If Gerald Gardner, the father of modern Wicca, had been around at London’s Conway Hall last Sunday, I think he would have been proud.
Not just because an entire conference was put on to honour his life; he would also have been proud at the strength of the religious movement he founded, nearly 50 years after his death.
Wiccans and witches from all over the world attended The Charge of the Goddess Conference 2010 – Celebrating the Life and Work of Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964). Many were highly-respected members of the Craft. There were those who have championed paganism through organisations such as The Pagan Federation, authors of books on Wicca and witchcraft and those who have run covens since the early days and trained most of those now in the Craft.
Yet I think everyone learnt something new at The Day for Gerald, as the conference had been nicknamed, because of the quality of the talks.
The first speaker was Philip Heselton, an expert on Gerald Gardner who has written several books about him including Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspirationand Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival.His latest book, Witchfather, which is due out later this year, formed the basis of his illustrated talk, entitled The Life of Gerald Gardner.
Philip covered Gerald’s early life in a family of wealthy Liverpool timber importers, being sent abroad for much of his childhood because of ill health and as a result getting no formal education. Gerald remained abroad for much of his adult life, working in Ceylon and Borneo on plantations and later in Malaya as a customs official overseeing opium shops. In those places he took an interest in local customs and got invited to religious ceremonies, which he called “seances”.
Gerald retired at 52 and returned to England, moving to a town near the New Forest. There, he met occult and spiritual groups via a Rosicrucian theatre and underwent an initiation into what he described as a surviving witch cult called “the Wica”.
He persuaded the witches to let him write about their practices, first as fiction in the novel High Magic's Aidunder the pen name Scire. Later, he wrote Witchcraft Today,the first non-fiction book by a self-proclaimed witch.
In the remaining 15 years of his life, Gerald worked tirelessly to expand and publicise the religion. Sometimes his efforts backfired, as with a scurrilous newspaper report in the News of the World. Yet, despite these setbacks, more and more people were attracted to the Craft before and after his death in 1964.
Professor Ronald Hutton
After Philip covered the facts of Gerald’s life, Professor Ronald Hutton, author of Stations of the Sunand The Triumph of the Moon,examined Gerald’s influence and legacy in a talk called Who was Gerald Gardner and Why Does He Matter?
He described Gerald as being a kindly and well-liked man, who was hard working and diligent in his job before he retired, then after he retired was even harder working in following his dream of keeping the religion of Wicca alive.
Gerald was, perhaps, a bit of a trickster in creating some falsehoods to describe the history of witchcraft, but was absolutely genuine in his devotion to the Craft and the witches within it. He inspired great affection from those who knew him – even his detractors.
His legacy is an important religion for the new age, with its focus on feminism, environmentalism and self expression.
Professor Hutton said: “He ensured Wicca was put on the map and it doesn’t matter if it was old or new.”
Interview with a witch
As much as I enjoyed the first two talks, the highlight of the day for me was a conversation with Lois Bourne, a high priestess in Gerald Gardner’s Bricket Wood coven.
Although Lois has written several books on witchcraft, including Witch Amongst Us,Dancing with Witchesand Spells to Change Your Life,she rarely appears in public.
Conference MC Brian Botham interviewed Lois about her life and beliefs, and she came across as a fascinating person, a strong character and a powerful witch. Yet she insisted witchcraft was only a small part of her life.
“I’m a witch, so what?” she said. “I lead a very private life and have a lot of interests.”
Lois runs a coven in Hertfordshire, but calls herself a Magistra rather than a high priestess, a term that comes from an old tradition of witchcraft.
After Gerald died, Lois trained with fellow covener Monique Wilson, who claimed lineage from a hereditary family of witches going back at least 200 years.
Lois said: “Witchcraft has always existed. It existed before Gerald and it still goes on... Wicca is a sanitised version for the public.”
She was also scathing about modern witches, saying that few had any real ability.
Despite her harsh words, I could only feel admiration for this woman who emanated power and authority, and whose strong belief in witchcraft could not be doubted.
Points to the panel
The next high point of the conference for me was the panel discussion, in which Zachary Cox, Prudence Jones, Rufus Harrington, Vivianne Crowley, Julia Philips and Morgana answered questions from the audience.
Several questions were about the future of witchcraft. One potential threat to our future that was highlighted was how increased health and safety regulations might possibly affect our rites, such as concerns over fire risks from candles or bonfires.
Another point made was that the 2011 census might be the last census for a long while to ask questions about religion. To be taken seriously as a group, we should all make sure we list ourselves as “pagan” rather than Wiccan, witch or druid. If enough people are officially counted as following pagan spiritual paths, then the government will have to give us more consideration.
The best of the rest
If I wrote about all the great things that happened at the Day for Gerald, this post would go on forever. There were plenty of other fascinating talks, film clips of Gerald Gardner and the official launch of Where Witchcraft Lives, a new edition of Doreen Valiente’s most famous book that was previously long out of print.
However, one thing that I always enjoy at pagan conferences is meeting up with old friends and making new ones. I do so love being part of the wonderful family that is Wicca, and sharing such good times with my brothers and sisters in the Craft.
The photos show (from top to bottom): Gerald Gardner's Book of Shadow, which was on show at the conference; Professor Ronald Hutton talking on the stage; a scourge used by Gerald Gardner's original coven; one of Gerald's athames; a chalice used by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente
Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration: An Investigation into the Sources of Gardnerian Witchcraft
Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival
Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain
The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft
Witch Amongst Us
Dancing with Witches
Spells to Change Your Life: Magic Matters (Little Book Matters)
High Magic's Aid