Gerald Gardner: “Britain’s Wicca Man” and “Witchfather”

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  February 7, 2012 — 33 Comments

I have two Gerald Gardner-related news items for you today. First, “Britain’s Wicca Man,” the first documentary to focus exclusively on this foundational figure within Wicca, now has a trailer out.

“Britain’s Wicca Man tells the extraordinary story of Britain’s fastest growing religious group – Wicca – and of its creator, an eccentric Englishman called Gerald Gardner. Historian and leading expert in Pagan studies, Professor Ronald Hutton, explores the unlikely origins of modern pagan witchcraft and experiences first hand its growing influence throughout Britain today. Gardner’s story and the story of Wicca itself is a bizarre one. Born of a nudist colony in 1930s Dorset, Wicca rapidly grew from a small new forest coven to a worldwide religion in the space of just 70 years. Its a journey that takes in tales of naked witches casting spells to ward off Hitler, tabloid hysteria about human sacrifices and Gerald Gardner himself appearing on Panorama. The film tells of a peculiar man who saw that the world was ready for a new religion based on magic, sex nature and ritual – and gave it to us. In doing so, he created in Wicca, the UK’s first religion, one that has taken on a life of its own and is today counted amongst one of the fastest growing faith groups in the world. Through interviews and encounters with Wicca followers, experts and these who knew Gardner, Professor Hutton delves into this unusual world and the story of how its eccentric founder created a religion that is today increasingly seen as a valid alternative to the more orthodox faith groups.”

As noted in the promotional text, the hour-long documentary is hosted by historian Ronald Hutton, author of “The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft,” and deeply knowledgeable on Gardner, the history of Wicca, and the climate in which modern Pagan Witchcraft arose. Also promising is the fact that Philip Heselton, author of “Gerald Gardner And the Cauldron of Inspiration: An Investigation into the Sources of Gardnerian Witchcraft,” appears in the documentary. So it appears that this special couldn’t have better source material to work with. “Britain’s Wicca Man” was commissioned by Channel 4 in Britain, and is scheduled to be aired sometime in 2012.

The second item, is that the aforementioned Philip Heselton has just released a two-volume biography in ebook format on Gardner entitled “Witchfather: Into the Witch Cult” and “Witchfather: From Witch Cult to Wicca” (you can also pre-order printed copies).

“From the author of the highly acclaimed “Wiccan Roots”, this is the first full-length biography of Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964) – a very personal tale of the man who single-handedly brought about the revival of witchcraft in England in the mid 20th Century.”

Ronald Hutton calls the biography: “humane, intelligent, compassionate, shrewd, and based upon a colossal amount of primary research,” so it looks like it will quickly become a must-own for scholars, Wiccans interested in the roots of their religion, and anyone curious as to how Gardner helped jump-start the modern Pagan movement.

So it looks like 2012 is shaping up to be a year of revived attention to, and interest in, Gerald Gardner. I’m looking forward to both this documentary, and the biography. I anticipate that both will be lasting contributions towards understanding the importance of this figure in our collective history. I’ll be featuring updates, and hopefully reviews, of both in the coming months.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • A.C. Fisher Aldag

    Thank you for posting this, Jason! http://manxwytch.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/video-gerald-gardner-interviewed-by-daniel-farson/ Here is a video of an interview with Gerald Gardner. Here is a video of an actual interview done w/ Mr. Gardner which came out Saturday.

  • Anonymous

    and, cue Apulieus’ hating on Hutton in three, two, one…

    • http://quakerpagan.org/ Cat C-B

      Given the rather dreadful copy (“Gardner’s story and the story of Wicca itself is a bizarre one. Born of a nudist colony…naked witches casting spells…a…religion based on magic, sex…and ritual…”) I’m not sure I can entirely blame him this round.

      Not that the statements are false, but, wow–way to decontextualize and emphasize the sensationalistic! Nice work, whoever wrote the copy; I can only hope the documentary itself is a little less turgid.

      • Lady GreenFlame

        I agree. How many titillating buzzwords can you have in one passage?

        • Gareth

          Of course it’s going to be all buzzwords and sensationalism it’s an advertisement.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    Ronald Hutton himself has written that Wicca “closely resembles”, has been “certainly influenced by”, and possesses “linear connections” with forms of Pagan religion going back at least 18 centuries. That modern Wicca differs in many ways from its ancient spiritual progenitors does not make it an “invented” religion. In fact, every modern religion of any sort, including every variety of Christianity, is radically different from the forms it took centuries ago.

    In fact, unbeknownst (apparently) to his fans, Hutton has all along conceded that Wicca has “a distinguished and very long pedigree stretching back to … Hellenistic Egypt.”

    • AnonGuest

      I think most modern Wiccans pretend their traditions got nothing but a passing nod from Gardner

      • kenneth

        True, but if you think Gardner is the red-headed stepchild of the movement, you ought to see the look on the face of the trad-coven HPs when you tell them that some of our ritual rootstock also traces back to Aleister Crowley!

        • AnonGuest

          But it takes 20 minutes to read, say, Liber al vel legis and Liber XV online for free and see
          if any passages they’ve been using are Crowley quotes

        • AnonGuest

          Nobody gets ashamed if their [musical] (as example) roots were still influenced and inspired by people who did too many drugs and were sometimes poorly behaved. I guess someone could try spending days going through to weed out which music and songs were done by anyone who ever took cocaine or laudanum – as a research project. Probably avoiding said groups wouldn’t make them better talented, though. What is the goal?

          (also married to a former red-head, who is now a silver fox, no complaints about that )

    • Jhamm77

      Yes, Apuleius! When will Gardner actually be taken at his own words? He was a deeply flawed man, and yes, he made a lot of things up. But he drew from history and surviving folklore immensely……and he never even claimed that Wicca was “pure” or that there was a direct line of descent from ancient times.

      I’m SO tired of the SAME people making the SAME generalized statements, using the SAME straw dolls and obscurantist tactics!

  • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

    I’m excited to see this film simply because it appears to have interviews I’ve never seen before. Just for the rare footage alone it looks worthy of watching.

  • http://blog.chasclifton.com/ Chas Clifton

    My sources in the UK tell me that footage about some of the hard historical questions, such as whether Dorothy Clutterbuck was a Witch loaned one of her houses to the coven in 1939, was cut from the original, so I suppose that that myth will be perpetuated.

    Reading Hutton’s praise for Heselton, I am reminded of a passage that I read in an old household-management book about how to write a letter of recommendation for an inept servant who was leaving one’s employ. Various seeming-complimentary phrases were suggested, with the understanding that a prospective employer could read between the lines and get the message: “She can’t boil water without supervision.”

    I do not, of course, suggest that Heselton is an inept writer, but ask yourself, what adjectives are missing?

    • Jhamm77

      Read Dorothy Clutterbuck’s diary, and then tell me she wasn’t a pagan!

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        One wonders why Ronald Hutton never thought of that!

  • http://moma-fauna.blogspot.com/ Moma Fauna

    Sensationalism aside, this is good. As an older Pagan (relative to many Pagan/Wiccan folk), I had to read *books* in the early days. Those books were by Gardner, Valiente, the Farrarrs, et. al. There was no internet, no vapid publishing boom, no “New Age” aisle at B & N. I am aghast at the number of people I have met who look at me blankly when I mention Gardner or Valiente. Who?

    Seriously. Know your roots. You don’t have to like them, but know them.

    What I wish, however, is that Valiente would get proper credit for her contribution to Gardner’s Craft. She, IMHO, was the true creatrix.

    • Jhamm77

      Valiente is SO underrated. Can’t even find her books anymore. It’s a shame

      • Hectuba

        Try the internet. They are probably on there. I have seen alot of Scott Cunningham’s work online but not being referenced to him. As someone who is a staunch supporter of Wiccan Ethics, it gets my goat seeing that.

      • http://moma-fauna.blogspot.com/ Moma Fauna

        If you are missing something from your library, I recommend Alibris or ABEBooks. I have been able to get all of my missing books there.

        Also, if you haven’t seen it, some of her poetry was recently published post-humously by The Centre for Pagan Studies: http://centre-for-pagan-studies.com/ They sold out the first run, but I am hoping they will re-print it again as mine was water damaged in transit. It has some truly incredible writing. Each poem is shown in her own handwriting with a typeset version on the opposite page. Just lovely. They also re-released a hardcover edition of “Where Witchcraft Lives” in a limited run & they still have a few left.

        About the poetry book (“Charge of the Goddess”): http://doreenvaliente.org/about/charge-of-the-goddess-book/

  • Eric S.

    A feature length Ronald Hutton helmed documentary about the history of Wicca I have to admit that as a huge Ronald Hutton fan I’m quite excited… The one thing I will say and its not Ronald Hutton’s fault… why does every single documentary about neopaganism have to use spooky music and “they walk among us” type dialogue, eerie slow motion and horror movie camera angles? Even from something by Ronald Hutton who is so inured in neopaganism, speaks at our events and is such a part of our culture having been raised in it the BBC has still chosen to take that tone. Its like the can’t talk about Wicca without othering us, making us seem strange and eerie and alien and frightening… I wonder how the public would react to an actual pagan folk soundtrack, an earthy natural tone slightly less reminiscent of a pulp horror movie from the ’70s, and language that comes out and says “these are normal people like you or me practicing a lively, relevent, and highly important modern religion” rather than “these weirdos could be walking next to you in the streets, watch out.” Overall this documentary looks like a huge step forward, and I know it is going to be amazing at least in terms of content. But the style and tone does absolutely nothing to help the public image of neopagan religions… Why is this sensationalism such a necessary part of any approach to paganism in the public media?

    • Obsidia

      “Its like the can’t talk about Wicca without othering us, making us seem strange and eerie and alien and frightening… I wonder how the public would react to an actual pagan folk soundtrack, an earthy natural tone slightly less reminiscent of a pulp horror movie from the ’70s, and language that comes out and says “these are normal people like you or me practicing a lively, relevent, and highly important modern religion” ”

      I agree completely, and I even think we shouldn’t even be labeled as “normal people.” I mean, what IS “normal,” these days. Each person is unique and also a part of an interest group or another….we’re just people. People of the Earth.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        The point is not to classify us as normal but to quit treating us as a fringe. We are a subculture; we are not a fringe; music and dialogue that makes us seem like one does us a gratuitous disservice.

        • Eric S.

          Right, normal is the wrong word. I just get tired of having my family call and say “hey, we saw a special about your religion the other day on a show called “Taboo,” there were a bunch of people dancing naked around a big bonfire and we learned all about the sorts of things you do and we all had a good laugh and said that’s our son” and have to sit down and patiently listen to and debunk stereotype after stereotype (especially the ever-popular pagan orgy polemic). It took me 2 years of convincing my family that my becoming Neopagan wasn’t all that different from becoming Hindu or Buddhist before I could even begin to start tackling the part about being something other than Christian (convincing them that that’s ok has been a continuing battle for 4 years now but it’s been an uphill battle). Before I could even be treated with the usual treatment a normal apostate receives though, I had to go through a lengthy period of defending my very sanity largely due to media portrayals of Neopagans. Not only was I now not Christian, I was a very specific sort of crazy, strange not-Christian who performed strange rituals in the dead of night, practiced orgies, communed with demons and all kinds of things. It’s not just that we get labeled as a subculture, it’s that we get tossed in the pool of subcultures that belong on shows like “Taboo.” I’d been looking forward to this documentary since hearing about it, and still am. I am a huge admirer of Ronald Hutton… But I’m disappointed with the BBC for continuing to make Wiccans look like something straight out of a pulp horror movie from the 1970s. I hope that the documentary itself manages to dispel some of these stereotypes (and perhaps explains the culture and philosophy behind Gerald Gardner’s naturism rather than using it as another tool to make pagans completely Inseparable from sex). Hutton’s Triumph of the Moon did a great deal to celebrate Wicca as a significant, relevant, and respectable religion worthy of note. I hope that that the documentary manages to take the same tone. And even if the editors and marketers can’t help themselves I’m sure that Hutton’s words will speak for themselves. But some of the music and imagery in this us uncomfortably reminiscent of some of those sensationalist clips that seem to be the only mainstream press I ever run across…

  • Joanne Dunster

    I bought the e-book of WitchFather the very minute I heard about it and I am loving it. Every person that has thoughtlessly repeated the endless “Gerald Gardner Myths” out there should be given a copy, a nice place to sit for a while, a good cup of tea and be made to read it.

    This book shows, contrary to popular belief that Gerald was a human being, with all the nonsense and flaws that come along with it. I feel like over the course of the book I have gotten to know him almost personally.

    He is portrayed calmly and realistically not as Wicca’s creator/inventor so much as it’s wealthy and eccentric benefactor.

    There is a fantastic amount of detail and research with no trace of hysterics or hyperbole. Where the research can’t fill the gaps and the author makes guesses as to events his guesses are the most reasonable and likely ones. There are no wild assertions here.

    Overall it it gives the most complete, down-to-earth and therefore probably the most accurate, account of Gerald Gardner’s life I have read.

    On a slightly more obtuse note I also enjoyed the biography style because for the first time I got to read about Gerald’s life in chronological order :). It all makes so much more sense and gives events more context.

    Please go and buy this book so that Phillip Heselton will keep writing them :)

    • http://www.witchgrotto.com Ben Gruagach

      I bought the ebook version of Heselton’s “Witchfather” and recommend it wholeheartedly. It helped clarify a lot of details about Gardner’s sources and inspiration for what he passed on as Wicca that I had been wondering about after reading his previous books on the topic. In particular there’s more information about the connection with Aleister Crowley that proved to be quite interesting reading.

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    Another pivotal book I highly recommend is Frederic Lamond’s “50 Years of Wicca.” It is a well-worth reading that, I think, is an intrinsic book to the insights of the history of the formation of Wicca, when Lamond was initiated into Gardner’s Coven, and also when Doreen Valiente was the High Priestess in the latter part of the 50’s. In addition, Lamond discusses the reality of cultural appropriation that lies at the center of some elements of new age Neo-Wicca.

    It is my utmost hope that Doreen Valiente gets her due recognition as the Mother of Modern Witchcraft, for all her valuable insights, work, and key contributions in the formation of Wicca.

  • Kilmrnock

    With Hutton involved i have a fair amount of confidance the first documentery will be well done , and not sensationalised . The last thing the pagan community needs is more crap about us circulated by the media.i don’t think this is going to be the case this time .I’m hoping the the second one will be just as good , well see . Kilm

  • Kilmrnock

    I agree Eric , but this seems to be the state of things now . At least we are getting exposure in a favorable light in these two programs . The media others us as a matter of fact these days . But getting facts about a large number of us out in the light will eventualy lessen fear of us as a whole . Besides I for one always prided myself for having the courage to be Not normal,Diffferent .People fear what they don’t understand , we seem odd to them b/c of a general lack of understanding of what we do/who we really are . Not to mention we have to overcome centuries of false information /propaganda . Programs /books like this are a good start ,torwards that goal. Kilm

  • Moon Priestess

    Ronald Hutton maybe a professor but he did not educate himself about ALL the roots of Witchcraft.He is only covering the English branch & so CANNOT speak for ALL Witches! He ignores the fact that the Greeks centuries before Gardner wrote about Witches calling down the moon ,casting spells and raising the dead.Also how about Charles G. Leland who 100yrs. before Gardner researched Witches in Italy!! Hutton tries to convince people that Witchcraft as a religion was a modern invention of Gardners.It is not and so Hutton needs to go back to school!

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Have you actually read “Triumph of the Moon,” or scholarship on Leland for that matter?

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        Have you, Jason? Anyone who has actually read, and understood, Triumph of the Moon is either well aware of Hutton’s failings as a scholar, or is very poorly educated about even the most basic facts of Pagan history.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          I’m going to steal Jason’s hat for a moment and note that you guys are getting personal and ought to cool.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            The validity of Hutton’s scholarship is certainly open to debate, and Hutton himself has no qualms about trashing the reputations of those he disagrees with. In particular he has been one of the enthusiastic ringleaders of the still ongoing academic lynching of Margaret Murray over the last two decades or so.