Gerald B(rousseau)Gardner (1884-1964) was an English Witch and founder of contemporary Witchcraft as a religion. As much myth as truth surrounds Gerald B. Gardner. Some of the truth about his motivations and actions may never be known. The posthumous assessment of him is that he was a con man and an artful dissembler, yet he had great vision and creativity and was willing to try outrageous things. The religion that he helped to launch and shape has evolved far beyond what he is likely to have forseen.
Hereditary Witches and practitioners of family tradition witchcraft object to Gardner being credited as the “founder” of the religion of Witchcraft, claiming that family traditions have existed for centuries. Nonetheless, there is no evidence that an organized religion of Witchcraft — not simply traditions of folk and ceremonial magic mixed with occultism and fragments of pagan traditions — existed prior to Gardner.
Gardner was born into a well-to-do family in Blundellsands, near Liverpool, England, on Friday, June 13, 1884. His father was a merchant and justice of the peace, a mem- ber of a family that had made money in the timber trade. According to Gardner, the family’s roots could be traced to Grissell Gairdner, who was burned as a witch in 1610 in Newburgh. Gardner’s grandfather married a woman reputed to be a witch, and some of Gardner’s distant relatives were purported to have psychic gifts. Gardner’s ancestral family tree also included mayors of Liverpool and Alan Gardner, a naval commander and later vice admiral and peer, who distinguished himself as commander in chief of the Channel fleet and helped to deter the invasion of Napoleon in 1807.
The middle of three sons, the young Gardner was raised primarily by the family’s nurse and governess, Josephine “Com” McCombie. He suffered severely from asthma. Com convinced his parents to let her take him traveling during the winters to help alleviate his condition. Com roamed about Europe, leaving Gardner to spend much time by himself reading. When Com married a man who lived in Ceylon, Gardner traveled there with her and worked on a tea plantation. Later, he moved to Borneo and then Malaysia to work.
In the Far East, he became fascinated with the local religious and magical beliefs, and was drawn to ritual daggers and knives, especially the Mayalsian ferts, a dagger with a wavy blade. He later wrote a book, Kris and Other Malay Weapons, published in Singapore in 1939. It was reprinted posthumously in England in 1973.
From 1923 to 1936, Gardner worked in the Far East as a civil servant for the British government as a rubber plantation inspector, customs official and inspector of opium establishments. He made a considerable sum of money in rubber, which enabled him to dabble in a field of great interest to him, archaeology. He claimed to have found the site of the ancient city of Singapura.
In 1927 he married an Englishwoman, Donna. The two returned to England upon his retirement from government work in 1936. Gardner spent much time on vari- ous archaeological trips around Europe and Asia Minor. In Cyprus he found places he had dreamed about previously, which convinced him he had lived there in a previous life.
His second book, A Goddess Arrives, a novel set in Cyprus and concerning the worship of the Goddess as Aphrodite in the year 1450 B.C.E., was published in 1939.
In England Gardner became acquainted with the people who introduced him to the Craft. The Gardners lived in the New Forest region, where Gardner became involved with the Fellowship of Crotona, an occult group of Co-Masons, a Masonic order established by Mrs. Besant Scott, daughter of Theosophist Annie Besant. The group had established “The First Rosicrucian Theater in England,” which put on plays with occult themes. One of the members told Gardner they had been together in a previous life and described the site in Cyprus of which Gardner had dreamed.
Within the Fellowship of Crotona was another, secret group, which drew Gardner into its confidence. The members claimed to be hereditary Witches who practiced a Craft passed down to them through the centuries, unbroken by the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The group met in the New Forest. Just days before World War II began in 1939, Gardner was initiated into the coven in the home of Old Dorothy Clutterbuck.
Gardner was intensely interested in Magic and witchcraft and invested much time in extending his network of contacts in occultism. He collected material on magical procedures, especially ceremonial magic, which he put together in an unpublished manuscript entitled Ye Bok of ye Art Magical.
In 1946, he met Cecil Williamson, the founder of the Witchcraft Research Centre and Museum of Witchcraft. In 1947, he was introduced to Aleister Crowley by Arnold Crowther. Gardner was especially interested in gleaning whatever he could from Crowley, who by then was in poor health and only months away from death. Gardner obtained magical material from Crowley. From this and other sources, he compiled his Book of Shadows, a collection of rituals and Craft laws. Gardner claimed to have received a fragmentary book of shadows from his New Forest coven.
Crowley made Gardner an honorary member of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), a Tantric sex magic order at one time under Crowley’s leadership, and granted Gardner a charter to operate an OTO lodge.
Gardner was prevented from being too public about Witchcraft because it was still against the law in England. He disguised his book of shadows in a novel, High Magic’s Aid, published in 1949 under the pseudonym Scire. The novel concerns worship of “the old gods” but mentioned by name only Janicot. The Goddess had yet to make a ma- jor appearance in Gardner’s Craft — although he said that his coven worshiped the Goddess by the name of Airdia or Areda (see Aradia).
The anti-witchcraft law was repealed in 1951. Gardner broke away from the New Forest coven and established his own.
He became involved in Williamson’s Museum of Witchcraft in Castletown on the Isle of Man, officiating at its opening and serving for a time as its “resident Witch.” In 1952, he bought the museum buildings and display cases from Williamson and operated his own museum.
In 1953 Gardner initiated Doreen Valiente into his coven. Valiente substantially reworked his book of shadows, taking out most of the Crowley material because his “name stank” and giving more emphasis to the Goddess. From 1954 to 1957 Gardner and Valiente collaborated on writing ritual and nonritual material, a body of work which became the authority for what became known as the Gardnerian tradition.
Gardner’s first nonfiction book on the Craft, Witchcraft Today, was published in 1954. It supports anthropologist Margaret A. Murray’s now meritless theory that modern Witchcraft is the surviving remnant of an organized Pagan religion that existed during the witch-hunts. Murray wrote the introduction for Gardner’s book. The immediate success of Witchcraft Today led to new covens springing up all over England and vaulted Gardner into the pub- lic arena. He made numerous media appearances, and the press dubbed him “Britain’s Chief Witch.” He loved being in a media spotlight, which cast him in the curious position of initiating people into a “secret” tradition that was then spread all over the tabloids. The publicity, much of it negative, led to a split in his coven in 1957, with Valiente and others going separate ways.
In 1959 Gardner published his last book, The Meaning of Witchcraft. In 1960 he was invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace in recognition of his distinguished civil service work in the Far East. The same year, his wife (who never joined the Craft or participated in any of its activities) died, and he began to suffer again from asthma. In 1963, shortly before he left for Lebanon for the winter, he met Raymond Buckland, an Englishman who had moved to America and who would introduce the Gardnerian tradition to the United States. Gardner’s high priestess, Monique Wilson (Lady Olwen), initiated Buckland into the Craft.
On Gardner’s return home from Lebanon by boat in 1964, he suffered heart failure and died at the breakfast table on board the ship on February 12. He was buried ashore in Tunis on February 13. In his will, Gardner bequeathed the museum, his rit- ual tools and objects, notebooks and the copyrights of his books to Wilson. Other beneficiaries of his estate were Patricia C. Crowther and Jack L. Bracelin, author of a biography on Gardner, Gerald Gardner: Witch (1960). Wilson and her husband operated the museum for a short time and held weekly coven meetings in Gardner’s cottage. They then closed the museum and sold much of the contents to the Ripley organization, which dispersed the objects to its various museums. Some of the items have since been resold to private collections.
Valiente describes Gardner as a man “utterly without malice,” who was generous to a fault and who possessed some real, but not exceptional, magical powers. His motives were basically good and he sincerely wanted to see “the Old Religion” survive.
Others, such as Williamson, saw him as manipulative and deceitful, not above fabrication in order to accomplish his objectives: to establish an acceptable venue for his personal interests in naturism and voyeuristic sex. (Gardner was a nudist, and the ritual nudity in the Craft is likely to have been one of his inventions; hereditary Witches say they have worked robed.)
Unfortunately, Gardner’s personal papers prior to 1957 no longer exist. He destroyed them at Valiente’s urging during the aforementioned period of unfavorable publicity.
From the 1960s onward, Witchcraft, the religion, continued to grow and spread around the world. Initially, new Witches accepted Gardner’s assertion of an old and unbroken heritage, but that was soon exposed as unfounded.
The Gardnerian tradition has inspired other traditions, and Witchcraft has taken on a life of its own as a predominantly Goddess-centered mystery religion, part of a larger reconstruction and revival of Paganism. Whatever his flaws and foibles, Gardner deserves respect and credit for what he started. As scholar Ronald Hutton notes, contemporary Witchcraft, or Wicca, is the only religion that England has ever given to the world.
- Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon. Revised ed. New York: Viking, 1986.
- Bracelin, J. L. Gerald Gardner: Witch. London: Octagon Press, 1960.
- Crowther, Patricia. Witch Blood! New York: House of Collecticles, Inc., 1974.
- Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. The Witches’ Way: Principles, Rituals and Beliefs of Modern Witchcraft. Custer, Wash.: Phoenix Publishing, 1988.
- Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. London: Rider & Co., 1954, 1956.
- – The Meaning of Witchcraft. New York: Magickal Childe, 1982. First published 1959.
- Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Kelly, Aidan A. Crafting the Art of Magic Book T. A History of Modern Witchcraft, 1939-1964. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1991.
- Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London: Robert Hale, 1989.
Gardner, Gerald Brousseau (1884–1964) English Witch and founder of the modern religion of Witchcraft, more commonly called Wicca to differentiate it from folk Magic and Sorcery. Gerald B. Gardner was born into a well-to-do family in Blundellsands, near Liverpool, England, on Friday, June 13, 1884. His father was a merchant and a justice of the peace, a member of a family that had made money in the timber trade. Gardner claimed that an ancestor, Grissell Gairdner, was burned as a witch in 1610 in Newburgh and that other members of the family had possessed psychic gifts. The middle of three sons, Gardner was raised primarily by the family’s nurse and governess, Josephine “Com” McCombie. He lived and worked in Ceylon, Borneo, and Malaysia, where he became fascinated by Eastern rit ual daggers and weapons and magical beliefs and practices. From 1923 to 1936 Gardner worked as a civil servant for the British government as a rubber-plantation inspector, a customs offi cial, and an inspector of opium establishments. He made a considerable sum of money in rubber. In 1927 he married an Englishwoman, Donna. The two returned to England on his retirement from government work in 1936. They lived in the New Forest region where Gardner became involved with the Fellowship of Crotona, an occult group of Co-Masons, a Masonic order established by Mrs. Besant Scott, daughter of Theosophist Annie Besant. The group had established “The First Rosicrucian Theater in England,” which put on plays with occult themes. Within the Fellowship of Crotona was another, secret group, which drew Gardner into its confi dence. The members claimed to be hereditary Witches, who practiced a craft passed down to them through the centuries, unbroken by the witch hunts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The group met in the New Forest. Gardner was initiated into the coven in the home of old Dorothy Clutterbuck in 1939. Gardner became intensely interested in magic and witchcraft and invested much time in extending his network of contacts in occultism. He collected material on magical procedures, especially ceremonial magic, which he put together in an unpublished manuscripted entitled Ye Bok of ye Art Magical. In 1946 Gardner met Cecil Williamson, an occultist and owner of a museum of witchcraft. He later acquired the museum from Williamson and operated it in different locations. In 1947 Gardner was introduced to Aleister Crowley by one of Gardner’s own initiates, Arnold Crowther. Crowley made Gardner an honorary member of the ordo t empl i orient is (OTO), a Tantric sex magic order at one time under Crowley’s leadership in Britain, and granted Gardner a charter to operate an OTO lodge. Gardner was especially interested in gleaning whatever he could from Crowley, who by then was in poor health and only months away from death. Gardner obtained magical material from Crowley. From this and other sources, he compiled his book of shadows, a collection of rituals and Craft laws. Gardner claimed to have received a fragGs s s s mentary Book of Shadows from his New Forest coven. At the time witchcraft was against the law in England, and he disguised his Book of Shadows in a novel, High Magic’s Aid, published in 1949 under the pseudonym Scire. When the law was repealed in 1951, Gardner left the New Forest coven and established his own group. In 1953 Gardner initiated Doreen Valiente, who substantially reworked his book of shadows, taking out most of the Crowley material because his “name stank” and giving more emphasis to the Goddess. From 1954 to 1957 Gardner and Valiente collaborated on writing ritual and nonritual material, a body of work which became the authority for what became known in Wicca as the Gardnerian tradition. Valiente and others in the coven departed in 1957 over disapproval of the media attention that Gardner received, much of which was negative. Valiente persuaded Gardner to destroy his papers. Gardner engaged in magical warfare; in 1956 he enlisted the help of aust in osman spare against kennet h grant . Gardner was a voyeur and naturalist and required coven meetings and magical work to be done in the nude, or “skyclad.” He claimed that this was an old tradition; whether or not it was, it suited his interests. He advocated raising magical power through an “eightfold path” that includes dancing; chants, spells, and invocat ions; trance and ast ral project ion; incense, wine, and drugs; meditation and concentration; use of cords for bl ood control and knot magic; scourging; and sex, as performed in the Great Rite, a ceremony conducted by a coven high priestess and high priest. In 1963 Gardner set sail for Lebanon. He died aboard ship on his return home on February 12, 1964, suffering heart failure at breakfast. He was buried ashore in Tunis on February 13. Gardner’s nonfiction book on the craft, Witchcraft Today (1954), and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959) remain in print and are considered authoritative works on Wicca, though few Wiccans today believe his assertion that a religion of Witchcraft has existed unbroken since ancient times. This claim, put forward in the 1930s by anthropologist Margaret A. Murray, has been debunked by scholars. After his death much of the contents of his museum were sold to the Ripley organization, which dispersed the objects to its various museums. Some of the items have since been resold to private collections.
FURTHER READING :
- Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. London: Rider & Co., 1954, 1956.
———. The Meaning of Witchcraft. 1959. Reprint, New York: Magickal Childe, 1982.
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft. 2d ed. New York: Facts On File Inc., 1999.
- King, Francis. Megatherion: The Magickal World of Aleister Crowley. New York: Creation Books, 2004.
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