Thursday, October 4, 2012

A leap into the abyss of unreason: a review of the work of Gerald Gardner

Jewish date:  18 Tishri 5733.

Today’s holidays:  Ḥol hamMo‘edh Sukkoth (Judaism), Feast Day of Francis of Assisi (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Buster Keaton (Church of the SubGenius), Ieiunium Cereris (Roman religion).

A leap into the abyss of unreason:  a review of the work of Gerald Gardner

Consider the items reviewed so far in this series on Neopaganism:

1) Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches by Charles Leland (Leland; Adelman “Review of Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches”):  A purported text of an Italian pagan witch religion opposed to Christianity.

2) The Witch-Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches by Margaret Alice Murray (Murray “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe A Study in Anthropology”; Murray The God of the Witches; Adelman “Review of the Witch-Cult in Western Europe and the God of the Witches”):  Works by an historian claiming the persistence of a pagan religion in Europe and its persecution by Christianity.

3) The Golden Bough by James Frazer (Frazer; Adelman “Review of the Golden Bough”):  A multivolume work by an anthropologist on the workings of magic and religion, with an emphasis on the sacred king story.

4) The White Goddess by Robert Graves (Graves; Adelman “I Spit on Robert Graves: A Review of Robert Graves’s the White Goddess”) (OK, so the review as written two years ago, but it is totally relevant):  Work by a poet waxing poetic on the “poetic theme” of the sacred king.

The scholarship in all these works is problematic at best, and anyone who is sufficiently rational will feel wary about making use of any of them.  A rational person is going to think about the provenance of his/her materials, whether there is any paper trail for them, whether the claims in them make any sense historically, whether the internal logic is solid.  And when considering adopting a new religion, he/she is going to seriously consider the basis for a possible new belief system.  He/she is going to consider what the evidence is for the reality of the religion.  What evidence is that its gods exist?  What evidence is there that its claimed history is correct?  Does it make testable, nontrivial predictions?

But not all of us are even vaguely rational.  Gerald Gardner, the subject of this review, never had any formal education.  Though curious and interested in anthropology and archaeology, he never seems to have learned critical thinking skills.  He lived in a number of different places in his life, and he was exposed to a good deal of magic (ritual and ceremonial, not the tongue-in-cheek kind), such as the Ordo Templi Orientis, Spiritualism, and various local magic traditions—and he most sincerely believed that magic really works.  And thus Gardner uncritically synthesizes Leland, Murray, Frazer, and Graves and mixes in whatever else suits him, making the leap from a hypothetical witchcraft religion to a real one which later became known as Wicca—and never really considering that he is being irrational.  Like pseudoscientists in general, he seems to think there is scientific support for his views.  Gardner claims to have been initiated into a secret pagan witchcraft group, but whether or not this actually happened, he certainly is under a lot of other influence.

High Magic’s Aid:  the prequel to Wicca:  Strange as it may sound, witchcraft was illegal in Britain well into the 20th century, and anyone daring to practice it who did not wish to be arrested had to do so in secret.  Before the government collectively changed its mind and permitted witchcraft, Gardner published an historical (or pseudo-historical) novel, High Magic’s Aid (Gardner High Magic’s Aid), which prefigures much of what Gardner later taught and practiced openly:
  1. This book is blatantly anti-Christian with a special anti-clerical emphasis, viewing Christianity as corrupt and a money-making scheme.  The hatred of Christianity is so uncompromising that anyone who is seriously Christian has no redeeming features.  Emphasized is the worship of saints, and downplayed is the idea that a Christian might ever pray directly to God.  Christian clergy are depicted practically as magicians; they are the only people with knowledge of magic, even though they are not supposed to practice it.  Christianity is depicted as completely against pleasure, sex, and even cleanliness.  Christianity is depicted as anti-intellectual—despite having an educational system—and really only concerned with death.  Scripture is blamed for Christian barbarities (thus showing a gross ignorance thereof).  There is also some rather painful lecturing in the book.  Readers should expect to find things prefiguring Atlas Shrugged (Adelman “Faking Reality: A Moral Review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged”; Rand) and His Dark Materials (Pullman The Amber Spyglass; Pullman The Golden Compass; Pullman The Subtle Knife)—and no form of Christianity ever practiced by real humans.
  2. Cribbed from Murray, witches in this story are a pagan cult quietly surviving, known about by the Church, yet never mentioned openly.  These witches are polytheists, worshipping the “Old Gods”, such as Artemis and her daughter “Ardrea”.  (Your humble blogger does not remember an Ardrea in the stories of the ancient Greek religion, and doing a quick search on-line turned up nothing on her.)
  3. Witchcraft is depicted as pro-pleasure.  The Church thus purportedly opposed witchcraft out of fear the people might turn to it instead.  (The idea that Christians might believe that Christianity is the truth and thus worthy of being believed and practiced somehow never comes up.)
  4. Various practices which are standard in Gardnerian Wicca are depicted:  Scourging (not enough to draw blood or cause much pain).  Herbalism.  The ritual of Drawing Down the Moon, in which a High Priestess can reportedly become inhabited by the Goddess.  Sabats (regular meetings of witches).  A woman on the altar at the great sabat.  Fertility cult practices.  Ritual nudity.  Astrology.  Not bringing animal sacrifices or using blood in rituals.  The ritual sanctification of magical tools, not to mention the standard set of tools themselves.  A witch priesthood.  Ritual groping (which is something your humble blogger cannot make up).  And much of the liturgy.
There is one big difference between the magic of High Magic’s Aid and that of Gardnerian Wicca that anyone should notice:  despite the paganism of these fictional witches, the magic is transparently Christian trying to rip off Judaism and the Qabbalah.  Gardner’s characters constantly make use of Jewish/Hebrew names and attributes of YHWH in their magic, not to mention verses from the Hebrew Bible, often with no real idea what the terms they use mean.  This is not merely religiously insensitive; it is completely illogical.  If Judaism or Christianity is correct, the Deity cannot be expected to give aid to anyone acting in ways He finds offensive (e.g., writing verses from His scripture on the floor and calling out His names while naked), especially those who do not believe in Him (e.g, pagans).  If this fictional witchcraft is correct, the magicians, who are all either pagan or who convert to paganism, are still effectively calling on the god of their enemies, which is still theologically a very bad idea if they want to get help.  By the time witchcraft became legal in England and Gardner went public, even the irrational Gardner seems to have figured out this makes no sense and changed his rituals accordingly.

The founding documents:  Once witchcraft became legal, Gardner produced a number of works without any pretense that he was writing fiction.  The most famous of these is The Book of Shadows, which is primarily a liturgical manual.  Purportedly it was handed down to him from the group that initiated him, but one of his high priestesses, Doreen Valiente, admitted that she and Gardner had written parts of it, and other parts are known to have been copied from preexisting sources, such as Aradia, Freemasonry rituals, the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, The Key of Solomon (Mathers), and the writings of the occultist Aleister Crowley.  The Book of Shadows was supposed to be secret, but it was leaked and has been published in various venues, including The Gardnerian Book of Shadows (Gardner The Gardnerian Book of Shadows), A Witches Bible Compleat (Farrar and Farrar), and Witchcraft:  A Multidenominational Wicca Bible (Wilborn).  Besides rituals (discussed below), The Book of Shadows contains instructions on how to remain hidden and what to do when captured by Christian witch-hunters.

Published publicly were Witchcraft Today (Gardner Witchcraft Today) in 1954 and The Meaning of Witchcraft (Gardner The Meaning of Witchcraft) in 1959.  The emphases in these are more historical and theological.

History (or rather pseudo-history):  There is an aura of validity and prestige in age.  Many new religious movements try to add to their own validity and prestige by misrepresenting themselves as an older religion.  Gardner pulls the mother of all age misrepresentations by claiming the continuous worship of a horned god back to the Paleolithic based on figurines.  (As if anyone could be completely sure of what anyone living before there was writing was thinking.)  This Gardner plugs into Murray’s claims of crypto-paganism and Christian persecution of witches, totally failing to deal credibly with the plausibility problems; everything which fits the hypothesis he considers correct, and everything which does not fit he blames on Christian misunderstanding.  Never does it occur to him that one would expect at least a few authors of witch trial accounts would figure out that that there is a difference between Satanism and paganism.  Gardner also buys totally into Graves’s matriarchal pseudo-history and his business of a White Goddess and sacred kings.  He also tries rolling various ancient European paganisms into his “Old Religion”, despite blatant contradictions.  (E.g., Gardner’s Witchcraft is against animal and human sacrifice, unlike historical paganisms.)

Side note:  Gardner also buys into Murray’s belief in fairies, only he identifies them as Greek pagans.

Theology:  Mixing Graves, Murray, and Frazier, Gardner is a polytheist.  Besides accepting that there are local gods (as would be expected from historical paganisms) and having some idea of the non-exclusivity of religions, he believes in the Horned God Cernunnos and the Triple Goddess Aradia.  These deities are not all-powerful gods like YHWH, the Trinity, or ’Allāh, but rather lesser beings.  The Triple Goddess and the Horned God are defied aspects of nature.  They are also flagrantly sexual to an extent that mainstream Abrahamic believers consider totally alien.  Unlike most Abrahamic deities, the Triple Goddess and the Horned God are not all-powerful, and they actually need human help.  This is where ritual comes in.

Ritual and magic:  In mainstream Abrahamic religions, rituals, such as prayer and sacrifice, are (normally) pure communication; the worshipper hopes that his/her god will look favorably upon him/her, and only the naïve or foolish would think that their prayers could actually force their god to do something.  Gardnerian ritual, on the other hand, is magical in nature and meant to accomplish something beyond communication.  Part of the ritual is simply trying to work magic towards practical ends, such as healing and helping people.  The group rituals are thus geared for creating the emotional states in a whole coven at once that magicians believe are necessary to work magic effectively and thus magnify the effects.

Another large part of Gardnerian ritual may be described as a mystery cult.


The mystery of Wiccan ritual is the passing of the seasons and the lifecycle of crops.


This mystery is symbolized by the divine version of the sacred king story, which, as you will remember, is a love story gone horribly wrong:  god meets goddess, god and goddess fall in love, goddess lames god, goddess has god killed by his other self, goddess gives birth to the same god, thus bringing the story back to the start.  (And, no, that is not a typo.  Like the cycle of the seasons, the sacred king cycle is a closed loop.)  Gardnerian ritual takes celebrants through the entire sacred king story—including the whole business of ritual murder—over the course of the year.  Members of a Gardnerian coven play out the parts of Aradia and Cernunnos’s various aspects ceremonially.

The Horned God and the Triple Goddess are not merely male and female, but lovers (or rather a god in love with a goddess with serious relationship issues).  This theology is reflected in practice.  Part of this is symbolic, with all the ritual tools being either “male” or “female”.  But much of it is quite literal.  Whenever possible, Gardnerians prefer to have all religious interactions, both ritual and pedagogical, be between a male and a female.  Group rituals are led by a high priest and a high priestess, and there is a strong preference for covens to consist of equal numbers of men and women.  (Actually priests and priestesses; the priesthood is universal for the initiated.)  More extreme—and extremely alien to Abrahamic believers—is ritual sex (the “sacred marriage” or “great rite”) performed by celebrants representing the Horned God and Triple Goddess.  This also fits in with the witch-trial accounts of witches mating with the Devil, subsequently retconned as a representative of Cernunnos.  This may be performed symbolically by inserting an athame (ritual knife) into a goblet—or it may be performed quite literally.  Consistent with this sexuality and borrowing straight from Aradia and the witch-trial accounts, Gardnerian ritual is supposed to be performed naked.  (And, yes, outdoor ceremonies in England during the winter are at best difficult.)

Also:  High Magic’s Aid borrows from the Black Mass of the paranoid Christian fantasy of Satanism by depicting a woman on the altar at the great sabat.  In the third-degree initiation as performed, it is proclaimed that woman was the original altar (Wilborn 184; Farrar and Farrar, vol. 2, p. 36).  To someone from an Abrahamic religion, this is utterly incomprehensible, as for such people an altar is an inanimate object on which offerings are burned.  This is, however, likely the origin of a LaVeyan Satanist claim that altars were originally flesh and only later stone (LaVey 135).

Hebrew, Judaism, and the Qabbalah:  Though Gardner stops being quite as blatantly obtuse as he was in High Magic’s Aid about Hebrew, Judaism, and the Qabbalah, he continues to botch anything Judaic and pretend it somehow supports his beliefs.  Standard Jewish theology (and frequently heretical Jewish theologies as well) accepts the existence of one and only one god, YHWH, also known as ’Elohim.  Prefiguring The Hebrew Goddess (Patai), Gardner completely botches this most basic fact of Jewish theology and tries to rationalize in a goddess as well.  He misunderstands the divine name ’Elohim as being a feminine plural noun, claiming it to be a plural of the divine name ’Eloahh, which he misinterprets as being a feminine noun.

Tangent:  Hebrew grammar lesson which may fly above the heads of those who have never studied Hebrew:  The feminine form of ’el (“power”, “god”) is ’elah.  The he’ on the end of ’Eloahh is part of the root, notated by the mappiq in the he’’Eloahh, not having a feminine ending or being one of those few feminine nouns without a feminine ending, is thus a masculine noun.  ’Elohim is not a true plural but an honorific, and it is normally treated as a masculine singular noun.

Gardner is unfazed by the simple fact that there is zero support in the Hebrew Bible for duotheism.  He actually takes Graves’s delusional rewriting of the Hebrew Bible seriously.  He claims that the duotheism was symbolized by Yakhin and Bo‘az, two columns at the door of the First Temple and that “wicked priests” perverted the concept of “Gods of Love” into “a solitary God of hate and vengeance” and falsified the Hebrew Bible.  (He thus blindly accepts an old anti-Semitic misunderstanding of the Hebrew Bible and is unaware of any verses dealing with love and forgiveness.)  Gardner also makes the ludicrous charge that Jewish monotheists were opposed to paganism due considering beauty evil.  (Hint:  beauty is never identified as evil in the Hebrew Bible.)

Gardner in particular tries to find support for Witchcraft in the Qabbalah, of which he shows no more understanding.  He claims that the Qabbalists adore ‘Ashtoreth—an ancient Semitic pagan goddess.  Gardner also attributes the alleged falsification of the Hebrew Bible to Ḥizqiyyahu (Hezekiah) and claims the Qabbalists believe this and worship the Goddess.  These claims are completely unlike anything your humble blogger has ever read in Qabbalistic source material or books about the Qabbalah by people who know what they are talking about; if Gardner did not fabricate these claims himself, he probably copied them from someone who was lying or delusional.  Gardner is also completely unaware that the Qabbalah is rooted in and is dedicated to justifying Judaism; as such, trying to rip its constructs out of context and pretend they support another ideology is grossly dishonest.  (For information on the Qabbalah and why its theology does not realistically qualify as duotheistic, as well as why duotheism is hopelessly incompatible with Judaism in general, see “The goddess who never existed: a review of Raphael Patai’s The Hebrew Goddess” (Adelman “The Goddess Who Never Existed: A Review of Raphael Patai’s the Hebrew Goddess”).)

Despite trying to reduce the amount of Judaic material in his rituals, Gardner does not eliminate it altogether.  In a first-degree initiation (1949 version), a priest closes a doorway saying, “Agla, Azoth, Adonai”, and anyone who knows anything about Judaism will recognize ’Adhonay as one of the names of YHWH.  In another version of the first-degree initiation, the initiator is supposed to make the sign of the “Cabalistic Cross”, which is groping the new recruit’s forehead, breast, right shoulder, left shoulder, and breast again while saying “Ateh Malkhuth ve-Geburah ve-Gedulah le-olam”, intending to mean “Thou art the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever” (Farrar and Farrar, vol. 2, p. 16; Wilborn 160).  This is bad Hebrew and bad Qabbalah.  If the Hebrew was correct, it would be “’Attah Malkhuth uGhevurah uGhedhullah le‘olam”.  The Qabbalah is wrong on two counts.  The first is that the symbolism of the Sefiroth is wrong.  The ten Sefiroth correspond to different parts of the human body, or more specifically the bodies of a man and his wife.  Ḥesedh/Gedhullah corresponds to the man’s right arm, Gevurah corresponds to the man’s left arm, and Malkhuth corresponds to his wife.  The second count is that the Sefiroth are organs of YHWH, not humans, so the identification is implausible.  In the rite for the summer solstice, Michael (= Mikka’el) is invoked as “the Power of the Sun” (Farrar and Farrar, vol. 1, p. 101), even though he is actually an angel.

Gardner thinks grimoires attributed to Shelomoh (Solomon) are genuine, no matter how out of character with Judaism they are.

Gardner also claims the witches have a tradition that their ancestors gave Jews shelter during persecutions and learned the Qabbalah from them.  He also claims the existence in the old days of crypto-Jewish “wizards”.  Your humble blogger is unaware of any corresponding Jewish traditions of contact with crypto-pagans or crypto-Jewish magicians.

Syncretism:  Gardner tries to reach back to a pan-European paganism, and in doing so he rolls together a number of different historical paganisms together to achieve something close to duotheism (belief in two gods).  In The Book of Shadows, as part of the Charge of the Goddess, Aradia is said to have been worshipped  as “Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite, Cerridwen, Diana, Arianrhod, Bride, and by many other names” (Farrar and Farrar, vol. 1, p. 42; Wilborn 121), as if all these goddesses were really all the same.  (Your humble blogger kids you not, even though Artemis is an eternally virgin huntress and Aphrodite a polyandrist.)

A consequence of trying to roll together a number of different historical European paganisms into a single religion is that who Aradia and Cernunnos are is a bit hazy.  Aradia is supposed to be the Earth, but at the same time she is the Moon and the “Star Goddess”.  Cernunnos is an underworld deity, but at the same time he is the Sun.

Morality:  Gardner lays out very little in the way of a moral code.  Even the famous Wiccan Rede (“An it harm none, do what ye will”) does not go back to Gardner.  Gardner thinks of witches as good and benevolent, not interested in hurting others—the sort of people that one might argue need regulation the least.   The rules that Gardner does lay down in the Old Laws deal with the regulation of covens, keeping Witchcraft secret, and magical professional ethics, not how witches should lead their lives when magic and the coven are not impacted.  In the second-degree initiation, the initiate is told that whatever he/she does will return to him/her threefold—but it does not mean that any action is strictly prohibited, only that one must face the consequences of what one does.  Drawing on Murray and Leland, Gardner embraces what is arguably an anti-Christian approach to morality, or rather an approach to morality opposed to a version of Christianity which probably never existed.  Gardner sees Christianity as anti-pleasure, anti-sex, anti-beauty, and anti-life,  and correspondingly he sees Witchcraft as being pro-pleasure, pro-sex, pro-beauty, and pro-life.  Someone who is opposed to a Christianity he thinks is overly controlling and restrictive (despite Paul’s antinomianism) is not the sort of person to lay down inviolable rules.  What Aradia wants from her worshippers, as noted in the Charge of the Goddess, is for her followers to enjoy themselves.  What does not affect that seems of little consequence to her.

Theological rating:  F.



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