Charles Godfrey Leland (1824–1903) was an American folklorist, lecturer and prolific author whose immersion in Gypsy lore and witchcraft played a role in the revival of the latter in the 20th century, especially in America.
Leland was born August 15, 1824, in Philadelphia to a family with Puritan roots. His father, Henry, was a descendant of Hopestill Leland, one of the first white settlers in New England. Family lore maintained that one ancestor was a German sorceress, and Leland always believed that he resembled her in an atavistic way.
The young Leland showed an intense interest in occult subjects, Gypsies and high adventure. He was ambivalent about education; though he graduated from Princeton and studied in Munich and Heidelberg, he later freely acknowledged that he had hated school. Once out of college, he began a lifetime of exotic travel and penetration of the mysterious worlds of GypsIes, witches and voodoo (see Vodun).
He returned periodically to America, where he had short-lived careers as a lawyer, newspaper editor and article writer. In his thirties he married Isabel Fisher; the marriage lasted more than 40 years, until her death in 1902.
Leland’s real love was the occult and folklore, and after his parents died, he took his inheritance and moved to England. From there, he traveled the world. He learned about the Gypsies and also learned to speak their language, romany. He discovered Shelta, the secret language of the tinkers. The Gypsies took him into their society, calling him a romany rye—a non-Gypsy who associates with Gypsies. He collected Gypsy, witchcraft and voodoo artifacts and books, turning his home into a veritable museum.
In 1879 he returned to Philadelphia, where he established the Industrial Art School. He spent several summers with American Indians, learning their spiritual lore. After four years he returned to England, where he began The Gypsy Journal. He wrote extensively about the Gypsies in books and articles.
In 1886, while in Italy, Leland met a Florentine Witch whom he referred to only as “Maddalena.” He described Maddalena as a hereditary Witch with ancient Etruscan roots. She was born in Tuscany into a family of Witches and was educated by her grandmother, aunt and stepmother in the ways of the Craft.
Maddalena and Leland became close friends. She introduced him to other Witches and divulged many secrets of the Craft to him. The information Leland gleaned from Maddalena was incorporated into a series of books, the best-known of which is Aradia, or Gospel of the Witches, published in London in 1889. Aradia attempts to establish the antiquity of Witchcraft as a religion. It was the first book of its kind to record specific Witchcraft spells, incantations, beliefs and lore (see Aradia).
Leland died on march 20, 1903, in Florence, of pneumonia and heart trouble. He had spent the last seven years of his life in ill health, which was further aggravated by his grief at the death of his wife on July 9, 1902. Leland was cremated, and his ashes were returned to Philadelphia for burial.
Leland was known to embellish his folklore accounts, and thus never enjoyed a good reputation with scholars. The authenticity of Aradia is disputed.
- Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon. revised ed. New York: Viking, 1986.
- Clifton, Chas S., ed. Witchcraft Today: Book One. The Modern Craft Movement. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1993.
- Farrar, Janet, and Stewart Farrar. A Witches Bible Compleat. New York: magickal Childe, 1984.
The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca – written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 1989, 1999, 2008 by Visionary Living, Inc.