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.

28 thoughts on “Mouse’s Way: Philip Heselton’s Biographies of Gerald Gardner

  1. Aidan Kelly

    Hey, Chas,

    Thanks for this. You are a tough critic–as I know, tho it’s salutary–but I have to agree that you’re right. I like Philip. He stopped by during his book tour and we had a delightful evening of talking shop. But, yeah, Philip does wish the 1939 myth was at least to some degree true, just as Doreen did, so he accentuates the positive and tries to eliminate the negative, rather than being as skeptical as scientific method requires even with non-quantifiable data. The raw material he’s gathered can be very useful, but it will have to be used. I think the circle of Gardner’s friends and acquaintances in the New Forest area were real people, but, as Philip does agree, a circle of eccentric British occultists was not a Wiccan coven then any more than it is now. Of course, if Edith did believe in her past life as a witch and did spontaneously initiate Gerald, I think that would count as a real starting point–but of course that is completely different from the official myth as well. My position, as you know, is that GBG should be given credit as a rogue guru and somewhat of a religious genius, with a lot of parallels to Joseph Smith and other founders of new religions. I will look forward to Ron’s essay with anticipation. I hope he’s not too hard on Philip. who is a nice guy with a not implausible interpretation of the history.

  2. Thanks for this, Chas.

    I obviously agree with these comments, as they are based on clear factual points within (or not) Heselton’s work. However, after Cauldron of Inspiration and Wiccan Roots, I was not expecting a scholarly, critical analysis. Within pages I saw my expectations were correct, and I enjoyed and gained from the books as they are.

    I think, doing our own internal combination of NRM studies and material from other research we can value Witchfather for its own sake. It certainly points to areas requiring further research and study. So I am not too hard on it…but then I like pedantic details 🙂

    Your stark posting of the obvious timeline problems here should make anyone still viewing Wicca as a complete tradition in 1939 sit up and take notice. This is just not tenable anymore.

    THANKS 🙂

  3. Thanks for an interesting article, which I’d mostly agree with. Heselton does seem too eager to retain the canonised story of Wiccan origins.

    I wonder, though, what you’d make of the fact that witchcraft was certainly on Gardner’s radar screen by 1939, even if there’s no independent proof that he was initiated into an actual coven? I’m thinking of A Goddess Arrives and Gardner’s article for the Folklore Society (in which he mentions being acquainted with Murray). Also, going back to what Aidan Kelly says above, he seems to have met Edith Woodford-Grimes by this point.

    1. After the war, GBG said he “fell in love with a witch” while serving as an air-raid warden, and that was presumably Edith.

      But given his passion for laying down smokescreens, we can fairly ask if she was “a witch” in the early 1940s any more than he was.

      He also referred to her (not by name) as “a girl,” and she was about 50 at time. Rather sweet of him perhaps, but not terribly accurate.

      1. Robert Mathiesen

        I’m not trying to make a case for Gardner’s having met an old coven of witches, but I think it certain that there were at the time, here and there, individual women with a strong interest in magic who on occasion, perhaps semi-playfully, actually claimed to be witches. If so, then it is not a huge stretch to suppose that a man with Gardner’s interests would have crossed paths with a few of these women from time to time.

        Since the 1860s, in Spiritualist circles in both England and the United States, a few prominent spiritualists insisted that there was no significant difference between a Spiritualist medium, a magician (of the occult sort) and a (genuine) witch. The person who took this line most strongly was Emma Hardinge Britten, herself a medium, but also the co-author/editor of a rather good treatise on magic and witchcraft (_Art Magic_ 1876), and a person who wrote rather proudly of a few occasions when she herself had been accused of being a witch. So the idea was out there in the culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at least among Spiritualists. And we already knew that Gardner was significantly interested in Spiritualism as well as in magic.

        We do know of two women who made this claim (in the USA, however) during the first half of the 20th century, namely Robert Heinlein’s second wife, Leslyn MacDonald, and the writer Shirley Jackson. As for MacDonald, we may get some idea of her views from Heinlein’s novel _Magic, Inc._, written while he was married to her, which features a witch named Amanda (“she who must be loved”). Amanda’s witchcraft and magic, in the novel, are straight out of Grillot de Givry’s pictorial anthology of witchcraft and magic.

        It seems clear, also, that some parts of Gardner’s _Ye Bok of ye Art Magical_ were copied from a slightly earlier handwritten book of magic and witchcraft that was not written by Gardner, but by some other person. (See the paleographical demonstration of this in my introduction to the recent edition of Charles G. Leland’s _The Witchcraft of Dame Darrel of York_). This fact is the pivot on which my present argument turns.

        In saying this, I am not claiming that Gardner was initiated into a surviving coven of witches, but I am saying that at least one other person of Gardner’s acquaintance had gone down the road to inventing witchcraft a few years before Gardner did so. That person was likely a woman who had earlier been influenced by Spiritualism. We do not know who she was, but there is no reason why she might not have been Edith Woodford–Grimes.

        As for the claim that these witches were some of the last survivors of an old tradition: Gardner liked to spin tales and take people in, to be sure, but lots of people spin tales and take people in. Maybe Woodford-Grimes spun a tale or two of her own, and took Gardner in with them.

        As for calling grown women “girls,” that was extremely common throughout the first half of the 20th century. Even women called themselves “girls” then far more widely than they do now, and in many more contexts. I’m old enough to remember this first hand.

  4. T.L.

    It seems like Gardner was experimenting or searching in his early years, just like everyone else. When he was initiated into Clutterbuck’s “survival” coven, perhaps he didn’t like much what had survived.
    It is interesting he turned next to the Old Catholics. In 1800’s the Old Catholics settled the remote regions of Northern Michigan. A group from Arranmore settled on the very very remote Beaver Island, a place where they could worship the way they wanted to. They held irregular services, worshiped outdoors and in Gaelic. Others settled in the Boyne City area and elsewhere. The dozens of Jesuit Missionaries, like Father Marquette (and many many others), who swarmed Northern Michigan to Christianize the American Indians perhaps were also meant to keep a thumb on the Old Catholics who thought they had escaped.
    Also, sometimes I wonder, (is it okay to wonder?), if there were to be a European “survival something” that the Old Catholics might have been a vector. Their secret society, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, had both a High Priest and a High Priestess (I think this is unusual for a secret society to include women and place them in high office—but maybe not), and they held/hold their meetings on the evenings of the full moon. Very super secret, for sure—but as I have learned from this blog—there were “thousands” of secrets societies who had probably full-mooned everything—so it probably is no big deal—except perhaps for the woman thing. Anyway, why did Gardner care about the Old Catholics at all and should this be shrugged off?—was it just the Freemason connection with Old Catholics?

    1. Heselton says that the link was J.S.M.Ward, an occultist whom Gardner had met in the 1930s and who later sold him the witches’ cottage that ended up at Bricket Wood. Ward was an episcopus vagans who was associated with the group who ordained Gardner (though he didn’t perform the ordination himself).

  5. Robert Mathiesen writes:
    “It seems clear, also, that some parts of Gardner’s _Ye Bok of ye Art Magical_ were copied from a slightly earlier handwritten book of magic and witchcraft that was not written by Gardner, but by some other person. (See the paleographical demonstration of this in my introduction to the recent edition of Charles G. Leland’s The Witchcraft of Dame Darrel of York. This fact is the pivot on which my present argument turns.”

    Having a long-standing interest in Leland (did I see that book in the collection at the Pennsylvania Historical Society?), could you please tell me more?

    Heselton suggests that the copying by Gardner was largely done because ordinary people did not have access to photocopy machines in the late 1940s, but, if I read correctly, the stuff copied was all extant published grimoires of ceremonial magic. Nothing about another “handwritten” book.

    1. Robert Mathiesen

      I think you might have seen the original in the Penn. Hist. Soc. Library, Chas. My friend Theitic arranged to pay for a full set of color scans, and another mutual acquaintance made a transcription (from an older black-and-white microfilm that I had ordered), which transcription I vetted. The scans themselves remain the property of the PHS, and can be viewed through its website, but the transcription is only in the published volume, as is my introduction.

      Take a look at:

      In a nutshell, Gardner’s own fancy calligraphy can be seen in the famous OTO charter that he copied out for Crowley to sign, and also in the books of shadows that he wrote. (A page or two of one of these books of shdows can be seen in a photograph in one of Doreen Valiente’s books.) In the charter, his upper-case M is a sort of M commonly used in English black-letter fonts. In the fancy calligraphy of _Ye Bok_ it looks roughly like a zero with a seven conjoined to it on the right side, more or less like 07 (run together). In his later books of shadows, he writes a nonsense form somewhat like o07, but with rectangles instead of curves for the o0 part, showing that he really did not understand what lay behind the 07 of _Ye Bok_.

      But this curious 07 form of upper-case M has a history, which Gardner seems not to have known. It goes back to 15th-century black-letter fonts used in Germans and the Netherlands, and before that it is probably a cursive handwritten German form of M. It largely fell out of use everywhere after about 1520, but it was revived in the 20th century in England by the William-Morris style of fake medieval art. It was popularized in quite narrow esthetic circles by the famous type designer Stanley Morison (who also designed the original Times New Roman font).

      That this form 07 (= upper-case M) appears in certain parts of _Ye Bok_, but not others, is significant: the parts in which it appears (and not the other parts of _Ye Bok_) were probably copied by Gardner from a manuscript written by someone else who was up on the latest fashions in art in England, most likely, someone who was otherwise stylish and fashionable. Gardner himself was not such a person. Edith Woodford-Grimes might well have been such a person, to judge by both her career and the published photograph of her that I have seen.

      Now the parts in which this curious upper-case M appears are precisely some of the ritual texts, including above all the three initiations, and a very few of the non-ritual texts, including “Of the ordeal” (about binding and scourging). which contains a quotation from Mark Twain’s _A Connecticut Yankee_. These parts, and probably only these parts, were probably copied from a lost handwritten book written (as noted above) by someone who was up on the latest artistic fashions in England. Gardner himself in not such a person, and moreover, later he mis-copied the shape of the letter when he was copying parts of his later handwritten books of shadows from _Ye Bok_. You can see more in the _Dame Darrel_ introduction, with other supporting data, but this is the core of the argument.

      Among other things, this probably means that the binding and scourging in these rituals was introduced somewhat earlier than Gardner, despite his own preference for using it to raise power. Whoever else introduced binding into the ritual practices may have referenced William Seabrook’s _Witchcraft_ (1940, in England 1941) and certainly Jack London’t short novel _The Jacket_ (a.k.a. _Star Rover_), which is actually cited in a note to “Of the Ordeal” in _Ye Bok_. And ritual scourging specifically as a means of purification, wherever else it may also be found, was very prominent in Elsie Clews Parson’s great book on _Pueblo Indian Religion_ (1939).

      And if these are the sources used, then the lost manuscript that Garnder copied into _Ye Bok_ was probably put together sometime after about 1940, but in any case by someone other than Gardner.

      There is much more to be said about these things, but thos ios enough for a blog post.

  6. Well, Chas’s review of my latest book, “Witchfather”, certainly made me think. I have admired Chas for his perceptiveness since he is the only other person other than myself to have been able to read “between the lines” of Ronald Hutton’s forewords to my earlier books!

    I think some of Chas’s criticisms are valid and some are not. It is certainly true that Gerald became a Druid and a Priest of the Ancient British Church and a member of the O.T.O., of the Folklore Society and probably numerous other things after his initiation into the witch cult in 1939. This is totally in keeping with his personality. He goes up to London to live in the middle of the war and so is out of contact with Edith for the first time. He acquired books on magic and witchcraft from second-hand book dealers, though whether he actually read them is another matter! He was the sort of person who liked to have a hand in all sorts of different things and, as he was out of contact with Edith, he didn’t do anything further about “the witch cult” specifically, but turned his attention to magical grimoires, which he copied out laboriously, sometimes in the Theban alphabet.

    After his illness in the autumn of 1947 and his failure to do anything about organising a camp of the O.T.O., he turned back to the witch cult, got permission from Edith to write about it in the form of fiction and added to the original material a lot of ceremonial magic which appeared in the printed version of “High Magic’s Aid” in 1949. This then became the source book for Gardner to practise his own initiations, starting with Barbara Vickers in 1950. After a few false starts, the witch cult took up all his time after that, being actively involved in the museum from mid 1951 onwards.

    Chas accuses me of promulgating the “Official Myth of 1939”. Those who know me will know that in no way am I one to put forward the “official line” on anything, and indeed, my purpose in researching and writing about all this was to get beyond the “official myth”. Having said that, however, I happen to believe Gardner when he says that he was initiated into the witch cult a few days after the war started (i.e. September 1939). Yes, he could tell lies and mislead people, but there are times when he told the truth and I have found that in the important things his accounts can usually be verified independently. Again, it is about understanding his personality.

    I have never claimed to be either scholarly or academic and I have said that my biography of Gardner (just the one – the others are accounts of parts of the lives of several people) will not be the last. There is indeed scope for a scholarly and academic work of analysis. I freely admit that I am not that good at that, but perhaps my books may provide the foundations on which others may build. My book was not on new religious movements and their connection with what Gardner never called “Wicca”. I leave that to others.

    As well as a biography of Doreen Valiente, I am currently researching the lives of all those, including Edith Woodford-Grimes, Dorothy Clutterbuck, Rosamund Sabine etc. whom I have linked to the group into which Gardner claimed to have been initiated, with a view to seeing what we have and whether there are any clues which indicate that Gardner did not invent it all. I am really open to this. My aim, if it is not too grand a phrase, is to find the truth, and I am ready at a moment’s notice to change my mind about anything if convincing evidence is brought forward.

    1. Philip,

      If you can write about the many times in which Gardner shaded, adjusted, revised, or fudged the facts of his activities, and yet present the 1939 initiation story as the sober, unvarnished truth, then you need to be more consistently skeptical about your sources — especially one like GBG, who made himself the only source of information about the alleged 1939 witch cult.

      I offer you Occam’s Razor. If using 1951 instead of 1939 as a starting point makes it easier to explain his actions during the 1940s, then it is worth considering under the principle of parsimony. Fewer moving parts, in other words.

  7. Thank you, Robert Mathiesen, for your comments about Gardner’s calligraphy in “Ye Bok of Ye Art Magical”. There is certainly some evidence that some of the material in “Ye Bok” and the equivalent in the early Book of Shadows known as “Text A” have both been copied from some earlier text. Whether this was just an earlier version by Gardner or someone else’s book needs further research. It’s one of my future projects for my later years when I can no longer travel about visiting sites and archives and interviewing people!

    1. Robert Mathiesen

      You are very welcome, Philip. If you would like to discuss my technical arguments about the paleography of _Ye Bok_ and its manuscript source (and also what I have worked out about its published sources), I’d be happy to do so by email. My gmail address is (lowercase) RMATH13.

  8. Hi

    I read the above article and the comments with great pleasure. I myself have always believed that the New Forest Coven was more of a ‘prewicca’ group, a precursor of this religion rather than what we know as a Wicca practising coven. My feeling was that Gardner was hooked on the idea of witchcraft already by the end of the 1930s but intuitively felt that the practise of the New Forest Coven could be greatly enriched by additions from other occult systems – thus his involvement with the OTO etc.

    I do believe that Philip has expressed very similar views when giving a lecture in Austria in 2009 which I had the pleasure to attend. To be honest I had no idea that there might be still people in England or America who would believe that the New Forest Group practiced Wicca as we know it today.

    I wonder if you would give me permision, both Chas and Philip and others, to translate your article and the replies into Polish and publish it on my Wiccan website ( Philip knows me but for those who don’t – I am a Wiccan living in England but of Polish origins, initiated by Chris and Vivianne Crowley. I just thought that Polish readers would greatly benefit from this exchange of opinions as some of them have a very uncritical approach to foundation myths.

    1. Hello Agni!
      You certainly have my permission to translate and publish what I have written if you wish.
      I should certainly make it clear that I also think that the group into which Gardner was initiated was rather different from a Wiccan coven as we would recognise it today. The main thing is that for all the people involved in the group witchcraft was only one of their interests. They didn’t have regular coven meetings, for example. It’s just that more than one of them believed firmly that they had been witches in a previous lifetime and that therefore they were entitled to call themselves witches in this lifetime. And I think for most of them that was it. The initiation was probably something got together specially for Gerald. His may have been the first ever in that particular group!

    2. Robert Mathiesen

      You’re certainly welcome to translate and publish my comments also, Agni. As for the group that initiated Gardner, I see things much as Philip does, and I am utterly convinced that it did not exist for very many years before Gardner’s initiation into it (which, as Philip says, may well have been the first initiation they ever did).

  9. Robert Mathiesen writes of “individual women with a strong interest in magic who on occasion, perhaps semi-playfully, actually claimed to be witches.”

    True, and fascinating. But none of them wrote a book with the blessing of Margaret Murray, then considered to be an excerpt, claiming to have found the ancient Pagan religion preserved.

    1. Robert Mathiesen

      Agreed, Chas!

      However, I’m just as interested in the people who (probably) told GBG that they were witches (or had been in a previous life) as I am in GBG himself. Maybe I’m even a little more interested in them than I am in him. Hence my efforts to find a context in which these unknown people developed an interest in witchcraft.

      This all began, for me, when I (who am a professional academic Medievalist) first ran into the old claim of a Medieval origin, or an origin even earlier, for Wicca, and also for at least some parts of its body of secret texts handed down to initiates. This claim, as far as it concerns texts, was something I could really get my teeth into as an expert in the codicology, paleography and textual criticism of Medieval manuscripts (and the earliest printed books). And I had a strong prior interest in the history and practice of magic and witchcraft.

      So I pulled together all the published versions of these texts that I could get my hands on: the Farrars’ books, both editions of Charles Cardell’s _Witch_, Aidan Kelly’s unpublished typescript, the Carlyons’ pamphlet giving Alex Sanders texts, and so forth. Soon I also got permission from the Jameses to spend a couple of days with _Ye Bok_ and the remnants of Gardner’s library. I wanted to find all the published sources and quotes from published books for these texts; by luck or instinct I had happened to bring most of the necessary books with me to Toronto, so I could do most of this work on _Ye Bok_ directly.

      But I also wanted to see how GBG had put _Ye Bok_ together, both as a physical object and as a collection of texts. (This is sometimes called the “archeology of the book<" and one practices it on individual manuscripts or early printed books.)

      As for the texts themselves, Aidan had come to much the same conclusions before me, but it was good to test his work against the original. Here and there I came to slightly different conclusions from his, however, and nowhere more so than through my examination of GBG's calligraphy. This convinced me absolutely that some parts of _Ye Bok_ had been copied from another (unknown or lost) manuscript NOT written by GBG, which he had not quite understood or correctly deciphered, and also that this manuscript was NOT more than a decade or so older that _Ye Bok_. (There were text-critical reasons as well as paleographic ones for this conclusion.)

      That being the case, I concluded that there should be no problem with accepting the gist of GBG's account of meeting a few people who had told him they were witches (or had been witches in previous lives), who had eventually put him through a form of initiation. I also realized that at least one small detail of GBG's own initiation (as he described it) was not found in _Ye Bok_ or in any of the published texts I have mentioned above, or even in _High Magic's Aid_. This made the text-critical problem even more intriguing. I concluded that the oldest form of the three initiations available to us (_Ye Bok_ and _High Magic's Aid_) was not quite the same as the initiation GBG underwent in or around 1939. The rituals were, at that time, still a work in progress.

      As for GBG's claim that this small group of people had inherited a body of secret magical and witchy texts that went very far back, it was on the face of things false, but it didn't much matter to me whether GBG was deceiving us about this on his own initiative, or whether he had been first deceived by others (who may even have come to believe their own fictions) and passed it on. Why should I or anyone care very much with whom, precisely, the deception or self-deception had originated.

      Also, this lost or unknown manuscript from which parts of _Ye Bok_ had been copied already gave considerable importance to the magical uses of binding and scourging. Even though those features may have been innovations in the above-mentioned work in progress, they were almost certainly NOT GBG's innovations, but innovations due to some member of the group that had initiated GBG. (This is one place where I disagree with Aidan's views.) Since GBG valued these magical practices highly (on the testimony of some of those who circled with him), he may even have been drawn to the group because one of its members actually shared his interest in these practices. Since we are probably on safe ground to assume that it was Edith Woodford-Grimes who was his principal source of information about the group, and who eventually led him to initiation into it, it may have been she who passed this detail on to him as well, or even shared his interest in these magical practices.

      So to some extent we are chasing after different rabbits, though they are closely related and come from the same warren . . . I hope this clarifies my comments somewhat.

      1. Although I did study in Lloyd Reynolds’ calligraphy program at Reed, my knowledge of paleography is small.

        But as long as I don’t have to read any Elizabethan secretarial hand, I am willing to follow along if you publish anything on this issue.

        Nevertheless, as I in my response to Heselton, I still think that a 1951 starting point (following some years of discussion) for Wicca is a more parsimonious explanation for events than a 1939 starting point, for which we have only Gardner’s word that it ever happened.

  10. Robert Mathiesen

    Oh, I see the confusion here. Let me try to put it more clearly, and then I’ll drop the subject. I’ve taken up too much space already.

    To move away, for the moment, from technical arguments about texts and handwriting, I just don’t see how “Wica” (as it was called at first) could possibly have been Gardner’s creation. To judge by his published books and articles, he doesn’t seem to me to have had either the mind or the imagination or the language need to create it out of nothing more than what was floating around in his culture.

    What Gardner did, instead, was sell Wicca, and that he did brilliantly. He also may have taken some part in reworking what he had to “sell,” though Doreen Valiente and others (I think) did more than he on that score.

    So, if Gardner didn’t create Wica, and if it wasn’t handed down in secret from time immemorial, who did create it, and how much earlier? This is where the technical study of _Ye Bok_ and the writings in it enter in. The published sources on which it drew were published in the 1920s and earlier. Little or nothing from the 1930s and 1940s was used. The inititation rituals seem to be a work still somewhat in progress. At Gardner’s initiation he heard the word “Wica,” but that word does not appear in the rituals we have. In _Ye Bok_ there is a small exchange between initiator and initiate not found in later texts, and a note in the margin that this is no longer used in the ritual. This exchange, asking the initiate whether she is armed, makes little sense if the initiate’s hands are bound at the time, but more sense if the binding was added later. And so forth.

    Then there is the paleography of the fanciest hand in _Ye Bok_ (with its odd upper-case M), which suggests that the initiations, the short text on “The Ordeal of the Art,” and maybe a few other small pieces were copied not from a published source, but from a handwritten one in fancy calligraphy, which Gardner misread here and there, and which (therefore) had not been written by Gardner himself. (And Gardner’s own upper-case M in his own fancy calligraphy had a very different and less odd shape.)

    This all points to someone other than Gardner as the “first begetter” of Wicca, and to a time starting somewhere in the 1930s, but continuing perhaps as late as 1941 (when Seabrook’s _Witchcraft_ was first published in the UK).

    I would have come to these conclusions even if Gardner had never given us a date for his initiation by this person or group. I’m not inclined to take Gardner’s work for any part of his history unless there is independent confirmation of it. But there’s a huge difference between a man whose words you can’t take on trust and a man whose words are *never* true.

    But enough of this; I’ll let it drop now. Do take a look at my introduction to Leland’s _Dame Darrel_ when you have the time.

    1. There are some assumptions in your argument:

      1. Did Gardner “misread” or did his terrible spelling reassert itself.

      2. As a self-taught calligrapher, were his majuscule letter forms always the same? Does copying a handwritten text necessarily mean copying its letter forms as well?

      3. Aidan Kelly deals with Ye Bok as being a work in progress also, so how would you engage his argument?

      But seriously, why not send a paper to The Pomegranate on this topic, especially if it could be illustrated? Let it be peer-reviewed.

      1. Robert Mathiesen

        Misreading, I think, although GBG’s spelling was terrible. And his majuscule letter forms are rather consistent, except for the curious majuscule M. Of course, copying a handwritten text definitely does not have to entail copying its letter forms — but it can. The odd majuscule M is so uncommon in England, and where it does occur it has a peculiar history, that it is not likely to be a mere variant within Gardner’s hand. Can you borrow a copy of my _Dame Darrel_ and look at what I write in the introduction? If not, I’ll see what I can do about sending you a scan.

        I’ll think about an article for Pomegranate. I had supposed I was happily finished with academe forever, but my data and inferences here may be useful enough to others for me to make an exception. I’ll write you when I’ve decided. If I do, it won’t be at all soon.

        I don’t have a full set of photographs from _Ye Bok_, just a dozen or two, and my original notes. My memories of _Ye Bok_ itself are now two decades old, and I don’t entirely trust the details any longer. And I can’t fly (or travel much at all), for health reasons, so I can’t go see the original again.

        As for engaging another scholar’s arguments, that’s a very sore pint with me. I’ve never critiqued another scholar’s arguments (in print) even once in all my academic life, not even to reply when that other scholar has engaged mine; and I’m not about to start now. The most I’ll ever do is simply state that we see things differently, and leave it at that. This is because I’ve never been convinced that one can get at the truth of anything through verbal dialogue, much less through polemics (into which dialogue so often degenerates). I just draw inferences from the data I have and leave it to others to make what they will of my work.

  11. Robert Mathiesen

    Oops! That was “I’m not inclined to take Gardner’s *word* for any part of his history . . .” toward the end.

  12. Hi. Thank you for your various permissions to translate this exchange. There was a typo in the link to my website that I linked to before: it’s

    On the subject of the initiations in the New Forest Coven – if we were to assume that people who created this group where also members and practitioners of other magical or occult systems eg Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Heterodox Church or other traditions that possess a system of initatiory degrees, then perhaps the initiatory system was always an integral part of what they were doing. Perhaps the content of Gardner’s initation rite is older as suggested by genuine copying from older manuscripts; perhaps it comprises elements of initations from other systems that everybody in a group could compromise on and is some kind of the synthesis of their different practices; or perhaps both. Taking part in many initiations and analysing this ritual in depth with each new initiate I must say that it seems to me so deeply profound in its meaning, and so life changing that it is hard to believe that it could be made up by just one person who doesn’t seem to be a ritual genius or by a group of people who didn’t do it before.

  13. Yes, the people that I suspect were part of the group who initiated Gardner had a lot of experience of esoteric traditions, which would have included initiation rituals. Edith Woodford-Grimes and Ernie and Susie Mason had been Co-Masons and had subsequently joined the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship. Rosamund Sabine had been a member of Waite’s branch of the Golden Dawn.

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