Gardnerian Wicca is often regarded as the earliest created Wiccan tradition, and forms the basis for almost all others types of Wicca.
It’s named for its founder, British civil servant Gerald Gardner, who first wrote about the practice of Wicca in the 1950s.
As one of the first people to bring information about witchcraft and Wicca to the public, he is credited with being the predecessor of almost all modern Wiccans — either directly through Gardnerian Wicca, or through one of its many offshoots.
Differences From Other Wiccan Traditions
Since Gardnerian Wicca was the first created Wiccan tradition, there are few differences between it and other traditions:
- Gardnerian Wicca is group-based. Self-initiation doesn’t exist, and few Gardnerians are solitary practitioners. Those who are are generally former High Priests and Priestesses who have retired from coven work.
- Rituals are performed “skyclad.” Gardnerians believe that ritual nudity emphasizes their relationship with nature and places them on equal standing with each other.
- Gardnerian Wiccans use a separate magical name during ritual. In the circle, practitioners given names are never used.
- Traditional Gardnerian covens use a scourge to lightly strike practitioners entering the circle. This is a symbolic whipping for purification purposes.
- Gardnerian Wicca originally supported the Great Rite, a sexual ritual between the High Priest and High Priestess. This has since been replaced by immersing a ritual dagger in a bowl of wine, but some covens still practice sex magic.
Practices & Rituals
Gardnerian practices and rituals set the precedent for other Wiccan traditions. They are complex and symbolic, and include:
- Eight Sabbats. These are the major solar holidays.
- Thirteen Esbats. These are the minor lunar holidays, celebrated at each full moon.
- Ritual structure. Rituals have a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The circle is opened, the witches perform the ritual, and the circle is closed.
- Magic. Gardnerian Wiccans practice magic to bend probability in their favor. They don’t consider magic to be imposing their will on the universe.
- The Wiccan Rede. Gardner introduced the idea of the Wiccan Rede to witchcraft. This forms the guiding moral basis of Wicca.
- The Great Rite. As mentioned above, this began as a sexual ritual symbolizing the union between the Goddess and the Horned God. This is now chiefly symbolized by immersing an athame (a symbol of masculine energy) into a chalice or bowl of wine (a symbol of feminine energy).
- Initiation. Gardnerian Wicca has a firm initiatory policy and training hierarchy.
- The Book of Shadows. Each Gardnerian coven has its own Book of Shadows copied, in turn, from Gardner’s original work. Initiates must copy the coven’s Book as part of their training.
- Coven structure. Covens are traditionally made up of thirteen witches, including the High Priestess and High Priest. The High Priestess has the final say in any decision.
Initiation is the cornerstone of Gardnerian Wicca. It is, by it’s very nature, a secretive and hierarchical practice. Rituals are closed to the non-initiated, and outsiders aren’t able to see or experience coven practices.
Initiations are carried out following the practices outlined in Gardner’s original Book of Shadows. There are three degrees of advancement, each with different requirements.
Practitioners typically spend at least a year and a day at each level — many covens require practitioners to put in many hours of study and refinement, so a year and a day isn’t a hard and fast rule. In practice, advancement can take much longer.
Once initiated, practitioners are oathbound to protect each other’s identities. This is where the practice of using secret names stems from — as a safety measure.
Origins & History of Gardnerian Wicca
Gerald Gardner was a British civil servant and scholar of magic. In the late 1930s, he discovered a building purported to be the first Rosicrucian theater in England. Fascinated and wishing to learn more, Gardner attended a few plays, and eventually joined the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship responsible for running the theater.
The Fellowship was founded in the 1920s, and based on a mixture of Rosicrucian, Freemasonry, Theosophy, and the personal beliefs of founder George Alexander Sullivan. While Gardner learned a lot during his time with the Fellowship, he grew critical of some of the group’s beliefs and practices over time.
In 1939, he was initiated into the New Forest coven — a group of witches who met in southern England in the early 20th century. It was here that Gardner learned the practices that would eventually become Gardnerian Wicca.
He believed that the New Forest coven was one of the last surviving vestiges of a pre-Christian witchcraft tradition, and wanted to help it grow. He expanded the coven’s structure and practices using concepts borrowed from Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, ceremonial magic, and Freemasonry.
Through the late 1940s-50s, Gardner published a number of books that brought Wicca to the public eye. These included High Magic’s Aid (published in 1949), Witchcraft Today (1954), and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959).
After the New Forest coven, Gardner formed the Bricket Wood coven in the 1940s. This was the first Gardnerian Wiccan coven, and Gardner initiated many High Priestesses and High Priests through it. From these initiates, we get the many other branches of Wicca that claim descent from Gardner.
Gardnerian Wicca is very ceremonial and structured, to the point where some modern Wiccans find it inflexible. Nonetheless, the Gardnerian structure and initiatory practices are what gave rise to almost all other forms of Wicca.
Even today, the Gardnerian tradition continues to provide the basis for the education of many modern witches, and Gardnerian covens are some of the most long-lived witchcraft groups still in existence.