How much did Gerald Gardner borrow or make up in the Wicca he presented to
the public? Several Pagan scholars including Issac Bonewits, James W.
Baker, and Aidan Kelly, contend that Gardner's Wicca is largely based on
practices he either created or borrowed from the Western ceremonial magic tradition
of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In contrast to Gardnerian Wicca, remnants of an authentic folk magic did
survive into the 20th century. This folk magic, whose practitioners have
been Christians for centuries, may be the true surviving remnant of ancient
European religions. In this article, I will summarize what is known about
the origins of Gardnerian Wicca and then describe two American folk magical
traditions, Southern Appalachian magic, and Pennsylvania Dutch hexcraft or
The modern witchcraft revival can be largely attributed to Gardner's
publishing his non-fiction book Witchcraft Today in 1954. The repeal of the
last English witchcraft laws in 1951 made it possible for Gardner, a retired
British civil servant with a long career in the Far East, to openly
publicize his 'witchy' religion.
Witchcraft Today described a surviving pre-Christian religion that
celebrated the seasonal changes with Sabbats and the lunar cycles with
Esbats. The model Gardnerian coven consisted of thirteen people who worked
together skyclad during fairly elaborate rituals. The High Priest and High
Priestess participated in 'The Great Rite' of ritual sex at least in private
if not at coven events. Gardner called this religion 'Wica.' Later another
"c" was added to Wica to form the word 'Wicca' commonly used today. Wicca
is the Anglo-Saxon word for a male witch according to Baker, who notes that
this term had been out of popular usage centuries before Gardner adopted it.
In the thirty years since Gardner's death in 1964, Wicca has had an amazing
growth. This religion obviously fills a need in the lives of people, who
seek spirituality but who reject patriarchal and often anti-sexual
alternatives. Wicca, or the Craft, is the major path followed by members of
a neo-Pagan community now estimated to be 500,000 people by Aidan Kelly,
who believes that Wiccans should distinguish between Gardner's Wiccan
mythology and its actual history.
Gardner's source of information about Wicca came purportedly from the New
Forest coven in England where he was initiated as a witch in 1939 by 'Old
Dorothy' Clutterbuck. He also traced the roots of the New Forest coven back
to pre-Christian times, and stated that a handwritten Book of Shadows was
the source of their ancient rituals.
However, starting in Gardner's lifetime and continuing until today, several
persistent critics have challenged his claim that Wicca was a surviving
ancient religion. His critics primarily focus on the fact that no
independent research has validated the existence of Wicca. Baker, for
example, notes that Gardner was a member of the Folklore Society in England,
but society members interviewed after his death said they had never heard of
the Wiccan sect that Gardner claimed to have uncovered.
The Four Criticisms
I will now examine in greater detail four of the criticisms raised about
Wicca by those who believe that Gardner completely fabricated it. The first
criticism is that the New Forest coven too neatly followed the model of
witchcraft that Margaret Murray had described in her 1921 book, The Witch
Cult in Europe. Murray's thesis was that a universal, pre-Christian,
goddess-based religion existed throughout Europe. This idea was greeted with
ridicule by her academic colleagues and damaged her credibility as a
respected Egyptiantologist. Today, few scholars consider her interpretations
of the then-known facts to have been accurate. Still, Murray brought the
idea of goddess-worship, which Gardner's Wicca practiced, back to center
stage after a long absence.
A second criticism is that 'Old Dorothy' Clutterbuck and her New Forest
coven never actuality existed, except in Gardner's mind. However, Doreen
Valiente, who in the 1950s belonged to Gardner's coven (which was not the
New Forest coven), located the birth and death certificates of Dorothy
Clutterbuck in the early 1980s. Clutterbuck was born in India in 1881 and
died in England in 1951. She left an estate of 60,000 pounds, which made it
reasonable for her to have owned the old large house near the New Forest
where Gardner said he was initiated.
A third charge is that British occultist Aleister Crowley was paid by
Gardner to write his rituals. Valiente, who is the author of several books
about modern witchcraft, is a source of many facts about Gardner. After
joining Gardner's coven, she said she helped him write or rewrite some of
his original rituals. The copy of Gardner's Book of Shadows that Valiente
first saw did owe a good deal to the works of Aleister Crowley, as well
including an adaptation of a poem by Rudyard Kipling called "A Tree Song."
When she confronted Gardner, he admitted that he had borrowed freely from
Aleister Crowley's writings to fill in gaps in the original New Forest
materials. Valiente, however, dismisses the charge that Aleister Crowley who
died in 1947, several years before Witchcraft Today was published, wrote
Valiente further believes that Wicca's Freemasonry terms such as 'the
working tools,' a reference to the candidate's 'being properly prepared' for
initiation, plus the three-degree system of initiations were incorporated
from Masonic ritual by Gardner, who also was a Co-Mason.
A fourth criticism, made by Issac Bonewits, is that the Wiccan Rede is also
of modern origin. Bonewits is an independent scholar, active Druid, and
long-time critic of Gardner. He noted that Crowley wrote "Do what thou
whilst, that is the whole of the Law," early in the 20th century. This
statement is quite similar to the second part of the Wiccan Rede, "Do as
thou whilst." The first part of the Wiccan Rede, "And ye harm none," may
have been added by Gardner, Bonewits believes, to avoid charges that Wicca
was a negative religion involved in cursing people.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, it mattered greatly to some witches whether or
not Gardner had discovered a true surviving witch's coven or if, instead, he
mostly created the Wiccan religion based on his extensive knowledge of the
occult. It's true that Gardner did boast about his extensive knowledge of
the occult in Witchcraft Today. Based on the critiques made by Bonewits,
Baker, Kelly and others, today most Wiccans accept that Gardner freely added
materials from other occult traditions to his brand of Wicca.
Gardnerian Wicca does provide us with a positive mythology of pre-Christian
religion that we wished had survived, but for which there is almost no
historical evidence. The worship of the Goddess and the Horned God of Nature
at seasonal and lunar celebrations are authentically very ancient. Only the
Gardnerian rituals and tools we use are of modern origin.
A traditional witchcraft, untainted by Gardner or other modern
reconstructionists, does exist, although its practitioners usually do not
call themselves witches. Instead, Baker writes that they are called the
village sorcerers, wizards, cunning men, and wise women. These wise ones,
white witches, were common in the British Isles and isolated parts of the
United States until well into this century, when mass public education
spread a scientistic viewpoint that devaluated and dismissed traditional
knowledge as being merely superstitious. Baker says that the cunningfolk
had no unifying Book of Shadows that contained their standard rituals.
Traditional village witchcraft was practiced by solitaries who passed on
their knowledge to one apprentice at a time. Local folk went to the wise
ones for cures, prophecy, and protection. The wise ones also knew and used
local native plants in their medicines and magical potions.
Two American folk magic traditions with historical roots in white witchcraft
are those of the Southern Appalachians and the Pennsylvania Dutch. I will
examine each of these traditions in the following sections.
Appalachian Folk Magic
Starting in the mid-18th century, Anglo-Celtic settlers from the lower
social classes sought to flee recurring religious and political persecutions
in Scotland and Ireland by immigrating to the southern Appalachian mountains
in North America. Cross-cultural exchanges of customs and intermarriage
between the European immigrants and American natives led to a hybrid magic
that was based on Celtic and some native customs.
Geographical barriers, imposed by the mountains, resulted in widespread
poverty and isolation among the mountain people, which allowed their beliefs
and magic that dated back to the Middle Ages to survive undisturbed.
Edain McCoy summarizes both the beliefs and rituals of this magical
tradition in her book In a Graveyard at Midnight. A spell cast in a
graveyard at the stroke of twelve was the most prevalent folk magical
practice, because while burial grounds were considered places where evil
lurked, they also were believed to contain great magical power that could be
harnessed for good or evil.
McCoy writes with a special understanding about this magical tradition
because she is both a descendent of the "feuding" McCoy clan of eastern
Kentucky and a practicing Wiccan living in Texas. Some of the specific
beliefs behind the magical practices she writes about include the following:
1) Good and evil are divided into two distinct and warring camps that are
lead by the Christian God and the powerful Devil, respectively.
2) Mountain people have a sense of fatalism, which means they believe there
are certain conditions that their magic cannot cure. Fatalist thinking is
related to predestination and is a legacy of the Calvinist theology of the
early Scottish Protestant churches.
3) Certain individuals are blessed with paranormal powers and have more
powerful magic than ordinary people. These people can choose to use their
power for either good or evil purposes.
4) Magical curses are both real and potent.
5) Nature provides omens and portents of the future which the wise heed.
Southern folk magic has always tended to be a solitary practice. This folk
magic requires little preparation, and no expensive tools, specialized
knowledge, nor priestly caste. It is primarily concerned with omens,
portents, curses, cures, and protection and is not geared toward obtaining
material goals. For more information on how to perform the Southern
mountain spells, make the charms, do the divinations, or even cook traditional
southern recipes, you should check out McCoy's charming book. Today the
continuing survival of Southern mountain magic as an indigenous folk
practice is doubtful. However, elements of this folk magic may survive or be
revived through McCoy's book and her personal magical practice.
Pennsylvania Dutch Hexcraft or "Pow-wow"
Further north in Pennsylvania, German settlers began arriving in the late
17th century, the bulk of them immigrating in the first half of the 18th
century. The term Pennsylvania "Dutch" is a corruption of the German word
"Deutch" meaning German. Silver RavenWolf lives in Pennsylvania and
describes this magical tradition in HexCraft. She has Pennsylvania Dutch
ancestors, as I also do.
Two distinct groups of German immigrants came to Pennsylvania. The Fancy
Germans, or Lutherans, brought their elaborate folk history with them,
including the ornate customs of Christmas and Easter, the Yule tree and log,
colorful decorations, baskets, and pictures of bunnies. The other German
group was the Plain or Pietist Germans. They included members of the
Mennonite, Amish, Dunker, and Brethern denominations. The Plain Germans
wore distinctive clothing and tried to live a simple rural life-style guided by
their interpretation of the Bible. Some of the pow-wowers Silver RavenWolf
interviewed were Brethren, Mennonites, and Dunkers.
South central Pennsylvania was fertile and not physically isolated, as were
the southern Appalachians. Hexcraft, or pow-wow, as it is locally called,
survived because of the tendency of both Fancy and Plain Germans to live in
tightly knit communities, where they preserved their customs and language
into the 20th century.
Native Americans were present, at least initially, when the Germans arrived
and the term pow-wow was possibly derived from the early settlers'
observations of Indian pow wows. Silver RavenWolf thinks the word pow-wow
may also be a derivative of the word power or may come from the Native
American pow wow definition meaning "he who dreams."
Pow-wowing includes some charms and incantations dating from the Middle
Ages plus elements borrowed from the Jewish Qabala and Christian Bible.
Pow-wowing generally focuses on healing minor health problems, the
protection of livestock, success in love, and the casting or removing of
hexes. For over 200 years, pow-wowers have considered themselves to be
staunch Christians endowed with supernatural powers to both heal and harm.
Hex signs are the most widely recognized symbols associated with pow-wow
magic. The word hex means a spell or bewitchment and comes from the German
word hexe for witch. Hex signs are round magical signs and symbols used
primarily to protect against hexerie (witchcraft). They were used by the
Fancy Dutch but not the Amish and strict Mennonites.
Some hex symbols and designs originate in the Bronze Age. Ancient Celtic and
Germanic tribes put emphasis on the energy patterns of the divine Source
rather than its representation as a human archetype. The Source was depicted
in universal designs that assisted in focusing power either toward or away
from the design. The basic pattern found in the original hex signs is the
double rosette, which is found at many ancient European holy sites.
Most of the charms used in pow-wow magic were originally described in two
books. The first book, Long Lost Friend, was written in 1820 by John George
Hohman. He was a German Catholic immigrant who documented various charms
and herbal remedies that had been preserved orally for centuries. The second
book is the anonymous Seventh Book of Moses, also called the Sixth and
Seventh Books of Moses. This book contains a mixture of wisdom derived from
the Talmud, Qabala, and Old Testament. Silver RavenWolf says these two books
were once found in almost all Pennsylvania Dutch households.
Pow-wow tools include common items such as spools of red and black thread,
a ball of red yarn, several lengths of red and black ribbons, small hand-made
ceramic bowls, a seam ripper, a creek stone (divinity stone) and a container
of holy water. Red and white are the basic colors used in pow-wow.
Pow-wowing was still common in the early 20th century. Gradually over time,
several local murders were attributed to pow-wowers. One belief held by some
pow-wowers was that a curse could be broken by killing the person who placed
it. Pow-wowing rapidly declined in the 1920s when the news media portrayed
it as an embarrassing example of backward and superstitious Pennsylvania
Dutch behavior. While researching her book, Silver RavenWolf found only
elderly pow-wow practitioners, who often lived in local nursing homes.
Gerald Gardner's reputation as the "discoverer" of an ancient witch religion
may have been damaged beyond repair. However, even staunch critics, Issac
Bonewits and Aidan Kelly, point out that his role as the inspired creator of
a 'new' religion has not been given its deserved recognition. For example,
the Wiccan Rede, regardless of its origin, has greatly helped Wiccans in
distinguishing their positive magickal religion from that of Satanic cults
and other negative occult groups.
The folk magic of the southern Appalachians and the Pennsylvania Dutch is
rapidly disappearing as these communities are integrated into the modern
America of satellite television, fancy cars, and conspicuous consumption.
Edain McCoy and Silver RavenWolf have performed a valuable service in
recording what is left of these magical traditions.
The power of American folk magic rests on its ability to fulfill a basic
human need by providing more certainty and control in the lives of its
practitioners. Adding elements of either folk tradition to our Wiccan
practices can help us become more connected with an authentic folk magic
brought to this continent by our immigrant ancestors.