I've followed Wicca as a spiritual path for years now, and I settled into it after a long time of study of alternative religions and faiths. But I feel the time has come to take another good long look at this path, its principles and its practices.
Since I've been part of Wicca, I've also discovered the truth about my sexuality and gender identity, and proudly accepted that I am part of the LGBTQIA+ community. My wife and I have practised Wicca together as part of our partnership since its beginning, and we still love to walk our spiritual path together, but Wicca has a pretty trashy reputation with some of the LGBTQIA+ community, due to its focus on binary sex and fertility, its inclusion of practices from other races and religions, and the reputation of its founder as someone who would probably have a few of his women followers calling #MeToo if he did things now the way he did then.
Now, every religion has people in it that take things too far, take things out of context, take authority into their own hands, and ruin its reputation with the world at large, much to the detriment of its other, honest, peaceful followers. The "big three" of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are full of examples long enough to fill several books, and few other religions are completely innocent, from Hindu traditions in the east to Norse traditions in the west. Yet, in all of these spiritual paths, the core message remains one of strength, wisdom and love, however wrong its followers may have gone. Can the same be said of Wicca? Or has it been as racist and sexist at its core, from its beginning, as some accuse?
This article kept growing as I wrote it, as I kept finding things I felt important to include, so here's the TL;DR - the founders of Wicca and their immediate followers were not very good people, nor were they very evil people, and Wicca will always have to contain elements of both as long as it remains detached from any central authority.
The founder of Dianic Wicca, Z. Budapest, an attempt to use Wicca to play a part in the feminist movement, has made clear her unashamedly transphobic views. The founder of Alexandrian Wicca, Alex Sanders, lied to the cameras about his parentage and his "powers" so the cameras would pay more attention to him. But are these things right examples, or wrong examples, of what Wicca in itself really is? Would their predecessor Gerald Gardner have agreed with and approved of them, or not?
I'm going to be honest enough to take my study of Wicca back to its roots and its earliest offshoots - the good, the bad and the ugly - and find a real, full answer to that question. I am someone who moved all the way over to Wicca from a conservative evangelical Christian upbringing after I found out what problems that path had at its core, so rest assured I am more than ready, willing and able to admit I've made a wrong turn and put myself right, if I don't like what I find.
With that said, let's begin. Dr. Gerald Brosseau Gardner - "author, archaeologist, artist, father of modern Wicca, beloved of the Great Goddess", according to your epitaph - you stand accused of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, cultural appropriation and mistreatment of young women, and of founding a religion in which all these things sit and fester. How do you plead?
We'll begin with Gardner himself, and with the first charge laid against him: racism, and its similar charge, cultural appropriation.
Gardner's first full published work (he wrote a number of articles for newsletters and magazines, and gave a number of talks on his specialist subjects) was The Kris & Other Malay Weapons. It was written as a result of his study of traditions and accompanying artefacts from his time spent in Malaysia. His great hobby was collecting antique weapons; he had a number of guns, and devotes a number of chapters to painstaking (and often quite boring) study of their changing designs over time and what that can tell us about the influence of western society on the eastern nations. Where he really comes into his own, and where the book becomes relevant to his later magical work, is his equally detailed study of the local tribal ceremonial dagger (whose name is spelt in English works variously as Kris, Keris, or Krys). He uses the changes in its design over successive generations, reflecting its changing uses, to tell us about the changes in local beliefs about its uses and its powers - from a simple hunting weapon modelled after the tails of the sea creatures it killed, to a sort of magic wand with the power to poison its enemies and trap their souls, to a symbol of authority of rulers. These things he learned, according to his later biographies, from the tribespeople themselves, though he is hazy on the key question of whether he had their permission to share them so openly.
He spent a big part of his childhood in Malaysia, as his health was weak and the cold, wet weather of his native Lancashire was considered hazardous to him by his doctors. When he grew up, he worked for the British government over there; he began spending time with the locals, his biographers tell us, because he despaired of his white colleagues' superior attitude towards them, and he found them an object of fascination rather than ridicule. He was permitted to join in with some of their tribal gatherings, shown their practices, and reported on them in his writing, to try and dispel their reputation as "primitives" and "savages". Are these the actions or attitudes of a racist? He may have taken liberties in publishing in such detail, but he appears at least to have done the wrong thing with the right motives, at least to begin with.
His next book was a work of fantasy fiction, but based on personal experiences, and it's here that things get a bit more complicated. A Goddess Arrives was inspired by a series of dreams in which he was a soldier in ancient Cyprus, building a wall to defend a Greek temple of Aphrodite from an Egyptian invasion. He was convinced by a metaphysical philosophical group he was in contact with, the Crotona Fellowship (named after the place Pythagoras had his school) that these were visions of his past life. His portrayal of old witchcraft of the time in his novel is far from flattering: he portrays the central witch character as someone who seduces her enemies sexually and leads them to their doom by poisoning, gives herself visions of triumph by breathing in noxious smoke from burning herbs on a fire stoked by her enemies' blood, and as being an object of worship by tribespeople who ignorantly hear the "voice of their God", Jaske, in easily explainable natural phenomena such as a rumbling volcano, a steaming geyser and an echoing cave mouth. He admitted in later works that he did so out of ignorance.
The prologue, epilogue and a short mid-section of the book portray a present day character dreaming of these events, in a trance, and using lucid dreaming techniques to imbue his "character" in the dream with psychic gifts and visions to win his battles. The equating of the ancient warrior witch with the present day character's wife was read by some, who knew Gardner personally, as evidence that Gardner based her on his real-life lover, which lends credence to the idea that he was unfaithful to his Christian wife with at least one of his fellow Pagans. But we'll get on to those accusations later.
He further muddies the waters when he ends the novel by explaining that the belief in past lives and psychic powers of his character comes from the teachings of Rudolf Steiner - a name to conjure with, if ever there was one. Rudolf Steiner created what he called the "spiritual science" of Anthroposophy; having created a new philosophical viewpoint on human evolution, and amassed followers who even opened schools based on his ideas, he was convinced he had founded the next great philosophical movement to bring mankind forward. The crux of his belief was that humanity had a spiritual evolution as well as a physical one, and that different races of the world, especially Asian and African, represented an earlier stage of that journey than the "more highly evolved" white western races, whose job it was to lead the way for those who would come after them. On the one hand, this smacks of white supremacist rhetoric, and Steiner is as reviled now as he was revered then, for that reason - Rudolf and Adolf sound a little too similar, and I don't just mean their names! On the other hand, when actual white supremacist political movements came into too much power, he vehemently opposed their obsessive expansion, especially despairing of their antisemitism, to the point where Steiner even found his name on Hitler's list of books to be banned and burned. So I think Steiner was simply in tune with his narrow minded times, rather than being as far ahead of them as he thought, and I think he and his ideas are best left in the past.
Gardner remained with fantasy fiction for his next novel, High Magic's Aid, although he made clear in later writings that he believed this also to be based on fact. A fringe group within the Crotona Fellowship initiated him into their circle of witchcraft, and he was simply telling their story in fictional form, or so he said. He throws everything he knows about any western magic or mystery tradition up to this point - from moonlit hillside dances and fortune telling, to the summoning of demons and the secret codes of the Knights Templar - into a relatively simple story of a young man, Jan Bonder, trying to recover his stolen inheritance. Jan recruits a conjuring doctor, who in turn recruits a wandering witch, who falls in love with Jan; there is an exciting chase/battle, and they live happily ever after. If this was what the group were telling him was their truth, it is clear that it was a hodgepodge of traditions and superstitions rather than the ancient heritage they claimed - the key unanswered question is whether they were deliberately deceptive or innocently ignorant, and for that we'll have to look at Gardner's first true book of witchcraft.
After the repealing of the Witchcraft Act from UK law, making it now legal to openly practise witchcraft as a religion, so long as no one was harmed or made victims of fraud, Gardner began making headlines with his claims that the old "Witch Cult" was never dead. He seemed to believe it was safe to do so now that the old days of witch hunts (the "Burning Times" as some of today's witches and Wiccans call them) were well behind us; his fellow witches soon disabused him of that notion, and showed him just how frowned upon it all still was, and that attitudes don't change overnight. His first non-fiction book on the subject, Witchcraft Today, was an attempt to at least begin changing those attitudes, and he placated his witchy mentors by only revealing what they gave him permission to reveal. It seems they had gained most of their information about what their ancestors were up to, from the surviving records of the medieval and reformation-era witchcraft trials; aside from the usual general accusations like denying God and kissing Satan, there were oddly specific references such as the wearing of certain forbidden clothing, gathering in certain forbidden places etc. - and it stood to reason that if the church took the trouble to ban these specific things, then someone must have been doing them at some point. The trouble is, that to the church authorities at the time, anything that wasn't of God was of Satan, whether that was fortune telling at the country fair by travellers to make money, or the summoning of spirits by doctors to help in their healing work. Just because all these criminals were brought up before the same judges, didn't mean they were all guilty of the same crime, or part of the same gang - a fact that seems to have slipped by Gardner as it did his sources. In fact, many of the practices banned under the old laws were the practices brought to Britain by a whole number of other races and religions, including Jewish, Islamic and those from farther east - in fact Gardner reads some kind of mythical or symbolic meaning into the statements by some accused witches that their traditions came "from the east", as if it refers to a phantasmal paradise, whereas in fact this is probably the one thing that can be taken literally and at face value. Again, doing the wrong thing for what he thought was the right reason, is the most I can find him guilty of so far. Simply being as racist as the rest of the people of his time and place were, no more and no less.
A quote from one of his fellow witches in the introduction of the book, and the details of the chapter dealing with the Knights Templar, bring us to our next charge: Homophobia. The Knights, he said, practised sexual rituals of a type that had originated as a tribal fertility rite; except, they practised it with only men, with fully homosexual sex, and this, in Gardner's words, was "an evil". He was once also quoted as saying "there are no homosexual witches". However the key to this is in the opening of the book, as I said. "Write and tell people we are not perverts!", pleads one of his fellow witches, according to him. His aim was to show that witchcraft was not the perversion, the crime, or the mental illness that it was thought to be. At the same time, homosexuality was still regarded as all of those things, so he could not very well enhance the witches' reputation by admitting that they practised it. He was caught in a bind and chose to back wider society's conservative views, rather than make the attempt to be too progressive. Not that homosexuality was in and of itself an evil, but that it was denying the Goddess a place in her own rituals, since there were no women to physically represent her, was his main beef with the Templars. As he was in tune with his own racist times, so he was in tune with his own homophobic times, but more out of ignorance than arrogance, is once more my verdict there. The fact that he advocated for men to feel comfortable being naked in a room together, and praised men for being willing to exalt the feminine within themselves, are hardly the actions of an arch-homophobe. As far as the use of nudity in his rituals is concerned, it being one of the reasons he is so open to claims of sexual misconduct, let me say three things: firstly, he originally became a nudist for the health benefits he was told it had by his doctor; second, he specifically states that the use of nudity is dependent on the belief of the person - if you believe it's necessary, it will make a difference to your magical work, but it won't if you don't; and thirdly, he connects it with the eastern philosophical term Sky Clad (which is how most Wiccans still refer to it), meaning the giving up of all worldly things to be closer to nature and to the gods. This last, I think, at the same time as saying it in his defence against sexual accusations, I can see as at least one instance of real and deliberate cultural appropriation that cannot be excused in the same way as previous instances could.
His next and longer book, The Meaning of Witchcraft, is little more than an expansion of the first, with responses to its critics; he was, by the time of writing it, running a Witchcraft Museum, and so was surrounded by physical evidence to back up his claims of authenticity. He doesn't do himself any favours, however, by continuing to cling to the discredited theories of Margaret Murray and J. G. Frazer, that all religions are just different versions of the same primitive tribal superstition, and that every heretic or unorthodox thinker was a secret witch. He continues, with them, to maintain that all forms of magic in Britain spring from the same ancient source, despite the fact that such actual evidence as he possessed would have been enough to show him otherwise. The one time he does see truthfully otherwise, is when he successfully identifies an artefact shown to him by his old friends in the Crotona Fellowship, shown to him as possibly a fragment of the Holy Grail itself(!), as in fact being the remains of a middle-eastern medieval oil lamp. The book as a whole is a fascinating overview not only of many forms of magical tradition, but also of his own journey towards embracing them as a lifestyle; but its willfully ignorant passages cannot be ignored, nor can the condescendingly White narrator's voice that can clearly be heard in the reader's head when he describes the primitive practices of worldwide tribal groups that he believes he has "refined" into a far more user-friendly form. One little thing in his defence is that he never states that this is absolutely the way things are, only the way they seem to him based on what he's seen so far. The reader is left free to disagree without any insistence on cultish acceptance of the words of the "leader" - a title which, in fact, he uses this book to distance himself from, saying he is just as much a follower and a learner as anyone else, despite his reputation to the contrary.
The greatest evidence of his being guilty of some of the charges laid against him, as well as him being innocent of some others, is to be found in his final work, a collection of instructions for putting his principles into practice in the form of ritual and ceremony, which was compiled from various pieces of his writing, added to over the years as he wrote more, and has come to be known as The Book of Shadows, though he gave it other titles as he was writing it. The influence and inspiration of two other hands can clearly be read in its pages: his predecessor Aleister Crowley, and his successor Doreen Valiente, both of whom unquestionably contributed to its contents in their own ways before it came to print and public use.
Aleister Crowley was a poet, painter and Freemason, who spent his considerable family inheritance money travelling the world experimenting with different forms of ritual magic, especially of the sexual and psychedelic varieties, before finally attempting to appropriate them into his own unique form of Masonic Lodge - this attempt was discredited and disavowed by his fellow Masons, so it now exists as its own independent group, the O.T.O., and its philosophy is known as Thelema. On the one hand, some of the nicest people I know swear by its teachings. On the other hand, they are all men; and the women close to Crowley - his "Scarlet Women" as he called them - did not often end their lives in happy ways; this in fact led his fellow occultist, Dion Fortune (more of her later) to cast him as the villain, using the name Astley, in her magical novel The Winged Bull.
Doreen Valiente, on the other hand, was a poet, nature lover, astrologer, Secret Service codebreaker, and all-round no-nonsense character, who took it upon herself to clean up the original Book of Shadows, make peace between the squabbling factions of Wicca, and talk more sensibly and calmly to the press about it than most other sensationalists wanting a juicy story about witches. On the one hand, she was having none of old Gerald's nonsense when he tried it on with her; on the other hand, she wouldn't hear a bad word about him after his death, and it was she who wrote him the glorious epitaph I quoted earlier. She wrote a number of books and gave a number of talks, and could have grown rather rich off of it, except that all she bought with the money were more books, and bigger places to keep them in. No one could say she was into it for sex, fame, money or power.
But back to Gardner for a bit more. In his Book of Shadows, he shows that although his methods may have been questionable, his motives were not quite as polluted with desire for power over women than his reputation says. It draws heavily from C. G. Leland's earlier work Aradia, the Gospel of the Witches, which, though it is a fascinating and invaluable insight into the survival of old European Pagan traditions, is also not very flattering about "Jews and Gypsies".
*Side note - the latter term is falling out of popular use due to its origin as a slur, but is still sometimes used by the people themselves, from whose stock I spring, on my mother's side; so please excuse my use of it this one time*.
It also quotes from Rudolf Steiner's The Gospel of St. John. The problems with Steiner have already been discussed, but in defence of this one case, his work on the Gospels did manage to give them a completely different meaning than the traditional Christian one, thus taking a bit of power out of the hands of the patriarchal parish priesthood in shaping people's mindset.
Some of Doreen Valiente's additions come from the Carmina Gadelica, a set of old Scottish prayers and poems, collected by Alexander Carmichael in the 1800's, but undoubtedly of far older sources; and from the aforementioned Dion Fortune, a devotee of Christian Science, who studied the psychology of belief in magic, retaining remarkably conservative views on religious matters despite her experiences with the higher levels of occult lodges, a new one of which was actually formed to continue her work when she retired.
Gardner fills in the gaps with his basic knowledge of Masonic practice, and of traditions from older tribes farther east, which he gained way back in the writing of his first book, in Malaysia. This can either be seen as an example of cultural appropriation, or of cross-cultural study. Let's have a look at the difference, and you make up your own mind.
Cultural appropriation occurs when an incoming race becomes dominant over the native tribes in a given area - the biggest modern examples being the Christian conquests of America and Australia - and takes their people's secrets to make public, as if it had a right to them along with everything else, and treats them with just as little respect as physical property, collected for consumers. One of the biggest and most problematic examples today is the use of Sage for "smudging", a practice which has become divorced from the relationship with the land that it was meant to express, and is now such a high demand consumer market that some species of sage are almost extinct.
Cross-cultural study, on the other hand, is different in both method and motive. When an anthropologist finds gaps in their knowledge of an ancient culture, they draw on their knowledge of similar cultures, with the assumption that if they are similar in one way they are likely to be similar in others. Take, for example, the legends of the Roman hero Hercules. There are Roman legends that are clearly identical to Greek legends with Latin versions of the names - the Roman myth of Proserpina, for example, is identical to the Greek myth of Persephone. In the same way, there is a Greek hero named Heracles, about whom we know a great deal, and a Roman hero named Hercules, about whom we know nothing. So, we assume they are identical, and fill in the gaps of Hercules' story with the stories of his Greek equivalent. This is cross-cultural study, and this is what Gardner claims to have done with his reconstruction of western witchcraft; he was so taken in by it in the first place because of its striking similarities with his more familiar eastern traditions. Did he stay within these lines, or did he go too far into actual claiming of others' traditions for his own? This is one point at which I have sympathy with both sides of the argument, and honestly can't make up my mind, so I'll have to leave you to make up yours.
The parts of the Book of Shadows I want to draw more attention to, though, are those regarding the use of sexual activity with women as part of the raising of magical energy. The central "Legend of the Goddess" at the core of the Wiccan practice into which Gardner was initiated by his friends in the Crotona Fellowship, tells of the Goddess of Rebirth going to the realm of the God of Death; before she may enter, she must strip off her clothes, bend down and feel the bite of his whip, at which point he falls in love with her. So far it all sounds a bit Fifty Shades. Gardner understood it as the humiliation one must go through when one is initiated, which would give him ample opportunity to be harsh and powerful over his young ladies when their turn came to play the humbled Goddess. But, when he gives instructions for the first degree initiation, he specifically instructs that they be stroked lightly with the whip so that it causes no pain, and that when they rise to the second degree initiation, he in turn must kneel so that they can return the favour. On the one hand, this hardly sounds like the behaviour of a man who liked to claim women as his own or harm them for his gratification. On the other hand, when the woman had grown old enough that she could no longer "embody fertility", a new young girl had to take her place, and have her turn on her knees. So yes, Gardner did enjoy using rituals as an excuse for having pretty young ladies naked around him; but no, he likely did not do them any harm or force them into anything against their will.
He goes on to give instructions for the "Great Rite", in which a woman lays on the altar and a man lays over her, worshipfully extolling the virtues of her beauty, to represent a fertility rite and raise the energy in each other's bodies for the work of magical spells. If this leads, he says, to an "Act of Venus" - in other words, sexy time - this is just part of the worship. Privacy, and a couple who are already in a committed relationship, are required for this, which again sends a mixed message - on the one hand, it means that he's not coercing anyone to be with a partner they don't want to be with; on the other hand, this is the part of the craft that some homosexual and asexual people feel leaves them out entirely. In answer to this, Gardner gives two things. Firstly, a game that can be played that simulates and symbolises the teaming up of male and female, for those who want the magical energy but not the nudity or the sexy time. Secondly, a way in which the woman can play the role of the Priest, the God, or other embodiment of male or masculine energy, by wearing ritual garb that simulates and symbolises the man, when there is none present, either in private or in public ritual.
Neither of these are, by any means, a perfect solution, but they are some evidence that actual orgasmic heterosexual coitus is not the main aim, simply a means to a spiritual end. Gardner undoubtedly enjoyed the hetero erotic bits, but he didn't insist upon them for anyone.
Although he says that a man may not do the same thing and play the female role in the same way, he does make an interesting parallel statement in Witchcraft Today. Having noticed that he has begun by freely referring to witches as "she", he stops his paragraph to correct and clarify himself: anyone, he says, can be a witch, but he will continue to use the word "she" since, it seems to him, being a witch is a feminine thing to do, an elevation of the feminine divine element within oneself. In encouraging men to awaken their feminine spirit, and women to embody the masculine role, he may, in his own small way, have been opening the way for transgender or nonbinary participants in the future. We can't change the fact that there are transphobic and homophobic elements in modern Wicca, but we can at least say that they are being so because they personally choose to be, not because old Gerald told them to. It's still too binary and cis hetero normative for some in the LGBTQIA+ community to want to be part of it, but at least he was trying.
So, since Gardner, Wicca has spread internationally, and each of his successors and spiritual descendants have brought something good and something bad, so that, to be honest, I have every sympathy with people who take a negative view or a positive view of them, and cannot really blame either side for their respective points of view. Some people love it and I understand why. Other people hate it and I also understand why. Let's have a look at them briefly and I'll show you what I mean.
Doreen Valiente indulged Gerald's questionable antics far too much, but on the other hand often stopped him from going much too far.
Alex Sanders grabbed hold of Wicca for media attention and manipulation; but on the other hand, he brought in same-sex initiation that had been absent before.
Janet & Stewart Farrar spread the membership of Wicca internationally, as, although they were both White British, they had Irish roots and added Irish Pagan practice to their rituals, which provided for people who wanted a practice that expressed their old Celtic Pagan beliefs. On the other hand, they are often criticised for doing so by other Celtic Pagan traditional groups who feel unfairly used, and they were not quite as soft with the whip of initiation as old Gerald was!
Scott Cunningham opened up Wicca to solitary practice which freed people from having to submit to coven authority, and was openly gay, which has helped alleviate some of Wicca's homophobic reputation; on the other hand, his herbal magic books contain Native American knowledge which we don't know if he had full permission to share.
Raymond Buckland worked to have Wicca legally recognised as a religion, so that its members were allowed to practise free from obstruction under the laws of religious freedom. On the other hand, he introduced some of his own secrets as his family was of Romani blood, which has now opened them to practice by people who are not; and he clung to the idea that Wicca was an unbroken ancient tradition inherited, not invented, by Gardner, which has confused and confounded many.
Z. Budapest put Wicca to use as part of the feminist movement, which has led many women to liberation both inwardly and outwardly. On the other hand, she is loudly and unashamedly transphobic and exclusionary.
So Wicca is not quite as perfect as it is often portrayed by those who love it, if it is used wrongly. Nor is it quite as perfidious as it is often portrayed by those who hate it, if it is used rightly. It is a magical tool, and like all magical tools, it can be put to use for good or for evil, and it has been both.
So what's the final, gavel-swinging verdict on old Gerald? Well, it seems to me that he did some harm whilst trying to do some good. So I'd like to close with a phrase of his own.
I feel like one of the judges of many a witchcraft trial as he portrayed them. Judges, he says, would often be unable to deny that the accused had, in fact, used the forbidden methods of witchcraft she was accused of; yet were reluctant to hand down too harsh a sentence, as she hadn't had the diabolically evil motives her accusers believed. And so, he says, they would often close the trial with the words: "Not guilty, but don't do it again."