Alex Sumner reviews Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration: An Investigation into the Source of Gardnarian Witchcraft [Amazon, Abebooks] by Philip Heselton at Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration in the Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition archive.
Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884 – 1964) was probably the most influential figure in the Wicca movement in the twentieth century. When, after the decrepit Witchcraft Act 1735 was finally repealed in England and Wales in 1951, Gardner was the first major figure in the Craft to “come out” and declare that he was himself a Witch. He publicly worked to disseminate information about the Craft, both as an author, and as the Curator of a museum to Magic and Witchcraft. Moreover, as a practising Witch he initiated leading lights of the Wicca movement (e.g. Doreen Valiente), and is credited as being the source of many of Wicca’s rituals, texts and beliefs.
Gardner claimed that he was publicising for the first time many things that hitherto had been kept secret. He did this guardedly, for he claimed he was being careful to protect the privacy of pre-existing Witches, from whom he had received the material that he was now making public. This mixture of secrecy and openness has had a curious effect on commentators on the Craft: it has generated something of a romance about what they purport to be the true origins of Wicca.
I have heard a number of stories bandied about concerning Gardner, from different sources, which all seek to make Gardner appear to be a sort of con-man. These include:
- Gardner invented Wicca himself;
- Gardner paid Aleister Crowley to write the “Book of Shadows” ;
- Crowley invented Wicca after discussions with Gardner;
- Gardner was initiated by a woman named Dorothy Clutterbuck – however, she was actually a figment of Gardner’s imagination;
- There was no pre-existing Witch-cult before Gardner wrote Witchcraft Today;
- Gardner was deliberately misleading in the way he wrote Witchcraft Today.
It is the assertion of Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration that all of the above claims are, in fact, false.
Why should we take notice of a new biography of Gardner now, when so much has been written about him in the past? One compelling reason has arisen: the passing in recent years of Gardner’s protégée, Doreen Valiente, has meant that her personal collection of material relating to Wicca has now been made available to researchers. Indeed, this, amongst other places, is from where Philip Heselton, the author of the book under consideration, has derived his sources.
Heselton has also gone to some trouble in researching the geography of the places involved. Thus, we have it that the author willingly searches out old maps and tramps through the New Forest to deduce the sites of the various Wiccan activities which Gardner described. Heselton, himself a practitioner of Wicca, is even able to use his insider connections to gain access to Gardner memorabilia, which is today in the safekeeping of various covens.
Thus for example, in refuting the idea of Gardner inventing Wicca all by himself, Heselton is able to unearth evidence which suggests that it certainly existed by the mid-1920s – over ten years before Gardner came to live in England. Following a lead in a note in one of Valiente’s books, Heselton suggests that the original creator – or alternatively, the rediscoverer – of the Wicca movement into which Gardner was initiated, was in fact an Adept of the Stella Matutina, one of the successors of the Golden Dawn.
(Here I must point out a technical fault in Heselton’s work: he makes the mistake of saying that this lady in question, “Mother Sabine”, was a member of Waite’s group, when the evidence clearly points otherwise. She joined the Morganrothe, which was the anti-Mathers faction of the Golden Dawn at the time of the 1900 split. This later split into the Stella Matutina, a magical order, and Waite’s Holy Order of the Golden Dawn, from which Waite extracted the magic and replaced it with Christianised mysticism.)
As a magician of the Golden Dawn tradition myself, I find the idea that Wicca was founded by a fellow GD-er fascinating. Indeed, the GD was a strong influence if indirect influence in Gardner’s life in other ways as well. Gardner freely admitted to using extracts of Mathers’ Key of Solomon in his novel High Magic’s Aid: he did this, he said, because he was not allowed to give away the operative secrets of the Craft. Moreover, Heselton has found the sword which Gardner lent to the Druids to use in the Summer Solstice ceremony at Stonehenge: it corresponds exactly to the description of the Magic Sword in the Key of Solomon.
Heselton wields another sharp object – Occam’s Razor – when he comes to the claims regarding Crowley’s involvement in the Craft. We must remember that in the first half of the twentieth century, Crowley was the Occult “Celebrity” – the leading figure, in Britain as well as other parts of the world. Everyone who was anyone in the field of the occult at the time was likely either to have met Crowley, or written to him, or know someone who knew him, etc. Thus we have some authors who go about implying that because everyone in the occult movement was indirectly connected with Crowley, one way or another, Crowley was directly responsible for almost every major event in occultism during that era.
Regarding Wicca, the facts are these. Gardner did meet Crowley, towards the end of the latter’s life. Crowley apparently made Gardner a IV° in the OTO, although it seems that what really happened was that Gardner drew up the charter himself and thrust it under Crowley’s nose, to sign. The Charter which Gardner displayed at the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft was almost certainly his own design: it is in his style of calligraphy, and shows a marked ignorance of the finer points of Thelema and the OTO. However, Gardner never used this charter, and probably wasn’t really interested in the philosophy of the OTO: he certainly never understood its grading structure! Gardner admitted to Valiente that he had incorporated some of Crowley’s poetry in the Book of Shadows. Gardner also wrote that when he first saw the Wicca materials, he believed Crowley may have had a hand in it.
It was this last admission that has caused some conspiracy theorists to believe that Gardner was deliberately being misleading – that Gardner had paid Crowley to write the material. However, it is Heselton’s contention that what really happened was that a third party had lifted some material from Crowley’s published works – hence Gardner may just have been telling the truth.
The real story of the origin of Wicca, according to Heselton, would appear to be something like this. Gardner, on his retirement, returned to England in 1936, and made contact with a number of colourful characters, who though unconnected were all involved with “alternative lifestyles”. These included a group of people in a Hampshire village amongst whom were a former GD Adept, as noted above, and an authoress of children’s books who incorporated Pagan themes into her stories. They had formed a Wicca group by at least 1925: this was the so-called “New Forest Coven”.
Gardner was also a Naturist, and met people interested in alternative or Pagan spirituality through Naturist clubs to which he belonged. Crucially, one of his many friends was the pioneering founder of what was possibly the first open air museum in Britain. This heavily influenced Gardner, and was what probably inspired him to help set-up, and eventually take-over, the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft on the Isle of Man.
There really was a “Dorothy Clutterbuck” – actually, a lady named Dorothy St. Quintin Fordham (née Clutterbuck), who was a prominent member of the community in the Hampshire village where the members of the New Forest coven lived. Gardner was initiated into Wicca at her house in 1939, although not by her – the Witch whom Gardner looked upon as his initiatrix was another lady entirely.
Wicca was the abiding passion of Gardner’s life – which was a quite something, as being a mercurial character he often dropped things if he lost interest in them. Given Gardner’s fascination with it, it is not surprising that he felt the urge to write about witchcraft. However, in the first half of the 20th century, this was technically impossible, as there was still on the statute books an obsolete piece of legislation known as The Witchcraft Act 1735, which still outlawed the Craft in England and Wales. Therefore, what Gardner did was to write about the Craft in the form of a fictional novel – High Magic’s Aid (1947). Written as an adventure set in mediaeval times, Gardner put a lot of Wiccan belief into the mouth of the heroine – a young Witch called Morven. Heselton quotes Patricia Crowther, who told him what Gardner said when he presented a signed copy of High Magic’s Aid in 1960: “Darling, take notice of Morven’s words, they will teach you much.” 
But this novel did not satiate Gardner’s urge to write. In 1953, he wrote the seminal Witchcraft Today – this time a non-fiction book. The Witchcraft Act 1735 had been repealed, and replaced by the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 – which technically meant that being a Witch was no longer a crime. In this light, Gardner was able to publicly profess that he was a Witch, and that he was well acquainted with other Witches – hence he could describe their practices from personal experience. His first steps in this direction were at the opening of the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft on the Isle of Man. Just a month after the Act had been repealed, he marked the opening of the museum by publicly performing a spell for good fortune. But what he really wanted to do was to express himself in print. Hence when in 1952 the book Witchcraft by Pennethorne Hughes came out, he was galvanised to refute what he saw as distorted descriptions of the Craft, and slanders against himself and his Wicca friends. Hence the appearance of Witchcraft Today in 1953.
Now here we come to a curious fact! When Gardner wrote High Magic’s Aid in 1946, he consulted his initiatrix in the Craft, whose witch-name was “Dafo”, as to what he could and could not include. The rituals which she proscribed, Gardner replaced in the book with portions from The Key of Solomon. In 1952, Gardner again sought “Dafo’s” permission, before writing Witchcraft Today – which she gave, because she herself did not like Hughes’ book. “Dafo” stipulated that Gardner should at least respect the privacy of the Witches, which he did. Therefore, Gerald Gardner remains probably the first and possibly only founder of a modern Occult movement, who instead of defying his initiators, remained loyal to them!
Being a Gardnerian Witch himself, it is clear from the text that Heselton intends his book to be a suitable monument to Wicca generally, and Gardner in particular. Gardner as a man, did have his faults: for example, despite the fact that he enjoyed a successful career, he was still ashamed of his lack of any formal education. This led Gardner to deceive others into believing that he held non-existent academic qualifications, such as a Ph.D. He may also have deceived Crowley into thinking he held more Masonic degrees than he actually did! On the other hand there is speculation that Gardner may have had an extra-marital affair with another Witch.
Yet it is clear from Heselton’s writing that he regards Gardner’s personal shortcomings as relatively trivial: especially when compared to his main achievement, of publicly establishing the Craft in modern Britain. And in a sense, Heselton is right, for so long as we accept that Gardner was not the inventor of Wicca, but the medium for its publication, then ultimately the Craft transcends Gardner. Although Gerald Gardner certainly deserves full credit for bringing it to a modern audience.
I would therefore recommend this book. It is refreshing to read a book on Wicca by an author who writes as a Historian first, and a Wiccan second. For in doing so Philip Heselton has managed to collate a fascinating array of data which uncovers the previously unknown history of the Craft.
Gardner, G B: High Magic’s Aid, 1949, Michael Houghton
Gardner, G B: Witchcraft Today, 1954, Rider.
Heselton, Philip: Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration, 2003, Capall Bann.
Hughes, Pennethorne: Witchcraft, 1952
King, Francis: Ritual Magic In England, 1970, Spearman.
Mathers, S L Macgregor (ed): The Key of Solomon. https://hermetic.com/norton/classics
 [cover] Image courtesy of http://www.capallbann.co.uk/
 King, Ritual Magic In England (1970). This appears to be the original source of the claim: I shall not bother with later sources who repeat the assertion without any new evidence.
 Heselton, p223.