Gerald Gardner and the Question of Polytheism.

I recently reviewed Philip Heselton’s latest biography of Gerald Gardner, but I did not have time to discuss one of his final observations, written in a too-brief closing chapter, “An Assessment of Gerald Gardner.”

Heselton writes, “Indeed, he really didn’t, I think, have any of what we might call ‘spiritual’ feelings: at any rate, he never wrote about any.” Nor, in his assessment, did Gardner believe in spirits or have any success at working magick on his own (640).

Think about that, the chief founder of a new Pagan religion who never had one of those knock-you-down experiences with the gods that convinces you that She, He, or They are really there. Compare, for example, the experience of Feraferia, Fred Adams, also back in the mid-1950s.

If he, Edith, and friends were talking about witchcraft during lazy days at the nudist camp in the late 1940s, they had a lot of concepts swirling around, concepts such as these:

  • Witchcraft was merely a collection of psychic abilities available to everyone.
  • It was spells and herbal curing and folklore and whatever, with no clear organization — just a soup of this and that.
  • It was power given to someone after a pact with the Devil.
  • It was power that you were born with, either for good or ill.
  • It is a super-secret Pagan cult that survived 1,000 years of Christianity in western Europe (Margaret Murray’s view).

All of these ideas are swirling around and bumping into each other in Witchcraft Today (1954). But there is not much about deities — for that, Doreen Valiente should get the credit, I suspect.

Somehow this vagueness and messiness of definition ties in — in my mind at least — with P. Sufenas Virius Lupus’s recent blog essay, “Bringing Back the Gods.”

What I am noticing more and more recently, however, is that modern Paganism is being purposefully defined so as to not include the gods. In recent weeks alone: Jonathan Korman has defined “the pagan sensibility” as not necessarily needing to include the gods; John Halstead has discussed the four centers of modern Paganism, but has portrayed the deity-centric forms of Paganism as inherently creedal; and here at Patheos’ Pagan Portal, Yvonne Aburrow has defined “theology” as “reasoning about the Divine” rather than “reasoning about the gods,” which is not remotely the same thing (on which more will be said in a moment).

For a long time now, I’ve been hearing modern Paganism characterized as a “nature religion” or an “earth-based religion.” That is true to an extent (and in some cases, far less true than others—and not necessarily in a negative sense). However, I suspect a huge reason that it is characterized that way—especially to non-Pagans—is because of fear of being thought foolish or “primitive” for recognizing the gods. We have then internalized that dialogue and have spent lots of virtual and actual ink on determining whether or not one group or another is truly “earth-based,” when in fact that understanding in itself might be more of a problem than an accurate portrayal.

On the “nature religion” part, I would suggest that non-theistic nature religion is rooted in 19th-century American thought, and Catherine Albanese tackled it well in Nature Religion in America and other writing. So it is not a reaction against contemporary polytheism originally, but a genuine spiritual current on its own. I have argued that the existence of that spiritual current made it easier for Pagans in the 1970s and 1980s to grab the “earth religion” label — partly as camouflage.

And some people just have not had that knock upside the head that leaves you saying, “All right, You are real and now we have some sort of relationship.”

I would agree that there is a cultural prejudice against polytheism. Some practitioners of what look like polytheism to us have maybe learned to emphasize a “Great Spirit” or “High God” behind them in order to avoid that label. It’s what you say when the missionaries have you backed into a corner.

10 Comments

  1. Some practitioners of what look like polytheism to us have maybe learned to emphasize a “Great Spirit” or “High God” behind them in order to avoid that label. It’s what you say when the missionaries have you backed into a corner.

    Yes, precisely.

  2. Robert Mathiesen says:

    I think these are important points that need emphasizing in future discussions of the earlier history of Wicca in the US and also in the UK. Like you, I find Albanese’s works relevant to this discussion, including her _Reconsidering Nature Religion_ and _A Republic of Mind and Spirit_.

  3. […] of Gerald Gardner’s relationship (or lack thereof) with polytheism, which can be found here. It is, thus, interesting and timely that the discourse on the place of polytheism in modern […]

  4. […] now I know I’m not alone. Apparently the great Gerald Gardener wasn’t too big on the whole polytheism thing […]

  5. Lupus does bring up an interesting point, and its one that has been obvious enough to have made its way into popular fiction (e.g., Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods”). But we also shouldn’t overstate the matter. There are many Pagan paths that honor specific deities and pantheons thereof (e.g., ADF, Northern European paths, and Greek, Roman, and Kemetic reconstructionists). And while the lineaged Witchcraft traditions may publicly speak of a generic Goddess and God, in private they worship using specific God-names in their rites. This even includes the adherents of Gardnerian Wica.

  6. Christine Kraemer says:

    Thanks for sharing that tidbit about Gardner. It makes me wonder: when DID polytheism become important in the Pagan revival?

    • Chas Clifton says:

      I think the lack of theological content, relatively speaking, and the disorganization of Witchcraft Today are further arguments for the idea that Gardner got nothing from a pre-1939 coven of Pagan Witches.

      On the contrary, when he wrote his book, the movement was not more than five years old, I would argue. Doreen comes arrives in 1953 and starts improving the rituals, adding more poetic (i.e. theological) content.

      Really, we should be talking about “Valientian Witchcraft.”

      But then, she takes off to be with a “bad boy,” Robert Cochrane. So it goes.

  7. Anna Korn says:

    Today’s so-called “radical polytheisim” only began to take root in perhaps the last twenty years, maily rooted in Eclectic Craft and Reconstructionist Pagan paths. Most British-based Craft (such as Gardnerian, Alexandrian, CVW, possibly Feri) has a belief in a divine unitary ground of being called “Drychton” (spelling may vary wildly) which is a reality (or for some, a being) which lies beyond the level of the Pagan deities.

    • Chas Clifton says:

      See my reply to Christine Kraemer. It would be interesting to document the first use of “Drychton,” since Gardner never used any Old English. Early Modern (Elizabethan) English is as far back as he could reach, with one or two old Norman terms.

      • Robert Mathiesen says:

        Gardner and his early witchy associates seem to have relied on James Orchard Halliwell’s _A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words_ (1st ed. 1847, and many later editions). This is the most convenient source for the odd words “hanch,” “dwale,” “warrik” and “ganch,” which Gardner cites [MoW 75] as examples of an “old language” known only to a few within the Craft. (Hanch, Warrik [or Warlok] and Ganche seem to refer to various techniques of magical binding, like those described in William Seabrook’s _Witchcraft_.)

        Since it was available to them, Halliwell’s Dictionary may well be the source in which they found the word “dryghttene” (also “dright”), meaning “the Lord.” The “Dryghtyn Prayer” first appears in print, I think, in Patricia Crowther’s _Witch Blood_ (1974), pp.39-40, where she says that it was spoken at her own first-degree initiation by Gardner himself, about four years before his own death in 1964.