Once upon a time nobody in Britain said out loud that they were a witch. After all, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 made it a crime to claim magical powers or practise witchcraft, with a year’s prison sentence if convicted under the Act. After a couple of centuries, in 1951, Britain repealed the Witchcraft Act, and replaced it with the Fraudulent Mediums Act. It became at least possible to admit one was a witch—although, as one of the mid-20th-century known witches wryly commented, “Witchcraft doesn’t pay for broken windows.”
Gerald B. Gardner was first to publish about witchcraft as a religious survival, and out himself as a witch. He published the non-fiction title Witchcraft Today in 1954, sketching his interactions with a sub-group within a particular lodge of Co-Masons, which eventually led to his 1939 initiation into “the brotherhood of the Wica.” His armchair archeologist’s enthusiasm for the believed discovery of a Murray-type religious survival is evident in its pages, stirred into Gardner’s own life-long interest in matters occult and magical. As a result, it takes some reading to cull his reporting of witch beliefs and witch practices from Gardner’s amalgamated studies and opinions. In this first book about Witchcraft, Gardner attempts an observer’s voice.
Gardner went on to publish The Meaning of Witchcraft in 1959 with a less “outside” voice. He gave many news interviews to papers, radio, and TV, sometimes to his fellow witches’ dismay. At one point, a coven of his fractured over the issue of publicity. The tabloid press (the paparazzi of his day) once planned to ambush a coven meeting at the Five Acres nudist club, though the attempt was foiled. Over the course of a dozen or more years, Gardner brought in a good many witches, several of whom founded covens in locations across England and into Scotland, and many of which continue in practice today.
Another “public” witch, Sybil Leek, lived and worked in Burley into the early 1960s, proprietor of antique shops in the region. (Incidentally, Burley itself is situated less than eight miles from the Mill House in Highcliffe, where Gardner had been initiated.) Leek’s notoriety as a witch led eventually to her being asked by her landlord to vacate her lease; news reporters and tourists had created that much nuisance in Burley. Author of the 1964 book A Shop in the High Street, about antiques, Leek was invited by a US publisher to tour in the States. During that visit, Leek also appeared (April 13, 1964) on an episode of the CBS TV show “To Tell the Truth” where she signed in as “witch” as well as antique dealer. Taking permanent residence in the USA, Leek’s Diary of a Witch was pubished in 1968, though her witchcraft had long been fodder for her TV and newspaper interviewers. Less well known is the fact that Leek, like Gardner, founded (at least one) coven which also continues in practice.
Leek used deliberate inaccuracies that have caused many to discount everything she said. For instance, in the case of her birth year, those inaccuracies continue to haunt her biographers. (Professional astrologer Leek considered her accurate birth data tantamount to exposing herself to personal or psychic attack, and hence maintained secrecy in that and other matters.) Her secretive ways, whatever her reasons for them, have rendered the witches of her heritage suspect in the eyes of some other witches.
Other strains of witchcraft were also known in the England of the 1950s & 1960s: Cochrane’s Craft, Horsa Coven, Coven of Atho, The Regency, and so on. The public witches leading those groups were often at odds, sometimes vehemently. Robert Cochrane, founder of the Clan of Tubal Cain, coined the term “Gardnerian” as a put-down to the witchcraft that Gardner passed on. Its cheerful adoption by its targets was a lovely instance of transformative magic.
Despite recent assumptions that it was Gardner who supplied the word Wicca based on the Old English word wicca, it was already circulating as a term applied to Witches throughout Britain. The Old English (Anglo-Saxon) word wicca translates witch, in the male gender (the female form is wicce). Anglo-Saxon 9th century surviving documents use both as well as wiccian (to bewitch) and wiccecræft (witchcraft).
By the late 1960s, the label “Wicca” had been adopted by religious and magical practices entirely unrelated to British Witchcraft. Examples include the women-only Goddess spirituality called Dianic, the teachings of the Frosts and their “Church and School of Wicca,” and generations of bootstrap witch covens relying on what was available in print for their instruction. In North America today Gardner’s Witchcraft has come to be known as British Traditional Wicca (in Europe it remains simply Wicca or Initiatory Wicca), of which Gardnerian Wicca is probably the best-known single Tradition.
Witch or Wicca, in Britain’s occult circles of the twentieth century, a witch was a witch was a witch. Gardner was a Witch. Leek was a Witch. Cochrane was a Witch.
Nowadayas, a Witch is a Wiccan is a Gardnerian Wiccan is a Hokey-Pokey line Gardnerian is a Yukon line Gardnerian is a Southpaw Yukon line Gardnerian is a Panama Gardnerian who used be a Southpaw Yukon line Gardnerian… and so what?
Lumpers and splitters are opposing factions which place individual examples into categories. The lumper-splitter problem occurs when one needs to separate individual examples into groups or categories. A “lumper” is one who takes a gestalt view, and assigns examples broadly, considering that differences are not as important as key similarities, but how broad should those similarities be? A “splitter” is one who requires precise definition, and hence creates new categories for examples that differ in key ways, but how fine do you split those hairs? Natural history is the source of the term lumper and splitter, used by Charles Darwin himself to describe the factions that arose while scientists worked to classify the variation among and within biological species.
Alas, among humans, that same issue of distinguishing and identifying becomes a means of exclusion and cliques, of one-true-wayism and division, of shunning for naught as much as shunning for aught.
May the gods preserve the Craft.