May 7th 2020
Wicca was developed in late 1940s by a man called Gerald Brousseau Gardner, a man who spent many years overseas in the diplomatic corps. As a child, Gardner was severely asthmatic, and his family sent him oversees to warmer climates int he hopes it would improve his condition. While he was there, he made full use of his time by travelling widely and studying indigenous cultures. He developed a particular interest in shamanic traditions, as well as ceremonial knives and their uses.
When Gerald retired, he returned to the United Kingdom, bringing back with him all of that knowledge that he’d accrued overseas. Back in the UK, he interacted with ceremonial magicians like Aleister Crowley, and also claimed that he was initiated into a coven of witches in the New Forest. The origins of that story are hazy. Philip Hesselton, one of Gerald’s biographers, has spoken about this topic, and suggested that there may have been a recently formed group which was practicing a form of witchcraft, very heavily influenced by Margaret Murray’s vision of what a coven might look like. Margaret Murray was an anthropologist (since debunked) who wrote The Witch Cult in Western Europe in the 1920s, which claimed that there was a tradition of witchcraft whose origins lay in Pagan Britain (i.e. before the Roman army introduced Christianity) and had survived undetected all this time. In his book, The Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton finally put paid to these suggestions, and while Murray has been denigrated for many decades, the one thing she should be credited with, is in influencing a whole generation of writers and creatives who then, in turn, wrote some of the most evocative stories of modern witches, for example, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes would not have been written had Townsend Warner not fallen in love with Murrays vision of a Witch Cult. (See my book, Nature Mystics for more information on this).
Whatever may or may not have happened to Gerald in the New Forest, he then relocated to Hertfordshire, where he established his earliest coven, in which he set out to create a new tradition, one that was born in the United Kingdom and established British traditional shamanic practices. Britain in the 1940s was still quite a conservative country Christianity was the dominant religion and the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was still in place. This meant that if somebody was accused of practising witchcraft they could potentially face a prison sentence. As a result of needing to beat the censor, Gerald‘s first book about witchcraft was written in the form of a novel - High Magic’s Aid.
The world began to change in the 1950s, following the end of the Second World War. In 1951 the Witchcraft Act was repealed, which meant that Gerald and his companion witches were now free to begin practising witchcraft as a spiritual tradition without fear of legal repercussions. In 1959 he published his second book Witchcraft Today. Who would’ve known at the time that what Gerald had spawned was going to grow into Britain’s first home-grown religious practice, which would grow exponentially all around the globe. There are now networks of covens stretching out all over the globe, and Wicca has now become a worldwide tradition.
WHAT IS BRITISH TRADITIONAL WICCA? (BTW)
If you are active on any international Internet forums, you will see references to BTW in posts (for example in Thorn Mooney’s post). This is simply the American term for Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca. In the UK, we don’t really call ourselves that. We just think of ourselves as Wiccan, or witches.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN GARDNERIAN WICCA AND OTHER FORMS OF WITCHCRAFT?
Over the intervening years between Gerald’s earliest coven and now, Wicca has changed and grown in its own organic way. Over the years various groups split from Gardnerian Wicca as (for various reasons) they felt they could do it better. This means there can be a dazzling array of different kinds of coven. For example you might discover a coven that practises what they call Traditional (or Trad) Witchcraft, or you might find Alexandrian covens. This can mean you might be faced with a dazzling array of options.