Gerald Gardner was born in 1884 and over the course of his life, held many jobs, moved in many circles, and did a great many unusual things. He was a plantation owner in Borneo and a customs inspector in Malaya. He was an expert on Malaysian ceremonial weaponry, a folklorist, and an amateur anthropologist. He was a Co-Mason, a member of a Rosicrucian theater company, and even held a charter in the notorious occult society, the Ordo Templi Orientus. Drawing on these diverse experiences and associations, Gardner earned what must be his most unusual distinction: the “father” of Wicca, which is probably the most widely recognized form of Neopaganism.
Gardner’s role in Wicca can be seen in various ways. Most people, both within the Wiccan faith and outside it, recognize Gardner as the religion’s founder. Interestingly, Gardner himself claimed otherwise. By his account, Wicca is the surviving remnant of a native European religion. This religion, he claimed, had been vilified and its adherents hunted to near extinction by inquisitors who burned its priests and priestesses as witches.
In explaining his claims, Gardner often referred to the work of anthropologist Margaret Murray, who posited that in the transcripts of the infamous “witch trails” of the inquisition, evidence could be seen of an indigenous European pre-Christian religious tradition. Murray theorized that Witchcraft had been grossly misrepresented by inquisition propaganda. According to her, Witchcraft had actually been a folk religion which had encompassed much of Western Europe. She believed that it had been driven into hiding by persecution, but that clues to its nature existed in the testimonies of witnesses at the trials of alleged witches, and that clues also existed that pointed to the possibility of a modern survival of the cult.
Gardner claimed to have been initiated into exactly such a surviving remnant of the old witch cult. He claimed that a coven existed in the New Forest region, and that he had encountered it as a member of the Rosicrucian theater there. He referred to a leader figure called “Old Dorothy Clutterbuck” to whom he attributed considerable authority in the cult. He maintained that his information about Wicca came from Dorothy and her coven, although he admits that their information was sketchy and required some reconstruction on his part.
The more widely accepted version of the story is that Gardner, a well-read amateur anthropologist himself, took the theories of Murray to heart and, using his own abilities and experiences, attempted to reconstruct the native European religion that she hypothesized. Gardner was certainly qualified to make the attempt. As a folklorist, he was well acquainted with the foundational mythology such a religion would entail. As a Co-Mason and occultist, he had access to the forms of ritual and ceremony that would lend structure and authenticity to the rites. He had traveled widely and lived abroad among people of various religious paths for many years, and therefore had a working concept of comparative religion.
Whether Gardner created or simply revived Wicca, its existence as a modern religious movement certainly began with him. The practices and basic theology of Wiccans across the world all trace back to his work. He drew on a wide variety of resources in constructing (or reconstructing) the rituals and theology of the faith, but it would be inaccurate to say that there was nothing original in his ideology. Ideas which had never been combined before came together in Gardner’s religious vision. To many Wiccans, their religion has outgrown its beginning as a reconstruction attempt. It is something new and valid in its own right.
Gardner described a theology that is more difficult to categorize than that of many other religions. In Wicca, Divinity can be seen in both pantheistic and polytheistic terms. Wiccans believe that Divinity is manifest in nature, but that it is also, in its ultimate essence, both unknown and unknowable. Gardner said that humans lack the ability to relate directly with Divinity in its totality, but that we are able to relate to facets of the Divine. He said that there were both masculine and feminine facets, and Wiccans recognize these various facets as aspects of the God and Goddess. The God and Goddess represent the core duality in Wiccan theology, not oppositional, but complimentary forces, inherently fundamental to the natural world. These forces are seen together as comprising an ineffable and nameless Divine source which is itself inherent in the world around us.
Gardner also provided the central ethic of Wicca, the Wiccan Rede, although the term itself wasn’t used until later. According to Gardner, the core ethic of Wicca is the same as that of the “legendary good king Pausol” who mandated two laws for his subjects: 1) Do no harm to your neighbor 2) Otherwise, do as you like. This sentiment is usually phrased in eight words “An it harm none, do as ye will” (in this context, “An” is an archaic form of “if”). Most Wiccans interpret the Rede as discouraging harm to oneself, as well as harm to others.
Gardner also introduced a principle which has become known as the “law of threefold return”, which can be seen as similar to the Eastern idea of karma. Basically, he taught that a person’s actions, either good or ill, would be met by reciprocal responses from the world around them. This encourages good deeds and discourages harm, certainly, but it is not seen as a punishment and reward system. The law of threefold return is considered more like a principle in physics than as a moral imperative. It describes action and reaction, but attaches no objective moral value to them. Those values are left to the Rede to define.
Since Gardner first introduced Wicca, many divisions have formed in the faith. These are referred to as “traditions” of Wicca, and the Gardnerian tradition remains one of the most widely known. Some derive directly from Gardnerian practices, such as Alexandrian Wicca. But even traditions further removed from Gardner’s influence, like Seax-Wicca or various Dianic traditions, still include much of his teaching, ritual, and terminology. Even many Eclectic Wiccans, who adhere to no firmly defined tradition, are still largely Gardnerian in practice.
Gerald Gardner died in 1964, but his ideas about ethics, mythology and Divinity remain central parts of Wicca, which has grown from the first handful of Gardner’s associates in England’s New Forest to become the faith of many thousands across the world. While a few of the practices Gardner initiated have changed or been discarded in some traditions, other aspects are largely unaltered. Although only one formal Wiccan tradition bears his name, the continued importance of Gardner’s ideas is evident in all branches of the faith.