Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration Review (The Cauldron: A Pagan Forum)

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Home > Books & Reviews > Pagan > Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration Search

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Book Review:
Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival

Author: Philip Heselton
Publisher: Capall Bann Publishing
Publication date: August 2003
ISBN: 1861631642
Price & More Info: Only Available in the UK


Some time ago I wrote for this site a review of Philip Heselton's book Wiccan Roots: Gerald Gardner and the Modern Witchcraft Revival. At the time, I felt that Heselton had done a great deal of extremely useful research, but that a number of his conclusions had been called into question by his evident inability to examine the evidence developed by his researches without first filtering the material through his preconceptions. I noted at the time that I hoped that he might avoid such problems in the future. I recently purchased a copy of Mr. Heselton's latest book: Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration - an Investigation into the Sources of Gardnerian Witchcraft (2003, Capall Bann Publishing, ISBN 1861631642), which book is intended as a follow-on volume to Wiccan Roots.

The new book is a detailed look at Gerald B. Gardner and his contacts and interactions with various members of England's naturist, occult, and esoteric communities from the time of his retirement from the British Colonial Service in 1936 until his death. In many respects it recapitulates much of the material contained in Gerald Gardner: Witch (formally attributed to Jack Bracelin, but which seems to have actually been written by Idries Shah,) but with the addition of information which was not available in 1960 when the earlier book was published. This is not really a bad thing, given that the earlier work has been out of print and difficult to find for many years. But it is problematic in the sense that the latter three-quarters of Heselton's book do not really provide us with much information about Gerald Gardner that a knowledgeable student of the man whould not already possess from having read earlier works on the subject.

What real meat there is in Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration is contained within the first quarter of the book. At the end of Wiccan Roots, Mr. Heselton acknowledged that his research had left unsettled the question of the source or sources of the knowledge possessed by Edith Woodford-Grimes and her small coterie within the Crotona Fellowship that caused Gerald Gardner to accept them as being a surviving coven of Margaret Murray's "witch-cult." Heselton indicated that he intended to continue his researches into this subject, and that he hoped to be able to publish further results at some point in the future. Those results make up the contents of the first four chapters of Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration.

Heselton begins by acknowledging that Dafo/Edith Woodford-Grimes, Gardner's initiator and principal magical partner in the early days of Gardner's involvement in witchcraft, was almost certainly not the High Priestess of the so-called "New Forest Coven." Heselton examines several different women then residing in the area of Highcliffe and Christchurch who might be plausible candidates for the office of High Priestess. He eventually manages to build a case for believing that the High Priestess was one Rosamund Sabine, who, it turns out, had at one time been a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and who had contributed articles to that body's journal of occult studies. He goes on to outline one possible means whereby the New Forest Coven might have coalesced around her.

In the process of this examination, though, Heselton once again makes the same grave error of interpretation that he made in writing Wiccan Roots: he assumes that the presence of allusions to fairies, Classical deities, and secret societies in the writings of a well-educated Edwardian lady is prima facie evidence that the woman was a practicing pagan and witch. On this occasion, the woman in question is Mrs. Katherine Oldmeadow, a resident of Highcliffe contemporaneously with Gardner, Dorothy St Quentin-Fordham (nee Clutterbuck,) and Rosamund Sabine, and the author of more than twenty schoolgirl novels and one fairly serious work on the folklore and medicinal uses of herbs. It is precisely the same error Heselton made in Wiccan Roots when he interpreted Dorothy St Quentin-Fordham's journals as "proving" that that lady was a secret pagan. By this reasoning, an examination of C. S. Lewis' Narnia stories would require us to conclude that Lewis too was a secret pagan, adhering to the cult of some dying and resurrected God other than that of the Christ.

It cannot be said that Mr. Heselton is unaware of this criticism of his reasoning. He includes in this book a lengthy excerpt from a communication from Prof. Ronald Hutton which addresses this specific issue in far more detail and far better form than I am capable of. Mr. Heselton then dismisses the criticism with a figurative wave of the hand, saying, in effect, that despite all of the rational arguments to the contrary, he is simply unable to believe that all of the paganish allusions in front of him do not mean something. Mr. Heselton is evidently unfamiliar with Sigmund Freud's admission that "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."

A glaring omission in the book is its almost total lack of discussion of Gardner's relationship with the various members of the Brickett Wood coven, (the "Mother Coven" as it were, of Gardnerian Wicca), which Gardner founded in the late 1940's or early 1950's. Heselton states that this was done out of respect to those members of the group still living, and there may also be a question here of Heselton feeling obligated to preserve the secrecy of matters considered oathbound, given that Heselton acknowledges that he himself is a Wiccan initiate with a lineage acceptable to Traditional groups as disparate as the current coven descended from the Brickett Wood coven and the Wiccan Church of Canada. While one must applaud Mr. Heselton's sense of integrity, his decision to exclude this material from the book precludes any meaningful discussion of the contributions of Doreen Valiente to the Gardnerian order of ritual, which seems ludicrous in a book ostensibly concerned with "the Sources of Gardnerian Witchcraft."

To Mr. Heselton's credit, in the portion of the book dealing with Gardner's relationship with Aleister Crowley he does manage to advance a plausible theory which resolves a number of the objections to the controversial "Charter," in which Crowley supposedly granted to Gardner the authority to re-establish the OTO in Britain. But even with this point and with the new information Heselton has developed about the New Forest Coven, I am simply not able to give this book an unreserved recommendation. It will really be of interest only to those persons who, like myself, have an overwhelming interest in the origins of Wicca as a modern religion, or to those who are interested in obtaining a somewhat more complete understanding of Gerald Gardner as a person than they have previously had. But it is still a book that I would far rather have borrowed than bought. Unfortunately, because of the limited number of persons likely to have an interest in reading it, it seems unlikely to show up in very many library collections.

Reviewed by Brock

(Brock is a Third-Degree Wiccan initiate, and has been High Priest of Tangled Moon Coven in Clarksville, Tennessee since the coven hived from its parent group in 1998. He is a regular contributor to The Cauldron's message board.)

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