I’ve started writing about Wicca because it is arguably the easiest Pagan faith to study the origins of.
If you are new to Paganism and maybe you’ve just stumbled onto this blog, then it is important to dispel the common misconception that Wicca is centuries old. Those who research Wicca, either just in passing or to begin practicing it, discover fairly early on that Wicca is a 20th Century creation, which I assume many mistake for the Christian-era Pagan witches, or so-called “Witch Cults”.
I want to be as detailed and precise as I possibly can, as this information is fairly hard to find online in a complete form. Wikipedia used to have a fairly extensive chunk of info. on it, but it has since been highly condensed by the vigilantes who edit the articles there.
Please do drop me an email if you notice anything blatantly inaccurate that I’ve included in the post! email@example.com
In 1921, Margaret Murray published a book entitled The Witch-Cult in Western Europe. In her book, she theorised that a cult spanning across western Europe was practicing a form of a pre-Christian religion and theorised that it had survived the Christianisation of Europe and the witch-hunts by practicing in intense secrecy and handing knowledge down through families. This theory has become widely known as the Witch-Cult Hypothesis.
(Just to note: this hypothesis does not describe Wicca – I’m setting the scene…)
Murray’s claims were largely scoffed at by critics and academics alike for her apparent complete lack of evidence as to the claim. This does seem to be the case, as Murray’s book was based upon a tiny amount of documentation copied from archives and records of witch trials.
She followed this up with a second book in 1933, in which she appears to describe an engraving from the Gundestrup Cauldron, an artifact found in Denmark in 1891 which dates back to around 50 BCE. The cauldron depicts a horned figure surrounded by animals and nature, which Murray theorised to be a pre-Christian God, possibly of the nature-based religion described in her hypothesis of 1921. This depiction is now famously considered throughout the Pagan and Neopagan community to depict the Celtic god Cernunnos or the Horned God.
Again, her theories were viewed with overwhelming scepticism.
(Begin the part that many Wiccans have probably heard a million times:)
Five years later in 1938, a retired British civil servant, writer and experienced occultist named Gerald Gardner returned to England from abroad, where he had spent much of his life and work. When threat of what would later become the Second World War began to escalate, Gardner and his wife moved from their flat in London to the small town of Highcliffe in the New Forest area of Hampshire in southern England.
After some time living in the town, Gardner became fond of a local theatre society and its performances. The society was known as the Rosicrucian Theatre.
In 1939, Gardner became friends with several people from the group who ran the theatre, an occult society based on Rosicrucianism (best known as having influenced Freemasonry, among other things). It was, in essence, a secret society and this is possibly what attracted Gardner to it, being interested in such things himself. He joined the group, hoping to speak to and learn from a group of intelligent people within the occult community.
The leader of the group, who called himself Aurelius, claimed to be reincarnated from Pythagoras, Cornelius Agrippa and Francis Bacon. Gardner famously asked him with sarcasm if he was also the “Wandering Jew” and was heavily sceptical of the group, especially when its High Priestess “predicted” that war would not come, only to be proved wrong the very next day.
After some time within the group, Gardner began to sense that there were some within the society who did not agree with the views of the society as a whole. A small amount of people within the society who, unlike the others, Gardner said “had to earn their livings, were cheerful and optimistic and had a real interest in the occult”.
Gardner naturally became close to this group of people, possibly because he valued their views on the occult more than the others, or possibly because he was already interested that there seemed to be a secret group within a secret group.
His personal theory that these people were a part of a sub-group were confirmed when he was taken to the home of a woman known as “Old Dorothy” Clutterbuck in September 1939 and initiated into the group through a ritual in which he was made to strip naked. This group is what Gardner called The New Forest Coven.
It is widely believed by Wiccans that this was a surviving pre-Christian nature-based religious group, much like those described by Margaret Murray in 1921. If the New Forest Coven was indeed what Gardner believed it to be, then this seemed to prove Murray’s theory correct.
It is also widely believed by Wiccans to be the group who famously were said to have summoned a Cone of Power at the southern coast of Hampshire, to turn Hitler and his armed forces away from the shores of the country.
Apart from Dorothy Clutterbuck, it is thought that the following were members of the group: Edith-Woodford Grimes (named “Dafo” by Gardner in his books), children’s author Katherine Oldmeadow, Ernie Mason, Susie Mason, Rosetta Fudge and Golden Dawn member Rosamund Sabine, who is widely thought to have been the group’s High Priestess.
The so called “New Forest Coven” is both a hazy and unclear part of the history of Wicca and a subject of much debate. Little evidence has been found that confirms the existence of such a group and the only first-person account we have is that of Gardner, who is known to have bent the truth at times (for example, he claimed to have doctorate degrees from both the Universities of Singapore and Toulouse, both of which were proved false).
Some believe that the group never existed and that Gardner fabricated the entire story. Despite this, records have been found that describe one “Dorothy Clutterbuck” (and a few others described by Gardner) living in the New Forest at the time. Most Wiccans seem not to accept this theory as a result. It is however highly unlikely that the group called themselves the New Forest Coven, or that they even referred to their collective as a “coven” at all.
During his initiation, Gardner heard the word “wica”, which he knew to be an Old English word describing witchcraft, which is ultimately where the term Wicca came from.
Details of Gardner’s time in the group are very scarce. It is thought that the group was apparently growing uneasy about Gardner’s attempts to gain media attention for the tradition as well as the occult in general (remember that Britain still had the Witchcraft Act at this time), although evidence of this is, once again, scarce.
In 1946, Garner broke away from the New Forest group and moved to Bricket Wood in Hertfordshire, where he form his own group (which he did call a coven) with Dafo as its High Priestess.
What Gardner and his coven adhered to from this point, was seemingly Gardner’s own “cocktail” of traditions, which took the (apparently) pre-Christian teachings of the New Forest group and combined it with ritualistic practices inspired by Rosicrucianism and Co-Freemasonry as well as some general New Age practices. This was the very beginning of Wicca (although it was not known by this term until years later) and was the primary and first Gardnerian or British Traditional coven, spawning such important personalities as Doreen Valiente (who was High Priestess for some time).
Following Gardner’s death in 1964, 1956 initiate Jack Bracelin took over and was High Priest for a while before stepping down. It is not known who took over from him and their activities were last noted in the 70s. The coven is still active today.
The New Forest group, after Gardner’s departure, sunk back into secrecy and its activities or whereabouts have not been known since then.
The group who inspired Wicca may still be practicing today.