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Gardnerian Witchcraft in America

by Brigantia, revised January 1999

Gardnerian Witchcraft is a matriarchal, matrilineal tradition that honours the Great Mother and Her  consort, the Horned God. The Great  Mother's domain consists of life and the present world, and the Horned God's domain consists of death and the Netherworld. Nevertheless, Gardnerians may also choose to conduct rites in  honour of, or in petition to, additional Gods as they see  fit. At the core of Gardnerian practice is affirmation of the value of life, the inevitability of death, and the promise of reincarnation after this life has ended. We  see the never-ending cycle of birth, death and rebirth all around us in  nature.

Gardnerian Witchcraft is exclusively coven-based and initiatory. Self-initiation is not practised, and solitary practice is rare, being  confined mainly to isolated retired Elders. Initiates who have become geographically isolated  remain in formal covenant with their High Priestess until and unless they either attain Third Degree, or have entered into a  working relationship with a new High Priestess.

Initiations follow forms as set forth in the Book of Shadows ; Gardnerians work within a three-degree system of cross-gender initiation and degree elevations. The normal minimum period of formation between initiation and degree elevations is a year and a day; many covens take longer than a year and a  day to work through the necessary pre-elevation teachings. In Gardnerian practice, initiation makes an irrevocable change in the initiate's circumstances; as such, it cannot be revoked or overturned by human intervention.

Covens are wholly  autonomous. Each coven is ruled by its High Priestess in consultation with her consort (the High Priest) and with the aid and advice of the coven's Elders. In all matters, the decision of the High  Priestess is final, even when she has chosen  to delegate authority on certain issues to her High Priest or another Elder. In times of need, a High Priestess can function as a coven leader without a High Priest, but  cross-gender partnership is by far preferred.

Gardnerian covens work  unclothed, rather than robed. This gives rise to some rather interesting jokes along the lines of "Would you like to come up to my apartment and  look at my new robes?" Coven work is participatory: all participants are initiates in  their own right and there are therefore no spectators, nor 'congregation' vs. 'clergy' dichotomies. Gardnerian rites are conducted  exclusively within a magic circle, properly and intentionally cast according to traditional usage. Healing magic  is often performed by our covens. Evil spells are never cast by us, for such actions are an affront to our Gods.

That which takes place within the circle is held in confidence by those people who were present in the circle. To that end,  Gardnerians take magical names for use solely within the circle, where the use of 'legal names'  from the outside world is strongly discouraged. Outside the magic circle, the High Priestess of the coven is sometimes addressed by other initiates as 'My Lady' in conversation, or as 'Lady So-and-So' in third-party discussion with other initiates. Our Gardnerian cousins in Britain do not, as a general rule, use such titles. In contrast with the practice within some other Wiccan Traditions, the title of 'Lord' is neverused by Gardnerian High Priests (and its use by someone claiming to be a Gardnerian initiate may be a warning sign that something isn't quite right!)

Effective recording and verification of Gardnerian initiatory  lineage is  facilitated by the maintenance of initiatory records by some Elders. Every Gardnerian initiate can trace her or his lineage back to Gerald Gardner. In the interest of brevity, lineages are often documented in terms  of the ancestral High  Priestesses only; nevertheless, the intervening High Priests are an integral part of Gardnerian heritage and history. Lineages are not secret (the sharing -- and verification -- of lineage information is  one common way of 'checking out'  someone who professes to be a Gardnerian initiate; refusal to provide such references is another warning sign) but they are matters for discreet discussion among people who are considering  working together, rather than for wide publication.

Gardnerians use a semi-standardised Book of Shadows, consisting of rituals passed down from generation to generation, augmented by additions and alternative rites which  are ordinarily signed and dated by their authors. Our Tradition is  vibrant and alive, and we value the creative work of our kinfolk while preserving the hard-won knowledge of past generations.

Many initiates hand-copy all or part of their teacher's Book, with the objective of more closely engaging  with the texts. Copying is usually done at the covenstead, so that the materials being copied can be discussed  by teacher and student. A genuine or authentic Book of Shadowscannot be purchased; nor can it be obtained in any other way  without the seeker's having first properly undergone the Gardnerian rite of initiation.

Money is never charged for teaching, initiation, or magical work. Some High Priestesses set dues for the collective handling of coven expenses; others  choose to rely on individual donations of consumables such as candles,  wine and incense as the need arises.

Caveat: Insofar as all Gardnerian covens are autonomous, none of us may speak for all of us. The foregoing thoughts are my own opinions concerning the nature of the Gardnerian Tradition, which I love and cherish. I thank Lady Theos and Phoenix for their insightful comments on an earlier draft of this article. Nevertheless, I accept full responsibility for the ideas here presented, and am certainly open to comments from my kinfolk.

About the author: I am a working High Priestess and coven leader within the New York line of the Gardnerian Tradition, primary teacher of a traditionalist study group, and editor of a Gardnerian initiates' magazine, Six Roads. I care about the work that  we are doing  within our Tradition, and I am particularly concerned that we should have the opportunity to describe ourselves in our own terms. If you wish, you may reach me via e-mail.

For further information, I recommend the Gardnerian Public Relations Forum's web-site.


written by Brigantia
updated: June 24, 1998
document GARDTRAD © 1997, 1998 Beaufort House Association
the address of this page is: http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/5756/gardtrad.html

 Here are some other things to look at:

A brief history of the Gardnerian tradition, from a North American viewpoint.
American and Canadian contacts for Gardnerian study groups, covens and  newsletters.
A strongly-worded essay concerning privacy and discretion and the dangers attending upon their lack.

You may also return to:

The Beaufort House index of English Traditions of the Craft.