In the early days of working on Night of the Witches, a friend of mine, close to eighty years in age (We’ll call her "P") asked what it was going to be about. "Walpurgis Night," I told her, point-blank. I had told anyone else who asked that it was simply a book about witches, since "Walpurgis" gets you funny looks in most company. But, I figured this particular friend could handle it, and I was right.
Not only had P heard of Walpurgis Night, she had been to Germany’s Harz mountain region—ground zero for Walpurgis Night—on a school trip shortly before the outbreak of World War II. She had found the place creepy for reasons that had nothing to do with witches. Would I be writing about witches, she wanted to know. Yes, a lot, I assured her. She then remarked: "I once had tea with a witch."
I must say that I could not have been more surprised had she told me she’d danced with the Prince of Wales. Outside the context of Harry Potter, we had never before spoken of witches.
"He was very pleasant," P went on. "He was very, very old and he had a lot of white hair. I had tea with him in his house, which was also very old and very dark."
"Where?" I knew she’d spent time in Tennessee, so I was guessing the encounter had taken place in some woodsy holler. But P surprised me again.
In England," she said. "Well, actually it was on the Isle of Man."
Wait a minute. Hadn’t I skip-read something about someone like that in Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft?
"What was his name?"
"Oh, I don’t remember," P confessed. "It was such a long time ago. He’d written a book that I’d found interesting at the time. I was going to be in England that summer, so I wrote him a letter, and he wrote back and invited me to visit him. He had a museum. . ."
Oh, this was all too much! I rifled through Rosemary’s Encyclopedia until I found him, looking very, very old and very white of hair.
"Yes, that’s him!" P smiled as if I had shown her the photo of a long-lost friend. I’m afraid I’m making her sound a little flaky here, which she patently is not. But there are a handful of subjects that bring out P’s inner child. England is one and witchcraft, as it turns out, is another.
"But that’s Gerald Gardner!" I informed her.
"Is it? I didn’t remember his name."
"P! You had tea with the Father of Modern Witchcraft!"
"Well, he was very nice."
Happily, P still had her first American edition of Gardner’s Witchcraft Today. The next time we met, she had the book in hand, as well as the two letters Gardner had sent her, a yellow newspaper clipping, and her autographed copy of a little booklet entitled, The Story of the Famous Witches Mill at Castletown, Isle of Man.
I have to admit I didn’t spend much time on this little treasure trove. I gave the letters a cursory read, wincing at the typos (though one can hardly call "excentrick" a typo) and flipped through the booklet, wondering whose idea it had been to surround Ye Olde Lucky Wishing Well with giant fake toadstools. I gave Witchcraft Today just enough of a look to know it wasn’t really relevant to my research. My book was about the witch of folk and fairytale, more like the pointy-hatted old dame riding atop the Witches Mill sign than "today’s" Witch.
In fact, I had decided to make a conscious effort to avoid Modern Witch writings for the time being because I didn’t want them to cloud my own vision of what a witch was. I wanted to bring something new to the scene, for Wiccans and non-Wiccans alike, by bringing something old. I wanted to write in my own voice—that is, the voice of one who stood wholly outside Wiccan tradition. Or so I thought.
I come from a long line of rationalists, but because they were working-class rationalists, they never thought to call themselves that. I reacted to my non-churchgoing upbringing by lusting after the trappings of religion: candles, incense, challah, habits. As a child, I entertained visions of becoming a nun (mostly because I wanted a hat like Sister Bertrille’s) but these did not survive puberty. When my middle school French teacher, on whose every word I hung, criticized the social studies department for educating us only about the Big Religions, my ears perked up. Why, he lamented, couldn’t they teach us about animism? Animism? What was that?
I gave up coveting the Big Religions. I learned that there were people in the world who believed that rocks, combs, and lamps had souls. Imagine my excitement when I found out that my own ancestors had once had a piece of this animist pie.
I finally fetched up as a heathen, in the sense that my aunt recently used the word when I inquired if my cousin and his wife had had their son baptized in the same church where I had attended their wedding. "No, he’s a heathen," she’d replied cheerfully.
The nice thing about being a heathen is that you can pretty much do, read, write whatever you want. So, after I’d completed Night of the Witches, I decided to release myself from my earlier vow and take a closer look at Modern Witchcraft. It made sense that Witches might want to read about witches, and I wanted to educate myself about my potential audience. To this end, I turned to Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, supplemented by A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics and Pagans by Jeffrey B. Russell and Brooks Alexander, as well as the neglected entries in Rosemary’s aforementioned Encyclopedia.
As I read, it gradually dawned on me that, though I had made a point of not reading Gardner’s Witchcraft Today, old G. B. G. had nevertheless guided my hand. I’m not talking about ghostly intervention; what I mean to say is that while mainstream culture continues to look askance at Wicca, it has nevertheless absorbed much of its mythology.
I had taken for granted that the concepts of coven and sabbat, of a Horned God and a Triple Goddess, were widely held ones, and they are. But they were not so before Gardner came along. He did not originate these concepts—we mustn’t forget Margaret Murray and Robert Graves—but he did articulate and package them in such a way that Western culture eventually found highly appealing even while opposing them.
Margaret Murray herself wrote the introduction to 1954’s Witchcraft Today. By that time, her own book, The Witch Cult in Western Europe (1921), had long been out of print. It was the energetic and press-loving Gardner who got the stone that was Modern Witchcraft really rolling. He got it rolling so fast, in fact, that I, non-Witch that I am, had unwittingly internalized its now moss-covered tenets.
Now that I could better put her visit into context, I wanted to have another look at P’s letters. It took place in the summer of 1961, three years before Gardner’s death and the same year that Gardner himself paid a visit to Robert Graves in Majorca. Gardner would have been rather frail by then, and he looks it in the photographs in the Witches Mill booklet.
Frail or not, he was still up to his usual tricks. In his first letter to P, postmarked 30 November, 1960, he states, “. . . having the Craft in my family, I managed to persuade them to let me write a little about it, from the inside.” (Gardner consistently used a lowercase “l” in place of a capital “I.” Though I’ve corrected this when quoting him, I leave his other errors intact.) In Witchcraft Today, his stance was that of an anthropologist, not a hereditary Witch. Had he forgotten his story or simply decided to change it?
There is humor, too, in his letter. Of the "Big Halloween festaval [sic]" at St. Albans, he says, "The secret rendezvous is so secret, that if you want to get there, you ask a Policeman." Of his museum, he advises P, "Its closed in the winter, but if you ring Castletown 2248 they will always arrange to open it, and take you round."
With the November letter he had enclosed an article detailing the nuptials of Pat Dawson and Arnold Crowther. "PAT CAST HER SPELL ON ARNOLD: Now it’s black for the bride at witches wedding," wrote Trevor Reynolds in the Daily Herald, November 9, 1960. Gardner commented, "I enclose cutting, There were a large number of people at the wedding, and at the reception afterwards, including a number of reporters, what the latter say is nonsence, of course, but there is no disapproval."
It’s touching to think of the Father of Modern Witchcraft clipping newspaper articles and diligently pecking at his typewriter in reply to his American reader. "Just ask for a Taxi to take you to Castletown, Witches Mill, and all will be well," he advised P. "If Ime not at the Mill twll them to send for me & Ill be up in a few minutes."
Was P initiated into Gardner’s coven? No, though she admits that, at the time, she might have liked to be. Perhaps it just didn’t come up. She would have been in her mid-thirties at the time of her visit, several years younger than I am today. Had I been alive and writing fifty years ago, I too might have rung Castletown 2248 and arranged to have tea with "Dr." Gardner, as he styled himself. I would have brought with me a copy of Witchcraft Today and asked him to sign it, as it had slipped P’s mind to do back then. Then, with a flourish, I would have presented him with a copy of my own book, perhaps with the sly suggestion that he carry it in Ye Olde Gift Shoppe.
Or would I have? Certainly, by 1961, Gardnerian Witchcraft had grown legs, but they were probably not yet long enough to have so deeply influenced an American writer such as myself. Had I written Night of the Witches fifty years ago, chances are it would have been a completely different book. Even greater is the chance that I would not have thought to write it at all.