In 1954, Gardner published a book titled Witchcraft Today which became quite popular and pushed Gardner into the public spotlight. This exposure resulted in Gardnerian Covens being seeded all over England. Later books, The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959) and Gerald Gardner Witch (1960) furthered his public exposure, publicized his ‘Craft’ and Gardnerian Witchcraft continued to develop. In 1964, Gerald Gardner passed on, leaving the Witchcraft community with no public spokesperson. I suspect there was a struggle between those in the inner circle to take over where Gardner left off because it meant fame and money to do so. One such person was Eleanor “Rae” Bone. Rae was a former High Priestess in Gardner’s own coven, liked and respected by those who knew her, and not afraid of potentially negative public reaction. Do not be upset if you are not familiar with Rae Bone, most Wiccans are not aware of what happened. Rae never achieved the position of spokesperson for the ‘Craft’ community because a man with a real knack for media exposure outpublicized her. That man was none other than Alex Sanders.
Alex ‘King of the Witches’ Sanders
Alex Sanders was an English showman who knew what to do and say in order to get public recognition, even if it was not quite the truth. Alex claimed to have been initiated into Witchcraft by his grandmother while he was still a boy, having accidentally walked in on her while she was working ritual. According to one account, he claimed to have received his Book of Shadows (a very close copy of Gardner’s) by the age of nine.
In retrospect, it does not take long to see that Sanders’ claim does not quite fit with the history. The book that Sanders would have received was not written until at least 15 years after he claims to have received it. It appears that what most likely happened was that Alex Sanders had been a practicing ceremonial magickian when he, sometime around 1963, connected with a person from Gardnerian practice who provided him with a Book of Shadows. A few minor
modifications to the Gardnerian Book of Shadows and it became the ‘Alexandrian’ Book of Shadows.
From there the details are vague, but by 1965, only a year after Gardner’s passing, Alex Sanders was getting media exposure based on his claim to having nearly 2,000 practicing Witches in over 100 covens. Supposedly, it was these Witches who insisted that he take on the role of ‘King of the Witches’. Of course, this claim appears to have been fabricated as a way to take over where Gardner had left off as spokesperson for Witchcraft. It was through this series of events that Alexandrian Tradition was the first tradition to break away from Gardnerian. Alex gained much publicity through flamboyant media exposure in the late 1960s. Alex seemed to have quite a lot of luck getting young, firm and quite naked young female Witches to pose for media photographers. Of course, the media had a field day with this. Sensationalist stories about Witchcraft with nude pictures are a great way to sell newspapers. If a pretty girl can sell anything, it certainly worked for Alex Sanders, and what he was selling was himself. Soon Alex was a celebrity, and his media exposure brought thousands into the Alexandrian Tradition of Wicca.
While Alex Sanders was busy in England, Ray Buckland was, rather quietly in comparison, bringing Gardnerian practice to the United States. From the mid 1960s forward, he and his wife seeded Gardnerian Craft from their home in New York. In 1969 his first book on Witchcraft A Pocket Guide to the Supernatural was released, followed shortly after by Witchcraft Ancient and Modern. Ray’s contribution to the development of Wicca far exceeds his seeding Gardnerian Craft in the United States.
Paganism Splits Away From Wicca
Unless you are completely new to NeoPagan Witchcraft, you have probably noticed that there is a fairly strong following of a religion called ‘Paganism’ that very closely resembles Gardnerian derived Witchcraft (Wicca). The fact that ‘Paganism’ exists as a singular religion is a curiosity because none of the definitions of Pagan refers to a singular religion, hence there should be no religion referred to as Paganism.
Since many aspects of this ‘Paganism’ are clearly from sources other than the old religions of Europe and closely parallels Gardnerian Craft, it is clear that Gardnerian practice was the source. How this came about is still a mystery to many. In my research, I have discovered what happened. I suspect that very few of the Pagans who practice this Gardnerian derived ‘Paganism’ religion are even aware that their religion is based on Gardnerian practice. Gardnerian practice requires formal training and initiation to ‘become’ a Witch.
In the United States during the late 1960s it was painfully clear that there was no way to meet the demand for training into Wicca using conventional methods.
Something needed to be done that would allow the masses entry level access to
the practice of Wicca. It was a violation of the ‘law’ of Gardnerian practice to simply package up instructions including a real Book of Shadows. In addition, without initiation by a High Priest or High Priestess, the person would not really be a Witch anyway (in the eyes of Gardnerian practice). This left the dilemma of how to handle the demand for entrance into Wicca. Somewhere around 1968, the solution was developed.
The plan was to send out a package of very basic instructions1 of a simplified form of Gardnerian Witchcraft without divulging the origin of the material. Since one cannot be a ‘Witch’ without initiation (at that time) then the practice of this simplified version of Witchcraft had to be called something other than Witchcraft. It was decided that the name of the religion would be ‘Paganism’ and the practitioners referred to as Pagans. It appears that, according to the plan, Wiccans were to be the priestly class and Pagans were to be the general populous. An organization that did not identify its origin as from Gardnerian Wicca was created to distribute the training material. From what I can gather, this ‘Paganism’ was quite successful. In fact, it appears to have been a little too successful, because it grew so quickly that it started replacing formal Wiccan coven practice. After all, why study and work through a degreed system to
become a Witch when it was easier to just ‘be’ a Pagan?
There was one person who complicated matters in Wicca, but whose actions eventually led to the general public having access to what they wanted all along, which was Gardnerian material. Her pen name is Lady Sheba. In 1971, Jessie Wicker Bell a.k.a. Lady Sheba sold her Book of Shadows (a close copy of Gardner’s) to a book publisher. Jessie then declared herself “America’s Witch Queen” following in the steps of Alex Sanders, but was never accepted as such. With the release of Lady Sheba’s Book of Shadows, many of the great secrets of Wicca were no longer secret. The laws and rituals, even those never to be divulged except to upper degree initiates, could now be purchased in book form by anyone for $2.95. Obviously, this did not go over well with those in Gardnerian practice.
In the early 1970s, Wicca came to the attention of the academic community and the history of Wicca came under scrutiny. The Lady Sheba Book of Shadows may have been the catalyst for the academic curiosity into Wicca/Witchcraft. The occult academics of the period would have been familiar with the work of Crowley/Regardie and spotted the obvious ‘similarities’ in the Book of Shadows. The result of the scrutiny caused quite a shock. It was revealed that major aspects of Wicca were either recently written or borrowed from Freemasonry, Ceremonial Magick and the books of Margaret Murray, Charles Leland, Israel Regardie and Aleister Crowley among others.
At the time, people practicing Wicca believed that Wicca was authentic Ancestral Witchcraft and thousands of years old. You can imagine their shock when they found out that this was not the case. At first there was a lot of academic bashing denying what was being said, then many felt betrayed and lied to by the Wiccan community. This began the downfall of the popularity of Gerald Gardner, a name that is now nearly a dirty word in the NeoPagan community, despite his
role as a founder in the movement.
Reformed Traditional Wicca is Born
It was in the mid-1970s that Reformed Traditional Wicca as we now know it today was being born. The father was none other than Raymond Buckland. The book The Tree: Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft (Weiser, 1974) introduced revolutionary concepts into Wicca, the most significant being that it was possible to create a new tradition. The book was so revolutionary that many consider it the birth of modern Wicca. This book was the introduction of the modern tradition, Seax-Wica. Wicca was ripe for change, and the creation of Seax-Wica marked the turningpoint. Wicca began heading away from coven practice, ritual nudity, coven initiation, and emphasis on ritual magick, toward the Wicca we know today with solitary practice, self-initiation and emphasis on the spiritual aspects of the religion.
By the late 1970s, Reformed Traditional Wicca was in full swing. Several traditions followed Buckland’s lead in breaking away and established themselves as alternative forms of Wiccan practice.
Feminist Wicca is Born
It was also in this time period (late 1970s) when the feminist movement latched
onto the Goddess aspect of Wicca as a female oriented alternative to male dominated Christianity. Several feminist traditions started and with a bit of creative writing shifted their flavor of Wicca away from balance toward female deity domination.
Starhawk Breaks New Ground with Spiral Dance
Modern Wicca had another boost in available information in the late 70s from Starhawk. Her book Spiral Dance from 1979 has been required reading for hundreds of thousands of Wiccan students for over 20 years.
Janet & Stewart Farrar
If modern Wicca’s father was Raymond Buckland, then its Aunt and Uncle were none other than Janet and Stewart Farrar. Their books from the 1970s and beyond were a rich source of information in this, the middle era of Wicca. Janet and Stewart’s lineage is from Alexandrian tradition, although their writing leans heavily toward Gardnerian practice. One of their collaborators was Doreen Valiente whose lineage in Gardnerian Craft goes back to 1953. I suspect that their books in the mid 1980s were the solidifying force tying together all the haphazard information into cohesive form. To this day, their books are authoritative even among the most conservative Wiccans.
Eclectic Wicca is Born
With the late 1980s came an opportunity to make huge piles of money selling books teaching Wicca. With the new crop of authors came a new crop of confusion. If Wiccans are no longer going to practice in covens, why did they even need a tradition? Many of the late 1980s books fail to mention that there was even such a thing as traditions in Wicca, let alone describe the history accurately. The prevailing attitude became “Who needs a tradition? Let’s do whatever we want and call it Wicca!”
New Age Wicca
By the 1990s the book publishers were treating Wicca as a “New Age” religionand other practices having nothing to do with Wicca started being mixed in. Soon there were pentacle wearing Wiccans with Native American spirit guides, studying Yoga chakras, and practicing Reiki (an eastern healing technique).
Fluffy Bunny Wicca is Born
The 1990s was also the start of a dark time for Wicca. While it was a boom to the number of people claiming to be Wiccan, it was also the birth of the “Fluffy Bunny” many Wiccans of this decade’s generation were the most poorly educated and least dedicated of any group of Wiccans to date. Wicca Today Over the years, Wicca has mutated or developed from a secretive mystical coven practiced tradition to a modern alternative religion with solitary practice and self-initiation.
Although the history of Wicca has been tarnished by individuals of questionable character, the potential for it to shine does exist. That potential can be made reality if those in Wiccan practice shine as individuals, which when combined will be the shimmer of a respectable religion.