The Three-Fold Law

Part 2: Setting the Stage

by John J. Coughlin

At this point it may be useful to mention the types of witchcraft that existed, quite distinctly, in the 1960's and 1970's. It was only in the last two or three decades that Wicca became a melting pot of these various influences and exploded into a plethora of traditions and viewpoints. I find the simplest breakdown was made in the book Witches U.S.A. published in 1971 by Susan Roberts (a non-witch). I am elaborating on her descriptions however to better emphasize the distinctions. Solitary practice could fit under any of the below, except perhaps Gardnerian, since that was (and still is) essentially coven-centric.

  • Ceremonial - described Roberts' book as practitioners of ceremonial magic, but really would include all practitioners of folk magic or natural magic, who work under or associate with the term "witch" but do not work with the religious aspects. I would probably just labeled this type as "non-religious" since ceremonial magic was only one form of magic that may have been adopted, and probably not as widespread in witchcraft as the use folk magic, simple spells, divination, and herbalism. This would be the "witch" but not "Wiccan" category.

  • Traditional - various forms of (mostly) religious witchcraft based on various backgrounds and cultures (Celtic, Sicilian, Germanic, etc.) depending on the group. Whether these traditions truly existed before Gardner went public or developed independently after being inspired by his ideas is debatable since very few witches outside of the Gardnerian/Alexandrian line were public in the early 1970's.

  • Hereditary - basically traditions that were handed down along family ties thus being more culturally specific. Some were more religious oriented than others. This can get confusing because some hereditary traditions were later passed on outside a family lineage and thus could be considered an aspect of Traditional witchcraft above. Many feel that all traditional forms of Witchcraft were initially hereditary. Since it had become a trend to falsely claim to have been initiated by a member of one's family, as Alex Sanders became infamous for, the actual extent of hereditary witches is still questionable today.

  • Gardnerian - The Gardnerian tradition (and offshoots like the Alexandrian tradition) were listed separately because of certain very distinctive elements. Gardnerians were almost unique in their insistence on working skyclad (nude), use of the scourge as a tool of the craft, and later their emphasis on ethics. Gardnerians made much more use of dance and chant to bring about ecstatic states. Hans Holzer, another early author and non-witch made the distinction that Gardnerians were more emotionally-oriented in their practice while non-Gardnerian based forms were more intellectually-oriented in their practice.[1]

Of the forms of witchcraft, those of Gardnerian lineage (including Alexandrian) were most pronounced in the press, particularly for their ritual nudity which captured the public's attention. Today we would be more apt to simply include the Gardnerian lineage under the general "traditional" category as one form of "traditional witchcraft". But it is important to note that the generic Wicca today is essentially a derivative of Gardnerian influence and practice that has through the years evolved to encompass various other influences including other forms of traditional witchcraft, Native American spirituality, and Voodoo[2]. This in itself would make an interesting topic for a paper and will be addressed at another time. The point now is to underline the influence the Gardnerian lineage has had on the development of Wicca.

Most of the early authors involved in witchcraft, such as Gardner, Sanders, Valiente, Buckland, the Farrars, and the Crowthers, were either Gardnerian or Alexandrian and so had the greatest influence on the growing number of people seeking information on the Craft. Even Dr. Leo Louis Martello, who started out as Strega (Sicilian Traditionalist, but not the Grimassi variety popular today) was initiated into both the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions around 1969 as his books on witchcraft began to be published.

Note that when the Alexandrian Tradition was formed by Alex Sanders in the mid-to-late 1960's it was presented as a completely separate (but similar) tradition from the Gardnerians. It was not until later that it was discovered that Alex had obtained a copy of a Gardnerian book of shadows which he passed off as his own. Steward and Janet Farrar later separated themselves from Alex, whose behavior and extravagant claims had become questionable, and continued to evolve the Alexandrian tradition as a distinct but related tradition from the Gardnerians. I am therefore presenting them as a branch on the Gardnerian line of witchcraft in this paper.

Gardnerians were often accused (sometimes justly) of implying that they were the only real form of witchcraft. Part of the reason for this was that prior to Gerald Gardner, the idea of a modern practice of witchcraft was simply not known to the public. In fact even now it is still hard to prove without doubt that they did exist before Gardner. What is known as the Feri tradition today is one of the few examples with early roots, but even that began adapting publicly available Gardnerian and Alexandrian material in the 70's. One could justly argue it evolved to a form of Wicca at that time. In the 1950's and 1960's however, Gardner said he wrote his books in hopes of saving what he thought was a religion on the verge of fading away and at a time when modern witchcraft was unknown this indeed seemed the case. This thinking is why Buckland wrote in a small handbook called Witchcraft - The Religion in 1966:

In only recent years did the Craft come to America. This is understandable when it considered that the time that this country was first being populated was in the time of the fierce prosecutions of the witches in Europe. One or two individual witches may have come here but it is doubtful if complete covens did. The individual witch family in all probability died out, so there is no long background of true witchcraft in the United States.[3]

This statement was probably not intended as an implication against non-Gardnerian forms of witchcraft but rather a simple observation of the apparent state of witchcraft at the time. The few known early covens in the United States had been founded by primarily by Raymond Buckland and his wife at the time, Lady Rowan, and were thus Gardnerian. Buckland later established other traditions (Seax-Wica and Pecti-Wita), which still carried a similar format as the Gardnerians (albeit less rigid and more welcoming to solitary practice) and of course similar ethics when it came to karma and the three-fold law.

The reason for the above short history lesson was to set the stage for the environment of witchcraft in its various forms as it began to merge and homogenize in the 1970's into the modern forms of Wicca. Although some traditions such as Gardnerian remain relatively intact today, it is now a minority to newer forms that in some way have been influenced by the Gardnerian tradition or one of its offshoots. The Wicca of today in many ways is not the witchcraft of twenty years ago, but evidence of the influence of Gardner and his line of witchcraft lies just under the surface of many modern Wiccan beliefs - even that of such radical traditions as the Dianic Tradition. This paper will attempt where possible to locate references to the concept of a law of return from these various forms of witchcraft but as will be seen, the traditions with the most direct influence will be the Gardnerians and the "reformed" Alexandrians under the Farrars.

Part 3: Rise of the Three-Fold Law

[1] Hans Holzer, The Truth about Witchcraft, 1971, page 134.
[2] In the United States the use of shaped candles and oils and powders like "separation" and "hexing" were labeled "voodoo" until witches began to incorporate these practices into their own.
[3] Buckland, Raymond, Witchcraft - The Religion (pamphlet), 1966

Part 3: Rise of the Three-Fold Law

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