A Very British Witchcraft – and some Aussie corrections

Another post linking to a video. What is the net coming to? 🙂

This time it’s a wonderful recently aired documentary on Gerald Gardner and the development of Wicca featuring my favourite historian, Ronald Hutton. The video is very well made, lots of nice images and lovely people being interviewed. Professor Hutton obviously had a good time making it. Overall, a jolly good show, wot? 🙂

However, there were a few points that made me scratch me noggin’. Especially since this is coming from the pre-eminent historian on modern Wicca. Since I am, at least in part, an annoying swot-know-it-all, I can’t keep mum on these… so here they are 🙂

9:41  Hutton, when referring to Gardner’s putative initiation in September 1939, says: “From that night until his death, nearly 30 years later, Gerald Gardner devoted his life to Witchcraft.” Er … maybe. There is no evidence Gardner did very much at all on the Wiccan front until ten years later in 1949, or at least after his meeting with Crowley in 1947 (1). I think we can say this from the early 50’s for sure, , but not before 🙂

12:43  Hutton talks about a ‘large group of Freemasons based nearby’ Highcliffe. Pedantic, I know but they were Co-Masons (2). Still, I suppose ‘Freemason’ could have been used in a generic sense for the Channel 4 audience? 🙂

13:45  This is the one that really made me splutter. Hutton says, “In Britain there is a long tradition of useful Witchcraft dating back to the Middle Ages. Known as the cunning folk these Witches would cast spells to heal the sick or bring good luck”.

Ye gods and little fishes! Where did this come from? Hutton, Owen Davies (and others) have been very clear in the past – cunning folk were mostly religiously (heterodox) Christian (3). They fought against bewitchment and it seems most would have been appalled to be called witches. Hutton himself describes cunning craft as the ‘least relevant’ of the influences on Wicca he examined (4). But there’s more – Hutton goes on to say, “Research has shown that Gerald essentially used these spells in his own new Forest rituals”. What? The bases for the Wiccan rituals have been shown to be mostly Crowley and a few other key sources, none of them spells from traditional cunning folk. Weird.

22:05  Hutton says that in 1951, at the time of the repeal of the Witchcraft Act, Wicca was developing into ‘a fully fledged religious system’. Yes, well it all depends on your view I guess. Some folk think Wicca only really began the previous year with the initiation of Barbara Vickers by Gardner – his first initiation. In 1951 it was, as far as I can make out, still all pretty nascent. (5)

25:45   When discussing how Gardner created his new religion of Wicca, Hutton says, “He [Gardner] borrowed heavily from both English folklore Witchcraft and modern shamanic magic for his spells and rituals.” If by “English folklore Witchcraft” he means what was found in Margaret Murray and a few others sources, yes, but not from any ‘witches’ themselves. And what, in 1950s England, was “modern shamanic magic”? The shaman craze was 30 years away, unless for some reason Hutton is using this term to refer to ceremonial magic like the OTO and the GD. But that is pretty strange considering arguments in his excellent Shamans – Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination (6).

So, yes, a good little doco, but one that reinforces some half truths still believed by the modern Wiccan and Pagan communities. Thanks 🙂


(1) See my summary here:  https://magicoftheordinary.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/the-influence-of-alesister-crowley-on-the-development-of-wicca.pdf

(2) Heselton, Philip, Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner. Vol 1: Into the Witch Cult. (Loughborough, Leicestershire:  Thoth Publications. 2012) and Heselton, Philip, Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner. Vol 2: From Witch Cult to  Wicca. (Loughborough, Leicestershire: Thoth Publications. 2012).

(3) Davies, Owen (2007). Popular Magic: Cunning-folk in English History. Hambledon Continuum.

(4) Hutton, Ronald (1999),The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford, Oxford University Press 1999), chapter 5.

(5) Clifton, Chas, Mouse’s Way: Philip Heselton’s Biographies of Gerald Gardner. http://blog.chasclifton.com/?p=5032

(6) Hutton, Ronald, (2007) Shamans – Siberian Spirituality and the Western Imagination. London, Continuum



  1. Tarot Cirkel · August 19, 2013

    I absolutely agree. I don’t have much background knowledge on this subject, but found the information given not very well balanced. One thing I found very interesting was the display of some personal tools of Gardner.
    One of my thoughts that it was a pity that there wasn’t any criticism on the way Gardner treated ‘his’ High Priestesses.

  2. Mitzy · August 20, 2013

    I remain baffled by how these errors stayed in the docco. This isn’t some numpty off the street hosting the show, it’s Ronnie fucking Hutton. The piece also spends a good deal of quality time with Phil Heselton who arguably would know the most about Gardner out of any other living person. The influence of ceremonial magic, particularly the Greater Key of Solomon, is never mentioned!

  3. Clive Harper · August 20, 2013

    I was rather taken aback by the assertion that the IoM museum was started by Gardner. Cecil Willimason would have had something to say about that!

  4. morgandrake · August 20, 2013

    Do you know how much control Hutton had in the making of this documentary? (Occasionally, I know that writers are forced to change things even when they know better to make publishers happy, and I have heard the same is true for film makers and producers.)

  5. Peregrin · August 20, 2013

    Thanks folk 🙂

    I am not sure of the level of input Prof Hutton had, but it seems a lot.

    I can, somewhat begrudgingly, accept what was left out (like the CM influence and Gardner’s foibles), but when what is presented is inaccurate I get a bit testy.

    @Clive – I thought that was the case re the museum, but writing at work I had no time to check, and was only 99 per cent sure. Thanks for the clarification. Another error 😦

    Will see if anyone else is talking about this 🙂

  6. Tarot Cirkel · August 20, 2013

    on the www I read some comments
    about the title of the docu stating that there is a difference between British witchcraft and wicca (= Gardner’s way)

  7. kheph777 · August 20, 2013

    I agree that there should have been more about the Solomonic and Golden Dawn influences on Wicca. (At least he did mention Crowley and that Gardner cribbed much of his early material from Crowley’s Thelemic writings.)

    However, I disagree with your “head scratching” over the mention of English witchcraft. Maybe he could have done more to explain it, but I don’t think what he stated was incorrect as far as it went. Sure all of those cunning folk were Christians – at least they became such after Christianity took hold in England. And you bet they would have disliked the label of “witch.” But that doesn’t change the fact that they were indeed using folk-magick that dated back to (at least) the middle ages – much of it contained in old family receipt books that were passed down from generation to generation – stuff like we find in “The Long Lost Friend.’ Not to mention the influence of both Hexcraft and Hoodoo over in the States. (See; http://kheph777.tripod.com/art_moderngrimoire.html)

    And it is perfectly legitimate to call that cunning craft “witchcraft” – as that is what it was, even if there was a period when using that *specific* term would have been frowned upon. And it seems to me that many early practitioners of Wicca were indeed using that old folk magick in their day-to-day practices. (See Buckland’s “Complete Book of Witchcraft”, which combines generic Neopagan ritual forms with large doses of good old Hoodoo and spiritist/psychic lore.)

    You’re right that very little of that pops up in the Wiccan initiations and other ceremonies. But those ceremonies aren’t the whole of Wiccan practice.

  8. Peregrin · August 20, 2013

    Hi Aaron,

    Thanks for the comments. I think we may need to agree to disagree on some points here 🙂

    The idea that there were Cunning Folk who ‘became’Christian “after Christianity took hold in England” is interesting and we may need to define our terms here. Sure there were folk magical practitioners before Christianity took hold. How could there not be?

    However, I am not sure we can call these people, about whom we know VERY little, ‘cunning folk’. The standard definition of cunning folk positions them squarely within the Christian period in England, late middle ages to late modern period.

    I do not subscribe to the idea we can identify one group of magical practitioners, cunning folk (as standardly defined) in the 15th -19th century with those prior to the conversion of England to Christianity (what, 6th century?) simply because they all practiced ‘folk magic’ – whatever that is. The fact is, it ‘is’ many, many things, very diverse. You can subscribe to that way of identifying these groups with each other, no probs, but it’s not for me 🙂

    Now as the prime researcher on the subject (cunning folk) Owen Davies, writes:

    “Witchcraft was the glue that held the concept of cunning-folk together. When the unbewitching business dried up during the early twentieth century, cunning-folk soon ceased to exist both in practice and in popular discourse.”

    So, did these pre-Christian English folk magical practitioners work within this context of bewitchment? Maybe. Maybe not. From the available evidence, we cannot be sure.

    In any case the main thing that worried me was the implicit identification of Wicca with Witchcraft with Cunning Folk. This is conflation is at the heart of numerous silly Wiccan and Pagan false histories and claims, and I do not think we need to encourage it. Not everyone is as sophisticated as you, seeing the identification in terms of texts and magical practice – as Hutton clearly states himself. They conflate the religious with the magical and suddenly we have the Hidden Children of the Goddess behind every north church wall bonking the Great Rite. Then the modern movement all look like pillocks 🙂

    I think it is very naughty of you in the same comment to acknowledge cunning folk would have disliked the Witch label and then later on to say, it’s fine to call it witchcraft “as that is what it was”. I rather like people defining themselves, not us modern bastards doing it for them 🙂 WE can call it witchcraft, but they did not. So I stick with their labels. And I am sorry, but the doco stops just when Mr Buckland was starting up, so I do not agree his (much later) Complete Book is relevant to the discussion. Was he using Hoodoo etc back in the mid 60s when he started out? I honestly do not know.

    Right ho – have I ground your numpty opinions into dust enough 🙂 Seriously – good discussion, thanks 🙂

  9. kheph777 · August 20, 2013

    As usual, you and I are saying much the same things but coming at them from different angles. For example, we both agree that the mythological history of Wicca as some kind of survival of stone-age Goddess worship has to go. Thus when you see someone claim they are practicing “fam trad” witchcraft that goes back thousands of years, you call them on bullshit. I, on the other hand, consider that (at least in the very early days of Wicca) these folks were talking about things they learned from their grandparents or which they found in the old family lore book grandma gave them, etc. Hence, there *is* a grain of truth in what they are saying – when it’s put in its proper context.

    I don’t mean to encourage the “I was initiated by my naked grandma in the kitchen one night” malarkey. But my goal is to provide the proper historical context behind the myth, rather than to just yank it away like Lucy pulling the football from under Charlie Brown’s foot. When understood properly, there *are* family traditions of cunning magick (what we today call witchcraft) that go way back. And when a Wiccan sets up an altar and invokes the magick, they *are* taking part in an ancient human tradition.

    It’s just that the old folk magick was never an organized religion of any kind. (In fact it can and does exist within all religions.) Most of that old folk-magick was just the typical home remedies and spells to protect livestock and crops that are common in all farming cultures. The idea that the magick Wiccans are using is ancient isn’t wrong – we just need to educate students on what that really means. (As you well know, the true story of the descent of folk magick through history is far more inspiring than the “Wicca has always been around” simplification.)

    I totally get what you are saying about the medieval Christian cunning folk and those folk-magicky pre-Christian types who surely came before them. My position is simply that the later generation inherited the lore and the spells from the earlier ones. I have little doubt that stuff like “plant ye crops on the new of ye moon” was as common to pre-Christian folk magick as it would become for the post-Christian cunning folk. It had nothing to do with religion, at its heart – so when Christianity moved in, the folk-magicians just adopted Jesus into the lore and went right on doing what they had always done.

    Do we lack a lot of info on *exactly* what the pre-Christian types were doing? Sadly, yes. (Thank you, fucking Dark Ages!) But I do believe the lore of the later cunning-folk can give us a window into it. Strip out the Jesus stuff and you’re probably seeing pretty much what they were doing way back when. (Likely including the unbewitching services, fertility spells, love spells, creation of medicines, divination, etc, etc, etc.)

    As for the labels – yeah I hear you. I am simply being… pedantic (if that is the right use of the word in this case) by pointing out that the practice – the craft – that we call “witchcraft” today is the same thing the cunning folk were doing, and the same thing the folk magicians before them were doing too. (In a similar light, I consider them all shamans – though I’m not suggesting they all come from Siberia.)

    But I certainly would never have walked up to a medieval cunning-man or -woman and called them a “witch” to their face. Much like I would never do that to a Hexenmeister in the northern US. They would be offended, since that term to them denotes black magick and the exact kinds of things they work *against.*

    Have at you!! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jvqhk7YDH9U

  10. Peregrin · August 20, 2013

    Thanks again, Aaron 🙂

    Time is short – maybe more tomorrow (unless you surrender now!) 🙂 I actually agree with most of what you are saying here.

    Just a couple of points. You write: “pointing out that the practice – the craft – that we call “witchcraft” today is the same thing the cunning folk were doing, and the same thing the folk magicians before them were doing too.”

    This is only partly true. (1) As Owen Davies points out clearly unbewitching was central to cunning craft. It is not to Wicca or modern craft traditions. And mainly (2) ‘witchcraft’ today is religious. That is the amazing, wonderful thing about it – it merges and collapses the boundary between religion and magic. So yes, the ‘craft’ aspect is the same – the operative magic – but not the religious, which is the defining aspect of Wicca and modern witchcraft as most people know them 🙂

    THANKS 🙂

  11. darachamelangell · August 21, 2013

    I like Ronald Hutton and I’ve even met him, but I do think half of what he is saying is purely for the ‘muggle’ folk out there. Like many of the other old documentaries, they cater for the ignorant masses. Still, as I don’t agree with everything Ron writes about, I also do not understand why he is saying some of these things….

  12. maria guzman · August 25, 2013

    Having read as much as I could about the subject of witchcraft etc. for many years I have little to add of value but for a few remarks. Native American shamanic practice is alive & well in the U.S. It is accepted as a matter of fact among the more traditional tribes,who may allow visitors (if so honored) to be invited to a ceremony) . The shamanic practice is initiated by some life-threatening illness that awakens his powers and thereafter he wears the lightning symbol on his body or clothing.
    Genetics plays a part as well in an individual’s ESP talents (including channeling). My husband and daughter have very strong abilities; I too on occasion but more spontaneously. My European father liked to play at “Spiritism” or table tipping- a respectable parlor .game for the (then) upper classes. To tell the truth I found it alarming as his strong energies were never put to any particular use – except rages.

  13. Baba Shiv Shankar Tantrik · August 27, 2013

    Protection spells deal directly with Force and Power Spells.
    These spells create a shield around you which prohibits evil magics from harming you (or whoever you cast the spell on).
    When these spells are cast incorrectly nothing happens.

  14. Pingback: Witchcraft - A Primer for New Wiccans
  15. vkramjeetpal · November 25, 2013

    This is good article about the video of British Witchcraft – and some Aussie corrections ! but things are that how we can implement on them ?

  16. mahi · July 11, 2014

    The idea that there were Cunning Folk who ‘became’Christian “after Christianity took hold in England” is interesting and we may need to define our terms here.I am not sure we can call these people, about whom we know VERY little, ‘cunning folk’. The standard definition of cunning folk positions them squarely within the Christian period in England, late middle ages to late modern period

  17. Peregrin · July 11, 2014

    Great point, Mahi 🙂 Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s