Gardner, Gerald Brousseau

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Gerald Brousseau Gardner

BORN: June 13, 1884 • Blundellsands, England

DIED: February 12, 1964

British religious leader; witch; writer

Gerald B. Gardner, the pioneer of the modern witchcraft revival movement, was a writer and occultist. An occultist is someone interested in supernatural powers and mystical knowledge. Gardner called himself a witch and founded the contemporary religion of witchcraft in England during the 1950s. This later led to the establishment of Wicca. Wicca is a form of white (benevolent and kind) witchcraft that comes from pre-Christian religious traditions that involve magic and a focus on the rhythms of nature. Gardner gathered beliefs and celebrations from a wide variety of sources to create what became known as the Gardnerian Tradition in witchcraft. He also initiated many people on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean into his coven, or assembly of witches.

"I think we must say good-bye to the witch. The cult is doomed, I am afraid, partly because of modern conditions, housing shortage, the smallness of families, and chiefly by education. The modern child is not interested. He knows witches are all bunk."

A Very British beginning

Gardner was born Gerald Brousseau Gardner on June 13, 1884, in the small northern English town of Blundellsands near Liverpool. He came from a moderately wealthy family, with a father who was an important local merchant and justice of the peace. Gardner later claimed that his grandfather had married a witch and that other members of the family had supernatural or psychic powers. There are also claims of a family connection to a woman named Grissell Gairdner, who was burned as a witch in 1610.

Gardner had asthma as a child and did not play with his two brothers. Instead he was cared for by a full-time Irish nursemaid who took him on trips across Europe and largely let the youth engage his curiosity as he pleased. Gardner formed early passions for both history and archaeology, which is the study of past human life and culture. When his nursemaid married and went to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to live with her husband, Gardner followed. The tropical climate was better for his asthma. Just sixteen, he took a job on a tea plantation. He worked on the plantation for nineteen years before moving to Borneo, a large island in the Malay Archipelago islands, where he became a rubber tree planter. In 1923 he moved to Malaysia, where he was employed for the next thirteen years as a rubber tree plantation inspector, a customs official, and an inspector of opium (an addictive drug made from opium poppies) establishments.

A student of local culture and magic

During his years in the East, Gardner turned his attention to local customs, religions, and supernatural and magical beliefs. He studied ritual weapons and the Malay kris, a type of dagger with a wave-shaped blade. His first published work, Kris and Other Malay Weapons, resulted from this interest. He conducted original research into the early civilizations of Malaya (now Malaysia), writing for the Royal Asiatic Society journal and becoming an expert on the native people of Malaya. He mounted archaeological expeditions in search of lost cities of the East. Gardner was able to finance his work with the income he made from the rubber trade.

Gardner retired at age fifty-two and returned to England with his wife, whom he had married in 1927. They settled in the south of England, in the area known as New Forest. He spent most of his time leading archaeological expeditions throughout Europe and Asia Minor. While on a visit to the island of Cyprus, he discovered what he described as places that he had dreamed about earlier. He became convinced that he had lived on Cyprus in another lifetime. He used this as the background and setting for his second book, the 1939 novel A Goddess Arrives. The book centered around the worship of the goddess Aphrodite 2,500 years earlier.

Gardner became fascinated with the idea of a goddess religion that supposedly ruled the peoples of Europe during the Stone Age, the earliest known period of human culture. According to this religion, the Mother Goddess was the creator and the center of religious power. This feminine-based religion, many say, was the primary form of religious belief for many centuries until it was finally replaced several thousand years ago by what is called the Sky God, or male-dominated religious systems that are known now. The existence of this religion was deemed uncertain by the early twenty-first century, but during the 1930s many people in England and the United States believed in it. According to legend, pre-Christian Europe was matriarchal, or controlled by women, and the supreme spiritual being was a mother goddess.

As a student of local folklore, Gardner soon became interested in the history of the region where he had settled, and he discovered that it had deep roots in witchcraft. He became involved with an occult group, the Fellowship of Crotona, which was led by the daughter of an early member of the Theosophical Society. The Theosophical Society is a mystical religious and philosophical movement founded in New York City in 1875. The society combines Buddhist and Hindu beliefs and seeks to investigate the universe and humanity's place in it. The Fellowship of Crotona practiced both Theosophy and Rosicrucian rituals. The Rosicrucians are an organization devoted to the study of ancient mystical, philosophical, and religious principles. The Crotona group claimed to be a line of hereditary witches, with secret knowledge passed down to them for hundreds of years. (Modern-day research indicates the group was only two decades old at the time of Gardner's involvement with them.) They had built a theater, and Gardner assisted them in the production of plays with occult themes. One member of the fellowship claimed to have known Gardner in his previous life on Cyprus.

Gardner claimed he was initiated into a coven, or group of witches, in 1939, by its leader, a woman he referred to as "Old Dorothy." Historians believe he was referring to a very prim and seemingly conservative lady named Dorothy Clutterbuck (1880–1951), who ran a small coven. (Gardner later claimed that he learned his witchcraft tradition from a coven that had a deep historical tradition, and that his writings were thus handed down from generation to generation. Clutterbuck's small coven, however, was one with recent roots only.) Once he was a member of the coven, Gardner began to study witchcraft ritual with the intent to publish a book. England still possessed laws against witchcraft at the time, however, so he wrote the 1949 novel High Magic's Aid using the false name of Scire. Though fiction, this book revealed much about witchcraft. Some of the material came from Gardner's association with Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), one of the more famous practitioners of the occult in England at the time.

When Gardner met Crowley, shortly before Crowley's death, Gardner persuaded him to write down the practices of a coven to which he had once belonged. Crowley also initiated Gardner into the Ordo Templi Orientis, a group that practiced the East Asian form of magic called Tantrism. Tantrism is a spiritual movement which involves mantras (verbal formulas), symbolic body postures and hand motions, and sexual rituals. Crowley's version of Tantrism was a corrupted form of tantra yoga, a Hindu discipline intended to awaken the energy in the body by using rituals to address relationships and sexuality. Gardner soon opened his own lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis at his new home on the grounds of a nudist club to which he belonged. His lodge was made up mostly of men. In fact, the female membership of the group was often so low that he had to hire prostitutes from London to carry out the Great Rite, a ritual during which a high priestess was required to have sexual intercourse with male members.

England's chief witch

By 1951 the laws against witchcraft in England had been eliminated, and Gardner could speak publicly about the practice. He was also free to establish his own coven. Gardner moved to the Isle of Man where an acquaintance had opened the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft. Gardner soon bought the museum and operated it himself. In 1953 he met Doreen Valiente (1922–1999), whom he initiated into his coven of witches. Together they edited and expanded what Gardner called his Book of Shadows, a book of rules and rituals for the operation of a coven. Historians believe Valiente may have toned down some of Crowley's information regarding sexual practices and also helped to insert an emphasis on goddess worship.

In 1954 Gardner published Witchcraft Today, perhaps his most influential work. In it he acknowledged and drew from the theories of Egyptologist Margaret Murray (1863–1963) and her 1921 Witchcraft: The Witch Cult in Western Europe. Murray's book posed the theory that witchcraft was the remaining aspects of pagan religions that had survived the arrival of Christianity and the centuries of witch hunts that followed. Murray held that the practice of witchcraft went back to ancient times and was widespread throughout Europe. These ideas gained some popularity, although many of her professional colleagues mocked them. Gardner was intrigued by her theories and asked Murray to write the forward to his book.

In Witchcraft Today Gardner complained that witchcraft was in danger of dying out. He wrote: "I think we must say good-bye to the witch. The cult is doomed, I am afraid, partly because of modern conditions, housing shortage, the smallness of families, and chiefly by education. The modern child is not interested. He knows witches are all bunk." The book's publication, however, brought about a resurgence of interest in England and led to the formation of many new covens. Gardner was dubbed by the English media as "Britain's Chief Witch." He angered some witches in the country who felt that he was sharing too many secrets of the practice with outsiders. Others disapproved because Gardner incorporated his beliefs on naturism (nudism) with witchcraft.

By all accounts, Gardner was a difficult man with whom to work. Some considered him controlling and arrogant. Many of his followers, including Valiente, who had become the high priestess of his coven, split with him over personality clashes. The increasing media coverage of Gardner also did not please some of the other witches. Gardner continued to work, publishing The Meaning of Witchcraft in 1959. The following year he was invited to Buckingham Palace, not, however, because of his work in witchcraft, but for his government service in the Far East. Gardner's wife died that same year.

After a brief trip to Lebanon for health reasons, Gardner was returning by ship to England when he died of a heart attack on February 12, 1964. The captain of the ship was the only mourner at his funeral, and he was buried in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, in Africa. Gardner had left his museum to the current high priestess of his coven, who, with her husband, continued to run it for a time. Soon, however, they sold the contents of the museum to the Ripley's Believe It or Not company, and the collected artifacts were distributed around the world to the Ripley's museums.

After Gardner's death his papers were made public, and it quickly became apparent that his claims to being initiated into a witchcraft tradition with a long and established ritual were untrue. The papers revealed that Gardner had created much of the ritual himself, blending elements he learned from Crowley with medieval texts, writings of other mystical orders, and bits of Asian ritual and folklore practices. The ritual knife he used, the athame, was developed from the Malaysian kris, which Gardner was very familiar with. He took eight different ancient pagan festivals and holy days and adapted them to become the witchcraft holy days, or Sabbats. He also instituted meetings, called Esbats, every other week.

Gardner has been credited with bringing the concept of witchcraft or Wicca to the United States, though he personally never traveled there. In 1963 he initiated a visiting Englishman named Raymond Buckley into the practice. Buckley then went back to the United States, where he was living. He began to spread Gardner's teachings in America, and they ultimately developed into the Wicca movement, which had more than fifty thousand practitioners by the early twenty-first century.

The Gardnerian Tradition

Gardner wrote about the sources he used for his witchcraft ritual in his Book of Shadows. Although it is a central sacred text to the religion of Wicca, this book was never published or made available to the general public. Instead, each coven possesses its own hand-written copy, and some of these are in code. They all supposedly contain the basic principles of Gardner's teachings and rituals, but differ somewhat from coven to coven, based on local preferences.

The Gardnerian Tradition contains mysteries and secrets that are supposedly passed on through three different levels, or degrees. When a person reaches the Third Degree, he has complete knowledge of the tradition and may break away, or hive, to form his own coven. The ideal number for a coven is considered to be thirteen. Wicca is a religion of initiation. That is, membership is not purely voluntary, but involves an initiation rite. A coven must find students serious about learning the rites in order for them to be accepted. Some witches, however, prefer to practice Wicca on their own and are called solitaries. Not all Wiccans practice witchcraft. Some merely believe in the nature elements of the religion.

Wiccans worship the Goddess and may also worship the God, according to Gardner's teachings, and celebrate Sabbats and Esbats. These Sabbats include the solstices (the two longest days of the year), the equinoxes (the two times a year when day and night are equal in length), Litha in the summer, Yule in the winter, Ostara in the spring, and Mabon in the autumn. Other Sabbats include Imbolic on February 1, Beltane on May 1, Lughnasadh on August 1, and Samhain on November 1. This celebration calendar, also called the Wheel of the Year, is used by most Neo-Pagan groups in the early twenty-first century.

Gardner developed rituals to accompany each of these holy days and for each degree of initiation into Wicca. One major ritual of the Gardnerian Tradition is called "Drawing Down the Moon." The high priestess of the coven enters a trance and becomes the Goddess, who is symbolized by the moon. The high priest of the coven calls on, or draws down, the Goddess into the high priestess. Wiccans generally celebrate inside a magic circle, holding hands and saying prayers to the Goddess and God. In the Gardnerian Tradition, such ceremonies are conducted in the nude.

A pentagram, or five-pointed star, is the general symbol of Wicca, and there are several interpretations of what these five points mean. Followers of the Gardnerian Tradition, however, deny that they have any meaning at all. A primary tenet, or principle, of the religion states "If no harm is done, do what you will." Gardner also applied the concept of karma to this tenet. Karma is a Hindu and Buddhist belief that one's actions will return to affect one positively or negatively in three ways: physically, mentally, and spiritually.

For More Information


Bracelin, Jack L. Gerald Gardner: Witch. London, England: Octagon Press, 1960.

Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. New York, NY: Citadel Press, 2004.

"G(erald) B(rosseau) Gardner." In Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. 5th ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Group, 2001.

Heselton, Philip. Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration: An Investigation in the Sources of Gardnerian Witchcraft. Milverton, England: Capall Bann, 2003.

Heselton, Philip. Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival. Milverton, England: Capall Bann, 2000.

Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London, England: Robert Hale Ltd., 1989.


Lawrence. M. J. "Modern Witchcraft Has Roots in '50s Britain." Boston Herald (October 22, 1998): 3.


Gerald Gardner. (accessed on June 2, 2006).

"Gardner, Gerald B." Mystica. (accessed on June 2, 2006).

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