After the repeal of England’s last antiquated witchcraft laws in 1951, there began a resurgence of interest in the Old Religion, and witchcraft in particular. Gerald Brosseau Gardner, who later that year became director of the newly opened “Museum of Magic and Witchcraft” in Castletown, Isle of Man, spearheaded this resurgence. From there Gardner started to establish covens, using the basic ideas and rituals he had written about in his fictional book “High Magic’s Aid”, published in 1949.
In 1953 Gardner initiated into his coven Doreen Valiente. It was Doreen who helped Gardner reshape the structure of his covens, by re-writing and embellishing his “Book of Shadows”, thus establishing a new tradition and calling it Gardnerian Wicca. Both Gardner and Doreen were greatly influenced by the teachings of Charles Godfrey Leland, and in time the tradition took on elements of Italian Witchcraft. The famous “Charge of the Goddess” adapted from Stregheria Witchcraft by Doreen, was clearly inspired by his work.
Other aspects of the tradition influenced by Leland’s view of Italian Witchcraft are, The full moon gatherings, The worship of the goddess and God consort, The cakes and wine rituals and celebrations, and Ritual nudity.
Today the tradition is mainly coven based, and follows an extremely traditional path with a hierarchical grade structure unsuitable for solitary practice. The Gardnerian covens of today still adhere to the old time values of secrecy, and new initiates are pledged to take oaths upon initiation.
Gardnerism is both a tradition and a family, and lineage is a family tree. The High Priestess rules the coven, and the principles of perfect love and trust preside. We follow our handed down book (Book of Shadows) more carefully than many others, but we are free to ‘add’ and sometimes improvise a little, as long as we preserve the original foundations and what was written before. We generally work skyclad, practice binding and scourging, and are hierarchal and secretive, therefore we are controversial.
We’re also controversial because we were the first to come out of the woodwork so to speak- the first craft tradition in the UK to publicly declare and also in the U. S. and all descended from the man largely responsible for starting the craft revival. So, we’re called ‘the snobs of the craft’, but I think we’re as much fun as anyone else; our parties as good, our jokes just as bad as any others’.
A Gardnerian can trace his/her lineage matrilineally back to a High Priestess who worked with Gerald a High Priest. Each Gardnerian Coven is autonomous and is headed by a High Priestess and High Priest, who can turn to their queen, (the High Priestess who trained her), for counsel and advice. This maintains the lineage and creates a pool of experienced and knowledgeable leaders and teachers.
Reincarnation of one sort or another and the Wiccan Rede [An it harm none do what you will] are basic tenants of the tradition. Covens are composed, as much as possible and where applicable, of male/female pairs for balance. Most working is accomplished with the energy raised by the interaction of the Lord and Lady as represented by the couples in the coven by dancing, chanting, etc.
Like many Wiccan traditions, Gardnerians have three degrees. A Gardnerian must be of the 3rd degree before he or she can become a HPS or HP. The HPS/HP are responsible for conducting services (circles), training their conveners, and preserving and passing on Gardnerian Craft.
Gerald made a lot of changes and added a great deal to existing practices as handed down to him in the New Forest Coven. In fact, literary sources of the published Book of Shadows include Blake, Kipling, Yeats and Crowley and of course Doreen Valiente, a member of the coven for a time and later founder of her own groups and author of many excellent books on the Craft.
Gardnerian Witches without doubt do have many materials which have not appeared in print, even today, however, their great emphasis on secrecy has made them a punchline in the Wiccan social world. “How many Gardnerians does it take to change a light bulb?”
“That’s a secret!”