Friday, December 30, 2005

1939 and All That

Jason Pitzl-Waters draws attention to a 2001 interview with Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone recently re-published in the online zine The Wiccan-Pagan Times.

Janet Farrar, who came to the Craft in the late 1960s, seems to dancing around a more skeptical position as regarding Gerald Gardner's finding a coven of Witches concealed within the Rosicrucian Theatre group in 1930s England. She thinks that the concealed group was mostly Theosophists and Co-Masons, and that he tried to label them as witches.

Let's try a radically simpler idea.

The whole "1939 initiation in Dorothy Clutterbuck's country house" story is fiction. Likewise, the Lammas 1940 ritual against the threatened German invasion, turned into a 1983 novel by Katherine Kurtz, is itself most likely fiction.

The man driving the coffin nails into the 1939 initiation myth is, ironically, a man who wants desperately to believe in it: the British writer Philip Heselton. In his second book, Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration, which followed Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival, he backs away from the pure Margaret Murray-style "Old Religion" mythology and suggests that perhaps Wicca was developed in the 1920s, just before Gardner came along. (Both books are published by Capall Bann.)

Unlikely. Gardner's own actions and writings offer a different explanation.

In the 1960 biography, Gerald Gardner, Witch, he tells his biographer (Idries Shah, owner of the publishing firm), that when he found the Witches, he found what he had been seeking all along. But consider his own behavior, as detailed by Heselton.

In 1946, he joins the Ancient Druid Order, which had a magical component but was not truly Pagan, since many members were more like esoteric Christians with Celtic interests. The same year, he is ordained a priest in the esoteric Ancient British Church, one of several tiny splinter groups of the Old Catholic Church. Finally, as is well known, in 1947 he contacts Aleister Crowley, shorter before Crowley's death, and is given a charter to continue Crowley's magical order, the OTO.

Is this a man who has found what he truly sought in 1939, or is this a seeker who is still sampling different esoteric spiritualities in order to find the one that is right for him?

Likewise, in the 1940s he writes a novel of witchcraft, High Magic's Aid, whose practices bear little relationship to Wicca but, as the title suggests, look a lot more like ceremonial magic. In contrast, his 1954 book Witchcraft Today is whole-heartedly in the Margaret Murray camp; she wrote the introduction. It describes a Pagan religion surviving from the misty past, and that is the position that he held for the rest of his life.

The turning point is 1951, when his associate Cecil Williamson opens a witchcraft and folklore museum on the Isle of Man. Gardner helps to finance it and later takes over its operation. The partners have a problem: what to put in the display cases? They bring talismans, magical daggers, and so forth from their personal collections, and so on, but it's not enough. Gardner replicates some ceremonial items--swords, robes, grimoires, etc.,--as he admits in his letters to Williamson, and promises to get more on loan from the witches.

I think that the physical reality of the museum and its needs (and perhaps the simultaneous repeal of the Witchcraft Act of 1735, which meant it was no longer illegal to call yourself a "witch"), were the final push that led to the creation of the self-consciously Pagan new religion of Wicca by Gardner, his lover Edith Woodford-Grimes, and whoever else was involved.

Then, in the 1950s, Gardner truly acted like a man who had found what he was seeking. No more OTO, no more Druids, no more Ancient British Church. He taught Wicca, wrote about Wicca, gave press interviews about Wicca, and continued that way until his death in 1964.

In his 1992 book Crafting the Art of Magic, Aidan Kelly points out that other than Gardner's own stories,, we have no independent sources for the 1939 initiation, the 1940 rite against Hitler, etc. Kelly also rightly says that religious innovators often present themselves as reformers of an earlier tradition rather than creators of a new one.

Unfortunately, Kelly also tried to paint Gardner as a sexual masochist with very flimsy evidence and innuendo. He made much of the practice of flogging boys in English boarding schools--but Gardner was home-schooled and never attended any boarding school. The result was the "Gardner was an old pervert" meme, which is still with us.

Were I a Pagan theologian, I would say that the Gods chose the timing: 1951 not 1939. Maybe so. And all religions are "new religious movements" at some point in time.

Tags: ,


Blogger Steve Bodio said...

Hmmm- another Poul Anderson connection. He introduced us to Kurtz at the World Science Fiction Convention in Boston in--- '71?

2:16 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home