Gerald Gardner and Liminal Reading

My initiating coven, Foxfire, is made up of people who love books. Everyone treated their books with the utmost love, respect, and care. I was a little sloppy in comparison and always felt nervous handling my High Priestess’s books.

So I cringed inwardly when I heard myself saying to a Seeker, “Just write all your notes right in the book,” when discussing Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today.

I paused. “Or, um, you know — use Post-Its. That works, too.”

My scrappy copy of Witchcraft Today in my scrappy reading nook. I put the wrapping paper on years ago when I worried about what people might think. Now it’s on because it makes me giggle.

I won’t lie, I’m terrible about writing in my books, I do it all the time. It’s the product of laziness combined with the privilege of being able to afford books. (I’m working on both.)

But in the case of Gerald Gardner’s Witchcraft Today, I’ll maintain this exception. It’s a living book, and I’m just one small part of its story, a story I hope stretches out through the decades.

Some Gardnerian covens make Witchcraft Today pre-requisite reading for Seekers, and for good reason: in many ways, it’s a core text of our tradition. I decided against it for two reasons: 1) I didn’t want to assume Seekers were visual readers (there’s no audiobook — yet! This will change!) and 2) I didn’t want to assume they had the funds to buy it. As occult books go, Witchcraft Today is not expensive, but even $14 can be a lot for some individuals. (And income says little about one’s potentiality as a Witch.)

Other Covens have their Seekers read Witchcraft Today in Outer Court, and that’s pretty much my plan as well. Most folx don’t really learn critical reading skills in school (and a college degree doesn’t necessarily change that) so a group read helps with a text like Witchcraft Today. This book definitely requires some clear-headed critical reading.

Witchcraft Today has been described as ‘cringy’, and it’s helpful to unpack that feeling when it comes up.

Sometimes it’s because Gerald’s 1950s, career-in-a-colonial-rubber-plantation, objectification-of-various-others is showing. Those are cringe-worthy, and they have a historical and social context that’s important to unravel. Those issues didn’t disappear with the Age of Aquarius, aw, hell no they didn’t.

But there are other parts of Witchcraft Today that feel cringy because they’re uncomfortable or just strange concepts and they require a little leaning into.

Let’s not talk about Witchcraft Today for a second and consider something totally different (but I promise I’ll connect them): the life and works of actress and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.

Leni Riefenstahl was a film actress in 1920s Germany but quickly started directing her own films. Peeps: this was kind of a big deal. Considering just how chauvinist the U.S. film industry is still today, it’s a little mind-blowing that Leni was directing features in just 1932.

Okay, so what happened next? You betcha: Adolf Hitler.

Now, there was a massive exodus of artists and film industry professionals from Germany when Hitler rose to power, including many of Leni’s co-workers and friends. But Leni stayed behind, presumably because she was just so busy with filmmaking. Considering Nazi Germany’s focus on Kinder, Kirche, Küche (Children, Church, Kitchen) as the only respectable activities for women, it’s sort of remarkable she kept making films. But not only that, she became a darling of the inner sanctum of the Nazi regime. She was a key player in Joseph Goebbel’s infamous Nazi propaganda machine.

These films include the remarkable Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will). ‘Remarkable’, as in, you have to mentally mark it again and again because it is just so astounding and horrific all in the same instant. In the same period, she also made Olympia which was about the 1936 Olympics which were held in Germany with Adolf Hitler presiding. Many countries and athletes boycotted it, and the U.S. almost did as well.

What’s always most remarkable to me about the 1936 Olympics is the story of Black athlete Jesse Owens. Owens was among almost two dozen African American Athletes who medalled in those Olympics. Owens got something like four gold medals — and he’s also Riefenstahl’s Olympia, which was intended as one more piece of Nazi propaganda. Basically, it’s an amazing and crazy story and shows that sometimes boycotting works, and sometimes you Do the Thing because it is the best way to give the oppressive system the symbolic finger. The really messed up thing about the Jesse Owens story is the Nazis — it’s the American homecoming. When the U.S. Athletes came home, the white athletes were invited to the White House, but the Black athletes were not. So, yeah, there are layers of crazy. But remembering this story — Jesse Owen’s is totally going on the Ancestor Altar this fall.

Jessie Owens back in the German Olympic Stadium in 1965. Owens died in 1980. In 2016, his granddaughter Marlene Dorch accepted official Presidental Praise from President Barack Obama which he offered to the 18 Black Athletes who Franklin Roosevelt ignored.

But back to Leni. After the end of World War II, Leni (like many Germans involved in Third Reich activities) was put on trial for her involvement. Leni’s argued in her defense that she wasn’t a Nazi, she was simply an artist creating art and that art is non-political.

Which, of course, is bullshit. Art is inherently political.

But she got off, and made three more films over the remaining 65 years of her life. In 2003, she died at 101 in Bavaria.

So here’s why I bring up Leni Riefenstahl. Her propagandistic films for the Nazis were hugely effective in rallying the perverse nationalism that ultimately led to the murder of millions of men, women, and children during the Third Reich. Her films stand as a towering warning to all artists in all media: Your art is political. It has an impact. And it is your responsibility and yours alone to know that impact before you let that art out into the world.

But the brutal truth about Leni’s films is actually this: they’re exceptionally beautiful, and the techniques she single-handedly invented were revolutionary for filmmaking.

The beauty of Riefenstahl’s films is alluring and intoxicating, and at times almost dripping with a sort of nostalgia for heroism (which is why she was the darling of the Nazis, in part). She loved objectifying the body-beautiful, and you almost forget that’s what’s happening because the camera work is so well integrated.

When watching clips from her films, I’m always torn between the incredible camera work and lighting, and the horror of knowing what those films did. Riefenstahl was a cinematic revolutionary, single-handled inventing — again, as a woman in Nazi Germany — techniques that are still in use today. She invented the use of dollys on tracks, radically improved extreme high and low angles, developed many types of moving camera shots with post-production in mind. Leni invented them. And you can hardly find a film or TV show today that doesn’t employ the techniques she developed.

So… what the hell do we do with that?

I don’t have an easy, one-size-fits-all answer. Individual filmmakers study and learn their craft, including history, and try to make informed decisions. Most filmmakers grok the impact of their own history on what they do today.

For me personally, in most things I engage with, I feel more comfortable knowing the history. Knowing that film history, teaching it, and talking about where and how it manifests in contemporary works is a big part of my responsibility as an artist-educator. And when I personally set up a moving camera shot, I’m focused on the impact of my art, on what it’s doing and saying to my audience. I need to be critical of my work as I make it, in order to do it ethically. And, because I know cinema history, there are just some shot angles I would have a hard time doing unless I was critiquing Leni Riefenstahl’s legacy.

Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2105) is pretty much the exact opposite of Riefenstahl’s style, and yet the cinematography is exceptional and haunting for its stark honesty. I love it to bits for that reason — well, and for Black Phillip, I love him too.

Reading early 20th-century occult and magical texts is a similar process for me. The more I know about the author, the time period, the circumstances, and the immediate impact, the better I can frame that work in my contemporary life, acknowledging what is useful and important while also acknowledging problematic ideas and tropes.

It’s not so much a paradoxical reading space, as a liminal reading space. When I read Gardner, I read him with one foot in the past and the other in the present. My head and my heart mediate the discourse between these two rooms in Time.

It’s not an easy way to read and it’s quite often uncomfortable. But talking about books like Witchcraft Today with others helps keep the process from being isolating — or worse alienating. And when head and heart start to lean too far into the past or the present, reading with others helps each of us keep our balance in turn.

We, as readers, are also not static.

When I pick up my copy of Witchcraft Today, I feel a lot of love for it and a sort of quirky love for the author. He’s a little like that one weird uncle from Secaucus you kind of adore, but man, sometimes he says these things — *cringe*. (You know. Just like a lot of real-life family members.)

But even more important, when I re-read Witchcraft Today, I’m re-reading my notes in the margins as well. I drink in my old reactions, thoughts, rants, and connections. And every time I re-read it, I add new marginal notes (with dates) so that it’s evolved into a sort of diary, and one that’s very dear to me. In many ways, it’s become a diary of me as a Witch and a Priestess. And I’m just one of many in the lineage of this book that was the floodgate of the Craft.

Notes I wrote as a Seeker in my copy of Witchcraft Today. Back when I didn’t think I’d ever read it again and legibility was a non-factor. The top says: “Ah.” I’m pretty sure the bottom either says, “Arghh — Druid Mysteries,” or, “Again — Dud Mythology”. YMMV.


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