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NB: These are my personal thoughts and understandings of this particular tradition as a Gardnerian initiate. This is not meant to be taken as any "official statement" on behalf the Tradition as a whole.
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Sometime in the late 1930s-early 40s, Gardner was initiated into an existing coven and taught a rather skeletal system of beliefs, practices and rituals. Those with whom he had been initiated were older members of the tradition and Gardner, overjoyed at his experiences with witchcraft and adamant about seeing it flourish, became fearful that with so few practitioners, it could ostensibly die off entirely once he and his fellow coven members passed away. Thus it was with his initiator’s blessing that Gardner began to publish information about witchcraft. At first, his information was put forth in the form of fiction – High Magic’s Aid and A Goddess Arrives - but after the appeal of the old anti-witchcraft laws in Britain, Gerald dared to be more open with his passion for witchcraft and he published his two non-fiction treatises – Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft.
To his joy, he found that there was great interest in the path of witchcraft he spoke of, and many others came forward who wanted to adhere to this spirituality he found so meaningful, this colloquial tradition. Gerald’s desire to preserve the insular British cult/religion began to grow and he became something of an active revivalist, not only championing it on British shores, but actively promoting its spread elsewhere in the world.
However, seeing that the information that he was given by his initiators was sparse, like other burgeoning occultists of his time, Gardner had sought out and traded information with intellectual contemporaries. With the permission of those from whom he studied, he took the skeletal framework he had been given and began to add pieces from these other occult resources, fleshing things out into a more viable practice that could be taught to and shared with others. By using his best judgment to reconcile the information he gleaned against any then-known historic evidence, Gardner began adding to the set of practices, rites, poetry and ideas to “fill in the gaps” as it were.
He did not create something brand new wholesale, as modern pundits *cough cough AK cough cough* have surmised.
Yes, there is some ceremonial magic in there, some borrowings from Charles Leland, from Robert Frost, from W. B. Yeats, from Dion Fortune, from Margaret Murray, from Aleister Crowley, Doreen Valiente, and others. But these are additions, not alterations. That idea, to add but never subtract or alter, is a hallmark of many traditionalists.And so it was passed, this system which Gerald helped reconstruct and resurrect from his initiators, and it is this tradition that has spawned the family tree of initiates to the present day.
Gardnerians today practice in small covens with a led by the High Priestess and Priest. We worship a specific God and Goddess who work in concert with each other and we celebrate Their dance around the Wheel of the Year by holding 8 Sabbat Festivals that honor the turning of the seasons. Additionally, we hold “working rites” called Esbats in relation to the 13 lunations during the course of a calendar year.
We also honor the self-perpetuating cycle of life and believe in animism and reincarnation. Gardnerians feel that there is evidence to these ideas found within all of nature and within ourselves. Thus we also consider deity to be both immanent and omnipresent, not something which needs to be placated, beseeched and pandered to as a means for currying favor among all other life forms.
The specifics of our rituals and practices are Oathbound, that is to say, only shared amongst our initiates via our mentored spiritual study method. Each aspirant takes training from a mentor and through a system of degrees, learns our lore –written, oral and demonstrative--- so that these aspirants may in turn become mentors who are capable of facilitating the learning of others and of running their own covens.
And finally, we can neither confirm nor deny that old sage about “How many Gardnerians it takes to screw in a light bulb?” The answer is a third-degree secret which I'm not at liberty to disclose...unless of course you know our handshake. *grin*
** “Mystery” refers to coming to an understanding about something that cannot be explained with words or can be wholly conveyed by another person. It is a personal, internal moment of epiphany which occurs as a part of a relevatory experience, when one finally ‘groks’ the meaning of a concept without the aid or influence of others.