Gardner, Gerald B(rousseau) (1884–1964) English
Witch and founder of contemporary Witchcraft as a religion.
As much myth as truth surrounds Gerald B. Gardner.
Some of the truth about his motivations and actions
may never be known. The posthumous assessment of
him is that he was a con man and an artful dissembler,
yet he had great vision and creativity and was willing to
try outrageous things. The religion that he helped to
launch and shape has evolved far beyond what he is
likely to have forseen.
Hereditary Witches and practitioners of family tradition
witchcraft object to Gardner being credited as the
“founder” of the religion of Witchcraft, claiming that
family traditions have existed for centuries. Nonetheless,
there is no evidence that an organized religion of
Witchcraft—not simply traditions of folk and ceremonial
magic mixed with occultism and fragments of pagan traditions—existed
prior to Gardner.
Gardner was born into a well-to-do family in Blundellsands,
near Liverpool, England, on Friday, June 13, 1884.
His father was a merchant and justice of the peace, a member
of a family that had made money in the timber trade.
According to Gardner, the family’s roots could be traced to
Grissell Gairdner, who was burned as a witch in 1610 in
Newburgh. Gardner’s grandfather married a woman reputed
to be a witch, and some of Gardner’s distant relatives were
purported to have psychic gifts. Gardner’s ancestral family
tree also included mayors of Liverpool and Alan Gardner, a
naval commander and later vice admiral and peer, who distinguished
himself as commander in chief of the Channel
fleet and helped to deter the invasion of Napoleon in 1807.
The middle of three sons, the young Gardner was
raised primarily by the family’s nurse and governess,
Josephine “Com” McCombie. He suffered severely from
asthma. Com convinced his parents to let her take him
traveling during the winters to help alleviate his condition.
Com roamed about Europe, leaving Gardner to
spend much time by himself reading. When Com married
a man who lived in Ceylon, Gardner traveled there
with her and worked on a tea plantation. Later, he moved
to Borneo and then Malaysia to work.
In the Far East, he became fascinated with the local
religious and magical beliefs, and was drawn to ritual
daggers and knives, especially the Mayalsian kris, a dagger
with a wavy blade. He later wrote a book, Kris and
Other Malay Weapons, published in Singapore in 1939. It
was reprinted posthumously in England in 1973.
From 1923 to 1936, Gardner worked in the Far East
as a civil servant for the British government as a rubber
plantation inspector, customs official and inspector of
opium establishments. He made a considerable sum of
money in rubber, which enabled him to dabble in a field
of great interest to him, archaeology. He claimed to have
found the site of the ancient city of Singapura.
In 1927 he married an Englishwoman, Donna. The
two returned to England upon his retirement from government
work in 1936. Gardner spent much time on various
archaeological trips around Europe and Asia Minor.
In Cyprus he found places he had dreamed about previously,
which convinced him he had lived there in a previous
His second book, A Goddess Arrives, a novel set in Cyprus
and concerning the worship of the Goddess as Aphrodite
in the year 1450 b.c.e., was published in 1939.
In England Gardner became acquainted with the
people who introduced him to the Craft. The Gardners
lived in the New Forest region, where Gardner became
involved with the Fellowship of Crotona, an occult group
of Co-Masons, a Masonic order established by Mrs. Besant
Scott, daughter of Theosophist Annie Besant. The
group had established “The First Rosicrucian Theater in
England,” which put on plays with occult themes. One
of the members told Gardner they had been together in
a previous life and described the site in Cyprus of which
Gardner had dreamed.
Within the Fellowship of Crotona was another, secret
group, which drew Gardner into its confidence. The
members claimed to be hereditary Witches who practiced
a Craft passed down to them through the centuries,
unbroken by the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages
and Renaissance. The group met in the New Forest. Just
days before World War II began in 1939, Gardner was
initiated into the coven in the home of Old Dorothy
Gardner was intensely interested in magic and witchcraft
and invested much time in extending his network of
contacts in occultism. He collected material on magical
procedures, especially ceremonial magic, which he put
together in an unpublished manuscript entitled Ye Bok of
ye Art Magical.
In 1946, he met Cecil Williamson, the founder of
the Witchcraft Research Centre and Museum of Witchcraft.
In 1947, he was introduced to Aleister Crowley
by Arnold Crowther. Gardner was especially interested
in gleaning whatever he could from Crowley, who
by then was in poor health and only months away from
death. Gardner obtained magical material from Crowley.
From this and other sources, he compiled his book of
shadows, a collection of rituals and Craft laws. Gardner
claimed to have received a fragmentary book of shadows
from his New Forest coven.
Crowley made Gardner an honorary member of the
Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), a Tantric sex magic order at
one time under Crowley’s leadership, and granted Gardner
a charter to operate an OTO lodge.
Gardner was prevented from being too public about
Witchcraft because it was still against the law in England.
He disguised his book of shadows in a novel, High Magic’s
Aid, published in 1949 under the pseudonym Scire. The
novel concerns worship of “the old gods” but mentioned
by name only Janicot. The Goddess had yet to make a major
appearance in Gardner’s Craft—although he said that
his coven worshiped the Goddess by the name of Airdia
or Areda (see Aradia).
The anti-witchcraft law was repealed in 1951. Gardner
broke away from the New Forest coven and established
He became involved in Williamson’s Museum of
Witchcraft in Castletown on the Isle of Man, officiating at
its opening and serving for a time as its “resident Witch.”
In 1952, he bought the museum buildings and display
cases from Williamson and operated his own museum.
In 1953 Gardner initiated Doreen Valiente into his
coven. Valiente substantially reworked his book of shadows,
taking out most of the Crowley material because his
“name stank” and giving more emphasis to the Goddess.
From 1954 to 1957 Gardner and Valiente collaborated
on writing ritual and nonritual material, a body of work
which became the authority for what became known as
the Gardnerian tradition.
Gardner’s first nonfiction book on the Craft, Witchcraft
Today, was published in 1954. It supports anthropologist
Margaret A. Murray’s now meritless theory that modern
Witchcraft is the surviving remnant of an organized Pagan
religion that existed during the witch-hunts. Murray
wrote the introduction for Gardner’s book. The immediate
success of Witchcraft Today led to new covens springing
up all over England and vaulted Gardner into the public
arena. He made numerous media appearances, and the
press dubbed him “Britain’s Chief Witch.” He loved being
in a media spotlight, which cast him in the curious position
of initiating people into a “secret” tradition that was
then spread all over the tabloids. The publicity, much of it
negative, led to a split in his coven in 1957, with Valiente
and others going separate ways.
In 1959 Gardner published his last book, The Meaning
of Witchcraft. In 1960 he was invited to a garden party
at Buckingham Palace in recognition of his distinguished
civil service work in the Far East. The same year, his
wife (who never joined the Craft or participated in any
of its activities) died, and he began to suffer again from
asthma. In 1963, shortly before he left for Lebanon for
the winter, he met Raymond Buckland, an Englishman
who had moved to America and who would introduce
the Gardnerian tradition to the United States. Gardner’s
high priestess, Monique Wilson (Lady Olwen), initiated
Buckland into the Craft.
On Gardner’s return home from Lebanon by boat in
1964, he suffered heart failure and died at the breakfast
table on board the ship on February 12. He was buried
ashore in Tunis on February 13.
Wilson and her husband operated the museum for a short
time and held weekly coven meetings in Gardner’s cottage.
They then closed the museum and sold much of the
contents to the Ripley organization, which dispersed the
objects to its various museums. Some of the items have
since been resold to private collections.
Valiente describes Gardner as a man “utterly without
malice,” who was generous to a fault and who possessed
some real, but not exceptional, magical powers. His motives
were basically good and he sincerely wanted to see
“the Old Religion” survive. Others, such as Williamson,
saw him as manipulative and deceitful, not above fabrication
in order to accomplish his objectives: to establish
an acceptable venue for his personal interests in naturism
and voyeuristic sex. (Gardner was a nudist, and the ritual
nudity in the Craft is likely to have been one of his inventions;
hereditary Witches say they have worked robed.)
Unfortunately, Gardner’s personal papers prior to
1957 no longer exist. He destroyed them at Valiente’s
urging during the aforementioned period of unfavorable
From the 1960s onward, Witchcraft, the religion, continued
to grow and spread around the world. Initially,
new Witches accepted Gardner’s assertion of an old and
unbroken heritage, but that was soon exposed as unfounded.
The Gardnerian tradition has inspired other traditions,
and Witchcraft has taken on a life of its own as a
predominantly Goddess-centered mystery religion, part
of a larger reconstruction and revival of Paganism.
Whatever his flaws and foibles, Gardner deserves respect
and credit for what he started. As scholar Ronald
Hutton notes, contemporary Witchcraft, or Wicca, is the
only religion that England has ever given to the world.