The Ardanes: The Old Laws of Wicca

Ancient Manuscript
Were the Ardanes ancient knowledge, or written in the 1950s?. Tetra Images / Getty Images

In the 1950s, when Gerald Gardner was writing what eventually become the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, one of the items he included was a list of guidelines called the Ardanes. The word “ardane” is a variant on “ordain”, or law. Gardner claimed that the Ardanes were ancient knowledge that had been passed down to him by way of the New Forest coven of witches. However, it’s entirely possible that Gardner wrote them himself; there was some disagreement in scholarly circles about the language contained within the Ardanes, in that some of the phrasing was archaic while some was more contemporary.

This led a number of people – including Gardner’s High Priestess, Doreen Valiente – to question the authenticity of the Ardanes.

Valiente had suggested a set of rules for the coven, which included restrictions on public interviews and speaking with the press. Gardner introduced these Ardanes – or Old Laws – to his coven, in response to the complaints by Valiente.

One of the largest problems with the Ardanes is that there is no concrete evidence of their existence prior to Gardner’s revealing them in 1957. Valiente, and several other coven members, questioned whether or not he had written them himself – after all, much of what is included in the Ardanes appears in Gardner’s book, Witchcraft Today, as well as some of his other writings. One of Valiente’s strongest arguments against the Ardanes – in addition to the fairly sexist language and misogyny – was that these writings never appeared in any previous coven documents.

In other words, they appeared when Gardner needed them most, and not before.

Cassie Beyer of Wicca: For the Rest of Us says, " The problem is that no one's sure if the New Forest Coven even existed or, if it did, how old or organized it was. Even Gardner confessed what they taught was fragmentary...

 It should also be noted that while the Old Laws speaks only of the punishment of burning for witches, England mostly hung their witches. Scotland, however, did burn them."

The dispute over the origins of the Ardanes eventually led Valiente and several other members of the group to part ways with Gardner. The Ardanes remain a part of the standard Gardnerian Book of Shadows. However, they are not followed by every Wiccan group, and are rarely used by non-Wiccan Pagan traditions.

There are 161 Ardanes in Gardner's original work, and that's a LOT of rules to be followed. Some of the Ardanes read as fragmentary sentences, or as continuations of the line before it. Many of them do not apply in today's society. For instance, #35 reads, "And if any break these laws, even under torture, the curse of the goddess shall be upon them, so they may never be reborn on earth and may remain where they belong, in the hell of the Christians." Many Pagans today would argue that it makes no sense at all to use the threat of the Christian hell as punishment for violating a mandate.

However, there are also a number of guidelines that can be helpful and practical advice, such as the suggestion to keep a book of herbal remedies, a recommendation that if there is a dispute within the group it should be fairly evaluated by the High Priestess, and a guideline on keeping one's Book of Shadows in safe possession at all times.

You can read a complete text of the Ardanes here: Sacred Texts - the Gardnerian Book of Shadows