A while back, I began to ask myself what witchcraft looked like before Gerald Gardner. To be fair, I mainly wanted to know what inspired Gardner to start a religion all his own. What sources had he used? Why did he make specific changes to the rituals he utilized? How had witchcraft changed over time? Little did I know the answers to these questions would leave me a little at a loss. So, in the interest of sharing experiences, I thought I’d share what I learned, and what it means going forward.
When I first started trying to trace the origins of Wicca back to what it may have originally looked like I discovered a problem: there is no original source book. At first glance, this should have been obvious. Still, it took an overflowing bookshelf to realize the vast diversity within Wicca today. Sure, I’d read what I considered to be the usual book recommendations. I had Scott Cunningham’s Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance, and even Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon all loving displayed on my shelf. Still, there were quite a few questions I had.
With so many different opinions and traditions out there, I found myself wanting to dig deeper. Being transparent, I had hoped to find the one ‘original’ tradition. So, I kept reading. This is how I found many of the books I consider important to my path as a Wiccan today. Books like Raymond Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft, Janet Farrar’s A Witches’ Bible, and Timothy Roderick’s Wicca: A Year and a Day. These books made me yearn for a coven, one practicing a more British Traditional form of Wicca. Given where I live though, a coven wasn’t in my foreseeable future.
A little out of ideas, I continued to read, selecting the book, Her Hidden Children: The Rise of Wicca And Paganism in America by Chas Clifton. This book changed the way I look at my practice today. For the first time, I began to see the people behind the ideas and customs I utilized in my own practice. At the same time, I began to question the validity of Gerald Gardner’s many claims, his motivation, and ultimately, the legacy he’d left behind. This is what sparked my inherit need to know what sources Gardner had used, why he created Wicca at all, and more importantly, what it meant for me as a witch.
Trying my best to separate my personal bias from my research going forward, I began to hunt down more of the ‘original’ material. But where did this original material come from? Well, I admittedly used Google to find what others claimed were original sources of Gerald Gardner. So, for the first time, I actually sat down to read, Aradia and The Key of Solomon. To my surprise, it was The Key of Solomon that intrigued me most. So, perhaps on inclination, I began to research Gardner’s Masonic influences.
There are many people that feel because Freemasonry is secretive we cannot learn anything from it as witches. I refused to accept that, and soon found a copy of Duncan’s Masonic Ritual and Monitor online. With a little time, I began to read the monitor and look for pieces of information I already knew as a Wiccan. For the first time, I saw the same concepts I held thriving in a more Christian environment. The surprise of this fact made me once again question why? Why had Gardner relied so heavily on the customs of a society his female followers would never be able to see the influence of for themselves?
Well, to say I was a little dumbfounded would be an understatement. That is, until I began to re-dig into Garnder’s influences. Looking again, I found Gardner was also influenced by the infamous Aleister Crowley. Somehow, instead of looking further at Thelma or the Ordo Templi Orientis, I found Crowley had been an, albeit controversial, member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. In short, this was my first introduction to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. After even the most minimalist of research, things began to make sense.
The influence of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is, in my opinion, vital to understanding Wicca today. Gardner didn’t necessarily rely on the influences of Masonry when establishing Wicca. No, Freemasons simply had important roles in the development of the many influences Gardner used. Many Freemasons were members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and subsequently, somewhat linked to the Occult and Wicca in the United States if not then, certainly now. Still, many modern witches do not seem to know this, and who could blame us for it?
What does this mean for me and my path today? Well, I don’t entirely know yet. The change in how I look at my practice has made a dramatic shift. My research into Wicca has actually tended heavily toward the Occult instead. Ceremonial High Magic seems extremely important to me personally, as does Hermetics and Hellenistic Polytheism. Because of my research into Freemasonry, I’m tempted to search deeper into the kabbalah, whether Jewish or Hermetic. In the scheme of things, I’m slightly nervous about losing the ability to technically call myself Wiccan.
I’m not quick to dump the Wiccan label however. This would leave me somewhat unsure of which community I fit into. After all, Wicca has influenced how I look at magic quite heavily. So what if there’s that nagging voice telling me it’s Low Magic now? Does it even matter if this is my personal path? I’m not sure, and that will have to do for now. The one thing I seem to keep doing is reading, reading and researching. The other day, I just finished Modern Magick by Donald Michael Kraig. If anything, the book was confirmation I’m headed in the right direction. Halloween is sometimes seem as a Witch’s New Year, and so, my resolution is to keep digging into this. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find a deeper understanding of the personal inclinations so prevalent in my practice today… not to mention a label for them!