Mouse’s Way: Philip Heselton’s Biographies of Gerald Gardner

A serious scholarly biography of Gerald Gardner, the effective founder of the Wiccan religion, remains to be written. Philip Heselton has now written four books on Gardner’s life, but his vision is near-sighted and close to the ground, like a mouse seeking food in the grass, unaware that there are tall trees around him.

Heselton is a master of the trivial detail: He tells us that contrary to the Jack Bracelin biography, Gerald Gardner: Witch (1960), Gardner sailed from Sri Lanka to England in 1907 rather than in 1905, and a naive reader might be impressed by such a correction. He spends pages on minute details regarding the real-estate dealings behind English nudist resorts.

But as he did in Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration (2003), he continues to miss the implications of the chronology that he himself lays out.

• 1939. Gardner says that he was initiated into one of (or the only) surviving English witch covens at a house owned by Dorothy Clutterbuck in Hampshire on “the most wonderful night of his life.”

•  1946.  Gardner is ordained in a Old Catholic church, this one called the Ancient British Church. Would a man who had found his heart’s desire seven years earlier in a Wiccan coven now become a heterodox Christian priest?

• Circa 1946. He is also involved with the Ancient Druid Order, also known as the Universal Bond, and joins its rituals at least until the key year of 1951 (Witchfather,  328–31).

• 1947. He pays Aleister Crowley to give him an upgraded initiation into the Ordo Templi Orientis, with authority to take over its activities in Britain.

• 1947–48. Inspired by his contacts with Crowley, he starts copying old magical texts into a big book, “Ye [The] Bok of Ye Arte Magical.”

Is he thinking about witchcraft at all? He writes a novel,  High Magic’s Aid, published in 1949, but the supposedly medieval witchcraft in it is actually Renaissance ceremonial magic with the addition of a naked woman — and she is more of a passive psychic medium than an active high priestess and leader. It does not resemble what we know as Wicca much at all.

Later he will claim that “the witches” gave him permission to write the book if he concealed their “secrets.” Even that statement would have made good advertising, but it does not appear in the original 1949 edition — only later, when Wicca is up and running. I suggest instead that it was a story made up in order to mesh with the story of the 1939 initiation.

• 1951.  He and Cecil Williamson open their museum of witchcraft and magic. Gardner will later buy Wiliamson’s share. Gardner now goes public with Wicca and writes two more books, although he pretends to be an anthropologist and not a participant.

Despite the 1939 initiation story, during the 1940s Gardner bounced from one esoteric and magical group to another. He was still a “seeker.” By contrast, the 1950s–1960s Gardner totally committed himself to Wicca. That comparison alone tells me that Wicca began in 1950–51.

It is a chicken-and-egg question: which came first, Wicca or the museum. I suspect that it was the museum that forced Gardner’s hand. Now he had to have a coven of witches, in order for said coven of witches to be able to loan ritual objects to the museum — objects which, as his correspondence shows — he was having manufactured to order in some case, whether by theatrical prop-makers or the local blacksmith.  Whichever way it was, 1951 was the crucial year for Wicca, not 1939. But having once told a whopper about 1939, Gardner had to keep inventing new stories — some of which Heselton innocently repeats.

A scholarly biographer would realize that others had attempted similar tasks, acknowledge that, and show where his conclusions were different and more certain. In Gardner’s case, that other writer is Aidan Kelly, who in Crafting the Art of Magic (1991) , republished as Inventing Witchcraft: A Case Study in the Creation of a New Religion (2007, points out one important fact: Our only source for the alleged 1939 initiation and the 1940 anti-German invasion ritual is Gardner himself. There are no independent corroborating sources.

Heselton, in contrast, quotes such other historians of Wicca as Kelly and Ronald Hutton only briefly, and only when they seem to support his basic belief in the truth of the Official Myth of 1939. When they do not support him, as Kelly in particular does not (and Hutton too, if you read between the lines),  he ignores them.

Heselton can build edifices of speculation. He can try to make lists of who might have been in a 1939 coven, but there is no other evidence that the 1939 coven itself ever existed other than Gardner’s say-so. (Yes, Dorothy Clutterbuck wrote nature poetry. That of itself does not make her a Pagan witch.)

Throughout Witchfather, Heselton writes that Gardner engaged in “deliberate mis-representation of what he wanted to do” (512),  “definitely enjoyed intrigue and deception”  (529),  and “was a trickster and had perfected this to a fine art” (641), to give just a few examples.

Yet his adherence to the Official Myth of 1939 makes him unable to ask if it, too, was a bit of “intrigue and deception,” designed to make Wicca look older than it was. When another writer on Wiccan history,  Allen Greenfield, writes of the “the new witch cult” in the 1950s, Heselton feels obligated to add [sic] after the word “new” in the quotation, because it violates the Official Myth.

Heselton has the evidence in his hands, but he does not see it. He admits that Gardner bought a fake PhD from a diploma mill in Nevada so he could call himself “Dr. Gardner.” (Witchfather  167–68). He mentions Gardner’s using out-of-date stationery when writing to Aleister Crowley because he “might have just wanted to impress Crowley with the grandness of his address [which suggested a large country house]” (Witchfather, 301). But he misses the larger pattern.

Call it vanity, call it obfuscation — Gardner wanted to seem to be more than he was, and he wanted the new religion of Wicca to seem older and larger than it was in the early 1950s when he and it went public.

So he backdated it, creating a false origin myth, the “Stone Age survival” that fooled Margaret Murray. (See the first sentence of her introduction to Witchcraft Today.)

Again, had Heselton studied new religious movements, he might have seen a pattern here.

Let it be said that once Wicca was launched, Gardner devoted himself to it. No more OTO, no more Old Catholic Church. He taught, wrote,  and publicized Wicca, giving himself 101 percent to the Craft up until his sudden death by stroke in 1964. Now he had found what his heart desired, but he could not admit to having largely invented it — or, if you will, served as a channel for the old gods to bring it back.

Heselton himself writes at the close of Witchfather, “he never lost his enthusiasm for witchcraft from the moment he was initiated [1939] until the end of his life'”(637). Here again, he does not see the implication of what he has just written. If the “enthusiasm for witchcraft” had existed in the 1940s, would there have been all the excursions into other spiritual and esoteric groups? After 1951, there were no such excursions.

When Heselton turns away from the Official Myth, as in his chapter on the relations between Gardner, his covener Jack Bracelin, the Afghan nobleman and Sufi mystic Idries Shaw, and the writer Robert Graves, he suddenly becomes more analytical and even something of a literary critic. Why? Because nothing here threatens the Official Myth. He can look up from his narrow pathway and see the trees.

If I sound a bit frustrated, it is because I have saying for years that Gardner deserved a good biography— and that if I can, I would be happy to see it through to publication. And I have been told, “Heselton is writing it.” But this is not it. There is no analysis and no awareness of Wicca and its chief founder in relation to other new religious movements and their founders.

Now if only someone could combine Heselton’s research with scholarship on new religious movements and less blind obedience to the Official Myth, then we might have the scholarly biography that Gerald Gardner deserves.

Donna Gardner a Wiccan? Unlikely.

In the current issue of The Cauldron, a writer known only as “Tof” tells us that Donna Gardner, wife of Gerald, chief founder of Wicca, was lying when she said that she was not involved in the Craft.

First, though, Tof tells us, “In all this [biographical summary] there is not evidence of Donna Gardner’s involvement, even occasionally, in the witchcraft practised by her husband.”

And then s/he proceeds to “find” some. Examples:

1.  Donna was supposed to have been photographed “in witch vestments and posing with a ceremonial sword in her hand.”

But we all know that that Gerald Gardner’s idea of “witch vestments” for women consisted of a necklace and nothing else.

Thanks to Philip Heselton’s legwork, we know that Gardner was involved in other esoteric and magical groups in the 1940s before the founding of Wicca circa 1950. Could not these vestments pertain to one of them?

2. Donna apparently “knew some details of Wica [Gardner’s spelling] rituals at a time when they were known only to insiders.” But the time period is not given, and there is no source for this statement—it is just asserted.

3. There is allegedly a high priestess’s symbol on her gravestone. That is interesting, if true, but no photographic proof is offered.

Sloppy speculation like this article is just one more reason why I wish that someone would write a critical biography of Gardner—I would love to see it in Equinox’s Pagan Studies series, which I co-edit.

Aidan Kelly, who started the biographical ball rolling back in 1991 with Crafting the Art of Magic, assumed that Gardner and Edith Woodford-Grimes (“Dafo”) were lovers and that she was, at least for a time, the first high priestess of Wicca in the early 1950s. (I have some concerns with the Wikipedia entry, but at least it has her photo.)

She certainly seemed to be on the scene much more than Donna did. And new religious movements often start under messy circumstances that later followers try to clean up and sanitize.

Can You Sue Your Shaman?—Part 2

Last October 9 I blogged on the deaths at a sweat-lodge ceremony conducted by James Arthur Ray near Sedona, Ariz.

There has been a lot of discussion in the Pagan blogosphere about the case, particularly at The Wild Hunt.

A lot of people piled on, and there was the usual sloganeering about “cultural appropriation” and how “ceremonies were not for sale. ”

Actually, throughout much of the world (and throughout history), ceremonies are indeed for sale. How else do you pay for maintenance of the temple? Do you think the Shinto priest is going to bless your new Toyota for free?

In Wicca, Gerald Gardner’s insistence on not taking money “for the art” was mostly about avoiding prosecution under anti-fortune-telling laws, not cultural appropriation.

But back to James Arthur Ray.

In the latest issue of Shaman’s Drum magazine (no. 82), founding editor Timothy White makes some thoughtful points in an editorial titled “What Can We Learn from the Tragic Sedona Sweat Lodge Debacle?”

White points out several things that went wrong:

  • The sweat followed a 36-hour period of “visionary” fasting, meaning that participants were more dehydrated than they would normally have been.
  • Ray was a “spiritual jock” (my term, not White’s), pushing people to “push past your self-imposed and conditional borders” and shaming participants into not leaving when they were suffering.
  • The plastic tarp coverings may have trapped heat and retarded air circulation more than fiber blankets would have done, making the lodge even hotter.

But he makes several other points as well. First of all, it appears that the lodge was built by the Angel Valley Retreat Center, not by Ray’s team, and had been used previously by other center visitors. Since participants signed a release, it may be difficult to prove criminal negligence in court.

The Sedona location, with that area’s reputation for New Age activities, made it easier for those who “blamed the deaths on New Age spiritual practices ‘stolen’ from Native American traditions.”

White’s conclusion: “I personally believe that the Sedona sweat lodge deaths were caused by a combination of preventable errors and manipulative mind games, due in large part to Ray’s negligence. . . . However, it may be difficult to prove that Ray’s behavior during the sweat was criminally malicious—since he subjected himself to the same challenging conditions.”

And one more thing: screaming for Ray’s head on a plate could encourage the prosecution of “all sorts of ceremonial leaders—vision quest leaders, entheogenic ceremonialists, and even shamanic practitioners—for other accidental deaths. [There have been some such prosecutions—CSC] Although I believe that careless teachers and leaders should be held responsible for preventable mistakes, I think that civil suits may be the best way to encourage appropriate safety measures.”

I titled my first post “Can You Sue Your Shaman?”  But should you? Shouldn’t people walking dangerous paths accept some responsibility?  After all, we followers of magical religions insist that we are not sheep who need a shepherd (Latin: pastor).

The secular law, after all, has fairly narrow definitions of what constitutes a crime and what constitutes a tort. “Bad spiritual teaching” or “improper ritual” or “malicious magic” do not quality.

After all, there was a day—a mere 400-500 years ago—when “malicious magic” or sorcery was a criminal offense in  Western secular courts, but do we want to go back to those standards of proof?