Before the Gardnerians: Introducing the Magus, Part II

In his autobiographic essay, Hansen relates that in about 1955, through a series of “coincidences” involving a Tarot deck and a baker who always won his bets on horseraces by using numerology, a “nineteen-year-old redheaded nymph with green eyes” introduced him to Donald Nelson, who was “not unsympathetic to my quest [and] told me that if I wished to understand these arcane things, I should first study astrology,” and sold him some of Alan Leo’s books. Hansen and his wife then began serious study of the Tarot and astrology.

 The redheaded girl and other interested acquaintances would come by from time to time to visit and discuss various occult and mystical things. . . . At a time in which everyone we knew seemed to be developing a destructive interest in drugs, studying the occult seemed to be a more productive avocation. . . . Occasionally . . . I would report to Mr. Nelson. He continued to encourage my studies . . . recommended new books . . . [and] suggested people he thought I should meet, and . . . private classes which he thought I should attend. . . . The people who gave these lectures were all of, or near, the age of Mr. Nelson . . . in their late fifties or early sixties. At the time my wife and I were in our early twenties.

 Hansen believes that at least some of these older people were members of Nelson’s coven, although it may not have been much like a coven in the current sense. He also comments that one of the most interesting classes he took was in aura reading, since it was conducted sans clothing.

During the next year or so, as Hansen travelled on business, he discovered that occult supply and bookstores were usually the only way to contact other occultists, though he found very few.

 After about a year and a half of traveling . . . my wife and I gradually came to the decision that we should look into witchcraft as a practice. . . . we had read a number of the books of Robert Graves [and] everything which we could find about Greek Pagan ritual, the nature of religion, and anything on any occult subject . . . We had decided that the God and Goddess of the Witches was probably what we were looking for as a religious belief. . . .

I discussed this desire to know more about witchcraft with Donald Nelson. He told me that witchcraft was actually a magical practice . . . not a religious vehicle at all. He then seemingly contradicted himself by telling me that witchcraft may be consideered a religious practice at this time in human evolution, because it was probably needed to counterbalance a spiritual imbalance in society. He then pointed out that the more formal religious structures were fading away, as their dogmas and theologies proved untenable in a different world from the world in which they were first formed. He said that this would be a slow process, but that it would happen eventually, as new religious forms overcame the ones which looked to us to be so solid today. He thought that witchcraft and paganism might generally replace some of these no longer viable religious forms, because they opened the door to a greater understanding of the nonphysical universe, something that the conventional Christian religions generally denied.

He then told me that he encouraged my interest in practcing witchcraft, but that he would have to discuss it with some other people before he could give me any clear guidance about it.

 Nelson then sold Hansen some very inexpensive copies of the classic texts on folk magic: Hohman’s Pow-wows, the books of Moses, Albertus Magnus, and the like. Hansen and his wife knew these were not what they were looking for, although the books did give them some useful information about magic. They continued their reading, with Margaret Murray’s books and the research of Henry Charles Lea. When Hansen’s company relocated its office to Chicago, Hansen was able to visit Nelson again in the summer of 1962.

 I again discussed my interest in witchcraft with Mr. Nelson. This time . . . when I asked him if I could become a witch . . . he asked me if I could present myself at his store early the following morning. . . [Hansen did so] promptly at 9 a.m., ready to grasp the hand of occult power and become a witch.

Mr. Nelson arrived at the store late, accompanied by a middle aged lady whom I did not recognize [named] Virginia . . . He told me to go into the back room . . . as she had something to tell me. [In the back room] Virginia told me that she was a witch in the line of the Master Magian Magus Olney Richmond. . . [and] that she was going to make me a witch because Mr. Nelson thought she should. She added that becoming a witch was usually a far more involved process . . . [and] that witches were trained, and made, a man to a woman, and a woman to a man. . . . She spoke to me for some time about the meaning of becoming a witch . . . [and] told me that if I wanted to perform magic, I should make a circle and enter it nude. In the circle I should do the magic required for whatever result I desired. . . . the circle . . . had to be cut in the earth, to give it a place on the earth that was between the visible and invisible worlds. . . . incense had to be used to carry the magical work up to God, who would respond to whatever was asked by a witch. After her soft and intense explanation was complete, she asked me if I was ready to be made a witch. Naturally, I agreed immediately.

[They descended into the basement and cleared enough space for the circle.]

Virginia [took] a cord out of her purse to be certain that the size of the space was adequate for our circle. It had to be nine feet in diameter. She held the cord while I went around the circle . . . She had previously explained briefly that the cord was for binding things, while the knife was for cutting things away. She said that these were the two fundamental operations of magic. . . .

Once the space was . . . measured to be of the proper size, Virginia asked me to turn out the lights. . . . by the light of the single candle she had lit, I made my way . . . to where our circle was to be. She had lit an incense charcoal, in addition to the candle; they both stood on one side of the circle. We disrobed . . . I stood outside the circle, watching her while she constructed it.

First, with a small swinging incense burner, she censed around the circle. The incense seemed to be a blend of frankincense, myrrh, and benzoin. Then she stood at one side of the circle and prayed silently for a while, holding her knife before her. Next she cut the circle with her knife, and when finished prayed softly once more. She came to where she had me stand, and asked me the two ritual questions we had rehearsed. She cut the circle and brought me in, guiding me by the arm. Lastly she cut the doorway in the circle closed, sealing the circle again.

In the circle she said aloud, but softly, that she was going to make me a witch at the request of Donald Nelson, and that I would be a witch in the line of Master Magian Magus Olney Richmond . . . Then she turned to me and said that we would now have sex. This surprised me, although I was not averse to the idea. I lay on the ground in the center of the circle, as requested, she mounted me, and we had sex. She then went over the use of the knife for cutting and the cord for binding in greater detail. She led me around the circle several times, repeating “A witch has been made” . . . Lastly she kissed me and told me that I was now a witch.

Following this she cut the circle and asked me to turn on the lights. . . . After dressing we went upstairs [where] Donald Nelson greeted me with a big smile and said, “How does it feel to be a witch?” I told him I felt the same as I had before. He did not seem to be surprised by this at all.

 By 1962, Gardner’s High Magic’s Aid had been available for about 13 years, his Witchcraft Today for ten years, his Meaning of Witchcraft for five years, and the Gardnerian details in Virginia’s ritual are almost exactly those that can be gleaned from those books. Clearly Virginia’s practice had been influenced by Gardner, yet there were other details quite different from Gardnerian practice, such as her silent prayers and her address to (apparently) the Gods, but especially that the sex act itself not only was the initiation, but also was, Hanson commented to me, acting on the freedom conferred by his new religion. Virginia did not swear him to secrecy. It seems quite significant that 42 years after Richmond’s death, his Tradition was being carried on.

Certainly the sacramentalizing of sexuality inherent in the theological assumptions of both traditional and current Witchcraft is viewed with alarm, if not horror, by the members of many established faith communities. However, the attempt to redeem sexuality from the millennia of pathological fear and hatred of sex that has plagued Western civilization is precisely what attracts many people to the Wiccan/Pagan movement.

  • gaddy

    It’s interesting to me that DG Nelson’s bookstore features prominently in this history. It’s Spiritual heir: “The Occult Bookstore” is basically where my own seeker’s path began as well…

    • aidanakelly

      Yes, the role of bookstores in the history of the Craft in America is important and a very different trait from the pattern for “mainstream” churches. I’m planning to comment more about that.

      • Jonathan Nightshade

        On that thread, the excellent new book “Bull of Heaven” by Michael Lloyd, although a biography of Ed Buczynski who created a couple of modern Wiccan traditions, also documents the huge part that The Warlock Shop and Magickal Childe played in the development of the NY Wiccan/Pagan community. Starting in the early 1970′s every major city had one or two local occult stores that were very instrumental in the spread of the Craft before the development of the internet. There are only a few left. There was nothing like the atmosphere of the old Occult stores where you could find arcane information, magickal supplies, and also have an unexpected personal meeting with a fellow practitioner of one of the hidden arts.

        • Robert Mathiesen

          And sometimes the proprietor was one of those practitioners him(her)self.

        • Michael Lloyd

          Thank you for the kind words, Jonathon. I also write about the influence of occult bookstores in general across the country, drawing from interviews with Carl Weschcke, Harold Moss, Billy Name and many others. It was a different era, where the mimeograph and store bulletin board was the means to disseminate information on groups and teachers.

  • Jonathan Nightshade

    Was Mr. Hansen’s initiation conducted in the basement to provide for the actual physical “cutting” of the floor/earth with the knife to create the Circle, or just as it was the most available space for the ritual? Being in contact with the actual earth, as entrance to the Otherworld symbolically below the ground, is very important in some forms of Traditional Witchcraft (not meaning BTW). Could be evidence for an older/alternative Witch belief, as versus the Gardnerian cutting of the Circle anywhere within any room to create sacred space.

    In Robert Cochrane’s system, the sacred knife (mysteries of masculine tree, of the Horned God of cunning and craft symbolizing will, experience and courage) is opposed to the cord/noose (mysteries of the feminine tree, of the Goddess of Fate) versus the Gardnerian knife/cup metaphor as used in the Gardnerian symbolic Great Rite (see The Robert Cochrane Letters edited by Michael Howard). Would think that if this rite was derived from Gardnerian practice that there would have been a more involved consecrated salt/water asperging of the area, binding/scourging of the initiate and a knife/cup sacrament consecration also.

    I visited the successor to D.G. Nelson’s store, the Occult Bookstore (as it was then named) on North State St. a few times before it moved to Clark St. It was then owned by Russell Thorne. I believe that Mr. Thorne owned it from some time beginning in the 1960′s onward, for about 40 years. Wherever it was located, it was always a wonderful, otherworldly place, reeking of ancient mysteries (as well as incense smoke). I spent much time there during the 1980′s.

    Very interesting article, cannot wait for your book to come out. BTW, there is an interesting blog called “Occult Chicago,” which is looking at facets of Chicago’s long history of metaphysical and occult involvement.

    • Gaddy

      I know Russell sold the bookstore several years back, But I recently (a couple. years ago?) Heard he was working there again. Has else heard of Russell’s whereabouts lately?


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