What is a fraud?
In the context of witchcraft, it is someone who deliberately and knowingly seeks to deceive others about the origins and nature of their tradition, or claims that they were initiated by a genuine practitioner of a tradition, but they weren’t. In other words, they lie about their origins to make themselves seem more authentic.
Examples include claims that a tradition calling itself Wicca, or possessing a Gardnerian book of shadows, is older than Gardner, or used the word Wicca before Gardner; these should be treated with extreme caution. (There are witchcraft traditions that are pre-Gardner, but they mostly don’t call themselves Wicca.) Claims that a tradition has an unbroken initiatory lineage back to ancient pagan times are also fraudulent. Claims to an unbroken initiatory lineage stretching back any earlier than 1900 should also be treated with extreme caution.
Why does this matter?
If you are going to trust someone enough to engage in transformative and powerful ritual with them, you want to be able to take them at their word. You want to be sure that they know what they are doing, that they have been taught a tried and trusted set of techniques, and that you are not going to be asked to do something that is massively outside your comfort zone.
If someone lies about something as simple as where they got their initiation from, or the origins of their tradition, how can you trust their word about anything else?
It has been observed that fraudulent claims about origins, and fraudulent claims of initiation, are often accompanied by abusive behaviour. I don’t think an implausible origin story should automatically be seen as a sign of potential abuse, unless it is accompanied by other warning signs of abusive behaviour.
It is advisable to seek external confirmation that someone’s story (either about their initiation, or about the origins of their tradition) is true. Get a vouch from other Wiccans.
In a previous article, I mentioned that the Frosts were never part of Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca. Indeed, they never claimed to be. However, Gavin Frost did claim to have invented the word Wicca before Gardner did, and the Frosts claimed to be running “the oldest Wiccan school in the universe” (if you don’t believe me, look at their blog, it is right there in the header).
What is not fraudulent?
Any tradition or group that does not lie about its origins is not fraudulent.
A tradition that cannot trace its initiatory lineage to Gardner or Sanders, but doesn’t claim to, is not fraudulent. There are many Wiccan and witchcraft traditions, particularly in North America, that do not claim lineage back to Gardner or Sanders, but do call themselves Wicca. That is definitely not fraudulent. Wicca is a useful term for ‘softening’ the word witchcraft in areas where fundamentalism is rife. It is not fraudulent to call yourself a Wiccan if you don’t have a Gardnerian or Alexandrian lineage – as long as you don’t lie about your origins, lineage, or initiations.
Some Gardnerians and Alexandrians object to anything outside their traditions being known as Wicca. That is a different argument, and should not be confused with fraudulent origin stories.
A person who has been lied to by their initiators, but believed the story, and repeats in in good faith, believing it to be true, is not fraudulent. A bit gullible perhaps, but not deliberately lying about their origins.
A tradition that possesses a Gardnerian book of shadows, and thereby believes itself to be Gardnerian, but doesn’t have a lineage back to Gardner, and doesn’t claim to – not fraudulent; not actually Gardnerian by the standard definition of the term Gardnerian, either; but not actually fraudulent, because it is not lying about its origins.
Witchcraft traditions that are not fraudulent include (but are not limited to) Reclaiming witchcraft, Feri witchcraft, Bread and Roses, 1734 witchcraft, Clan of Tubal Cain witchcraft, Central Valley Wicca, Georgian Wicca, Wiccan Church of Canada, Blue Star Wicca, Mohsian Wicca, Kingstone Wicca, Algard Wicca, to cite some well-known examples. None of these traditions claim to be much older than Gardnerian Wicca; they have clearly traceable origin stories, and don’t claim a lineage that doesn’t exist.
There are clearly some traditions of folk witchcraft that do pre-date Gerald Gardner, but not by more than fifty years, as far as I am aware. Claims of origins back in the mists of time should be treated with extreme caution.
Some groups are not entirely sure of their early history. In these cases, an honest answer to a question about origins would be, “We don’t really know for certain, but to the best of our knowledge and belief, what happened was this…” If new evidence comes to light which refutes the origin story, the members of the tradition accept the new historical information. For example, if contemporary Alexandrians and Gardnerians discover that Sanders or Gardner made something up, we admit it, and don’t seek to cover it up.
Once Ronald Hutton had traced the historical origins of Wicca (in The Triumph of the Moon: a history of modern Pagan witchcraft), the vast majority of Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wiccans accepted the new information and stopped claiming older origins for Wicca. Subsequent research by Philip Heselton has shown that Gardner’s story that he was initiated into an existing coven was true (and they sincerely believed themselves to be reincarnations of nineteenth century witches). I believe that Gardner sincerely believed he had stumbled upon something really old, whose fragmentary nature he sought to supplement based on his reading of Margaret Murray’s work and The Key of Solomon.
A fraud is someone who deliberately and knowingly seeks to deceive others. If you can’t trust their word, it would be inadvisable to trust them about anything else.