This book is written as a contribution to the Aquarian Age. The concept of the new Age of Aquarius is discussed on all sides today; but how many people know just what it means?
Our planet earth has three kinds of motion: its rotation upon its axis every twenty-four hours, giving day and night; its orbit round the sun, giving the seasons of the year; and the slow circling of its axis, like the motion of a spinning top, which gives the apparent alterations of the poles of the heavens, and the shifting of the equinoctial point known to astronomers as the precession of the equinoxes.
This gives the Great Year, consisting of about 25,920 earthly years, during which the equinoctial point moves right around the Zodiac. The Great Year is reckoned to have twelve ’months’, one to each zodiacal sign, each of which consists of about 2,160 earthly years. The equinoctial point is observed to move at the rate of about one degree in seventy-two years, the average span of a human life. This makes one ’day’ of the Great Year, which has 360 ’days’, divided into twelve ’months’ of thirty ’days’ each, corresponding to the 360 degrees of the circle.
At the moment, the equinoctial point appears to be in the constellation Pisces; but it is moving backwards through the starry Zodiac towards Aquarius. (The Zodiac of the starry constellations, the sidereal Zodiac, must not be confused with the tropical Zodiac, the apparent yearly path of the sun, divided into twelve signs. In the latter, of course, the spring equinox is always the first degree of Aries.)
We are therefore in the last part of the Age of Pisces, when the characteristics of that sign, which have been imposed upon mankind in general for nearly 2,000 years, are giving place to those of the sign of Aquarius. All over the world, human society is in a state of flux. The forms of the old order are breaking down, so that those of the new order may be built up. The characteristics of Aquarius, the fixed sign of air, are very different from those of Pisces, the mutable sign of water.
Aquarius has two ruling planets, Saturn and Uranus. Taken in its highest manifestation, Saturn stands for those things which endure, which have their roots in the very ancient past: the eternal verities, the ancient wisdom, the Dharma as it is called in the east. Uranus, on the other hand, is the revolutionary, the bringer in of what is new, strange, even bizarre. The influence of these planets working together can be seen in our society today.
A great alteration in human attitudes and behaviour took place within the decade of the sixties, much to the alarm of conventionally minded people. It has been called the sexual revolution, the swinging sixties, the advent of the permissive society, and so on; though a lot of it is simply the frankness of Uranus bringing out into the open what was always there anyway, but discreetly hidden beneath a cloak of polite humbug.
This mutation in our society was heralded by a remarkable astronomical event. On 5th February 1962 no less than seven heavenly bodies were forgathered in the sign Aquarius. These were the sun and moon, and all five of the planets visible to the naked eye, namely Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury. Astrologers all over the world discussed this phenomenon, and it was generally agreed that it marked some sort of turning-point in mundane affairs, especially as it occurred in the sign of the new age. Looking back on the changes that have taken place since 1962, there seems little doubt that the Great Conjunction, as it was called, did in fact herald a speeding-up of the Aquarian transition, even to a rather uncomfortable pace.
Our knowledge of astronomical influences is not sufficiently exact for us to be able to pinpoint precisely the start of the Aquarian Age. Each age lasts about 2,000 years, with transition periods as one age fades into another. However, thanks to Mr Francis King, whose books have done so much towards recovering and preserving important traditions of the occultism of the western world, we know the date for this event as calculated by the hitherto secret astrological rules of the famous Order of the Golden Dawn. The date thus arrived at is A.D. 2010.*
According to Louis Charpentier, in his book The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, this date is independently confirmed by astronomical observation. He quotes it at the beginning of Chapter 20 of that book, seemingly unaware of the identical calculation arrived at by the Order of the Golden Dawn.
Other calculations give the date as A.D. 2160 or even later; while others claim that the Aquarian Age has already commenced. However, it seems apparent that too much of the old Piscean influence still lingers for the latter claim to be true. Pisces is, among other things, the sign of suffering and self-undoing, characteristics singularly widespread in the world today; while the universal brotherhood which is associated with Aquarius is widely aspired to, but seldom reached. Nevertheless, the pace of change seems too rapid and too drastic for the later date of A.D. 2160 to be accurate. Therefore, it may well be that the secret knowledge possessed by the Order of the Golden Dawn is once again proved to be a source of enlightenment to our modern world.
This is not, however, a book about astrology, but about witchcraft. Still, it is necessary to point out that the present-day revival of interest in witchcraft, magic and the occult generally, is all part of the onset of the Aquarian Age. One has to consider the picture as a whole, in order to discern its meaning.
The resurgence of the old religion of nature-worship and magic really began in 1951, when the last of the antiquated Witchcraft Acts in Britain was finally repealed. People considered this Act to be a ludicrous anachronism, used mainly to persecute Spiritualist mediums; and it was largely through the influence of the Spiritualist movement, now widely accepted as respectable, that the Act was finally swept away.
This change in the law made it possible for Mr Cecil H. Williamson to open the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft at Castletown, in the Isle of Man. It was at first called the Folklore Centre, and according to newspaper reports it was planned as an international centre for present-day practising witches. Articles about it appeared under such headlines as ’He Plans a Jamboree for the Witches of the World’ and ’Calling all Covens’.
It was news to most people that practising witches still existed; but Mr Williamson was reported as saying that he knew at least a dozen witches in Britain, and that when the Centre was ready he intended to send out a call to a coven of witches that was active in the south of England. At certain times in the year, the coven observed the fertility rituals, dancing in the nude. One of the witches was a very attractive girl, but some of the others were quite old.
Later in 1951, Mr Williamson had been joined by Dr Gerald Brosseau Gardner, who was described as ’the resident witch’. One press report stated that he was a doctor of philosophy from Singapore and a doctor of literature from Toulouse, as well as being a member of the Southern Coven of British Witches.
The question of Gerald Gardner’s right to the title of doctor has been raised in recent years. When I got to know him (and we became close friends for many years), I always understood that his degrees were purely honorary. He did not, however, hold a degree from the present University of Singapore, because I communicated with them after old Gerald’s death, and asked them this question. The University authorities stated that the University was not even in existence at the time that Gerald Gardner was resident in Malaya, where he was employed in the Civil Service as a Customs officer, before the Second World War. Later, I also got in touch with the University of Toulouse. They informed me that they had never conferred any doctorate of literature upon Gerald Gardner.
Being passionately interested in the survival of the old religion, I wrote to the Isle of Man, and ultimately met Gerald Gardner at the house of a friend. He was a most remarkable character, an endearing and delightful person with a vast knowledge of folklore and magic of all kinds. He had set out much of his knowledge about witchcraft in the form of fiction, in his occult novel High Magic’s Aid, which was published by Michael Houghton of London in 1949. Michael Houghton, also known as Michael Juste, was then the proprietor of the famous occult book store, the Atlantis Bookshop, near the British Museum. However, the time was not yet ripe, and this book had made no great impact.
Gerald Brosseau Gardner is still what is known as ’a controversial figure’, both within witchcraft circles and outside them. He was a pioneer naturist, long before naturism (miscalled ’nudism’) became generally accepted, and when publicly supporting this scandalous movement took a good deal of moral courage. He knew almost everyone in occult circles in the south of England, including that dangerous acquaintance, Aleister Crowley.
It has been stated by Francis King in his Ritual Magic in England that Aleister Crowley was paid by Gerald Gardner to write the rituals of Gardner’s new witch cult; and this statement has been repeated without question by various other writers. It seems to me, however, to be highly questionable. The basic rituals of the ’Gardnerian’ witch cult were published in the form of fiction in the novel mentioned above, High Magic’s Aid, which as already stated appeared in 1949. (Faced with hostile newspaper publicity, old Gerald later found it politic to deny this; but I was initiated as a witch by Gerald Gardner in 1953, and the rituals used were practically identical with those in High Magic’s Aid). Now, Gerald Gardner never met Aleister Crowley until the very last years of the latter’s life, when he was a feeble old man living at a private hotel in Hastings, being kept alive by injections of drugs. Gardner and Crowley were introduced by the late Arnold Crowther, according to Mr Crowther’s own statement to me, which I have no reason to doubt.
If therefore, Crowley really invented these rituals in their entirety, they must be about the last thing he ever wrote. Was this enfeebled and practically dying man really capable of such a tour de force?
Moreover, Gerald had been initiated as a witch in the New Forest area of England in 1939, and taken part in coven rites against the threatened invasion of Hitler’s forces in 1940. Independent corroboration of the existence of this coven, and the performance of these rites, was given to Francis King by Louis Wilkinson, who wrote novels under the pen-name of ’Louis Marlow’, and was also a friend of Aleister Crowley. The survival of the New Forest coven, therefore, does not depend upon the word of Gerald Gardner. So what rituals were they using? And what is the truth about the part played by Aleister Crowley in the present-day revival of witchcraft?
In my previous book, An A.B.C. of Witchcraft Past and Present, I wrote that Aleister Crowley was not a witch, in spite of the fact that his name as ’The Great Beast’, ’The Wickedest Man in the World’, and so on, was dragged into every so-called exposure of witchcraft in the sensational press. I knew that in Gerald Gardner’s book Witchcraft Today he speculates upon the origin of the witch rituals, and states that he had been told by Aleister Crowley that Crowley had been a member of the witch cult when he was a young man. Gerald told me personally that Crowley claimed this, but added that he had left of his own accord because ’he wouldn’t be ordered about by women’ (Crowley’s contemptuous attitude to women is apparent throughout his writings). However, I always took this with a grain of salt, thinking it probably just a piece of ’one-up-manship’ on Crowley’s part.
Some new and curious information has, however, recently come to light, from a correspondent to the witches’ news-sheet, The Wiccan, an occasional publication which circulates among British and American witch covens and sympathizers. This gentleman, a former resident of East Anglia, states that he is a member of an hereditary Essex coven, and that it was known to his associates that both Aleister Crowley and Allan Bennett in their younger days were pupils of the famous male witch of Canewdon, Essex, ’Old George’ Pickingill. An early photograph still exists, according to him, of Pickingill and some of his pupils. Allan Bennett is easily recognizable in it, and the young man beside him strongly resembles the youthful Crowley.
The period of this contact was during the time that Crowley and Allan Bennett were room-mates in London, engaged together in the study of magic. In this connection, the contributor to The Wiccan (whose name was not given in the published account, at his request) points to the passage in Aleister Crowley’s Confessions about Allan Bennett’s ’blasting rod’ and its strange powers. He suggests that Bennett did not acquire this magical weapon either from the Order of the Golden Dawn or the Theosophical Society, and this certainly seems a thought-provoking point.
Moreover, we find preserved in Volume 1, No. 3 of Aleister Crowley’s publication The Equinox an extraordinary ritual devised by Allan Bennett about this period, entitled The Ritual for the Evocation unto Visible Appearance of the Great Spirit Taphthartharath. Taphthartharath is the Spirit of Mercury, and Bennett hoped to persuade this entity to instruct him and three of his friends in the secrets of the magical art and of occult wisdom generally.
This ritual, while resembling the involved and highly dramatic rituals of the Order of the Golden Dawn, also contained features which are not found in Golden Dawn practice. Its focal point in the centre of the circle was ’a small brazen cauldron, heated over a lamp burning with spirit in which a snake has been preserved’. This cauldron was the receptacle for the ’Hell-broth’, of which Bennett, as the ’Assistant Magus of Art’, was in charge. Its purpose was to provide a material basis for the spirit to take visible appearance. Some letters of Allan Bennett’s dealing with the planning of this ritual, and especially with the composition of the ’Hell-broth’, are reproduced in The Magicians of the Golden Dawn by Ellic Howe. He gives his friend F. L. Gardner (no relation to old Gerald, as far as I know!) a list of substances to be obtained, and cautions him not to talk to anyone about the ritual except the other three persons who are to take part.
Now this ritual, which took place in May 1896, is evidently closely related to witch practices. There is nothing in the rituals of the Golden Dawn about cauldrons or hell-broths, and it looks rather as if this magical venture was an unofficial and even clandestine affair. What its result was, if any, does not seem to be on record.
Bennett’s association with British witchcraft was interrupted when he emigrated to Ceylon, probably early in 1900. Here he ultimately became a Buddhist monk, and is best known in association with his work for Buddhism in the West. Eventually, however, he became somewhat dissatisfied with the Buddhist creed, returned to England and took up again the study of practical occultism. He died in 1923, according to Ithell Colquhoun’s account of him in her book Sword of Wisdom: MacGregor Mathers and the Golden Dawn.
My East Anglian source (who has given his permission for this information to be reproduced here) says that Bennett introduced Crowley to George Pickingill, and that Crowley was admitted to one of George Pickingill’s ’nine covens’ in either 1899 or 1900. However, Crowley ’did not last long in the craft’; he soon made himself disliked and was expelled. The priestess of his coven described him as ’a dirty-minded, evilly-disposed, vicious little monster’!
Many years later, Crowley met Gerald Gardner, who as we have already seen was a member of a witch coven in the New Forest area of Hampshire. Crowley told Gerald of his experience long ago in the witch cult, and I am told that the two compared notes. Gerald was very anxious to recover all the information he could about the ancient rites; so he asked Crowley to write down the rituals his coven had used. Gerald wanted to compare these with the two sources of information he already had, namely the New Forest coven into which he had been initiated in 1939, and another associated coven into which he had also subsequently been received. Both these covens, I am told, were among the ’nine covens’ that old George Pickingill had founded; but it seems that the passage of time had eroded their knowledge of the basic lore that had been communicated to them.
Such, I believe, is the real story behind the allegation that Aleister Crowley wrote the rituals for Gerald Gardner’s covens. That these rituals contain phrases from Crowley’s published works is however undoubtedly true. Gerald told me that the rituals he recorded were fragmentary. He had to augment them in order to make them workable; and he used some quotations from Crowley’s works because he recognized the magical power and beauty inherent in Crowley’s writing, though he had no great admiration for Crowley as a man.
It has been alleged that a Book of Shadows in Crowley’s handwriting was formerly exhibited in Gerald’s Museum of Witchcraft on the Isle of Man. I can only say that I never saw this on either of the two occasions when I stayed with Gerald and Donna Gardner on the island. The large, handwritten book depicted in Witchcraft Today is not in Crowley’s handwriting, but Gerald’s.
To return to that remarkable and little-known character, George Pickingill. He was born in Hockley, Essex, in 1816, and died in the village of Canewdon in 1909. Although he was merely a humble farm worker by profession, he could trace his ancestry back for many centuries, to Julia the Witch of Brandon, who was killed in 1071. According to my informant from Essex, each subsequent generation of the Pickingill family served as priests of the Old Religion. ’Old George’ himself was held in awe in the village of Canewdon, because of his strange powers, and many countryside tales were told of him. Eric Maple has detailed some of these in his book The Dark World of Witches.
A newspaper obituary at the time of Pickingill’s death claimed that England had produced only two outstanding magicians: George Pickingill and Merlin! During his lifetime, he was consulted by people from all over the country, and even from Europe and America. Two Master Masons, who were later to become founder members of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, from which the Order of the Golden Dawn eventually emerged, were accepted pupils of George Pickingill. These two were Hargrave Jennings and W. J. Hughan. It may be noted that the avowed object of the S.R.I.A. was to enable Masons to study the antiquities of the craft, and also to gather information about ’those mysterious societies which had their existence in the dark ages of the world when might meant right, when every man’s hand was against his brother, and when such combinations were necessary to protect the weak against the strong’.*
Quoting from the articles in The Wiccan that originally gave this information: ’A small coterie of Master Masons established a lengthy and productive relationship with George Pickingill from the 1850s onwards. These Freemasons entertained Rosicrucian fantasies, and sought personal verification that Masonic Crafters and Rosicrucian Crafters were siblings of the Old Religion. ’Old George’ awed these Masonic ’Rosicrucians’ with demonstrations of his mastery over various elementals. He was also to fascinate them by expounding ’the inner secrets of Masonry’. None of these learned Master Masons could comprehend how this non-Mason had penetrated their craft mysteries. It was reluctantly conceded that the witch cult may have possessed some secret arcane knowledge.’
My informant goes on to give a remarkable account of what he says is the real origin of the famous ’Cipher MS’ which came into the possession of the S.R.I.A. and out of which the rituals of the Golden Dawn were elaborated. He says that Hargrave Jennings purchased certain allegedly Rosicrucian manuscripts from the estate of the late J. B. Ragon, a French occultist and writer of note who died in 1862. From these manuscripts, which gave details of a degree structure, rituals and so on, Hargrave Jennings, with the assistance of George Pickingill, concocted the Cipher MS.
If this account is correct, then it solves one of the great puzzles connected with this abstruse subject; namely that, although the Cipher MS was supposed to be from a Continental source, it was decoded into English.
Hargrave Jennings had taken the precaution of obtaining a bill of sale when he purchased the Ragon manuscripts; and, if I understand my informant rightly, he later cunningly displayed this, together with the coded manuscript he himself had concocted, using a code taken from an old book in the British Museum. He informed his suitably impressed brethren of the S.R.I.A. that possession of this document conferred upon its owner or owners the dispensation to found a branch of the authentic Rosicrucian fraternity. My informant states: ’One need hardly add that Jennings omitted to mention that he had collaborated with England’s most notorious witch to amend and modify the said authentic rituals!’
The subsequent history of the founding of the Order of the Golden Dawn, from the rituals elaborated from this mysterious Cipher MS, has been admirably detailed and documented by Ellic Howe in The Magicians of the Golden Dawn, to which I must refer the reader who wishes to pursue this subject, as it is not strictly relevant to my own. My informant describes the Golden Dawn as being ’founded on a series of ingenious fabrications’; but I think it only fair to add that these mystifications were not necessarily carried out with bad intent, and that the Order of the Golden Dawn made an enormous contribution to the serious study of occultism in England and America.
To return to the subject of George Pickingill’s ’nine covens’: these, says my informant, were founded in Norfolk, Essex, Hertfordshire, Sussex and Hampshire, at various intervals over a period of sixty years. In each case, a basic format of rites was used, but ’ "Old George" was invariably amending the wording and introducing different concepts’. The basic hallmark of the Pickingill covens was that they were led by a priestess, who could and did conduct the rites. This concept is allegedly derived from Scandinavian and French sources. There was a good deal of Scandinavian settlement in East Anglia, as the place-names there testify; and later on there was an influx of French and Flemish immigrants, who brought their old secret customs with them.
The idea of covens led by a woman was not acceptable to some hereditary leaders of the witch cult. They were accustomed to covens led by a male Master or Magister as he was called, who admitted candidates of both sexes. Moreover, they preferred (very naturally, I think, in view of the English climate) to perform their rites wearing robes rather than in the state of ritual nudity. However, they recognized the hereditary tradition inherited by the Pickingill family; and both branches of the witch cult knew the succession of ’three rites’ which have developed into the present-day ’three degrees’.
Another reason why leaders of the very secret and hereditary witch covens looked askance at George Pickingill was, I am told, that he openly campaigned for the overthrow of the Christian religion and the establishment generally. At the time when ’Old George’ lived, this was a daring and foolhardy thing to do, especially for a man of humble station. ’God bless the Squire and his relations, and keep us in our proper stations’ was practically an article of the Christian creed; and magistrates’ courts, jail and transportation were available for those who flouted it, as the Tolpuddle Martyrs of Dorset found out when they tried to form a trade union. Other witch leaders had good grounds for thinking that discretion was the better part of valour, in those days.
So fierce was ’Old George’ ’s dislike of Christianity that he would even collaborate with avowed Satanists; and this was another objection held against his activities. Contrary to the picture of witchcraft drawn by the sensational Press, genuine witches do not indulge in ’devil-worship’ or invoke Satan. They believe that their Old Religion is the aboriginal creed of western Europe, and far, far older than Christianity; whereas ’Satan’ is part of Christian mythology and ’Satanists’ are just mixed-up Christians.
For all of these reasons, therefore, the real importance of Old George Pickingill and the part he played in the present-day revival of witchcraft have not heretofore come to light. Curiously enough, some of the most active denigrators of present-day witchcraft have been practising occultists of other persuasions. One is irresistibly reminded of H. G. Wells’ definition of righteous indignation as ’jealousy with a halo’!
A number of inadequate and distorted versions of the rituals used by Gerald Gardner and the covens he founded are now in circulation, as are various allegedly ancient versions of witchcraft rites. For instance, I once discovered in a bookshop an American paperback which purported to be the rituals handed down by word of mouth for generations, and now published by the express permission of a lady modestly describing herself as ’America’s Witch Queen’. I purchased the book and opened it—and literally the first words upon which my eyes rested were those of my own poem, ’Invocation of the Horned God’, which first appeared in the periodical Pentagram, over my name and copyright mark, in 1965! To add insult to injury, they had both curtailed and misquoted it; and repeated letters to the American publishers did not even produce the courtesy of a reply.
Well, I suppose one can really regard this sort of thing as a kind of back-handed compliment; and I must admit to being moved to a certain amount of girlish mirth when I perused another set of published rituals, this time allegedly copied down from someone’s ’witch grandmother’ who had initiated him as a boy. It contained a poem beginning ’Darksome night and shining moon …’, which Gerald Gardner and I wrote between us, about 1954 or ’55. And so help me, they had misquoted me again!
There need be no argument as to who wrote Liber Umbrarum: The Book of Shadows, as given in this present work. I did; but it is based upon old material, and upon what I have learned in my years of practice as a witch. I may also remark that I own Gerald Gardner’s original Book of Shadows, which he gave to me. This is the book depicted in the original hardback edition of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today (1954) in the photograph of a witch’s altar prepared for an initiation ceremony, to be found facing page 96 of that edition.
It is the circulation of bowdlerized versions of witchcraft rituals, as mentioned above, that has been one of the motives inspiring me to write this book. For one thing, it irks me to see misquoted versions of material I wrote for Gerald Gardner being offered for sale, no matter under what pretext. For another, if we are going to have any rituals published at all, then let them at least be literate and workable. After all, times and circumstances have changed radically since the days when everything was supposed to be concealed under an oath of secrecy. Today, people all over the English-speaking world are forming, or trying to form, covens of the Old Religion. It is time that they were able to find guidance instead of what they so often are finding, namely, exploitation.
The exaggerated claims of some self-styled ’leading witches’ may be a standing joke to experienced occultists; but the way in which sincere newcomers to this ancient path are being overawed and exploited by what is often sheer bluff, has ceased to be at all amusing. I am sick and tired of these self-appointed ’leaders’, who sometimes even resort to threats against anyone who questions their pretended authority. So I have decided to write a book which will put witchcraft within the reach of all.
The purpose of the revival of the Old Religion of Wisecraft, and its coming out into the open, is to contribute towards that new philosophy of life that is coming in with the tide of the Aquarian Age; not to make money for individuals, nor to provide them with material for ego-trips.
This book, therefore is simply intended to aid those who want to worship the Old Gods and make magic in the old ways. The desire of people to do this has become so widespread that I feel it should no longer be denied. All kinds of propaganda have been used against present-day witches and their craft; but its promulgators have found their efforts counterproductive. Every time there is a big ’exposure of the evils of witchcraft’ in the sensational Press, it is followed by sackfuls of letters from people wanting to know how they can join a coven!
Many people, I know, will question the idea of self-initiation, as given in this book. To them I will address one simple question: who initiated the first witch?
Of course it is better to receive initiation personally at the hands of an experienced and sincere teacher. This concept applies all over the world, from the eastern traditions of the relationship of guru (teacher) and chela (pupil), to Carlos Castaneda’s story of his apprenticeship to the wise old Yaqui Indian, Don Juan, as told in his marvellous trilogy of books, The Teachings of Don Juan, A Separate Reality, and Journey to Ixtlan. But I sincerely believe that my book will give people a starting-point, from which they can proceed by practice instead of mere theory.
Once people have arrived at this point, they will naturally go on to contemplate the question: should they try to join a coven, form a coven of their own (as this book will help them to do), or work individually? I go more fully into this matter in the section entitled Liber Umbrarum. The decision is really up to the individual; but whichever way you decide, be sure of one thing. You have a right to be a pagan if you want to be. This right is guaranteed to you by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Britain is a signatory. So do not let anyone browbeat you out of it. Here is the relevant passage from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as published by the United Nations:
Article No. 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
* See Ritual Magic in England (Neville Spearman, 1970).
* From Secret Rituals of the Golden Dawn by R. G. Torrens