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by Jeannette Waldie
© 1/22/97

Gardnerian Wicca is a matriarchical tradition whose magic is based on psychic female/male polarity. "If it harms none, do what you will," is the ethical statement for this tradition. Reincarnation is a basic tenant. The patron Goddess is the Great Mother, though the Maiden and Crone are also often acknowledged. The patron God is the Horned god of hunting, death and magic. Each coven calls them by their own choice of name. All rituals include the symbolic Great Rite, (now a common method of blessing the wine for many pagan traditions) which consists of the ceremonial dipping of the athame into the chalice. The chalice is then passed around the circle.

Gardnerian covens are autonomous and led by a High Priestess. The High Priest is always seen as secondary. The High Priestess and High Priest are allowed to use the title "Lady" and "Lord" before their craft name. (This is much more common in North America than in England.) Most groups can trace their lineage through various High Priestesses back to Gerald Gardner. Most Gardnerian covens follow a three degree system (though there are some that do use a 2 degree system). Tradition, as well as keeping and following a complete Book of Shadows, is emphasised in all Gardnerian groups. New rituals are written for specific purposes, keeping the same framework. Most, but not all, work skyclad.

Gardnerian Wicca is one of founding traditions of modern paganism. As Dr. Leo Martello writes in his forward to Gardner's The Meaning of Witchcraft,1 "Pioneer, publicist, advance pressman, Gardner was the right man for the right time, a channel, who tapped the dormant spritual reservoir of thousands. Not his faults, nor his distortion or omission of certain facts, nor the matter of his idiosyncratic existence but the spirit of his life and works, these live on. Without Gardner there are many today, regardless of what they call themselves, who simply wouldn't exist . . not as Witches or Pagans." Over the years, however (mainly due to misquotes and poor copying), there have been many misconceptions about Gardnerian Wicca. For example, many think Gardner and his tradition are sexist. This is not the case. Gardner was one of the first to say that the High Priestess was leader of the coven and for a coven to work effectivey, all power had to pass through her. The language of Gardner's books may appear to be sexist, but readers need to understand that Gardner wrote his books over 40 years ago. For the English culture of that time, Gardner was very much a visionary, regarding giving women their due.

Another misconception is that Gardnerianism is rigid in structure. Once, telling someone I was an eclectic Gardnerian, someone asked "isn't that an oxymoron?" Though there may be some covens who continue to use the same rituals over and over, this is not the case for most Gardnerian groups. In the Gardnarian group with whom I trained, not only did we regularly write and perform different rituals, they were seldom repeated. To obtain my 2nd degree, I had to write and lead a circle!

Another misunderstood aspect of Gardnerian tradition (and the punchline of many jokes) is the emphasis on secrecy. The oath for secrecy is not to pretend published material is not available, but rather the oath is considered as "promising not to give a baby a loaded gun," i.e. not teach something to a student before they are ready to handle it. It is also to ensure that privacy of fellow coveners is respected so that no one is "outed" without their permission.

Born in 1884, Gardner was a self educated civil servant and anthropologist. After a lifetime in the middle east, he retired near the New Forest in England. There, he became involved in "The First Rosicrucian Theatre." Through people he met there, he was introduced to the New Forest coven and "Old Dorothy" who would eventually initiate him as a witch in 1939. Gardner felt the "Craft of Wica"2 was in danger of dying out, so in 1949, he published his first book on witchcraft (under the guise of fiction), titled High Magic's Aid. This book contained many of the rituals he had learned from "Old Dorothy." Once the Witchcraft Act (which had made practicing witchcraft a criminal offense) was repealed, Gardner published Witchcraft Today. He then became involved with the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft on the Isle of Man. In 1952, He met Doreen Valiente who eventually became his acting High Priestess. In 1954, Gardner gave Doreen Valiente permission to rewrite the "Book of Shadows" and it is she who is the author of both the verse and prose versions of "The Charge of the Goddess."

Many American Gardnerians claim to have unpublished material in their Book of Shadows, but if that is the case then it is from the period after Doreen Valiente left Gardner's coven up until his death.

It is now known that Gardner drew on many different sources in creating his "Book of Shadows" (a term which Gardner first used). This has led to much debate whether Gardner made up (or borrowed) everything. But Doreen Valiente writes, "People may well wonder why, having traced Gerald's rituals to their component parts as having been derived from the works of Margaret Murray, Chalres Godfrey Leland, Rudyard Kipling. Aleister Crowley, the Key of Solomon, and the rituals of Freemasontry, I continued to believe that they were descended from an old witch coven discovered in the New Forest. The reasons is that underlying all these I found a basic structure which was not from Corwley or Margaret Murray or any of the other sources mentioned."3 For those interested in Gardner's work, I recommend that you pick up a copy of "A Witches Bible Compleat" (also published as in two volumes as "8 Sabbats for Witches" and "The Witches' Way") by Janet and Stewart Farrar. This work gives a complete, annotated version of Gardner's Book of Shadows, listing history, sources and other information. Other recommended reading are:

The Meaning of Witchcraft by Gerald B. Gardner Witchcraft for Tomorrow by Doreen Valiente The Rebirth of Witchcraft by Doreen Valiente High Magic's Aid by Gerald B. Gardner


  1. Gerald B. Gardner, The Meaning of Witchcraft (New York: Magickal Childe, Inc., 1988) 2-3.
  2. Gardner always spelt this with one "c". He claims the word was Saxon in origin; from wig (an idol) and laer (learning) which was shortened into Wicca.
  3. Doreen Valiente, The Rebirth of Witchcraft (Custer, WA: Phoenix Publishing, Inc., 1989) 63.


Fararr, Janet & Stewart, A Witches Bible, Vol. I & II, Magickal Childe Publishing, Inc, 1984, ISBN #0-939708-06-X (Vol I) ISBN 0-939708-07-8 (Vol II).

Gerald B. Gardner, The Meaning of Witchcraft, Magickal Childe, Inc. 1988, ISBN 0- 939708-02-7

Doreen Valiente, The Rebirth of Witchcraft, Phoenix Publishing, Inc., 1989, ISBN 0- 919345-39-5

Doreen Valiente, Witchcraft for Tomorrow, Phoenix Publishing, Inc., 1987, ISBN 0- 919345-83-2

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