Gardnerian Witchcraft in America

by Brigantia, revised January 1999

Gardnerian Witchcraft is a matriarchal, matrilineal tradition that honours the Great Mother and Her consort, the Horned God. The Great Mother’s domain consists of life and the present world, and the Horned God’s domain consists of death and the Netherworld. Nevertheless, Gardnerians may also choose to conduct rites in honour of, or in petition to, additional Gods as they see fit. At the core of Gardnerian practice is affirmation of the value of life, the inevitability of death, and the promise of reincarnation after this life has ended. We see the never-ending cycle of birth, death and rebirth all around us in nature.

Gardnerian Witchcraft is exclusively coven-based and initiatory. Self-initiation is not practised, and solitary practice is rare, being confined mainly to isolated retired Elders. Initiates who have become geographically isolated remain in formal covenant with their High Priestess until and unless they either attain Third Degree, or have entered into a working relationship with a new High Priestess.

Initiations follow forms as set forth in the Book of Shadows; Gardnerians work within a three-degree system of cross-gender initiation and degree elevations. The normal minimum period of formation between initiation and degree elevations is a year and a day; many covens take longer than a year and a day to work through the necessary pre-elevation teachings. In Gardnerian practice, initiation makes an irrevocable change in the initiate’s circumstances; as such, it cannot be revoked or overturned by human intervention.

Covens are wholly autonomous. Each coven is ruled by its High Priestess in consultation with her consort (the High Priest) and with the aid and advice of the coven’s Elders. In all matters, the decision of the High Priestess is final, even when she has chosen to delegate authority on certain issues to her High Priest or another Elder. In times of need, a High Priestess can function as a coven leader without a High Priest, but cross-gender partnership is by far preferred.

Gardnerian covens work unclothed, rather than robed. This gives rise to some rather interesting jokes along the lines of “Would you like to come up to my apartment and look at my new robes?” Coven work is participatory: all participants are initiates in their own right and there are therefore no spectators, nor ‘congregation’ vs. ‘clergy’ dichotomies. Gardnerian rites are conducted exclusively within a magic circle, properly and intentionally cast according to traditional usage. Healing magic is often performed by our covens. Evil spells are never cast by us, for such actions are an affront to our Gods.

That which takes place within the circle is held in confidence by those people who were present in the circle. To that end, Gardnerians take magical names for use solely within the circle, where the use of ‘legal names’ from the outside world is strongly discouraged. Outside the magic circle, the High Priestess of the coven is sometimes addressed by other initiates as ‘My Lady’ in conversation, or as ‘Lady So-and-So’ in third-party discussion with other initiates. Our Gardnerian cousins in Britain do not, as a general rule, use such titles. In contrast with the practice within some other Wiccan Traditions, the title of ‘Lord’ is never used by Gardnerian High Priests (and its use by someone claiming to be a Gardnerian initiate may be a warning sign that something isn’t quite right!)

Effective recording and verification of Gardnerian initiatory lineage is facilitated by the maintenance of initiatory records by some Elders. Every Gardnerian initiate can trace her or his lineage back to Gerald Gardner. In the interest of brevity, lineages are often documented in terms of the ancestral High Priestesses only; nevertheless, the intervening High Priests are an integral part of Gardnerian heritage and history. Lineages are not secret (the sharing — and verification — of lineage information is one common way of ‘checking out’ someone who professes to be a Gardnerian initiate; refusal to provide such references is another warning sign) but they are matters for discreet discussion among people who are considering working together, rather than for wide publication.

Gardnerians use a semi-standardised Book of Shadows, consisting of rituals passed down from generation to generation, augmented by additions and alternative rites which are ordinarily signed and dated by their authors. Our Tradition is vibrant and alive, and we value the creative work of our kinfolk while preserving the hard-won knowledge of past generations.

Many initiates hand-copy all or part of their teacher’s Book, with the objective of more closely engaging with the texts. Copying is usually done at the covenstead, so that the materials being copied can be discussed by teacher and student. A genuine or authentic Book of Shadows cannot be purchased; nor can it be obtained in any other way without the seeker’s having first properly undergone the Gardnerian rite of initiation.

Money is never charged for teaching, initiation, or magical work. Some High Priestesses set dues for the collective handling of coven expenses; others choose to rely on individual donations of consumables such as candles, wine and incense as the need arises.