this book to all prospective initiates to read as a test. If they were shocked by the descriptions in it of ritual nudity, flagellation and the Craft as a 'phallic religion' then he would proceed no further. (Valiente 1989:39).
This rather contradicts newspaper claims that Gardner enticed young people into sexual rites. Only consenting adults were initiated into his covens and they knew what to expect before initiation. Having apparently passed the test, Valiente was initiated by Gardner at midsummer 1953. The ceremony took place at Dafo's house in Christchurch. Valiente has evocatively described the scene: 'I can seem to see him now standing by our improvised altar in that candle-lit room. He was tall, stark naked, with wild white hair, a sun-tanned body and arms which had tattoos and a heavy bronze bracelet. In one hand he brandished '01d Dorothy's' sword, while in the other he held the handwritten Book of Shadows, as he read the ritual by which I was finally made a priestess and witch.' (Valiente 1989:47). The next day the three witches attended the druidic midsummer solstice ceremony at Stonehenge. Gardner had travelled down from the Isle of Man with the sword that had belonged to Dorothy Clutterbuck and which, apparently, was traditionally used by the Druid Order each summer for their solstice ritual. Gardner was certainly a member of the Druid Order and, it is rumoured, Old Dorothy had also belonged.
As time passed Valiente became rather disconcerted when she recognised material in the rites of Wicca from the published works of Aleister Crowley and others. When she challenged Gardner about this he told her that the rites he had received from the old coven in the New Forest had been fragmentary. He had therefore been forced to add other material, including extracts from Crowley's works, which 'breathed the very spirit of paganism' (Valiente 1989:57). Valiente accepted this explanation and she believed that the fragments of the 'ancient rituals' had been in the hands of the elderly members of the coven. She believed that Gardner, with his magical and occult knowledge, had pieced these together and added other material to make them workable.
Gardner had also told her that he held a charter from Crowley to found a lodge of the OTO (Ordo Templis Orientis) and he was therefore entitled to use extracts from the Great Beast's works. Valiente however did not feel that some of Crowley's material fitted and she did a great service to modern Wicca by helping to rewrite the Book of Shadows to tone down the Crowleyanity. In the process she produced a poetic version of The Charge of the Goddess and new rituals for Yule, the summer solstice and the spring equinox.
An interesting sidelight on Gardner's comments are given by Bill Love in an article published in 1988 by Prediction. Love first contacted the Craft as a university student in Scotland in 1942. A friendship with another student led him to believe that witchcraft was still being practised in Scotland in the 1940s as a survival of the pagan old Religion. After his demob from the RAF at the end of the war, Love was initiated into an Essex coven that had been practising before the war. Subsequently he also met a woman who was in another coven which met in a village outside Rye in East Sussex.Although there was no direct contact between the two covens, he found they shared the same organisation and identical rites.In 1955 Love met Gerald Gardner, and was surprised to find out that the version of the Craft he was advocating was very different from the practices and beliefs of the covens in Essex and Sussex. Love says: , But Gardner certainly appeared to have knowledge of the rites and practices of the coven to which I belonged and, from the information I gleaned from him, I formed the opinion that the New Forest coven into which he had been initiated was far more akin to my own in their rites then to the system he was now practising.'
In 1954 Rider & Co published Gardner's first non-fiction book on the Craft, Witchcraft Today. This had an introduction by Dr Margaret Murray which lent it some academic authority, even if she was regarded by many other academics as an eccentric. Gardner and Murray had met as fellow members of the Folklore Society before the war. Although she had written the introduction, in private Murray called Gardner 'a dangerous fool' (Personal communication from Cecil Williamson). Despite this Murray refers to Gardner's claim that he had found groups (sic) of people allegedly still practising the same rites as the medieval witches. She notes his claim that their rituals were not revivals copied out of books but a true survival. One book itself is a typical scissors-and-paste job and overall a bit of a hotchpotch, even though it was supposed to have been heavily edited by the druid Ross Nichols. For a book which claims to be the authentic voice of a survival of medieval witchcraft it contains an awful lot of speculation about the possible origins of the Craft in the last two hundred years! It is also heavily influenced by Murray's own theories about Stone Age fertility cults, Robin Hood and the Little People. However, Gardner's views on the Goddess are uniquely his own, and are a departure from the Murrayite version of historical witchcraft where the primary object of worship is the Horned God. Chapter Four in particular is interesting for a number of reasons. It repeats the story that Crowley had been a witch as a young man. Gardner says: 'The only man I can think of who could have invented them [the witch rites] was Aleister Crowley. When I met him he was most interested to know I was a member and said he had been inside when he was very young, but would not say whether he had written anything or not' (1954:46) Gardner then goes on to mention Rudyard Kipling, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Sir Francis Dashwood, of the so-called Hellfire Club, as other possible originators of witchcraft rites. The more cynical have seen this as an attempt to ward off accusations of plagiarism. Others, perhaps more kindly, have identified coded references to revivals of witchcraft and classical paganism dating from the early 1800s to before the last war. Neither explanation, or Gardner's speculative musings, offers any evidence to support 'an unbroken tradition of witchcraft dating back to the Stone Age' - or even the Middle Ages as the book claims.
Like so many others who claimed ancient roots, Gardner could be economical with the truth when it suited his purpose. For instance when describing the Yule ritual on pages 26 and 27 of Witchcraft Today, he tells his readers that he has seen a very interesting winter solstice ritual called The Cauldron of Regeneration and the Dance of the Wheel. This involved lighting torches at a blazing cauldron and then dancing around it. So far so good. He then says: The chant I heard was as follows...' and he proceeds to quote from the Book of Shadows. It is unlikely however that Gardner ever heard this chant in the context of an age-old ritual passed down to him from his parent coven or earlier sources as is claimed in the book. In fact the words for this Yule ritual were written by Doreen Valiente at Gardner's request one midwinter afternoon in the 1950s! He told her he had the broad outlines of a Yule ritual allegedly used by New Forest. Valiente spent several hours in his library looking for inspiration and then wrote the words using material from a collection of Celtic Christian hymns collected by the 19th century Scottish folklorist Alexander Carmichael (1940).
During the 1950s Gardner consolidated his version of witchcraft. By the end of the decade the early concept of letting neophytes wait a year and a day for initiation had been abandoned due to Gardner's impatience with the slow growth of Wicca. People were initiated in a few months after their first meeting with Gardner. In one instance he allegedly took a new female enquirer through all three degrees of initiation in a month, and then installed her as a High Priestess. When challenged Gardner responded that it was essential the Craft survived and was passed on to a new generation. It was evident he felt his own time was running out as he was in his seventies by then and not in the best of health.
Valiente has said that Gardner believed a call should be sent out to young people who were witches at heart and who had perhaps been in the Craft in earlier lives so that it should survive. Considering the fact that there is evidence that there were pre-Gardnerian witches around in the 1940s and 1950s, Gardner's worries about the imminent extinction of the Crafi seem a bit over-heated. It is more likely that, as an elderly man, Gardner was desperately seeking to promote his own version of the Craft so that it survived his death and was established as a popular neo-pagan religion. At the same time Gardner was defending himself from media attacks. In 1955 a Sunday newspaper had published a series of articles linking witchcraft with Satanism (nothing changes!). Gardner became involved when a reporter interviewed him and followed it up with a story describing Gardner as 'a whitewasher of witchcraft' who was luring young people into covens practising sexual rites while claiming in public it was all harmless fun. According to Valiente, there was serious fear among the witches that the police might get involved.
Rumours were flying about concerning telephone taps and intercepted mail and Gardner considered fleeing abroad until things calmed down. As it was there was no police investigation of Wicca, but in 1956 more sensational stories appeared in the papers linking the witchcraft revival with alleged voodoo cults in the West Midlands and the unsolved murder of Charles Walton ten years or so before. Valiente says she spent much of that year investigating and debunking these allegations. Her research was published in Gardner's second non-fiction book, The Meaning of Witchcraft, published in 1959.
Unfortunately, coinciding with all this negative publicity, two rival factions had formed within Gardner's coven at Brickett Wood in Hertfordshire. Some of the group, led by Jack Bracelin and his girl friend Amanda, supported Gardner in the publicising of Wicca and attracting new blood. The others, including Doreen Valiente, were strongly opposed. They were worried about what might be revealed publicly and they drew up a set of , Rules for the Craft'. The main purpose of these was to 'ensure secrecy to which we had been solemnly sworn when we were initiated...' (Valiente 1989:69). After some delay, Gardner responded by claiming that there was no need of any 'Rules' because a set of 'Laws for the Craft' already existed and he sent copy of these to the anti-publicity faction. The sudden appearance of these 'Laws' was apparently a bit of a surprise to the rebels and they wrote back to Gardner on the Isle of Man and openly accused him of inventing them. In fact it has been rumoured that they had been concocted by Gardner and Bracelin. Recently other sources have claimed that 18th and 19th century versions of the Craft Laws exist, but whether these are similar to those Gardner produced (or even genuine) is at present unknown. A forthcoming book promises to reveal all.
Things came to a head when Gardner allowed himself to be photographed for a popular magazine. He was shown sitting cross-legged in a magickal circle waving a sword at an effigy described as 'a bat winged demon'. The anti-publicity faction had had enough and in the summer of 1957 the Brickett Wood split in two. Those who left to form their own group still believed Gardner had found an old coven in the New Forest, but, in Valiente's words, they had had enough of 'the gospel according to St Gerald'.
In the 1960s Valiente became a member of the famous group led by the hereditary magister Robert Cochrane. After Cochrane's death in 1966 several prominent Gardnerians were involved in The Regency, a pagan group based on his teachings, and of the Witchcraft Research Association, which attempted to bring together the Gardnerians and other witches. It collapsed in a flood of bitchcraft and Bicca between the Gardnerians and those who claimed a pre-Gardnerian heritage.
The rebels misgivings about publicity were justified in 1957 when The Sunday People printed an article on a 'repulsive pagan sect' they had found in North London. It included a photograph of Bracelin, Amanda and others sitting skyclad around an altar in a house in Finchley. The reporter said he had been invited to attend the circle and witness the rites. The location of the 'witches cottage' was also published by the same paper in I959, along with allegations that it was the site of rituals to 'the gods of fertility' involving nudity and 'the worship of sex'. All this was pretty shocking in the Fifties and Valiente says Amanda lost her job when reporters besieged her office. Gardner fled to the Channel Islands to escape the publicity and distances himself from the whole episode in The Meaning of Witchcraft. Jack Bracelin later abandoned Wicca and converted to Christianity before his death in the 1980s. .The next Hallowe'en three carloads of reporters turned up at the Bricket Wood covenstead looking for witches with a mobile searchlight mounted on a lorry. Eventually the police were called and the frustrated journalists were told to leave. Modern Wicca was well and truly out of the broom closet and exposed to the harsh light of publicity, but worse was to come.... to be concluded.
In Part 4: Gerald Gardner and Idries Shah; Gardner visits Robert Graves; early Gardnerian Wicca in the United States; Alex Sanders seeks initiation; Monique Wilson and the controversy over Gardner's will; the Isle of Man museum is sold abroad; Charles Cardell exposes the Book of Shadows; Gardner and the Pickingill Craft (the truth?); and Gardner's legacy today.
Witchcraft in Britain by AlIen Andrews in Illustrated (September 27 1952), Gerald Gardner. Witch Jack Bracelin (Octagon Press 1960), The Pickingill Papers E.W. Liddell with M.A.Howard (Capall Bann I 994), The Rebirth of Witchcraft and The ABC of Witchcraft Doreen V aliente (Robert Hale 1989 and 1973) , Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft Gerald Gardner (Rider & Co 1954 and Aquarian Press 1959), Witchcraft Now by Bill Love in Prediction (n.d.), The Sun Dances : Prayers & Blessings from the Gaelic Alexander Carmichael ( 1940 Floris Books edition 1977), and The Witchcraft Interviews -Doreen Valiente & Alex Sanders Kevin & Ingrid Carlyon ( 1989).