Descent Into Confusion

Robert Hughes


One of the celebrated "mysteries" of revivalist Wicca is the 'ritual play' known as the Legend of the Descent of the Goddess. In my Gardnerian Book of Shadows, dating from the sixties, the Legend is to be enacted separately at "a meeting for preparation for Third Degree". Only third degree witches may attend this meeting with the initiate who is to take second degree.

The Legend is enacted in front of the initiate by four of the third degree witches. Two take the role of Narrator and Guardian of the Portal (of the underworld), while the High Priest and High Priestess or Maiden take the roles of God and Goddess. The term Guardian of the Portal may have been borrowed from the rituals of the Golden Dawn.

In this enactment, the ruler of the underworld and Lord of Death is the Horned One. The Legend begins with the statement: '...Our Lady, the Goddess, would solve all mysteries - even the mystery of death. And so she journeyed to the Netherworld where the Guardian of the Portal challenged her.' The Guardian orders her to strip off her garments and jewels and she is bound with cords and brought into the presence of the Lord of Death.

The God is so overcome by her beauty that he falls and kisses her feet and begs her to stay with him in the underworld. The Goddess replies that she does not love him, and she asks why he causes all the things she loves and delights in to fade and die.

The God replies that the cause is 'age and fate' and he says he is helpless to stop it, although he can give the dead 'rest and peace and strength, so that they may return.' A second time he asks the Goddess to stay with him. When she again says she does not love him, Death replies she must suffer a scourging at his hands.

Following this scourging, and the five fold kiss, the Goddess says: 'I know the pain of love'. It is then that the God 'taught her all the mysteries'. He also gives her a special necklace which is 'a symbol of the Circle of Rebirth'. In return, our Lady teaches him the 'sacred mystery of the cauldron'. The Legend ends with an affirmation of the reality of reincarnation among the Hidden Children of the Goddess and 'the mystery of magick which is placed between the worlds'. The initiate is then invited to ask questions about the meaning of the Legend.

Even anyone with only a slight knowledge of understanding of mythology will recognize the contradictions and confusions which exist within the structure and symbolism of the Legend. The first point of controversy is when, where, and by whom, this ritual originated. Some (unconfirmed) sources claim it is of 19th century origin. It is said to be a product of the famous "Cambridge" coven of academics who revived the classical Mysteries in the early 1800s. More reliable evidence exists to prove that Gerald Gardner sent a draft of the Legend to Aleister Crowley for correction in the 1940s.

Kelly (Crafting the Art of Magic, Llewellyn, 1991) claims that the Legend does not appear in the pre-1949 second degree initiation in the famous (infamous?) Ye Book of Ye Art Magical and says: "The content of this document probably dates to 1953 or earlier..." (p.128). Gardner quotes from the Legend in his book, Witchcraft Today as if he had received it from the New Forest coven. In fact he describes it as 'the central part of one of their rituals. It is a sort of primitive spiritualism.'. He goes on to compare its importance in the Craft to the Christian myth of the crucifixion and resurrection. (1970, pp 44-46). Gardner goes on to say the Legend 'upon which its members base their action is the central idea of the cult.' He compares it with the story of Istar (sic) descending into hell and the myth of the Hindu god Siva (Shiva) as Lord of Death and destruction. Gardner then says he believes the Legend may be of Celtic origin. To support this fanciful statement, he says that: 'In Celtic legends the Lords of the Underworld did prepare you for death and many living people are said to have entered their regions, formed alliances with them, and returned safely, but it needed great courage; only a hero or a demi-god dared to risk it.' (p.46). One presumes that here Gardner is making an allusion to the realm of Faerie and the widespread folk belief that faeries were the spirits of the dead.

This is classic Gardner at his most confusing and, perhaps, deliberately misleading and mischievous. The version of the Legend as presented by Gardner is both patriarchal and mythologically inaccurate. It seems to be based on a hybrid combination of the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, and the Middle Eastern myth of Inanna-Ishtar. Gardner does not mention the Demeter-Persephone myth in his speculations, instead sidetracking the reader into the realms of Celtic myth, although he does devote a chapter of his book to the Greek Mysteries - basically as a means of justifying the practice of scourging.

In the Middle Eastern myth, Inanna is the Goddess of the Moon and Venus. She was probably, 'one of the three great goddesses of the Bronze Age' (Baring & Cashford, 1991). Inanna was known by the title Queen of Heaven and Earth and her myth is an archetypal form of the eternal story of the mourning widow/mother goddess and the saviour god, who is her son/lover, dies, descends to the underworld and is reborn. This myth is found in most Mediterranean cultures and in northern Europe, and it formed the 'pagan' basis for the new religion of Christianity.

The Demeter-Persephone myth is a post-patriarchal variant on this ancient legend with the daughter (Persephone) being kidnapped and held prisoner by Pluto, the Lord of Death and the ruler of Hades. In recent years some feminist mythographers have re-written this classic story and produced alternative versions without any patriarchal overtones (see Spretnak, 1978).

Gardner was correct to refer to visits to the underworld by heroes and demi-gods (sic). However, in the majority of the extant legends and myths, such as the descent of Arthur to Annwn to capture the Cauldron of the Goddess, and Baldur's ritual death and descent into the realm of Hel, it is a male mortal or god who is involved in the descent and is "reborn". It is the Goddess, in her 'dark aspect, who rules over the realm of the dead, controls the power of fate and grants the hero/god the supreme initiation of transformation and rebirth. In the Gardnerian Legend of the Descent we are led to believe that the Goddess, who is represented in The Charge as an all-powerful deity offering her worshippers 'upon death, peace unutterable, rest and the ecstasy of the Goddess', and is described by Gardner himself as 'the Great Mother, the giver of life' (1970, p.45), visits the underworld knowing nothing about the mysteries of life and death. She allegedly knows nothing about the natural process that makes 'all the things that I love, and take delight in, fade and die' until she is taught these mysteries by the God. In fact in response to her question the God replies 'tis age and fate'. Significantly these are both concepts associated with the Dark Goddess of the Underworld, who has no role in Gardner's version of the Craft.

It is not difficult to see the Legend of the Descent of the Goddess in terms of 'a theologizing of the scourging' (Kelly, 1991), which was such an important aspect of the rituals in Gardner's time. Taking this argument a step forward, as Kelly does (1991, pp 28-29), it could appear that the content of the Legend was based on Gardner's sexual fantasies and his personal concept of the Goddess. He imagined the Goddess as 'a sweet, lovely woman', while in the more traditional branches of the Craft she is a darker deity ruling fate, death and the underworld as well as sexuality. This alternative archetypal image of the witch goddess has largely been ignored by revivalist Wicca. It will continue to do so while Gardner's confused and mythologically incorrect Legend of the Descent of the Goddess remains the 'central idea' of the modern Craft.

References and further reading:

  • Witchcraft Today G B Gardner (Arrow paperback edition 1970)
  • The Witches' Way J & S Farrar (Robert Hale 1984)
  • Crafting the Art of Magic: Book I
  • A Kelly (Llewellyn 1991)
  • Lost Goddesses of Early Greece
  • C Spretnak (Moon Books 1978)
  • The Myth of the Goddess
  • Baring & Cashford (Penguin 1991)
  • The Mysteries of Eleusis
  • G D'Alviella (Aquarian Press 1981)
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