Gardnerian Wicca

Gardnerian Wicca

Gardnerian Wicca is a Wiccan tradition whose members can trace initiatory descent from Gerald Gardner. The tradition is named after the person many consider as the founder of Wicca, Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), a British civil servant and scholar of magic, among other topics.

On retirement from the British Colonial Service, Gardner moved to London but then before World War II moved to Highcliffe, east of Bournemouth on the south coast of England. There he claimed to have been initiated into a traditional coven of witches, a survival from pre-Christian times, which continued to meet in the New Forest in the south of England.

He in turn initiated a series of women who acted as High Priestesses, founding further covens and starting a tradition of entry by initiation into the 'downlines' thus created. In the UK and most Commonwealth countries someone claiming membership of Gardnerian Wicca is usually understood to be claiming initiatory descent from Gardner. The North American term British Traditional Wicca is not widely used in the UK, but in effect means the same thing.

Practice and Philosophy

Gardnerian Wicca, as an initiatory, magical and oral tradition of modern witchcraft, consists of a number of tradition-specific rituals and practices that are used by its initiates to comprehend the Craft Mysteries. In addition to their magical operations, most Gardnerians utilise their spiritual system to gain an experiential/non-conceptual understanding of the age old question of life and death. The principles of the Mysteries, which include Wiccan world view, ontology and ethics, can be categorised as follow:

*Initiation and Oath before the Gods
*Mystery of the Goddess and God
*Powers of the Mighty Ones of the Four Quarters
*Magic and Witch Power
*Three-fold Law of Return
*Wiccan Rede
*Circle of power
*Wheel of the Year

Since one of the most important aspects of the craft tradition is understood through experience, Gardnerians keep their rituals and coven practices secret from non-initiates. In this way, each initiate is given the opportunity to find for him/herself what the ritual experience means by using the basic 'language' of a shared ritual tradition, to discover the nature of the Mysteries. [Akasha and Eran (1996). "Gardnerian Wicca: An Introduction"]

The tradition has a focus on its community, placing great emphasis on ethical conduct and reverence towards all sentient beings as central to spiritual maturity. The belief that 'ye may not be a witch alone' also extends the idea that personal growth, both intellectually and spiritually, is dependent on and affects our surroundings and the people around us. For example, Gardnerian High Priestess Eleanor Bone was not only one of the most respected elders in the tradition, she was also a matron of a nursing home. Moreover, the BW coven today is well known as a coven with many members from academic or intellectual background contributing 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 in the Isle of Man. Therefore, Gardnerian Wicca can be said to differ slightly from many other craft practices that generally concentrate solely on solitary spiritual development.

The stress on action over words may stem from the nature of the Gardnerian craft. The tradition is often characterised as orthopraxy (correct practice) rather than orthodoxy (correct thinking), with adherents placing greater emphasis on a shared body of practices as opposed to faith. [ Fritz Muntean (2006) "A Witch in the Halls of Wisdom" interview conducted by Sylvana Silverwitch]


Gardner claimed to have been initiated in 1939 into a tradition of religious witchcraft that he believed to be a continuation of European Paganism. He knew and worked with many famous occultists, not the least of which was Aleister Crowley. After his retirement Gardner moved to Christchurch near the New Forest on the south coast of England, where he says he met a group of people who had preserved certain traditional 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 had not died out in England. [Gardner, Gerald (1954). "Witchcraft Today" London: Rider and Company]

Doreen Valiente, one of Gardner's priestesses, later identified the woman who initiated Gardner as Dorothy Clutterbuck in "A Witches' Bible" by Janet and Stewart Farrar. [Farrar, Janet & Stewart (2002). "A Witches' Bible". Robert Hale. ISBN 0-7090-7227-9] This identification was based on references Valiente remembered Gardner making to a woman he called "Old Dorothy". Scholar Ronald Hutton instead argues in his "Triumph of the Moon" that Gardner's witchcraft tradition was largely the inspiration of members of the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship and especially a woman known by the magical name of "Dafo". [Hutton, Ronald (2001). "The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft". Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-285449-6] Dr. Leo Ruickbie, in his "Witchcraft Out of the Shadows", analysed the documentary evidence and concluded that Aleister Crowley played a crucial role in inspiring Gardner to establish a new pagan religion. [Ruickbie, Leo(2004). "Witchcraft out of the Shadows: A Complete History". Robert Hale Limited. ISBN 0-7090-7567-7] Ruickbie, Hutton, and others further argue that much of what has been published of Gardnerian Wicca, as Gardner's practice came to be known by, was written by Doreen Valiente, Aleister Crowley and also contains borrowings from other identifiable sources. [Hutton, "Triumph of the Moon" p.237]

The witches to whom Gardner was introduced 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 coined by Gardner's contemporary Roy Bowers (also known as Robert Cochrane), a British cunning man. ["Pentagram" magazine 1965]

Reconstruction of the Wiccan rituals

Gardner himself admitted that the rituals of the existing group were fragmentary at best, and he set about reconstructing it, drawing on his skills as an occultist and amateur folklorist. Gardner seems not to have been confident writing original poetry, and instead borrowed and wove together appropriate material from other artists and occultists, most notably Crowley, Charles Godfrey Leland's "Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches", the Key of Solomon as published by S.L. MacGregor Mathers, Masonic ritual, and Rudyard Kipling. Doreen Valiente wrote much of the best-known poetry, including the much-quoted Charge of the Goddess. [Hutton, "Triumph of the Moon" p.247]

The group into which Gardner claimed to be initiated, known as the New Forest coven, was small and utterly secret as claiming to be a witch was illegal in Britain at the time (the Witchcraft Act of 1735 made claiming to predict the future, conjure spirits, or cast spells a crime, and likewise made accusations of witchcraft a criminal offence). When the Witchcraft Laws were replaced, in 1951, by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, Gerald Gardner went public, initially somewhat cautiously, but during the late 1950s and until his death in 1964 even courted the attentions of the tabloid press, to the consternation of some of the other members of the tradition.

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. [Hutton, "Triumph of the Moon" p.227.] By 1952 however Dafo's health had begun to decline, and she was increasingly wary of Gardner's publicity-seeking. [Valiente, Doreen. "The Rebirth of Witchcraft" (1989) Custer, WA: Phoenix. pp 38,66.] 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', [Kelly, Aidan. "Crafting the Art of Magic" (1991) St Paul, MN: Llewellyn. pp 103-5, 145-161.] including items such as a restriction on contact with the press. Gardner responded with the sudden production of the Wiccan Laws which led to Doreen and others leaving the coven. [Hutton, "Triumph of the Moon" p249.] At about this time (1956-58) the standard method of raising energy in the circle was said to be by binding and scourging, but following Gardner spending time in the Isle of Man the coven began to experiment with circle dancing as an alternative. [Lamond, Frederic. "Fifty Years of Wicca" Sutton Mallet, England: Green Press. ISBN 0-9547230-1-5] It was also about this time that the lesser Sabbats were given greater prominence. When Brickett Wood coven members decided that since they like the Sabbats celebrations so much, there was no reason to keep the cross quarters celebration to the closest full moon meeting, instead they became 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 wheel of the year. [Lamond, "Fifty Years of Wicca", p.16.]

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, [Hutton, "Triumph of the Moon"] but the increased publicity only seems to have allowed Gardnerian Wicca to grow much more rapidly. Certain intiates such as Alex Sanders and Raymond Buckland started off their own major traditions allowing further expansion.

A partial summary of publicly known Wiccans 'downline' from Gardner is available [ here] .


External links

* [ Gerald Gardner - The History of Wicca]
* [ The Gardnerian Book of Shadows]
* [ The Gardnerian Tradition]
* [ Gardnerian History]

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