3 April 2010


Michael Howard, Modern Wicca: A History from Gerald Gardner to the Present. Llewellyn Publications, 2009. -- Reviewed by Gareth J. Medway.

‘Wicca’ is usually understood to mean ‘witchcraft’, but as Howard observes, this has caused some controversy in places such as South Africa, where witchcraft is understood in a wholly negative way. I would suggest that witchcraft could be defined as ‘the exercise of occult arts’, which may be done by people of any faith, whereas Wicca is a religion, distinguished by the fact that unlike most other religions it encourages the exercise of occult arts.
In 1951, when Gerald Gardner started to give publicity to Wicca, the total number of adherents was apparently less than twenty. Today, it flourished in places as far away as California and New Zealand, and there are also many people who identify themselves by the more general label of ‘Pagan’, but who are normally influenced by Wicca.

In the U.K. census of 2001, 30,569 people gave their religion as Paganism. Estimates of the numbers in the U.S.A. vary widely, but the most modest put it at more than 100,000. This is all the more remarkable because in 1951 the vast majority of people regarded witchcraft as an extinct superstition, indeed the 1735 Witchcraft Act was repealed that very year as being an anachronism. Some people thought that Christianity would triumph in the end, others expected a move towards universal atheism, but no-one anticipated a revival of Paganism.

Michael Howard (no relation, I think, to the former leader of the Conservative Party whose home was in the vicinity of a celebrated UFO sighting back in 1997), who since 1976 has been editor of the small but influential magazine The Cauldron, does not try to explain the popularity of this spiritual path, but he has produced what is I think the best account of the history of the movement to have appeared so far.

Apart from the lack of an index, I have a couple of criticisms: in the very first paragraph, he writes of Gerald Gardner that: “Over forty years after his death, controversy still rages as to whether he created Wicca from an eclectic combination of material drawn from esoteric sources, or was the rightful heir to a genuine historical witchcraft tradition.” People do indeed argue in these terms, failing to notice that there is a fallacy implicit in this sentence: they say that Wicca is either ancient, or it was the invention of Gardner, not considering that there are other possibilities. In particular, in a so-called ‘Gardnerian’ coven it is always a High Priestess who is in charge. This suggests that the movement was started by a woman, which Gardner was not. Also, Wicca was evidently influenced by various other occult movements of early twentieth century England, such as the Golden Dawn, the Ancient Druid Order, and the adult section of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry. Gerald Gardner was not involved with any of these, because from 1900 to 1936 he lived in the Far East.

The basic rituals of Wicca are contained within what is termed ‘The Book of Shadows’, which is supposed to be secret but has in fact been published several times. It is full of quotations from books that appeared in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, making its modern origins quite certain, but this has not prevented wild and extravagant claims being made for it. Howard is able to explain the background to one of these from his own experience: in 1971 ‘Lady Sheba’ (Jessie Bell), who described herself as “America’s Witch Queen”, issued a Book of Shadows which, she said, she had first copied from a manuscript when she was initiated into a local coven in her home state of Kentucky in the 1930s, having been born into a family who had practised witchcraft for seven generations.

One reader who was unimpressed by this claim was Doreen Valiente, who, upon opening the book, found that the very first words upon which her eyes rested were those of her own poem ‘Invocation of the Horned God’, first published in 1965, though with the last few lines omitted. This was not her first experience of this kind – in the 1960s she had read, in the newspapers, various quotations from the Book of Shadows of Alex Sanders, which, he said, he had copied from that of his grandmother, again in the 1930s, but which likewise included material that Valiente had written in the 1950s. Howard reveals that Bell, in 1969, had corresponded with him and his own initiator Rosina Bishop and, since she could not afford to travel to England, they allowed a postal ‘initiation’, sending her a copy of their own Book of Shadows – in which they had curtailed the ‘Invocation of the Horned God’ for their own purposes – and it was this that she had published, in violation of her oath of secrecy, because, she said, the Goddess had told her to do so.

A chapter is devoted to the claims of Bill Liddell (some of which first appeared in The Cauldron), according to whom the Wiccan ‘revival’ began with George Pickingill (1816-1909), who lived in Canewdon, Essex, but is alleged to have gone around England setting up nine covens in different counties. Since this story has come to be widely believed, I should say that years ago I did some investigation of my own and found that Liddell’s claims, which he said he derived from unnamed ‘Craft Elders’ were false in almost every detail that could be checked. Pickingill was not a witch, he did not travel about the country, and he could not have founded any covens, at least not by that name, as it is a Scottish word that was then unknown in England.

To particularise: according to the folklorist Eric Maple, George Pickingill was a ‘Master of Witches’, i.e. a cunning man or wizard, who could master witches because he was more powerful than them, and was thus a useful person to go to if you believed that you were bewitched. Evidently the originator of the ‘Nine Covens’ fantasy had read Maple, but failed to grasp this. Less than a year before he died Pickingill gave an interview to a newspaper reporter, in which he mentioned that he had never in his life been to London, which is only about twenty-five miles from Canewdon. Like many of the old style peasantry, he never travelled at all. In 1662 Isobel Gowdie of Auldearne told a court that “there is thirteen persons in ilk Coven”; in 1921 Margaret Murray cited this in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, and suggested on very little evidence that a similar organisation had existed in England, an idea that proved popular enough for people such as Liddell’s Elders to forget that the word had never been heard of here before that.

Among many interesting sections is an account of the Coven of Atho, named for the centrepiece of its rituals, a wooden head representing ‘the horned god of witchcraft’ (not the devil, but a nature deity akin to Pan and Herne the Hunter), which flourished in Surrey circa 1960, but broke up amidst recriminations and legal actions. In 1961 the London Evening News did a hostile exposure of them, but did not identify the members, who were said (in the notebooks of Doreen Valiente, who was usually reliable) to include not only well-known occultists such as Jacqueline Murray of the Atlantean Society, but also speed-ace Donald Campbell. It was said that he would touch the Head of Atho ‘for luck’ before each attempt to get into the record books, but later its owner left the coven taking it with him, which perhaps helped contribute to his fatal accident on Coniston Water – be that as it may, this is the only example I know of that supports the once widely made claim that ‘nationally and internationally famous’ people were secretly involved with witchcraft.

Probably most people have heard of Alex Sanders, ‘King of the Witches’, but not many know that in the 1980s he and an associate named Derek Taylor received numerous spirits messages, not just from the usual suspects like an ancient Egyptian named Neph Ken and the Archangel Michael, but also from extraterrestrials who had bases on the moons of Jupiter, though originally coming from the constellation Hercules or even from other galaxies. They warned them of various forthcoming global disasters which so far have yet to happen. After Sanders’ death in 1988 Taylor continued with this work, allegedly being employed by the British Secret Service in ‘remote viewing’ experiments. His demise was tragic: whilst performing a ritual on beach in Sussex, he thought he saw a UFO mother ship out at sea, and waded in to try to reach it. He was swept way by the current and drowned.

As I write, there is media coverage of the Catholic Church’s objection to the latest anti-discrimination legislation in Britain, as this forbids them to keep up their traditional ban on homosexuality. Howard describes how, in the early days, Gardnerian witches insisted that “it is not possible to be a homosexual and a witch”. I am glad to say that attitudes have changed - I know a woman who was once the High Priestess of a coven that was otherwise composed entirely of gay men. This is ironic in view of the fact that Gardner claimed to derive his initiation from ‘Old Dorothy’ Clutterbuck Fordham, since, whether this was true or not, it is fairly certain that she was bisexual.

It has become customary, when introducing people in print, to give any nickname in inverted commas between the first name and the surname, as in Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin. Some time ago publications such as the MUFON Journal began to do this when the nickname was merely the standard contraction of the forename, thus referring to James 'Jim' Moseley. When John 'John' Rimmer first drew my attention to this, I assume that it was a fad confined to American ufologists, but it has now been caught by British Wiccans - some years ago I attended the funeral of a prominent witch known, according to the service sheet, as Dr. Christopher (Chris) Gosselin, and Howard tells us about such people as Frederick 'Fred' Lamond and Charles 'Charlie' Cardell.

If much of what I have just written sounds like mere nit-picking, I must emphasise that I only want to criticise some particular points because the book is generally so excellent. I was presented with a review copy on a Sunday evening, and found it such compelling reading that I was obliged to abandon all my plans for what I had been going to do on Monday – unfortunately, this meant that on the Tuesday I incurred a small fine for a one day overdue library book. Compared to the only other full study of its kind, Professor Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon, I would say that Howard’s book is less academic, but more readable.

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