Investigating a “Grandmother Story”

Robert Mathiesen and Theitic, The Rede of the Wiccae: Adriana Porter, Gwen Thompson and the Birth of a Tradition of Witchcraft (Providence, R.I.: Olympic Press, 2005), 167 pp., $17.95 (paper).Book cover of Rede of the Wiccae

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Gwen Thompson (Craft name of Phyllis Healy), 1928–1986, founded the New England Coven of Traditional Witches in the late 1960s. It went on to have various offshoots.

Central to her position as founder of the NECTW tradition was a “grandmother story.” She claimed to have been taught “the Old Religion” (in Margaret Murray’s sense) by her grandmother, Adriana Porter (1857–1946), an underground Craft teaching that supposedly originated in the West of England, in Somerset. Porter was born in Nova Scotia, married William Healy, a bookkeeper and insurance broker, in 1888, and moved with him first to Rhode Island and then to Melrose, Mass. They had one son, Walter, Gwen’s mother’s first husband.

According to Gwen Thompson, her grandmother’s family “were carriers of a secret tradition of Folk Witchcraft,” although her mother had broken with it upon marrying her second husband. Nevertheless, by then Adriana had initiated her and given her the Craft name of Gwen. When Adriana died, Gwen found some of her papers, which she considered to be a Book of Shadows, and which she copied. But she always “refused to tell her initiates anything about the identity of her living relatives, saying, ‘They don’t want to talk to you!'”

This study of her claims has two authors. One, Robert Mathiesen, never met her. Now retired from the Dept. of Slavic Languages at Brown University, he has “a life-long interest in the history of magical practices and doctrines and alternative religions” Theitic, on the other hand, was Thompson’s student from 1974–78 and is now considered to be the historian of the NECTW tradition.

Mathiesen faced one daunting obstacle — he was not allowed to look at Gwen’s Book, except for a part, the Rede (Old English for “counsel”)  that had been published in the Pagan magazine Green Egg in 1975. Most of the Rede is traditional folk wisdom, such “With the fool no season spend / or be counted as his friend.” Other couplets contain wisdom more appropriate to seamen in the days of sail rather than farmers, which could connect them with a port such as Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

The collection as published starts and finished with other couplets that sound a great deal like Gerald Gardner or Doreen Valiente. As Mathiesen writes, they “use the false archaism Wiccan and strongly echo Gardner’s form of Wicca.”

Mathisen researched Adriana Porter’s family history extensively, and he notes that when she came to the Boston are in the 1880s, she had the leisure and income to have investigated  Spiritualism, Rosicrucianism, Theosophy, and other esoteric currents in that city. Since this book’s publication, he has found hints that she might have known Paul Foster Case, in the 1920s. Case was a ceremonial magician and founder of the mystery school Builders of the Adytum, which still exists.

But the so-called Old Religion? The authors conclude that between 19 and 21 of the 26 couplets in the Rede might well have been written down by Adriana Porter, or else some other 19th-century person. The rest, those that give it a Wiccan flavor, were added almost certainly by Gwen Thompson.

It is another example of what I call “the Gardnerian magnet.” Because books by Gardner and his associates became available from 1957 on, many people not part of that initiatory lineage “borrowed” from it heavily.

Adriana had opportunities to become well acquainted with various occult and esoteric teachings. But there is nothing to prove that she carried forward a deep ancestral tradition of Witchcraft as an alternative religion.

My own larger conclusion is that I still have seen no credible evidence for anyone practicing a self-consciously polytheistic Pagan religion called Wicca or Witchcraft prior to 1951 in the English-speaking world.* What we find, instead, are cases such as these:

  • A Craft leader drops bits of information about their own or an ancestor’s involvement in an esoteric school, ceremonial magical group, etc. and passes that off as an ancestral tradition. Such may well have been the case with Gwen Thompson.
  • A person’s ancestor knew herbalism, root-working, card-reading or other divination, spell-casting, water-witching, conjuring, astrology, etc. — even in a Christian context — and their descendent describes this involvement as an ancestral tradition of Witchcraft in order to legitimize their own position in the new religion of Pagan Witchcraft.

Research projects such as The Rede of the Wiccae are needed, therefore, to settle some of these historical questions — inasmuch as they can be settled — and free scholarship on contemporary Paganism to view it through other lenses.

* Yes, I include Philip Heselton’s work here, as detailed in this book review.

2 Comments

  1. Robert Mathiesen says:

    With the permission of the writer, this comment has been converted into a guest blog post.

  2. T.L. says:

    I think the problem with grandmother stories is that they are all isolated, and the people who have them do not have other people’s grandmother stories to compare them to. I am pretty sure that I have a grandmother story, but because I am not a Pagan, I have absolutely no one to talk to about it. I have items and some oral history, and I follow leads and I make observations, and I may be covering ground that has already been covered by Pagan scholars already, or I may be going down a road that other “grandchildren” have already gone down. Regardless, anything I find will be an isolated incident—like a rare disease. If all of the stories could be compiled perhaps some sort of pattern would emerge. For instance, my great-great-great grandmother always wore a black lace cap decorated with small purple ribbons that she never took off—ever. At some point in her life (in old age) she “laid her black cap away” and was “so pleased to go without it.” I seems like her black cap with purple ribbons was some kind of enforced dress code that she did not appreciate. If someone else had a grandmother story about a grandmother who wore a black lace cap decorated with small purple ribbons, there would be overlap. Perhaps someone else knows what this dress code is? Originally these people were Quakers. Originally these people lived in Canada with the Indians. (Does anyone have a grandmother story originating in Uxbridge, Canada?) Originally, the Quakers were persecuted, whipped, imprisoned, and their children sold. Has anyone, in modern times ever posited that Quakers were Pagans? George Keith, a prominent Quaker, who opposed George Fox, accused his sect of witchcraft—and wrote a book called The Magick of Quakerism, or the Chief Mysteries of the Quakers Laid Open (1708)—but then again, everyone back then seems pretty much crazy—both George Fox and George Keith—and it is amazing how many gentle Christian religions have arisen from people who appear to be mentally ill. The craziness is primarily revealed in their zeal for Christianity—so it does not seem possible that a zealous Christian could also be a Pagan—I am in agreement with that. (Google Books and Forgotten Books are great—you can read original copies of old religious books before they have been doctored by their respective religions). It is possible someone has already studied the Quakers, or has a grandmother story about the Quakers, but there is no possible way for me to personally know this.

    I have so many questions. Some people say that there were Christians who were Pagan; others say Christians cannot be Pagans, or if they once were Pagans, but then turned into Christians, then it is not important. I would like to know what all of this means. If the whole mess is so entangled, why does anyone, at all, bother to study it? Glaze-over. Also, if Gerald Gardner can invent a witchcraft, why can’t individual women invent a witchcraft?

    Is Paganism simply some fun little game that some people played in the past? With all the secrecy surrounding Paganism, does anyone REALLY want to know the answers—and I mean everyone on both sides of the debate, that is those who would like to believe in survival paganism and those that do not? I don’t think anyone really wants to know. If people wanted to know, they would be more systematic about it.