Character & Contribution – The story of those two seminal figures in the Modern Pagan Revival, Gerald Gardner (1884-1964) & Ross Nichols (1902-1975), and the way in which their characters mediated their gifts to the world
This is a story about Witches, Druids, nudism, the opera, and Italy.
I’d like to start by dedicating this talk to my father, who now in his 84th year, can still remember swimming naked with both the protagonists of this talk, at a nudist resort in Hertfordshire – probably Five Acres, part-owned by Gardner and the site of the first shrine of Wicca, the witches’ cottage where his coven meetings were held, or possibly Spielplatz, just nearby and the site of Britain’s oldest Naturist Utopian community. He can’t remember what the three of them talked about as they lay in the sun afterwards, but perhaps one day I’ll ask him to be hypnotically regressed to recall the conversation.
There they were in the pale English sun: the editor of a history magazine and two of the key figures in the 20th century revival of European paganism.
It was around 1954 or 1955 that this happened: a key time for the emergence of this phenomenon. The Witchcraft Act was repealed in Britain in 1951, and in 1954 Gardner’s book ‘Witchcraft Today’, edited by Nichols, was published which began the process of popularisation of witchcraft and the promotion of Wicca specifically as a religion or magical path. The following year – 1955 – was destined to be the year in which the worlds of opera and the inner mysteries of Paganism and specifically Druidry collided to produce a triad of unique and powerful manifestations: it was the year two of the greatest opera singers the world has ever known began their careers thanks in differing ways to the Druids.
Pavarotti’s singing career was launched at the Llangollen eisteddfod in 1955 when he sung in a male choir from his town in Italy that won a prize. He returned to sing at Llangollen 40 years later in 1995. And Maria Callas’ career was launched when she played the Druid priestess Norma in Bellini’s opera that same year. And in the same year that these two stars began their extraordinary trajectories across the firmament of world opera, an opera – Michael Tippet’s ‘The Midsummer Marriage’ – was performed for the first time in London that also owed its existence in a certain way to one of the inner mysteries of both Wicca and Druidism (see here).
What on earth was going on? What were the stars doing in 1955? Let’s home in on the details to look at the unfolding of this phenomenon more closely.
Let’s go back to 1951 – the year the Witchcraft Act was repealed. Where were Nichols and Gardner that year? In Italy – and specifically at Pompeii. Philip Heselton, biographer of Gardner, feels that “they probably didn’t go together. Gerald was always in the habit of “wintering abroad” for about two months each year, mostly January and February, to avoid the severity of the English winter, which did not suit him and brought on his asthma. In none of his letters does he mention Ross being with him. The most likely thing would perhaps be that Ross went to Pompeii some time during the summer of 1951 and told Gerald about what he had seen, which made Gerald curious to go and see it, perhaps even to choose Italy as the destination of his annual ‘wintering abroad’ trip.”
Let me read you now an excerpt from Nichols’ account of his visit, published in my father’s history magazine Past & Future August 1960 and titled Extract from ‘An English View of Italy – Pages from a Travel Diary in Holy Year 1951’
ITALY – INITIATION AT POMPEII
At Pompeii too graves and darkness dominated. One wanders for hours; everywhere there is the scent of thyme in the quiet air, the ancient shops, the runnel-like streets with stepping-stones, the school and gymnastic ground, the forum, the town’s temples, administrative offices and public lavatories, all stand in a silence of sunlight. And amid this sunlight the darkest thing was the most impressive, that dim Villa of the Mysteries of Isis or Orpheus. Large painted rooms of initiation and instruction; the mother Isis, Silenus and his masks, Bacchus, the little cupid, the bride prepared for the mystic marriage, the child being instructed in the scripture of the legend. These realistic-imaginative paintings, with their background of heavy red, make a concrete impact on the mind as the reconstructed shops, the statues and the wall inscriptions, somehow do not. Some great emotional discharge had occurred here, an untold story wished to be heard from the pictures. What was it that these walls wanted to say? Some message of discovery of a truth, some deep conviction of the oneness of spirit with flesh, of old Silenus ridiculed with masks, of Venus as a young woman whispering her secrets into the ears of the young bride-to-be with a curved veil… and the young lad being taught from the book, what is he learning? That the mysticism of the flesh is the way of life? I cannot accept that this may be merely a normal villa with eccentric décor, merely because it is not built in temple fashion; nobody really knows, but I feel that this was a place of enlightenment. This ‘villa’ was most probably a temple for initiations into the women’s part of an Orphic cult, exempt from interference, run by an emperor’s sister.
Italy exerted a powerful influence on the development of modern Wicca through the work of Charles Leland, which influenced Gardner and those around him such as Doreen Valiente. The Charge of the Goddess is probably the single most influential piece of writing that ‘sets the tone’ and attracts people to Wicca. Although it has often been re-worked – by Valiente, Starhawk and others – it is the Italian material recorded by Maddelena (depicted on the left here) and translated by Leland, that lies at the heart of the Charge, and I think it is important to recognise the importance of this contribution of Italy to the core vibration or essence of Wicca.
So here these two Englishmen were in Pompeii absorbing the influence of the Goddess, of “Venus as a young woman whispering her secrets …That the mysticism of the flesh is the way of life…”
My proposal here is that they both metaphorically drunk from the cauldron of the goddess – from the well of her inspiration, in Italy but also elsewhere, and that they then mediated the inspiration they received in different ways that resulted in the two most vibrant expressions we have of paganism today: Druidry and Wicca.
They returned to England and over the next few years cooperated on the book that was to launch Wicca into the world. As a ‘sign that they were free’ they met together at the two naturist resorts I mentioned. In fact they had probably begun meeting, first at Spielplatz and then at Five Acres, during the war.
Here we have the wonderful image of two men sitting naked on a lawn in Hertfordshire talking about the subjects that fascinated them – religion, paganism, history, magic – while German bombs rained down on London. One – Gardner – in his fifties, the other in his thirties.
Both men realised that the world needed a return to a spirituality based upon a love of the Earth and her Seasons – the ravages of war and industrialisation made it obvious. Both men had drunk from the same well, but different hands had cupped the water – so let’s see how different, and yet how similar they were:
Both men never had children, were asthmatics, keen nudists, and well-travelled. They both became ordained as Christian ministers in obscure unorthodox churches. They both became Druids – Gardner at least eight years before Nichols, who joined the Ancient Druid Order in 1954. And they both had significant help in their work from formidable female companions – Doreen Valiente for Gardner and Vera Chapman for Nichols.
But there were critical differences between the two men – Gardner was married, Nichols a life-long bachelor. Gardner was self-educated (he managed to avoid school altogether) while Nichols was a Cambridge Academic. Gardner was a hedonist, Nichols an ascetic. Gardner was a maverick and politically conservative, while Nichols was keen to be accepted by society and was a socialist.
The result of their being so different – almost polarised one could say – was that the inspiration of the Goddess, the need in the World Soul for a new religious impulse, flowed into two complementary channels. The flamboyant maverick Gardner developed a religion that was sensual and worked practical magic, the more restrained and cerebral Nichols threw his energy into promoting an approach that was more intellectual and was concerned with the magic of artistry, of bardistry, more than with the magic of spell-making.
Here is how I explain Nichols’ direction in ‘Journeys of the Soul’: “In 1954, the year ‘Witchcraft Today’ was published, Ross finally became a member of the Order that Gardner had joined at least eight years earlier. He retained an interest in Wicca, but by now he knew enough about Druidism and Wicca to make his choice. The historian, mythologist and poet in him could not help but choose the path of the Bard and Druid. Historically he could trace Druidism far more completely than Wicca, which we now know was so much a product of Gardner’s creative synthesis of medieval magic, Tantric ideas gleaned from his life in the East, mythology and folklore. Having helped Gardner with his book, Ross might well have also realised the degree of ‘creativity’ involved. From a mythological perspective his choice was also clear: the corpus of Celtic and British material arose out of the recorded tales of the Bards – the oral tradition of Druidry being finally encoded in the tales and legends recorded by Christian clerics from the sixth century onwards. And finally, poetically, his choice had to be that of Bardism – he had spent the last thirty years exploring the relationship between poetry and the sacred. We can also suggest that the choice was conditioned by his character – favouring the apparently more cerebral path over the more overtly sensual. Ronald Hutton suggests that Gardner also saw Druidry and Wicca in this light: ‘[Gardner’s] characterization of the presumed relationship between Wicca and Druidry in ancient times, made in that book [The Meaning of Witchcraft], is a mirror image of the contrast between the two men. In this reimagining, Druidry became the more cerebral, detached, elitist and intellectual tradition, while Wicca was made the religion of popular festivity and sensual experience of the forces of nature and divinity’.”
Half a century later, we can see how much the two different paths Gardner and Nichols chose to promote have flourished as a result of their involvement. Just as the two key proponents of Druidry and Wicca in the modern era were united in many ways, so are these two paths, with their (usually) threefold initiation systems, their use of the circle, the directions and the elements, and their 8-fold cycle of seasonal celebrations. But they are also as different as were those two men. Many people find them sufficient paths on their own, but many also find the two paths work well together. If Nichols and Gardner were alive today, many of us would want to hear them speak at the same conferences, teach beside the same well.
Comparing the differences between them and the gifts they gave to the world shows how creativity can arise from the meeting of complementaries – how diversity and difference rather than conformity and unanimity fosters creativity.
And if they were alive today I’m sure both of them would be delighted to tell us of the story of their travels in Italy – and of how they were inspired by the Charge of the Goddess, whose resounding words ‘And so ye shall be free in everything’ echoed through their lives, inspiring them to foster two extraordinary paths of freedom.