The [American] Gardnerians, 1973-75

[Several colleagues have recommended more precision in titling.]

In 1972, after a decade of leading the Long Island coven, Lady Rowen (Rosemary Buckland) decided to retire, and so elevated Lady Theos (Judy Kneitel) and Phoenix (Tom Kneitel, 1933-2008) to be the coven’s new High Priestess and High Priest. At first the Bucklands remained active as Elders in the coven, but then they separated and started becoming less active. When Theos and Phoenix realized that Rowen might no longer be available to answer questions, they debriefed her on everything she could remember about what she had learned from Lady Olwen, about oral traditions, and about how the coven actually operated. This information was recorded in a new document that came to be called the “Notes and Guidelines,” at that time the longest single document in the Gardnerian Book of Shadows. All the Elders of the Long Island coven, including Rowen and Robat, signed off on the new additions to the BOS, certifying them as authentic and authoritative.

 The N&G was at first intended to be just that, mere guidelines, but over the years it has hardened into rules and regulations. Since this document had never existed in Britain, its creation marked the point where American Gardnerian Craft began to evolve along a path different from that followed by Witches in Europe. Most of the controversies in the American Gardnerian movement for the last 40 years have resulted from lines in this document. I believe that Lady Theos was an organizational genius, but some of her innovations, introduced for the sake of quality control, have had unforeseeable and unfortunate consequences.

 By the time Lady Theos had accepted responsibility for the Long Island coven and thus for the Gardnerian movement in America, the Craft movement had already begun proliferating along at least a dozen different trajectories (which I will delineate as we continue this series), not always amicably. Susan Roberts (Witches USA, 2d ed., pp. 305-6) later wrote:

 It was in this climate of ferment and mistrust that Judy soon realized she had been catapulted by circumstance. As soon as all these stories of strife seeped through to her, she responded by trying to serve as a catalyst for harmony among all legitimate branches of the Craft. She has managed to restore some balance. She has gone on record by stating that . . . there has been too much misunderstanding within the Craft, too much bickering and too much politics. She has clearly defined a major aspect of her work as establishing cordial relationships between her coven and other covens following other traditions. . . she has drawn one conclusion: the label of ‘Gardnerian’ has been an unfortunate one. Gardnerians have been attacked . . . because Gerald Gardner was himself a controversial character.

 Theos clearly believed that all Witches of other Traditions belonged to the same religion as she did, and often said so. For her, the list of what was “oathbound” (secret names and suchlike) was quite short. We will see examples of her diplomacy and peacemaking during the 1970s as we consider other developments in the Craft movement.

 Can one find out how many Gardnerian and other covens there were in the US in about 1974 from publicly available information? Yes, one can. In 1971 Green Egg, the journal of the Church of All Worlds, included a one-page directory of Wiccan, Pagan, and other alternative religions. By 1974, this annual “Yellow Pages” had expanded to eight pages of small print and provides a snapshot of the Craft and quite a few other religions in North America in the mid-1970s. Analysis of the listings, plus a count of other covens that announced their existence in Green Egg and a few other Pagan periodicals around that time, gives a total of 102 covens by 1975. (Simply listing them here would be quite boring, but I will discuss the groupings within the list as they become relevant.) Of those covens, how many were Gardnerian in the strict sense, that is, with lineage back to Lady Olwen or another of Gardner’s Priestesses?

 In Green Egg 58 (Samhain 1973), Herman Slater stated that he knew of ten Gardnerian covens besides the one on Long Island. The ones he knew about included those of: Branwen and Bryce in Brooklyn; Ariadne and Lucas in Willingboro, NJ; Lady Ariadne in Philadelphia; Deirdre and Modred, and Theo and Thane, in Louisville; Ariadne and Silvanus in Cincinnati, and Selene and Promethios in Rayland (later in Steubenville), OH. He also knew about three other covens, in Newport, NH, South Carolina, and Oklahoma, that did not publish any announcement of their existence.

 Other Gardnerian covens that announced their existence in 1973-75 included:

Lady Amadya, E. Aurora,NY;

Andro and Cerridwen, Riverdale, NY;

Ariane and Abraxas, Moon Grove Coven, Deer Park, NY;

Branwen and Taliesin, Port Jefferson Station, NY;

Morveren (Margot Adler) and Llyr, Manhattan;

Rhiannon and Kim,Ann Arbor,MI;

Sarna and Andorus, Passaic, NJ.

 There were also some covens that called themselves Gardnerian but apparently had no relationship to the Long Island lineage.

 We thus arrive at a total of 18 known Gardnerian covens in about 1973 to 1975. Could there actually have been many more? Probably not. Despite all the (mainly recent) talk about secrecy, Witches in the 1970s were not very secretive at all, communicated freely with all other Witches, of whatever Tradition, and even published their home addresses in Green Egg and elsewhere. So, even if there were again as many covens that Herman didn’t know about and that didn’t announce their existence in Green Egg or elsewhere, an order-of-magnitude estimate is that there were at most 35 Gardnerian covens in the USA at that time. By a similar line of reasoning, there could have been at most about 200 covens in the US and Canada in 1975.

 That is, a decade after the Bucklands had established the first Gardnerian coven in the USA, the Gardnerians constituted less than 20 percent of all the covens then existing. Even though the number of Gardnerian covens continues to increase, the number of all the other kinds of covens has been increasing even faster; so the percentage of Gardnerians as such continues to decline. The pattern that Ed Fitch, Ray Buckland, John Hansen, and Joe Wilson foresaw still holds: the Craft movement has such broad appeal that it grows faster than the strictly Gardnerian covens can cope with.

 Would Gardner have been happy about this? I’m sure he would have been. As I’ve said before, if he had wanted the Craft to be a tiny cult known only by word of mouth, he would never have written his books. He hoped that the Craft might become a world religion that could stand up to Christianity or any other faith community. The fact that it has is proof of his genius. Geniuses are rarely politically correct and universally approved of.

 Now, what about Ray? In 1973 he was getting divorced and no longer had a coven. But what he did next was even more revolutionary for the Craft in America than his importing of Gardnerian Wicca had been. Tune in next time to find out what that was.

 

 

 

 

 

  • Robert Mathiesen

    There was at least one Witch from England living in Berkeley (Calif.) during the school year 1960/1, and she was probably the same Witch who was offering to teach Witchcraft to interested people 18 or older during that year. Three people known to me personally, who were all a year too young at the time, have told me about her. I may eventually manage to learn her name, and will let you know when I do.

    • aidanakelly

      I’ve also heard from Sam Wagar that Gardnerianism in BC may have originated with one Roy Blundell in abouit +/- 1960. I’ll work on checking that out.

  • Deborah Bender

    I believe your figure on the number of covens existing in the United States in 1975 is the right order of magnitude. That is to say, there were certainly a hundred covens and there were not a thousand covens.

    Beyond that statement, you might be pushing the data a bit. Your more precise count derives from an assumption that in 1975, most covens were aware of The Green Egg and in communication with it. That may well be true, but you haven’t presented any evidence that it is. Without such evidence, it’s a bit of a circular argument.

    I agree with Jonathan’s observation that, “Pre-internet the Craft was very regional and contacts usually made through local occult stores.” A researcher might come up with a fairly complete list of all the occult stores that were doing business in 1975 and their locations. From that information, it would be possible to work out what percentage of the adult population of the U. S. lived close enough to any such store to visit it regularly (since repeated in person visits were usually necessary in that era before the store owner or another customer would be likely to give the customer a contact.)

    Plenty of people who did not live within easy traveling distance of an occult bookstore were able to acquire occult literature from public libraries or by mail order. Determined souls did not stop forming one-off, bootstrap covens after outreach organizations like the Pagan Way began to be active in a few cities. They only stopped after the pop-Wicca publishing boom of the 1980s and 1990s.

    This leads to a tree-falls-in-the-forest issue. If a coven starts up independently of any contact with other witches or pagan zines, and keeps itself to itself, is it still a coven? We must allow for the possibility that covens like the one Victor Anderson said he was a member of in the 1940s carried right on through the heyday of The Green Egg, with little or no communication with any other witches outside the coven.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X