Biography of Gerald Gardner and the Gardnerian Wiccan Tradition

Witchcraft Today book cover

Image Courtesy of Citadel Press

Gerald Brousseau Gardner (1884–1964) was born in Lancashire, England. As a teen, he moved to Ceylon, and shortly prior to World War I, relocated to Malaya, where he worked as a civil servant. During his travels, he formed an interest in native cultures and became a bit of an amateur folklorist. In particular, he was interested in indigenous magic and ritual practices.

Forming Gardnerian Wicca

After several decades abroad, Gardner returned to England in the 1930s and settled near the New Forest. It was here that he discovered European occultism and beliefs, and - according to his biography, claimed that he was initiated into the New Forest coven. Gardner believed that the witchcraft being practiced by this group was a holdover from an early, pre-Christian witch cult, much like the ones described in the writings of Margaret Murray.

Gardner took many of the practices and beliefs of the New Forest coven, combined them with ceremonial magic, Kabbalah, and the writings of Aleister Crowley, as well as other sources. Together, this package of beliefs and practices became the Gardnerian tradition of Wicca. Gardner initiated a number of high priestesses into his coven, who in turn initiated new members of their own. In this manner, Wicca spread throughout the UK.

In 1964, on his way back from a trip to Lebanon, Gardner suffered a fatal heart attack at breakfast on the ship on which he traveled. At the next port of call, in Tunisia, his body was removed from the ship and buried. Legend has it that only the ship's captain was in attendance. In 2007, he was re-interred in a different cemetery, where a plaque on his headstone reads, "Father of Modern Wicca. Beloved of the Great Goddess."

Origins of the Gardnerian Path

Gerald Gardner launched Wicca shortly after the end of World War II and went public with his coven following the repeal of England’s Witchcraft Laws in the early 1950s. There is a good deal of debate within the Wiccan community about whether the Gardnerian path is the only "true" Wiccan tradition, but the point remains that it was certainly the first. Gardnerian covens require initiation and work on a degree system. Much of their information is initiatory and oathbound, which means it can never be shared with those outside the coven.

The Book of Shadows

The Gardnerian Book of Shadows was created by Gerald Gardner with some assistance and editing from Doreen Valiente, and drew heavily on works by Charles Leland, Aleister Crowley, and SJ MacGregor Mathers. Within a Gardnerian group, each member copies the coven BOS and then adds to it with their own information. Gardnerians self-identify by way of their lineage, which is always traced back to Gardner himself and those he initiated.

Gardner's Ardanes

In the 1950s, when Gardner was writing what eventually become the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, one of the items he included was a list of guidelines called the Ardanes. The word "ardane" is a variant on "ordain" or "law". Gardner claimed that the Ardanes were ancient knowledge that had been passed down to him by way of the New Forest coven of witches. However, it’s entirely possible that Gardner wrote them himself; there was some disagreement in scholarly circles about the language contained within the Ardanes, in that some of the phrasing was archaic while some others were more contemporary.

This led a number of people – including Gardner’s High Priestess, Doreen Valiente – to question the authenticity of the Ardanes. Valiente had suggested a set of rules for the coven, which included restrictions on public interviews and speaking with the press. Gardner introduced these Ardanes – or Old Laws – to his coven, in response to the complaints by Valiente.

One of the largest problems with the Ardanes is that there is no concrete evidence of their existence prior to Gardner’s revealing them in 1957. Valiente and several other coven members questioned whether or not he had written them himself – after all, much of what is included in the Ardanes appears in Gardner’s book, Witchcraft Today, as well as some of his other writings. Shelley Rabinovitch, the author of The Encyclopedia of Modern Witchcraft and Neo-Paganism, says, "After a coven meeting in late 1953, [Valiente] asked him about the Book of Shadows and some of its text. He had told the coven that the material was ancient text passed down to him, but Doreen had identified passages that were blatantly copied from the ritual magic of Aleister Crowley."

One of Valiente’s strongest arguments against the Ardanes – in addition to the fairly sexist language and misogyny – was that these writings never appeared in any previous coven documents. In other words, they appeared when Gardner needed them most, and not before.

Cassie Beyer of Wicca: For the Rest of Us says, "The problem is that no one's sure if the New Forest Coven even existed or, if it did, how old or organized it was. Even Gardner confessed what they taught was fragmentary... It should also be noted that while the Old Laws speaks only of the punishment of burning for witches, England mostly hanged their witches. Scotland, however, did burn them."

The dispute over the origins of the Ardanes eventually led Valiente and several other members of the group to part ways with Gardner. The Ardanes remain a part of the standard Gardnerian Book of Shadows. However, they are not followed by every Wiccan group and are rarely used by non-Wiccan Pagan traditions.

There are 161 Ardanes in Gardner's original work, and that's a LOT of rules to be followed. Some of the Ardanes read as fragmentary sentences, or as continuations of the line before it. Many of them do not apply to today's society. For instance, #35 reads, "And if any break these laws, even under torture, the curse of the goddess shall be upon them, so they may never be reborn on earth and may remain where they belong, in the hell of the Christians." Many Pagans today would argue that it makes no sense at all to use the threat of the Christian hell as punishment for violating a mandate.

However, there are also a number of guidelines that can be helpful and practical advice, such as the suggestion to keep a book of herbal remedies, a recommendation that if there is a dispute within the group it should be fairly evaluated by the High Priestess, and a guideline on keeping one's Book of Shadows in safe possession at all times.

You can read a complete text of the Ardanes yourself at Sacred Texts.

Gardnerian Wicca in the Public Eye

Gardner was an educated folklorist and occultist and claimed to have been initiated himself into a coven of New Forest witches by a woman named Dorothy Clutterbuck. When England repealed the last of its witchcraft laws in 1951, Gardner went public with his coven, much to the consternation of many other witches in England. His active courting of publicity led to a rift between him and Valiente, who had been one of his High Priestesses. Gardner formed a series of covens throughout England prior to his death in 1964.

One of Gardner's best-known works and the one that truly brought modern witchcraft into the public eye was his work Witchcraft Today, originally published in 1954, which has been reprinted several times.

Gardner's Work Comes to America

In 1963, Gardner initiated Raymond Buckland, who then flew back to his home in the United States and formed the first Gardnerian coven in America. Gardnerian Wiccans in America trace their lineage to Gardner through Buckland.

Because Gardnerian Wicca is a mystery tradition, its members do not generally advertise or actively recruit new members. In addition, public information about their specific practices and rituals is very difficult to find.

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Your Citation
Wigington, Patti. "Biography of Gerald Gardner and the Gardnerian Wiccan Tradition." Learn Religions, Mar. 4, 2021, Wigington, Patti. (2021, March 4). Biography of Gerald Gardner and the Gardnerian Wiccan Tradition. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "Biography of Gerald Gardner and the Gardnerian Wiccan Tradition." Learn Religions. (accessed April 1, 2023).