Theoretically, this was passed down through the years within the New Forest Coven, which supposedly introduced Gardner to Wicca. if it did exist, there’s plenty of debate as to what it taught, but Wicca certainly was not it, although it certainly influenced Gardner’s creation of Wicca. Even Gardner confessed what the coven taught was fragmentary.
It may be that the Old Laws are largely the work of Gardner himself. The Old Laws did not even come to light until 1957, when a disagreement broke out over Gardner’s continued interviews with the press, despite his own rules concerning secrecy. Doreen Valiente and another covener created the “Proposed Rules for the Craft”, which included a stipulation concerning the granting of interviews.
…As a reply, Gardner claimed that these “Proposed Rules” were unneeded, since the Craft already had a set of traditional laws. He then sent his coveners “The Old Laws”, a rambling document containing rules, cautions, practical advice and a smattering of theology. Ms. Valiente doubted the authenticity of these “The Old Laws” and strongly opposed them. ( Oakseer. “Gerald Gardner, Old Words and the Old Laws.” http://www.newwiccanchurch.net/gerald_laws.htm. No longer online.)
However, large sections of the Old Laws did appear, if not word for word, at least in concept in Gardner’s Witchcraft Today in 1954.
The other interesting fact to note is the correctly used archaic language, which makes the Old Laws perhaps unique among Wiccan documents as Gardner tended to fake his language to sound older than it was. The wording here, however, is uneven, employing both modern and archaic phrases.
It should also be noted that while the Old Laws speaks only of the punishment of burning for witches, England (where Gardner lived) mostly hung their witches.
The version below is based on what is believed to be a version typewritten by Gardner himself. (Source: Oakseer.) Many other versions, with varying spellings and word usage, also exist.
The Old Laws are sometimes broken up into the 161 Laws or 161 Rules of the Witch.
I find much of this document, regardless of origins, to be outdated and unnecessary. It is at points sexist and ageist, and it is saturated with the paranoia associated with the myth of the Burning Times: that Wicca is an ancient religion persecuted during the witch trials.
The Law was made and Ardane of old. The law was made for the Wica, to advise and help in their troubles.
The Wica should give due worship to the Gods & obey their will which they Ardane, for it was made for the good of the Wica. As the Wicas worship is good for the Gods.
For the Gods love the Wica, as a man loveth a woman by mastering her. So the Wica should love the Gods, by being mastered by them. And it is necessary that the Circle, which is the Temple of the Gods, should be truely cast and purified, that it may be a fit place for the Gods to enter.
And the Wica should be properly prepared and purified, to enter into the presence of the Gods. With love and worship in their hearts they shall raise powrer from their bodies to give power to the Gods, as has been tought us of old.
For in this way only may man have communion with the Gods, for the Gods cannot help man without the help of men.
And the High Priestess shall rule her Coven as representative of the Goddess, and the High Priest shall support her as the representative of the God. And the High Priestess shall choose whom she will, if he have sufficient rank, to be her High Priest.
For the God himself, kissed her feet in the 5 fold salute, laying his power at the feet of the Goddess. because of her youth & beauty, her sweetness & kindness, her wisdom & Justice, her humility & generosity, So he resigned his lordship to her, But the Priestess should ever mind that all power comes from him. It is only lent when it is used wisely and justly. And the greatest virtue of a High Priestess is that she recognises that youth is necessary to the representative of the Goddess, so that she will retire gracefully in favour of a younger woman, Should the Coven so decide in Council. For the true High Priestess realsies that gracefully surendering pride of place is one of the greatest of virtues, and that thereby she will return to that pride of place in another life, with greater power beauty.
ln the days when Witchdom extended far, we were free and worshipd in Alther Greatest Tempels. But, in these unhapy times we must hold our sacred mysteries in secret.
So it be Ardane, that none but the Wica may see our mysteries. for our enimies are many, And torture looseth the tongues of many. lt be ardane that each Coven shall not know where the next Coven bide, or who its members are. save the Priest and Priestess. That there shall be no communication between them. save by the Messenger of the Gods. or the Summoner. Only if it be safe, may the Covens meet, in some safe place. For the great festavals. And while there, none shall say whence thay come, or give their true names.
To the end that if any are tortured, in their agoney, they can not tell if they know not.
So it be Ardane that no one may tell any not of the Craft who be of the Wica. nor give any names, or where they Byde, or in any way tell anything which can betray any to our foes. Nor may they tell where the Covenstead be. or where is the Covendom. or where be the meetings. or that there have been meetings. And if any break these laws, even under torture, The Curse of the Goddess shall be upon them, so they never be reborn on earth, And may the remain where they belong, in the Hell of the Christians.
Let each High Priestess govern her Coven with Justice and love with the help of the advice of the elders. Always heading the advice of the Messenger of the Gods. lf he cometh.
She will heed all complaints of brothers, and strive to settle all differances among them. But it must be recognized that there be people who will ever strive to force others to do as they will.
They are not necesseraly evil. & they often do have good ideas. andt such ideas should be talked over in council. And if they will not agree with their brothers, or if they say, I will not work under this High Priestess, lt hath always been the old law, to be convenient for the bretherin, and to void disputes, Any of the Third may claim to found a new Coven because they live over a league from the Covenstead, or that they are about to do so. Anyone living within the Covendom wishing to form a new Coven, to avoid strife, shall tell the Elders of his intention And on the instant void his dwelling and remove to the new Covendom. Members of the old Coven may join the New one when it be formed, but if they do, must utterly void the old Coven. The Elders of the New and the Old Covens should meet in peace and brotherly love, to decide the new bounderies.
Those of the Craft who dwell outside both Covendoms may join either indifferent, but not both. Though all may, if the Elders agree, meet for the Great Festavals, if it be truely in peace and brotherly love. But splitting the Coven oft means strife. So for this reason these laws were made of old. And may the curse of the GODDESS be on any who disreguard them. So be it Ardane.
lf you would keep a book, let it be in your own hand of write, let brothers and sisters copy what they will, but never let the book out of your hands, and never keep the writings of another, for if it be found in their hard of write, they well may be taken and Engined.
Each should guard his own writings & destroy it whenever danger threatens. Learn as much as you may by heart, & when danger is past, rewirit your book, an it be safe. For this reason, if any die, destroy their book if they have not been able to. For an it be found, tis clear proof against them, And, our oppressors well know, “Ye may not be a witch alone” So all their kin & friends be in danger of torture. So ever destroy anything not necessary. If your book be found on you. tis clear proof against you alone. You may be engined. Keep all thouqhts of the Craft from your mind. Say you had bad dreams, a devil caused you to write it without your knowledge. Think to yourself. I know, nothing. I remember nothing. I have forgotten everything. Drive this into your mind.
If the torture be to great to bear. Say, I will confess. I cannot bear this torture, What do you want me to say? I will say it. if they try to make you speak of the brotherhood, Do NOT. But if they try to make you speak of imposabilaties such as flying through the air, Consorting with the Christian Devil, or sacrificing children, or eating mens flesh. To obtain relief from torture. say. I had an evil dream, I was not myself. I was crased.
Not all Magestrates are bad, if there be an excuse they may show mercy. If you have confessed aught, deny it afterwards, say you babbled under torture. You knew not what you said. If you are condemed, fear not. The Brotherhood is powerfull. They may help you to escape, if you stand steadfast.
If you betray aught. There is no hope for you, ln this life, or in that which is to come.
Be sure. if steadfast you go to the pyre, Dwale will reach you, you will feel naught. You go but to Death and what lies beyond. The ecstacy of the Goddess.
Tis probable that before you are engined, Dwale will reach you. Always remember that Christians fear much that any die under torture. At the first sign of swoon, they cause it to be stopped, and blame the tormenters, for that reason, the tormenters themselves are apt to feign to torment, but do not, so it is best not to die at first.
lf Dwale reaches you, tis a sign that you have a friend somwhere. you may be helped to escape, so dispair not. If the worst comes, and you go to the pyre. wait till the flames and smoke spring up, bend your head over, & breath in with long brewths, you choke & die swiftly. & wake in the arms of the Goddess.
To void discovery, Let the working tools be as ordinary things that any may have in their houses. Let the Pentacles be of wax, so they may be broken at once. Heve no sword unless your rank allows you one. Have no names or signs on anything.
Write the names and signes on them in ink before consecrating them and wash it off immediatly after. Do not Bigrave them. lest they cause discovery. Let the colour of the hilts tell which is which. Ever remember, ye are the Hidden Children of the Gods. So never do anything to disgrace them.
Never boast, Never threaten, Never say you would wish Ill to anyone. lf you or any, not in the Circle, speak of the craft, say, “Speak not to me of such, it frightens me. tis evil luck to speak of it” For this reason. The Christians have spies everywhere. These speak as if they were well affected, as if they would come to Meetings, saying “My mother used to go, to worship, the Old Ones. I would that I could go myself.” To these ever deny all knowledge.
But, to others ever say, tis foolish, men talk of witches flying through the air, to do so, they must be light as thistledown. and. Men say that witches all be bleared eyed old crones, so what pleasure can there be in witch meetings? such as folk talk on? Say, Many wise men now say there be no such creatures. Ever make it a jest, and in some future time, perhaps the persecution will die. and we may worship safely again. let us all pray for that happy day.
May the blessings of the Goddess and the God be on all who keep their Ardane.
If the Craft hath any Appenage, let all brothers guard it, and help to keep it clear and good for the Craft, & let all justly guard all monies of the Craft. But if some brothers truely wrought it, Tis right that they have their pay, an it be just. And this be not taking money for the use of the Art. but for good and honest work. And even the Christians say “A labourer is worthey of his hire.” But if any brothers work willingly for the good of the craft without pay, tis but to their greater honour. So it be Ardane.
lf there be any disputes or quarrels among the bretheren, The High Priestess shall straight Convene the Elders & enquire into the matter, and they shall hear both sides. first alone. then together. And they shall decide justly, not favouring the one side or the other.
Ever recognising that there be people who can never agree to work under others. but at the same time there be some people who cannot rule justly. To those who ever must be chief, there is one answer, Void the Coven & seek another, or, make a Coven of your own, taking with you those who will to go, To those who cannot rule justly. The answer be. those who cannot bear your rule will leave you, For none may come to meetings with those with whom they are at variance. So an either cannot agree. get hence. For the Craft must ever survive. So it be Ardane.
In the olden days when we had power, we could use our Arts against any who illtreated any of the Brotherhood. But in these Evil Times, we may not do so, For our enimies have devised a burning pit of everlasting fire, into which they say their God casteth all the people who worship him, except it be the very few who are released by their priestes spells and Masses. and this be chiefly by giving money and rich gifts to recieve his favour, for their Alther Greatest God is ever in need of Money.
But as our Gods need our aid to make fertility for men and crops. So the God of the Christians is ever in need of mans help to search out and destroy us. Theyir priests tell them that any who get our help or our cures are dammned to this Hell forever, so men be mad for the terror of it,. But they make men believe that they may scape this hell if they give victims to the tormenters. So for this reason. All be forever spying, thinking an I can but catch one of the Wica I will scape this fiery pit.
But we have our hidels, and men searching long and not finding say, “there be none, or lf they be, they be in a far country.” But, when one of our oppressors die. or, even be sick, ever is the cry “This be Witches Malice.” and the hunt is up again. and though they slay ten of their people, to one of ours, still. they care not, they have many thousands, while we are few indeed.
So it is Ardane, that none shall use the Art in any way to do ill to any. how evermuch they have injured us. And for long we have obeyed this law. “Harm none” and nowtimes, many believe we exist not. So it be Ardane that this law shall still continue to help us in our plight. “No one, however great an injury or injustace they recieve, may use the Art in any to do ill or harm any.”
But, they may, after great consulations with all, use the Art to prevent or restrain Christians from harming us and others. but only to let or constrain them and never to punish. To this end. Men say, “Such an one is a mighty searcher our and persecutor of Old Women whom he deemeth to be Witches. and none hath done him Skith. so this be proof they cannot, or more truely, that there be none.” For all know full well, that so many folk have died because somone had a grudge against them, or were persecuted because they had money or goods to sieze. or because they had none to bribe the searchers. And many have died because they were scolding old women. So much so, that men now say that only Old Women are witches. And this be to our advantage, and turns suspicion away from us. ln England tis now many it year since a witch hath died the death. but any misuse of the power might raise the Persecution again. So never break this law, however much you are tempted. and never consent to its being broken, lf you know it is being broken in the least, you must work strongly against it, And any High Priestess or High Priest who consentes to it must be immediatly deposed. For tis the Blood of the Bretherin they endanger. Do good, an it be safe, and only if it be safe, for any talk may endanger us. And strictly keep to the Old Law, never accept money for the use of the Art, for money ever smeares the taker, Tis Carcerors and Conjurers and Priests of Christ who ever accept money for the use of their Arts. and they sell Dwale and evil love spells and pardons to let men scape from their sins. Be not as these. “Be not as these” lf you accept not money, you will be free of temptation to use the Art for evil causes. All may use the Art for your own advantage, or for the advantage of the Craft, only if you be sure you harm none. But ever let the Coven debate the matter at length, only if all are satisfied that none may be harmed may the Art be used. lf it is not possible to achieve your ends one way without harming any, pervhance the aim may be achieved by acting in a different way, so as to harm none. May the Curse of the Goddes, be on any who breach this law. So It be ardane.
Tis adjudged lawful an anyone need a house or land, an none will sell. to incline the owners mind to be willing to sell, provided it harmeth him not in any way, & that the full worth is paid, without haggling. Never bargain or cheepen anything which you buy by the Art.
So it be Ardane.
lt is the Old Law and the most important of all Laws, That no one may do or say anything which will endanger any of the Craft, or bring them in contact with the law of the land. or the Law of the Church or any of our persecutors. ln any disputes between the bretheren, no one may invoke any laws but those of the Craft. or any Tribunal but that of the Priestess and the Priest and the Elders. And mat the Curse of the Goddess be on any who so do.
So it be Ardane.
lt is not forbiden to say as Christians do. “There be Witchcraft in the Land” Because out oppressors of old made it Heresy not to believe in Witchcraft, & so a crime to deny it. which thereby put you under suspicion. But ever say I know not of it here, perchance they may be, but afar off. I know not where. but ever speak so you cause others to doubt they be as they are Always speak of them as Old Crones, consorting with the Devil and riding through the air. But ever say, but how may men ride through the air an they be not as light as Thistle Down? But the Curse of the Goddess be on any who cast any suspicion on any of the Brotherhood. or speaks of any real meeting place. or where any byde. So it be Ardane.
Let the Craft keep books with the names of all Herbs which are good for man. and all cures, that all may learn. But keep another book with all the Banes & Apies. & let only the Elders and trustworthy people have this knowledge. So it be Ardane.
And may the Blessings of the Gods be on all who keep these. Laws and the Curses of both God and Goddess be on all who break them. So it be Ardane.
Ardane – Generally taken as “ordain”, it has also been suggested that it should read “Aredan”, a form of the obsolete word “aread” which has the meaning of “to declare by supernatural counsel.” 11th to 16th century.
Alther – an archaic form of the word “all,” meaning (combined with a superlative) “of all”. Thus, “alther greatest temples” would be “the greatest temples of all”. 11th to 16th century
Engine – To be put on a rack for torture. 15th and 16th century
Hand of Write – Handwriting. Scottish. 19th century.
Dwale – A stupefying or soporific drink. 15th and 16th century
Tormenter – An officer who inflicts torture or cruelty; an official torturer. 15th and 16th century
Appenage – Refers to a “specially appropriated possession” and apparently originally meant some sort of endowment (in land, offices or money) for the younger children of royalty. By the nineteenth century the meaning had broadened to include any sort of valuable possession with which some person or class of people were endowed. Not archaic.
Hidel – Hiding place. 14th to 17th century
Skith – almost certainly the word “scathe,” meaning harm or injury. Anglo-Saxon. There is a more specific and recent (18th and 19th century) meaning found in Jamieson’s Scottish Dictionary of “injury supposed to proceed from witchcraft”.
Banes – Poisons. Not archaic.
Apies – Most versions of the Craft Laws have re-written this as “spices” and connect it with aphrodisiacs. Another possibility, though, is a connection with a group of plants called “apiaceous” which contains hemlock, one of the plants long associated with Witches
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