Gerald Gardner, Philip Heselton, and the Origin of Energy-Raising
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Article ID: 13269
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Zan Fraser
Posted: June 14th. 2009
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In addition to being the founder of modern Wicca, Gerald Gardner is easily its most controversial figure. Confusion over his claims began almost with the publication of Witchcraft Today in 1954 and six decades later there continues considerable argument- both within and without the Neo-Pagan world- as to what degree the “founding myth” of Wicca can be accepted as real.
From across the Atlantic, Philip Heselton opens a dramatic new chapter with his Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival (Capall Bann Publishing, 2000) . In undertaking the most thorough examination of the “back-story” to Gerald Gardner’s claims of initiation into a pre-existing witches’ coven in the New Forest of England, Heselton at once clears up an enormous amount of mystification and introduces boldly unprecedented new corridors into the labyrinth of Wiccan ‘thinkology’.
Casting the retrospective eye over Witchcraft Today (“Today” meaning the mid-50s) , one of Gardner’s “mistakes” was his assumption of the correctness of Margaret Murray’s theories in his recounting of medieval witchcraft-history (or perhaps herstory, if one will) . Murray had published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe / in 1921, espousing medieval “witchcraft” as a kind of underground Pagan Resistance to the tyranny of the Christian Church, which demonized the God of the Witches (as Murray would put it in a later book of that title) as the Christian Devil.
It is accepted now that Murray got a tad carried away with her opinions and was a mite less than strictly scrupulous with her sources. However, it is important to remember that (with certain notable exceptions, such as George Lyman Kittredge and Rossell Hope Robbins) Murray was considered an expert on the subject of medieval witchcraft throughout the 1950s. She furnished a foreword to Witchcraft Today, in which Gardner accepted Murray’s kind-of delusional account of the herstory of medieval witchcraft.
This is perhaps no more than anyone else availing themselves of the state of the subject in the early ‘50s might have done; regrettably it was a writing decision that returned to chomp Gardner (and thereby his inadvertent movement, modern Wicca) in the ba-zoo.
A significant early critical review of Gardner was Elliot Rose’s A Razor for a Goat: A Discussion of Certain Problems in the History of Witchcraft and Diabolism (University of Toronto Press, 1962) . Rose’s aim was to demolish once and for all what he saw as the glaring deficiencies of Murray’s scholarship and the widespread acquiescence to her conclusions. Rose’s antipathy to Murray was so great, it turned to vitriol, and he made a point of saving a special chapter for one whom he saw as a disciple of the detested Margaret Murray; Gerald Gardner is tasked for the notable inaccuracies presented as proven historical fact in Witchcraft Today.
(It is interesting that a little over ten years later, in Europe’s Inner Demons (1975) , also in the context of excoriating Murray, Norman Cohn comments upon what he considers a rapid growth in “witch-covens”; if Cohn is so impressed with the rise of witch-covens during the Ford administration, what would he think of the Wiccan/ Pagan scene today, what with festivals such as Starwood and Pagan Spirit Gathering, and publishing houses such as Llewellyn, and Internet sites such as Witchvox.) Because of Rose’s drubbing, Gardner become regarded as “discredited” in the more serious of academic circles.
Another “exposure” of Gardner was seemingly dealt by Aidan A. Kelly, in his altogether worthwhile book Crafting the Art of Magic, Book I: A History of Modern Witchcraft, 1939-1964 (Llewellyn, 1991) . (1939 being the year that Gardner claimed as his initiation into the “witch-cult” and 1964 the year of Gardner’s death.) Kelly examined the evident development of “Wicca” in Gardner’s writings, paying careful attention to obvious outside sources such as Aleister Crowley’s works and medieval grimoires such as those attributed to Solomon.
Because Gardner’s borrowings were therefore thought “uncovered, ” Kelly’s book was held by some to be a revelation of Gardner as fraudulent or un-trustworthy. (Wiccan scuttlebutt has it that Kelly’s publication was greeted with grave hostility in some quarters; one can’t help but notice the “Book I” in his title, which suggests a Book II that has apparently never materialized.)
It should be remembered that Gardner’s own account was that he had been initiated into a witches’ coven that preceded him, which at the time practiced what he described as “fragmentary” or “unformed” rituals. These would seem to be intuitive sorts of affairs, with an idea of the desired state one wished to achieve and an intention of one’s objective- but in a sort of emotionally understood process of experience and personal perception. Such a process would by possible to transmit through the individual instruction of an initiatory coven-format- but entirely beyond the scope of a written work such as the kind that Gardner apparently began to imagine.
This being the case, Gardner explained that it was necessary for him to search out a magical “foundation” upon which to build his description of the “craft of witches”- as it had been taught to him by his initiating coven; he required a form upon which to hang the fabric of “witchcraft” as he understood it and which he wished to present to the world.
For the record, I don’t find it invalidating that Gardner incorporated the structures of the medieval schools of magic into the folk-art of witchcraft. It does indeed create a format for the conceptualization, practice, and performance of magical ritual; medieval grimoires (which Gardner does a fine job of collating and summarizing) are actually very often scrupulous attempts to preserve and transmit the magical lore of the past; and any of the Old School Magi of the Middle Ages such as Rodger Bacon, John Dee, or Cornelius Agrippa, would have had no problem researching and incorporating the magical books that preceded them. (For more, please check out A Briefe Historie of Magi, especially Chapter II: “Charmed Circles.”) In a way, Gerald Gardner fits into the centuries-long roster of English wizards, who seem notable for the far-seeking quality of their investigations.
Be all this as it may, upholding Gardner’s veracity has become a dodgy sort of business and many Wiccans nowadays will hem and haw and murmur something about Gardner “concocting” a “hodge-podge” of magical materials, which he brewed into a stew called Wicca.
However- here comes the kicker, as British researcher Philip Heselton renews an extraordinary controversy with the alarming proposition: What if Gerald Gardner was simply telling the truth all the while?
Plainly an indefatigable individual possessed of superhuman powers of concentration, Heselton has at great pains produced an extraordinary review of the “back-story” to Gerald Gardner’s accounts of his initiation into a Wiccan coven in the New Forest of England in 1939.
In Wiccan Roots, among many other feats, Heselton clarifies the mysterious role held by the famous Dorothy Clutterbuck and identifies for the first time the High Priestess Dafo who initiated Gardner. He establishes the involvement of various individuals in the New Forest Crotona Fellowship, including a group of hereditary witches (as Heselton terms it) from the Toothill region of Southampton. (Toothill is the site of an Iron Age settlement, ringed with earthworks, famously identified with witchcraft) . Heselton speculates that Clutterbuck- also from Toothill- may herself have been “of the blood, ” visiting with her parents other such people within the area during her childhood in the 1890s.
Clutterbuck appears to have known these Southampton witches; it is they who “bring in” Edith Rose Woodford-Grimes during the 1920s. She is the witch known as “Dafo”. When these people make acquaintanceship with Gerald Gardner and he expresses interest in joining their “witch-cult”- it is Dafo who is his initiating High Priestess.
In his “Preliminary Conclusions” (in Chap. 21 “A New Myth?”) , Heselton lists as first among his demonstrations- “Gardner did not invent the whole thing.” In other words- if it can be shown that a coven (or at least a loosely organized network of similarly minded individuals) pre-existed Gardner by almost twenty years- then Gardner did indeed inherit the information and lore called “Wicca” (which is what he said all along) , rather than invent it.
In his Foreword to Wiccan Roots, Ronald Hutton finds that Heselton’s detective work “represents a major landmark in the recovery” of Wicca’s origins. Heselton’s “considerable primary research” “solves several long-standing problems and questions, ” furnishing such a “quantity of solid information” that it is now “the indispensable starting-point for any future research.”
Assuming that this is the case- that Wiccan ritual can be divided up (if you will) into two components: ritual-magic (derived from the medieval grimoire traditions) and its folk-magic counterpart, the yin to the yang as it were, the empowering process articulated by Gardner as “raising energy”- and assuming that energy-raising is part of the witch-lore communicated to Gerald Gardner by the Southampton Witches and the New Forest coven- is any sort of outside corroboration possible to find?
A time-line exploring various instances of “energy-raising” (often within a context of witchery) , through several centuries and hopefully aligning somewhere within the vicinity of Gerald Gardner’s witch-working group in the 1920s, follows subsequently.
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