The story of modern witchcraft definitively began with Gerald Gardner who was born on 13 June 1884 at Great Crosby, near Blundell Sands in Lancashire, England. Gardner definitely accumulated an extensive occult background. His formative years were spent in South East Asia where he became a Mason (in Ceylon) and also a nudist. In 1939 Gardner returned to England an avid occultist. He immediately became a member of the Rosicrucians and through such associations met a certain Dorothy Clutterbuck, known as “Old Dorothy,” who allegedly initiated Gardner into the New Forest Coven in September of that year. However, research suggests that Gardner did not discover a pre-existing witchcraft group. A paper by Gardner disclosed that he took the magical resources he acquired in Asia and a selection of Western magical texts and created a new religion centred upon the worship of the Mother Goddess, which is precisely what has become the focus of modern witches.
Gerald Gardner (1884-1964)
Ten years after his self-proclaimed initiation, Gardner published a fictional account of witches called High Magick’s Aid. Then, following the repeal of the witchcraft laws in Britain in 1951, he followed this with a non-fiction book, titled Witchcraft Today, published in 1954. His high point came when he was invited to a reception at Buckingham Palace in 1960. Gerald Gardner, the founder of modern witchcraft, died on 13th February 1964 while returning from abroad on the SS Scottish Prince.
Aleister Crowley (1875-1947)
In addition to Margaret Murray, the influence of Aleister Crowley, Theosophy, Freemasonry, ritual sex magic etc all blended eclectically in the writings of Gerald Gardner. Out of the cauldron of his mind emerged modern witchcraft, or as it is commonly called, wicca. Robin Skelton, himself a witch, confirms in his book The Practice of Witchcraft Today that “Gardner’s work influenced the Old Religion deeply. His rituals owed much to the occult and kabbalistic tradition. His admiration for the occultist Aleister Crowley led him to include some of Crowley’s words and rituals … the sexual rituals and practices of Hindu Tantrism crept into occultism in the late nineteenth century and deeply influenced Aleister Crowley who, in turn, influenced Gerald Gardner and therefore Gardnerian witchcraft.” Gardner’s connection with Crowley has a deeper shared philosophical root. One of the founders of Ordo Templi Orientis was the Freemason Franz Hartmann, a companion of the theosophist Helena Blavatsky. Prior to Gardner’s discovery of witchcraft, he was a member of a Rosicrucian fraternity, the Fellowship of Crotona. This was an offshoot of the Temple of the Rosy Cross which was founded by Annie Besant, the British leader of a second theosophical society that sprang up after the death of Madame Blavatsky. An OTO writer in Pagan News (August 1989) maintains that “Crowley wrote the Gnostic Mass as the public ritual of the OTO … it should be remembered that sections have been incorporated into the Great Rite, the third and highest wiccan initiation.” Some hold that Gardner actually paid Crowley to write the rituals that have become fundamental to modern witchcraft. As far back as 1915 Crowley had advised: “The time is just ripe for a natural religion … be the founder of a new and greater Pagan cult.”
Alex Sanders (1926-1988)
The principal instructions and rituals mingled Crowley’s magic with Masonic symbolism and ingredients from the East. And from this a new generation of advocates for a new feminist spirituality has emerged. Among these were Alexander Sanders, Sybil Leek, Raymond and Rosemary Buckland, Margot Adler, Jim Alan, Jessie Wicker Bell, Gavin and Yvonne Frost, Doreen Valiente, Zsuzanna Budapest, Donna Cole, Ed Fitch, Janet and Stewart Farrar (replaced after his death by Gavin Bone), and numerous others, including a great many rogues and charlatans. Alex Sanders had the greatest impact in England during the 1960s at the time of the counter-culture, occult explosion, and a fast growing mass media. Seán Manchester confronted the self-styled “King of the Witches” on Radio London in January 1971 at a time when Sanders was threatening to raise a demon before an audience on the stage of the Hendon Classic Cinema, London. The event went terribly wrong. Sanders blamed it on the fact that someone sitting in the audience near the stage was wearing a silver Christian cross.
The self-proclaimed “King of the Witches.”
Alex Sanders’ early life is mysterious and various published accounts are undoubtedly fictional for the most part. He was born Orrell Alexander Carter in Birkenhead on 6 June 1926, the son of a Harold, a musician, and Hannah Carter. His Welsh grandmother, Mrs Bibby, was apparently a cunning woman and medium who gave him an early interest in the occult. His mother was also a medium as was Alex and all his brothers. The young Alex Sanders (he later changed his surname to Sanders by deed poll) became quite well known as a trance medium where he lived. The claim by him that he was initiated into witchcraft by his grandmother when he was seven years old, after he interrupted one of her solitary rituals, is largely dismissed even by other witches. Mrs Bibby was a cunning woman from the foothills of Snowdonia, but not quite a witch. The initiation story is probably an elaboration of Mrs Bibby’s influence on him that (along with his mother) introduced him to spiritualism and the occult. According to Sanders’disciple Stewart Farrar: “Neither Alex nor the family had any idea [Mrs Bibby] was a witch, but she gave him no time to brood. She had the clothes off him, initiated him on the spot, and told him that he was now a witch too and that various dreadful things would happen if he betrayed the secret.” Bearing in mind that Sanders was a seven-year-old child at the time, the claim is more redolent of child abuse than witchcraft as understood by today’s practitioners. His assertion that his “book of shadows” was given him by his grandmother is therefore also certainly false. It is fundamentally a Gardnerian one with some differences and some of the prose sections missing.
Sanders gave a very vivid account of his early manhood in King of the Witches by June Johns with tales of his falling into the ways of the Left-hand Path when he was adopted by a wealthy, childless couple. He supposedly immersed himself into a life of hedonistic orgies dedicated to the dark powers, describing this as his “black magic phase.” According to the same work, Sanders rescued himself by undergoing the long exhaustive ritual of purification in the magical system of Abramelin in order to purge himself of his excesses. He nevertheless died in abject poverty with lung cancer in a hospice on the East Sussex coast of England, close to where Aleister Crowley had also died four decades earlier, and where Kevin Carlyon still resides in a nearby small seaside resort. The date of Alex Sanders’ death at the age of sixty-one is 30 April 1988 (Beltane on the witchcraft calendar).
The sheer number of modern-day witches suggests a wide variety of beliefs and practices. However, despite the pluralism and diversity, distinct principles derived from Gardnerian wicca are common to most modern witches. First and foremost is the belief in the Great Mother Goddess. Historically she has manifested in numerous forms: Artemis, Astarte, Aphrodite, Diana, Kore, Hecate etc. The consort Pan (the Horned God) is the male principle of wicca. He, too, possesses a varied nomenclature, including such names as Adonis, Apollo, Baphomet, Cernunnos, Dionysius, Lucifer, Osiris, Thor etc. The Mother Goddess is represented by the moon and the Horned God is represented by the sun. Each year, Pan dies and is brought back to life in a ceremony called “Drawing down the Sun.” The ceremony associated with the Mother Goddess is called “Drawing down the Moon.” Each coven varies in the ceremonial details. Wiccans, or witches, nonetheless have a calendar that is common to all groups. High festive days pinpoint key phases in the seasonal progress of mother earth. There are eight seasonal festivals, known as Sabbats, identified as follows: Imbolg (February 2); Spring Equinox (March 21); Beltane (April 30); Midsummer Solstice (June22); Lugnasad (July 31); Autumn Equinox (September 21); Samhain, also known as Hallowe’en (October 31); Winter Solstice (December 22). Imbolg, Beltane, Lugnasad and Samhain are known as the Greater Sabbats, while the four equinoxes are the Lesser Sabbats. Additional meeting times for covens are Esbats.
Witches practice clairvoyance, divination, astral projection, spells, curses, and herbal healing. They are supposed to follow a principle of ethics known as the wiccan rede where the effects of magic are believed to return threefold upon the person working it for good or ill. Not all adhere to this voluntary code. Their very belief in gods and goddesses, whether symbolic or not, identifies witchcraft groups as embracing a polytheistic conceptualisation of the universe. Modern witches, however, do not necessarily believe in a pantheon of male and female deities, but that reality itself is understood in many different ways. Truth is not a matter of correspondence between language, the world, or any one conceptual model. Put differently, there is no singular expression of truth. Truths that are contradictory are held to simultaneously. Symbols that accompany wiccan lore include the amulet, the talisman, the ankh, the pentagram, the athame (ritual dagger), the cup, the pentacle, the rune, the sigil, the wand, the tarot, the cauldron, the altar, the fith-fath (effigy) etc.
Witchcraft is sharply at odds with Christianity. Divination, spiritism, magic, sorcery, witchcraft, and the occult in general are condemned in the Bible. The polytheism in witchcraft is also a blatant contradiction to the strict monotheism of Christianity. Like most other non-Christian religions and religious cults of the world, witchcraft obliterates the distinction between Creator and creation.
Wiccans deify nature in such a way that both God and nature are identified as synonymous. Furthermore, since divinity lies in nature and in the cosmos, it also resides within each person. Here it can be observed that wiccan thought closely parallels Hinduism and other Eastern paradigms.
Traditional Christian thought holds that witchcraft has its source in Satan, the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4: 4). Some wiccan groups are indeed an introduction to overt diabolism and devil worship, but by no means all act as a front for fundamentalist Satanism. Principal influence of the occult revival in the twentieth century is undoubtedly Aleister Crowley without whom there would be no modern witchcraft movement today.
Crowley: self-styled “Great Beast 666.”
Wiccan thought offers a variety of views concerning the existence of evil and very few would deny its existence. However, the most common view among witches is to understand evil, not as a separate reality apart from good, as do Manichaeans, Satanists, and other groups, but rather as a necessary aspect of good. Yet is the evil that human beings encounter in the world and in history an acceptable and healthy aspect of a reality that, according to wiccan thought, has no flaws to begin with? How can such a view of evil be reconciled to the wiccan rede: “That ye harm none, do what ye will”? Is not evil harmful? To the victims and families of a murderer it certainly is. If there is no one absolute standard or set of truths exclusive of all falsities, how can even the wiccan rede be regarded as true? To grant that it is, is to grant that there is at least one absolute truth. Many witches are willing to live with this blatant contradiction because of either naïveté, intellectual dishonesty, or convenience.
For Christianity, God is the source of all truth, and the Bible is God’s revelation of such truth, deemed necessary for the world. There is a clear choice between the path of darkness, the Left-hand Path, and the path directed toward the Light of the World, the Right-hand Path.