Gerald Gardner Documentary Slated for 2012

Perhaps no figure looms as large on the history of modern religious Witchcraft (and in turn modern Paganism) than Gerald Gardner, who, depending on whom you ask, introduced the heretofore underground religion of Wicca to the wider world, or simply created it from a variety of esoteric and folkloric sources. Whatever one’s stance is on the providence of Wicca, all agree that Gardner played an essential role in developing what would become a world religion practiced everywhere from India to Lebanon and Brazil in less than sixty years. As historian Ronald Hutton notes in “The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft” Wicca has unique significance due to it being “the only religion which England has ever given the world.” Now Gardner, with the help of Hutton, will be the subject of an hour-long documentary on Channel 4 in Britain.

Publicity still from "Britain's Wicca Man".

“Britain’s Wicca Man tells the extraordinary story of Britain’s fastest growing religious group – Wicca – modern pagan witchcraft – and of its creator, an eccentric Englishman called Gerald Gardner. Historian and leading expert in Pagan studies, Professor Ronald Hutton, explores Gardner’s story and experiences first hand Wicca’s growing influence throughout Britain today.”

The documentary, commissioned by Channel 4, is being produced by Matchlight, who expand a bit more on the film at their web site.

“Its a journey that takes in tales of naked witches casting spells to ward off Hitler, tabloid hysteria about human sacrifices and Gerald Gardner himself appearing on Panorama. The film tells of a peculiar man who saw that the world was ready for a new religion based on magic, sex nature and ritual – and gave it to us.  In doing so, he created in Wicca, the UK’s first religion, one that has taken on a life of its own and is today counted amongst one of the fastest growing faith groups in the world. Through interviews and encounters with Wicca followers, experts and these who knew Gardner,  Professor Hutton delves into this unusual world and the story of how its eccentric founder created a religion that is today increasingly seen as a valid alternative to the more orthodox faith groups.”

While this isn’t the first documentary to deal with Wicca, it is the first to focus exclusively on Gardner, and certainly the first to so prominently place a scholar and historian as the point-person in its explorations. Despite the occasional criticisms that have been launched toward Hutton’s work from within modern Pagan circles few can argue that he is deeply knowledgeable on the history of Wicca, well-read on the latest scholarship, and has extensive contacts with surviving associates (and initiates) of Gerald Gardner. One can only hope that Hutton will follow in the footsteps of Simon Schama or Michael Wood, and that this one-hour documentary ends up sparking a series of documentaries on the history of modern Paganism in Britain (I would love to see a multi-part treatment of “The Triumph of the Moon” or “Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain”).

Once we have an air date for “Britain’s Wicca Man,” or other pertinent information, I’ll update you here. In the meantime, I’ll see if I can talk to anyone involved in the documentary. A big hat-tip to Chas Clifton for letting us know this was in the works.

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  • Ed Hubbard

    This will be terrific to see. Glad to see a television event for Gardner, and it would be something he himself would have loved.

  • Jason Mankey

    This is great news. Gardner’s legacy doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. I’m glad to see Hutton involved, I just hope they interview Philip Heselton as well, or at least use “Wiccan Roots” in their research for the documentary. Who knows when and if this will air in the United States though?

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I’d love to see that hop the Pond and appear on American public television, which has aired (some might say “erred”) religious topics before. It would help if we still have a Democratic administration…

  • Crystal Kendrick

    Yeah, I see too many ads and “sponsored by the David Koch Foundation” plugs to feel very confident in Public Broadcasting these days.

  • Akita1

    Maybe somebody can convince PBS to run it

  • Apuleius Platonicus

    Anyone interested in understanding the true “roots” of Wicca should read what Gardner wrote, which, of course, nobody does. If people actually did bother to read what Gardner actually wrote, then everyone would know that Gardner was very cautious about making historical claims, and, in particular, he explicitly rejected the very claims that Ronald Hutton and other have wrongly attributed to him.

    For example:

    “At one time I believed the whole cult was directly descended from the Northern European culture of the Stone Age, uninfluenced by anything else; but I now think that it was influenced by the Greek and Roman mysteries which originally may have come from Egypt. But while it is fascinating to consider the cult existing in direct descent from ancient Egypt, we must take into account the other possibilities.”
    [From Witchcraft Today, Chapter 4, “Witch Practices”]

    Elsewhere in his writings, Gardner states matter of factly that he does not know “what the Druids believed and taught, whether there was only one form of belief and whether they had various sects among them …”, and also that he cannot say what, if any, relationship there might be between historical Druidry and Wicca. [Witchcraft Today, Ch 2] He also states that “The witches do not know the origin of their cult.” [Witchcraft Today, Ch 3]

    Lastly, it is also worth mentioning that in addition to Wicca, England has also given the world Episcopalianism, Puritanism, and Methodism.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    It might be swell to read his biographers, as well. Mr. Gardner belonged to several folkloric societies. He studied various cultures in England and abroad. These sources may have contributed to Wicca as much as, or more than, Freemasonry and Ceremonial Magick.

    Gardner may have chosen Dorothy Clutterbuck to be the first priestess of his Wiccan coven as she was involved with household servants who had ties to oldline Paganism. Dr. Aidan Kelly wrote that “When discussion turned to who would be chosen to lead the order (coven — ed.) as High Priestess, it was decided that it should be someone who had good relations with the commoners in her acquaintance and who could convince them to share their powerful, albeit vulgar, secret magic. Clutterbuck was chosen to lead one of many New Forest covens formed that night.”

    Philip Heselton, an amateur historian, researched Mr. Gardner using Gardner’s own material as sources. In one private letter, Gardner wrote to Cecil Williamson about purchasing land for his own “Witchcraft Museum”, where he could allow people to “try the old Witch dances”, or folk dances with a ritual significance. Mr. Heselton also found diaries written by Gardner’s associates linking them to Pagan affiliations. This evidence led him to the conclusion that Gardner really was involved with British hereditary Pagans, and that part of Wicca was based on their rituals.

    Dr. Hutton has drawn a rather different conclusion about Mr. Gardner’s sources for Wicca.

  • Matthaios

    Episcopalianism, Puritanism, and Methodism are not religions themselves, but denominations of Christianity. So, the claim still holds in that regard.

  • Daniel

    While I don’t disagree with your assessment of GBG’s attitudes toward the history of Wicca, not the fact that most don’t read what he had to say on the subject for themselves, I would point out that Hutton mentions Wicca as the only religion that England has contributed to the world in total. Methodism, Episcopalianism, and Puritism are all sects of Christianity which originates elsewhere.

    Personally I would like to see Hestelton spearheading this documentary along with Hutton. I think their pairing would bring a bit more balance to the mix. Then its trusting that the medial (Channel 4) will not edit it into something it was never meant to be.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    We might argue with Hutton that “Wicca is the only religion that England ever gave the world” when we remember Druidry (revived in the 1800s as both a religion and fraternal organization); the Cymri folkloric religions (revived amongst folk societies in Wales in the 1800s, never abandoned by the common people), the Cornish folkloric religions (again, never abandoned by the working classes and farmers, revived by several prominent people in the 60s, the most well-known being Mr. Cochraine) and several isolated British folkloric witchcraft “tribes” for lack of a better word. Arguments can be made that the Cymri and Cornish weren’t really in England proper; also Hutton maintains that they’d died out, or weren’t really “religions” by one criterion or another, the most frequent assertion that they were syncretized with Christianity in one form or another.

  • Jason Mankey

    You and I have argued about this before when I lived in Michigan, but there’s still no real evidence that any ancient western paganisms survived into modern times. I don’t discount the truth that magical traditions are capable of surviving for centuries, but those traditions are almost always absent of religion, or seem related to Christianity in some way. During the 1800’s I’m sure that there were people practicing things that might look familiar to us as “Paganism,” but they were recreations, not traditions handed down for centuries in secrecy.

    Knowing a bit about Cochrane, I’ll give the man credit for creating something unique, but there’s nothing there to suggest he was doing something truly ancient. Many of his peers have said as such.

    The problem with arguing over the age of Witchcraft is that unless you can provide actual proof (and saying “my family did such and such” is not proof) the “Hutton Hypothesis” is the only one with any real credibility. It doesn’t make sense that Hutton would simply ignore evidence or deny a truth if it was a verifiable fact. I do think there are problems with “Triumph of the Moon” (I believe Gardner was initiated into something in 1939, unlike Hutton, I just don’t believe it was the continuation of ancient religion), but that Hutton basically proves his point, especially in the first half of the book.

    I would certainly like to see the Heselton material given proper attention in any television special, but that material only gives credence to the idea that Gardner was an initiate, it doesn’t speak to the age of Witchcraft as a religion. Pagans complain about “Christian Myths” being glorified as facts when history tells us otherwise, to argue that ancient western paganisms survived intact until the present takes us down a similar road.

  • Henry

    perhaps because ‘witchcraft’ has never been a religion, and historically has always been outside ‘orthodox’ religions regardless of time period. It’s always been more of a magical practice than a religious one, and can be applied to any religious framework if desired.
    In that respect, the use of magic, it is a practice that has survived pretty much intact from ancient times.
    it is only in recent times that witchcraft has aquired the mantle of being a religion.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    The dances, honorifics, recipes, lore, arts, healing rites, divination and so forth very much are part of a culture and a religion. Gardner scratched the surface of indigenous European practices. Hutton summarily discounted them.

  • Henry

    I disagree with Hutton as well. sure, they are A part of A culture and A religion.
    “Witches” aren’t limited to indigenous european cultures.

  • Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    Hoodoo, Voudoun, Condomble, etc. are also “Related to Christianity” in some way — syncretized over time. They’re also related to Native religions. The folks I’ve talked to and interviewed that still practiced Native British Paganisms in America hadn’t the education and context to “re-create” much of anything. They were, and are, performing rites that were part of their ethnic culture.

    After performing the Stag Hunt in a public parade, four men came up to us after, saying they’d done similar things as children. They were of British and Native American descent. Of course, this is heresay — but Hutton and other researchers do the same, and call their interviewees “primary sources”. And of course, since I’m not an academic (we spent our funds on a farm and a business, not school) my work isn’t taken seriously. We might argue that absence of evidence, on the part of Hutton, is not evidence of absence.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    ‘Of course, this is heresay — but Hutton and other researchers do the same, and call their interviewees “primary sources”.’


  • Diana Rajchel

    I’m thinking, if we can get a copy or two in the US, that it may well merit a special screening!

  • Anonymous

    I’d be interested in seeing this, I hope it will make it across the pond to Canada.

  • Anonymous

    Wish someone in the U.S. would pick this up and air it. Pipe dream, huh?

  • Ed Hubbard

    If pushed for it could air on BBC America

  • Daniel SnowKestral

    Not to mention that, too, the Fairy Faith never lost its hold for the common people in the six surviving Celtic Nations–that is, the folklore, rituals, observances, and the ancestral significances involved. Important to note, too, are the traditions of the Fairy Doctors.

    As for Garnder’s wotk with Wicca, I really do hope they also speak about Doreen Valiente’s major contributions to Wicca, as well. She explained in some interviews that Wicca’s emergence in the 20th century as “an idea whose time had come.” Some of her views underpinning Wicca entailed that the oldest forms primal veneration were focused on the powers of death and fertility. And while Gardner himself was against gay men practicing the Craft and said they were cursed by the Goddess, Valiente thought that was complete non-sense. She was very welcoming to gay men being welcome in the Circle.

  • Ariana Clausen – Vélez

    This is something I would love to see, it would be nice to see if BBC America decides to purchase some air rights so a broader audience will able to see this documentary.

  • Vermillion

    Oh this will be interesting to see. I’ll have to ask my British friends to record it for me.

  • Crystal Kendrick

    I think this will be great. I look forward to seeing it at some point.

  • Jhamm77

    Since Ronald Hutton is actually somewhat knowledgeable when it comes to this period of history, the prospects for this film are good. The problem is when Hutton talks about anything larger than this! (ie., the history of folk religions over the past two milennia in Europe)

    As soon as he starts making grander claims about the history of paganism as a whole, the film will wallow in irrelevancies, and will only impress those who are enchanted by appeals to his own authority, as a professor (in the British sense of the word, and not just any university teacher, by the way…..) and member of the Royal Historical Society as well as the Society of Antiquaries.