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                        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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