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Philip Heselton on Gardner and Spiritualism

We recently had a discussion of Gerald Gardner’s involvement with Spiritualism, and it’s possible influence on the Craft.  Robert Mathiesen made some very interesting observations about this issue, and not being an expert on Gardner, I contacted some who were.  They in turn contacted Philip Heselton, author of Wiccan Roots and  Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration, and who will soon be publishing a biography of Gardner, and who has made other important contributions to Craft history.

Philip’s response is below the fold.

Philip Heselton:

Gerald encountered spiritualism at several points in his
life, but I think it would be fair to say that he never really got involved in


His first encounter seems to have been his reading of “There
is no Death” by Florence Marryat when he was a boy. He says that was when he
first became convinced of survival beyond death of the physical body.

His encounters with the native peoples of Borneo and Malaya
and his invitation to their rituals gave him a more practical realisation of
the reality of survival.

Whilst his initial encounters with spiritualism on his trip
to England in 1927 did not impress him, he later on that trip did encounter
some mediums in London which convinced him by the accuracy of the messages they
gave to him, particularly from his own mother and from his friend, ‘G’, who had
died a few years before.


I have no evidence that he was involved in spiritualism
following his return to Malaya in 1927.

The next time spiritualism is mentioned is following his
retirement in 1936 when he makes contact with the members of a naturist club (‘Fouracres’)
who are interested in the occult, spiritualism, etc. He joins the club and I
get the impression that he gets involved in long discussions, but there is no
evidence that he was more actively involved in spiritualism that just talking
about it.

At this time, he becomes convinced that he had had a
previous lifetime in Cyprus, the result of which is his book “A Goddess Arrives”.
Reincarnation is not, I think, a common belief among spiritualists, who mostly
come from a Christian background, but it is a firm, and important, belief of


This is intensified when he becomes involved, or at least on
the periphery of, the Crotona Fellowship, but following his contact with the
witches, his focus become witchcraft. I have no evidence that he was involved
in any spiritualist groups when he was in Highcliffe.

After the war, when he was living in London, he became a
reasonably active member of both the Folklore Society and the Society for
Psychical Research. Particularly in the latter he would have met spiritualists
such as Dingwall and Cannon, and doubtless several more. His first initiate,
Barbara Vickers, was also a keen spiritualist. In the 1950s he gave several
talks to various spiritualist groups.


My conclusions are that he accepted the spiritualist premise
of survival of death, that he knew spiritualists throughout his life and that
he talked to spiritualist groups, but that he was never actively involved in
such groups – he was too busy with other things, and could never focus his time
sufficiently to do so.
Anyway, I think that’s my initial view, but I am willing to
change it at a moment’s notice if new evidence comes up – I am not addicted to
it in any way.

Comments read comments(5)
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Robert Mathieen

posted June 3, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Hi Gus,
My claim that Gardner “had been deeply involved with Spiritualism before he discovered Wica” rested in part on Bracelin’s (Shah’s) biography, which Philip Heselton has just summarized for our discussion, and in part on Hutton’s comment about the overlooked role that Spiritualism may have played in the creation of Wicca, which he believes was Gardner’s work and the work of those whom he inspired.
But in part it also rested on what I see as significant similarities between Gardner’s own theories in his published writings and the theories of some early spiritualists, notably those in the so-called “magical wing” of spiritualism. (That term is Andrew Jackson Davis’s.) To this “wing” belonged Emma Hardinge Britten, the anonymous author of _Art Magic_ and _Ghost Land_ whom she calls “Chevalier Louis de —,” Paschal Beverly Randolph in the earlier stages of his career, and Madame Blavatsky up when she published _Isis Unveiled_.
Strictly speaking, none of this proves my claim. So I will readily admit another possible explanation for the similarities that I see between these “magical-wing” Spiritualists and Gardner, namely, that Gardner’s published writings on Witchcraft may reflect in some part the views of those who initiated him in 1939, and that these earlier Wic(c)ans were the ones directly influenced by “magical-wing” Spiritualism. (For whatever it may be worth, I think there is some good evidence — in addition to what Heselton gives — that Wicca did not quite begin with Gardner. But that takes us too far afield from magic circles.)
And of course, as concerns the development of Gardnerian Wicca in the USA, the chain of transmission passes through the Bucklands, and Ray Buckland has mentioned his own previous involvement with the sort of Spiritualism practiced in his own time and place.
As for the three (or perhaps four) general types of magic circles I mentioned in my earlier comments, I didn’t mean to limit my remarks to Wiccan magical circles only. It was meant as a general typology, with many possible variants under each type.
All best,

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Jonas Snell

posted June 14, 2010 at 8:23 am

Super awesome writing! Honest.

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Brian McCormack

posted July 18, 2015 at 12:09 pm

Hello: I am not sure if this is helpful, but I believe that in the documentary A Very British Witchcraft,Mr Heselton acknowledges that Gardner was influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle, a very traditional Spiritualist. Sir Arthur’s neighbor, Edith Wendling, was introduced to Spiritualism by the Conan-Doyle’s and went on to found her own church/seminary, and her protege, Elaine Thomas, still teaches the Conan-Doyle methods at Fellowships of the Spirit, the seminary she founded in Lily Dale, NY (‘the Mecca of Spiritualism’). The approach is demanding of accurate results – what the Wicca would view as effective magick – and I imagine that it would have been impactful to Gardner, as characterized by Mr Heselton and other biographers, if it is representative of what he would have been exposed to. It also shares many beliefs with the people indigenous to Asia AND the British Islands (and experts in shamanism like Michael Harner and Merce Elicade point out that all indigenous cultures share core beliefs). I am an Elder in a Neo-Gardnerian tradition of Wicca, whose roots trace back to Buckland’s New York line (and Buckland certainly acknowledges that his spiritual path began with and appears to have returned to Spiritualism, as he is now a resident of Lily Dale), as well as a graduate seminarian of Fellowships of the Spirit, and have trained in Harner’s Core Shamanism curriculum, and can vouch for their similarities, complementarities and parallels. When I have heard British Elders’ criticism of American Wicca, it has always impressed me as sounding like the British Wicca were demanding of magickal results in ways that the Americans are not. To me, this demand always seemed very much like the demand that Spiritualism makes of ministers/mediums in training. I have trained in essentially-Spiritualist mediumship circles with Sue Reeves and Veronica Byrne in New York, who trained themselves at the defunct Spiritualist camp Silver Bell in PA, and their demand of students was consistent with the demands of the training at Fellowships, certainly of what Elaine Thomas received from Reverend Wendling, and of what Reverend Wendling claims was demand of her by the Conan-Doyles. I am not a historian (like the amazing Mr Heselton, to whom we should all be very grateful) and certainly am not old enough to have known Gardner, but I am left at least see that Spiritualism could have played a much larger role than is commonly acknowledged, or even what Mr Heselton’s reply above suggests. And editorially-speaking, I think that the Wicca would benefit from what Spiritualism has to offer, especially with regard to magickal skills, a return to the sort of spirit-work that Gardner presented as standard for the Wicca but is no longer the case, and demand for effective results. Perhaps considering that we have roots in that religion could open the way. Similarly, the Spiritualists could benefit from our healthier, decidedly non-Victorian perspective on sexuality, but that might be more than is realistic to expect. Blessed be, and thanks for this wonderful blog.

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