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“I Fell in Love with a Witch”: The Vision of Gerald Gardner

Posted on November 03 2017

Some people argue that Gardnerians cannot claim to have the right to do something merely because Gardner did it. Yes, the historical pattern is that religious founders always have rights and privileges that their followers cannot have. I see this clearly in the three cases I know best, those of Gardner, Joseph Smith, and the Rabbi Joshua (whose Greek name was Jesus).

A religious founder cannot be bound by ordinary rules of behavior, else he could not do something so extraordinary as creating a new religion that will thrive. Conversely, his followers must feel obligated to obey some such rules, however much they have been reformed by the founder, else the movement would have no social cohesion. For example, in all three cases, the founder had many women in his life. The Christian tradition could not entirely suppress the fact that Joshua’s retinue included many women who “tended to his needs” and whom he treated as being equal to the men. I am now convinced that Miriam was his wife or at least his lover.

Jesus, Joseph Smith, and Gardner were each intending to reform an existing religion–or in Gardner’s case, that’s what he claimed. Gardner’s agenda was not to create a tiny secret cult; it was to create a mass religion that could challenge Christianity as a major religion. That’s why he pursued every chance to publicize it.

Please notice that the large Pagan festivals that GBG talks about in the “Old Laws” and elsewhere in his writings were an historical fantasy; such things had never existed. But they did come to exist: first, I think in the NROOGD’s public Sabbats with hundreds of people attending in the early 70s, then in the national festivals starting in the late 70s. His conjuring them into existence is proof of his genius.

Gardner wanted his followers to be out of the closet, to initiate as many new priests and priestesses as possible, and to publicize the religion at every opportunity. Remember that Joshua’s own family practiced (selectively) what he preached: they kept kosher, they did not proselytize the Gentiles, and they kept to themselves—and they died out within a century. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

Religious founders are almost always perceived to be alpha males; hence no one expects them to be subject to the social rules that apply to ordinary men. Such a religious founder will not be expected to follow ordinary rules, not only those about sex, but also those about knowledge. What I mean is this: All religious founders tell lies. Or put it this way: All religious founders tell a truth that contradicts what ordinary people believe to be true. Not only is this tolerated, but their new truth overwhelms and replaces the old truth.

They never mean to deceive in the ordinary sense. Rather, they are attempting to communicate experiences so extraordinary that they are almost impossible to describe or explain in terms of anything known by the ordinary person. As a result, the founder must use every possible method of communication in trying to find a comprehensible description of such experiences; and these methods will include not only simile and metaphor, but also allegory, myth, legend, prophecy, visions, hyperbole, and parabolas (i.e., parables).

The founder does not intend any of this to be taken literally, but the ordinary person usually does not know how else to take it. The wizard points at the moon; the child sees only the finger. What this means in practice is that ordinary standards of “truthfulness” are irrelevant for understanding the teachings of such a founder.

Typically a founder will speak not of founding a completely new religion, but of reforming an existing religion or restoring it to its original purity. But since religions are always a social reality, such a reform or restoration requires not just a new theology, but also a significantly different social organization, a new “church,” to embody that theology.

Founders never have a blueprint for how to create that new organization; instead, they work it out by trial, error, and intuition. And since intuition is almost never explainable, they often must resort to what looks like chicanery in order to pursue that intuition despite the objections and lack of comprehension by even their most trusted and trusting followers.

And since religion furnishes the most fundamental rules for how people live their lives, a religious founder is not only exempt from ordinary rules, but, in creating a new church, has the power to rewrite those rules for those who accept his authority. Further, since the founder’s alphaness arises from our decamillennia of sexual programming, such new rules almost always redefine the criteria for acceptable sexual behavior in the new organization.

Philip Heselton’s research has provided what is almost certainly a membership list for the group of occultists in the New Forest area whom GBG knew. Similarly, I was able to work out a probable membership list for GBG and Edith’s coven around 1946. That part is not hard. The difficulty is simply how to define the word. “coven.” I can make a very reasonable guess that the former group was not a coven by current definition, whereas the latter group was, although it lacked some of the characteristics that GBG and/or DV evolved in the 1950s.

What I mean is, if you put together a checklist of all the traits a current coven has (e.g., is there a de facto HPS? Is there a standard initiation ritual? Are there three degrees? Is a circle cast? etc.), I suspect that the former group would have lacked most of them, whereas the latter would already have had them. I would also suggest that an adequate definition of Wicca as a unique religion perhaps should be based on what can be deduced (from GBG’s writings and documents) about that 1946 coven, rather than on very many of the later developments.
What set off GBG’s creation of Wicca? I know someone said that GBG, when asked how all this witchcraft business had gotten started with him, said, “I fell in love with a witch”—and I think he must have meant Edith. Granted that GBG might have meant several different things by that remark, and IF the story is not entirely apocryphal, it may give us a clue that what really happened to GBG may have been totally different from the exoteric story he told to almost everyone.

I find it fascinating that both Philip and I, starting out believing in the existence of the “New Forest Coven,” have independently been forced to reach very similar conclusions. Perhaps GBG’s friends, no doubt as fascinated by the idea of being witches as I and my friends were in the 1960s, put together as much as they could and likely enough did call themselves a coven. But so did the Gundella covens in Michigan in the 1940s, Victor Anderson’s Harpy Coven in the 1930s, and so on. The problem is that what any of them meant by “coven” simply does not match the current definition of a coven within Wicca. GBG got very few of the elements essential to Wicca from the New Forest group. He obviously was not initiated by one of the rituals he himself wrote, beginning about 1946.

The bits and pieces add up to a scenario like so: Edith apparently believed that she had been a Witch in a former life (the poem about that in WT therefore might be by her); I believe it was she who initiated GBG, in the traditional way and probably spontaneously, totally without a script. Perhaps during it he had an epiphany in which the God and Goddess appeared to him and told him to reinstate their worship on Earth. Since that supposition is inherently nondisprovable, I think it may therefore qualify as a Genuine Religious Truth—kind of like the Immaculate Conception.

I certainly have to take seriously Philip’s caveat that GBG seemed totally unlikely to have had a mystical experience, given that Philip has now read materials that no one else has seen, has interviewed people who knew GBG firsthand, and therefore probably has a better impression of GBG’s psychology than anyone else alive. Nevertheless, I think the idea that GBG may have had some sort of revelatory experience that he knew he could not relate to anyone else could explain a lot.

I like Philip’s idea that GBG’s initiation might have been the first one ever worked by the New Forest group—IF that ever happened. And even if it did, I think that the one with Edith would have been the true initiation, the one that made him a Witch. And, yes, of course, I tend to think that because it matches my own experience.

It also took him years to find a vocabulary to explain to others the *meaning* of what had happened to him; most religious founders have to deal with that problem. But if that is how it happened, then it did not happen in the way that he described in his books. Why did he use the latter explanation? Because the vast majority of people will believe a story about ancient knowledge somehow preserved; yet will not believe a straightforward explanation of a revelatory experience in the here and now. That’s why Hilkiah had to find the Lost Book of the Law of Moses hidden in a secret room in the temple—instead of admitting that he had written it himself.

But then, as James emphasized in the very first of his Gifford lectures (which became The Varieties of Religious Experience), with religion one must “look at the fruits, not the roots.” That is, explaining the history of how a religion began and evolved does not explain it away, as many academics sophomorically suppose. Religious values are not derived from, and therefore cannot be refuted by, historical facts. I think such values (such as altruism) are programmed in our genes (or the equivalent); anyway, it looks very much as if we come with them. That’s no stranger than the fact that we construct what we think we perceive as physical reality. It doesn’t much matter what we call it; the religious movement we are concerned with here does exist and is meeting people’s needs now.

I believe GBG would have been thoroughly in favor of the eclectics, because they are the ones who have created the greatest and fastest growth of the Craft movement. If he had intended the Craft to be a secret tiny cult spread only by word of mouth, he would not have written his books. Doreen and the others in 1957 did not understand his “publicity seeking.” They did not get that his real agenda was for the Craft to become a world-class religion that could stand up to the Christian and other establishments. That it is now doing so proves his genius.

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