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Internet Book of Shadows, (Various Authors), [1999], at

                         Descent Into Confusion 
                            by 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
 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
 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 recognise 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 Bok 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
 It is not difficult to see the Legend of the Descent of the
 Goddess in terms of 'a theologising 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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