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Old Dorothy, Aidan Kelly and the History Question

Mary Walker writes:

Could you give me some more info on this and the New Forest Coven? Who is Aidan Kelly? My interest is mostly academic. My field of emphasis for my Ph.D. was late Victorian Britain and the only thing I've actually published was on Women and the Supernatural in Late Victorian Britain.
And Virgo Tree writes:
anyone know of Old Dorthy and can you explain more about her Gerald Gardner spoke of her
"Old Dorothy" was the nickname of Dorothy Clutterbuck, who Gerald Gardner claimed initiated him into Wicca (he didn't generally use that term, preferring to call it "witchcraft" -- though the did mention at one point that its practitioners referred to themselves as "The Wica", with one c). He stated that she ran a coven in the New Forest area of England.

When speculation that Gardner had substantially invented Wicca, rather than discovering it as a surviving tradition, first began to be commonplace, most people assumed that "Old Dorothy" was a fictional creation. But then Doreen Valiente, who had been Gardner's high priestess for a time and, while skeptical of some of his claims, still believed that Wicca did predate him, began doing some research with the intent of proving or disproving Old Dorothy's existence (I think this was in the late 70s or early 80s, but I'm not sure).

She found that Dorothy Clutterbuck had in fact been a real person, and that the details of her life matched almost perfectly everything Gardner had said about her, with the exception that there was no way to determine whether or not she had actually practiced witchcraft of any description. Her surviving family members said they knew nothing of that, but given the heavy veil of secrecy under which even most of Gardner and Valiente's contemporaries practiced their Craft, that didn't prove much.

Valiente's account of the search for Old Dorothy appears as a an appendix to Janet & Stewart Farrar's The Witches' Way, although whether it's included in the softcover reprint (titled A Witches' Bible Compleat, I don't know). Valiente is, BTW, probably about my favourite author on the topic of Wicca, with the possible exception of Vivianne Crowley.

Aidan Kelly is a curious character. He started out as an initiate of the so-called New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn, which despite its name, was not a Golden Dawn group, but one of the early California-eclectic Wiccan trads, and apparently had some involvement with Victor Anderson's Faery tradition as well (which is not to be confused with Kisma what's-her-name's). Then at a certain point he abruptly converted to Catholicism and, I think, even entered a seminary, and then "re-converted" just in time to release a book called Crafting the Art of Magic (Llewellyn, 1991). Last I heard, he was claiming to be "both Catholic and pagan". From what I've heard, he's generally regarded as being a little, shall we say, eccentric.

Although the claim that Gardner had invented Wicca had certainly been bandied about before, Kelly's book was the first devoted solely to attempting to prove that theory. It's a very odd book; it was published by Llewellyn and promoted with their usual breathless hype (as "The Book That Will Blow The Lid Off The Neopagan Movement!!!" in one catalogue I saw), and it certainly has overtones of tabloid-style muckraking; but Kelly also has a Ph.D. in theology and seems almost desperate to portray himself as a Serious Academic Researcher.

Crafting the Art of Magic is as curious and paradoxical a piece of work as its author. It's certainly written in a more scholarly manner than most pagan books (though that's not saying much), but it's also chock full of gross generalizations, jumps to conclusions, and logical errors that anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Cathbad's logic FAQ could spot. He savages every claim by anyone with any connection to Gardnerian Craft for any possible inaccuracy, omission, or contradiction, but accepts uncritically the claims of Anderson, Rhiannon Ryall, and many others who claim to have been practicing various forms of non-Gardnerian witchcraft.

He also seems to have a bizarre obsession with the practice of scourging in Gardnerian rituals, detailing every reference to it in Gardner's work in such detail (and neo-Victorian moral repugnance) that at times the book begins to bear a resemblance to one of those 1950s-60s porno novels disguised as "case studies" of various forms of sexual deviance. You know: "Isn't this terrible and shocking? Tsk! We'd better go over it in very graphic detail just to make sure we agree on just how terrible and shocking it is!"

When challenged by various people on the logical inconsistencies of the book, Kelly has tended to fall back on arguments like "Well, I did actually work everything out by terribly obscure and important and foolproof academic methods; I just I didn't bother to describe in the book how I arrived at my conclusions because (pick one) none of you peasants have the training to understand them/it should be blatantly obvious to any intelligent person/Llewellyn doesn't print scholarly books!"

An excellent critique of the book was written and circulated in various pagan publications and BBS's by Don Frew; it's available elsewhere on this site. Frew's arguments certainly aren't flawless either, but they do provide an interesting counterpoint to Kelly's.

Déithe duit,

Liath Cadhóit
(a.k.a Lynna Landstreet)


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