Wicca in itself is poor in mythology. In one sense, since all gods are considered to be versions of the God, and all goddesses of the Goddess, Wicca is packed with myths. But there is really only one that can be said to be truly Wiccan, and that is the Legend of the Descent.
The earliest published text of the myth is given by Gerald Gardner in Witchcraft Today (p. 41), his first non-fiction book about Wicca. There it is given the title "The Myth of the Goddess." He also published it as an appendix to The Meaning of Witchcraft (p. 265). There are many differences between the two versions, but they are insignificant, mostly changes in punctuation, capitalization, and paragraph breaks. Later versions published by Kelly (pp. 127-8) and Farrar (pp. 195-6) also differ in minor ways. The version from Witchcraft Today, as the closest we have to an original, may be considered to be authoritative, and will therefore be the one discussed here. In this version, G." stands for the secret name of the Goddess used by the Gardnerians. The text is as follows:
Now G. had never loved, but she would solve all mysteries, even the mystery of Death, and so she journeyed to the nether lands. The guardians of the portals challenged her. "Strip off thy garments, lay aside thy jewels, for nought may ye bring with you into this our land." So she laid down her garments and her jewels and was bound as are all who enter the realms of Death, the mighty one.
Such was her beauty that Death himself knelt and kissed her feet, saying: "Blessed be thy feet that have brought thee in these ways. Abide with me, but let me place my cold hand on thy heart." And she replied: "I love thee not. Why doest thou cause all things that I love and take delight in to fade and die?" "Lady," replied Death, "'tis age and fate, against which I am helpless. Age causes all things to wither; but when men die at the end of time, I give them rest and peace and strength so that they may return. But you, you are lovely. Return not; with me." But she answered: "I love thee not." Then said Death: "As you receive not my hand on your heart, you must receive Death's scourge." "It is fate, better so," she said, and she knelt. Death scourged her and she cried: "I know the pangs of love." And Death said: "Blessed be," and gave her the fivefold kiss, saying: "Thus only may you attain to joy and knowledge."
And he taught her all the mysteries, and they loved and were one; and he taught her all the magics. For there are three great events in the life of man--love, death and resurrection in the new body -- and magic controls them all. To fulfill love you must return again at the same time and place as the loved ones, and you must remember and love her or him again. But to be reborn you must die and be ready for a new body; to die you must be born; without love you may not be born, and this is all the magic."
One other text that must be mentioned is in the Craft Laws. These are rules given in the Gardnerian Book of Shadows for the operation of covens. The relevant section is Laws 14-18:
14. For, as the god himself kissed her feet in the five-fold salute, laying his power at the feet of the goddess because of her youth and beauty, her sweetness and kindness, her wisdom and justice, her humility and generosity,
15. So he resigned all his power to her.
16. But the High Priestess should ever mind that all power comes from him.
17. It is only lent, to be used wisely and justly.
18. And the greatest virtue of a High Priestess be that she recognize that youth is necessary to the representative of the goddess. (Johns, p. 131).
A slightly longer version was published by Stewart Farrrar in What Witches Do (195-6), and others have been published from time to time.
The origins of the myth are not known. Doreen Valiente, while admitting that she herself did not know (Farrar & Farrar, p. 167), suggested that Gardner may have inherited it, at least in rough outlines. Kelly (p. 129) suggests that the legend is an attempt to provide a theological basis for scourging and is therefore most likely to have been composed by Gardner himself, whom Kelly considers to have required scourging for sexual performance.
Most of the differences between the two versions Gardner published could easily be explained by his writing a memorized text. Examples are Witchcraft Today “the mystery of Death,” “guardians of the portals;” Meaning of Witchcraft “the Mystery of Death,” “Guardians of the Portals.” This possibility is contradicted by others: Witchcraft Today “But you, you are lovely,” "As you receive not my hand on your heart,” and “this is all the magic," vs. Meaning of Witchcraft “But thou, thou art lovely,” “An thou received not my hand on they heart,” and “these be all the Magics.” The later versions are the more “archaic.” This suggests not an old document being misremembered, but a new one being rewritten to look older.
Gardner himself hints that he wrote the legend, basing it on other sources, in Witchcraft Today (p. 41). It was a peculiarity of his writing to give his sources in a roundabout way, saying, for instance, that Rudyard Kipling or Aleister Crowley could have written some of the rituals (1954, p. 47), when he had used the writings of both of those men as sources.
One of the sources he suggests for the Legend is the myth of "Istar" (his spelling). By this he means the myth of the descent of Ishtar to the land of the dead. The myth is too long to be given in full, so I will summarize it. (Readers interested in seeing the complete text will find the Akkadian version in Pritchard, pp. 80-5, and Eliade, 1967, pp. 321-5, and the Sumerian in Wolkstein and Kramer, pp. 52-89).
Ishtar decides to go to the Land of the Dead, where her sister Ereshkigal is queen. No reason is given, but the fact that we later learn that her lover Tammuz is there may be meant to give us her motive. (In the Sumerian version, "The Descent of Inanna," the goddess wishes to attend the funeral of the husband of Ereshkigal.) She encounters seven gates, at each of which the gatekeeper requires her to give up an article of clothing or jewelry, each of which may symbolize or be the source of one of her powers. When she is finally brought before her sister, Ereshkigal has her locked up and sends miseries upon her. Back in the upper world, sex has stopped. The gods become worried, and send someone to the Land of the Dead to get Ishtar back. She is sprinkled with the waters of life and is able to return to the world above. Tammuz is also returned to life.
The myth of Ishtar provides a framework for the Legend of the Descent: A goddess goes to the land of the dead. There are guardians. They challenge her. She must leave her possessions behind. She is punished there. Then she is released. Within this structure, Gardner has created an effectively new myth.
The newness of the Legend of the Descent is shown in the differences between it and that of Ishtar/Inanna. Ishtar goes to the Land of the Dead for no specified reason, although she may have gone in search of Tammuz, her lost lover. She must contend with Ereshkagil, her sister, who is the queen of death. She returns to the land of the living with help from the other deities. Tammuz returns with her.
In the Gardnerian legend, the Goddess goes to the Underworld because "she would know all things." There is a king of death instead of a queen and he shows no sign of ever having known her, nor she him. She is not rescued from the Underworld, but rather becomes its queen. The meaning seems to be that the power of love, life, and the Goddess can overcome death by transforming it into rebirth. Although early in the Legend Death says that souls are reborn, at the end it is made explicit that this is only possible if there is love. Since there is no love until the Goddess arrives, the Legend would seem to be a myth of the origin of reincarnation. It may be relevant that in the original Gardnerian formulation reincarnation was only for initiates (Kelly, p. 16), and that the Legend is enacted at the Second Degree initiation. Was the idea that by going through the myth of the origin of reincarnation an initiand entered into a state where reincarnation was possible?
The second source that needs to be examined is the corpus of myths surrounding Shiva. This is the other source that Gardner himself suggests (1970, p. 41). There are so many Shivaite myths that it is hard to say anything with certainty; however, my own search of the easily available myths has turned up no parallel. It is most likely that what Gardner meant was simply that the God in the Legend is functioning in the role of "Lord of Ghosts," as does Shiva, rather than that a specific myth influenced the Legend. Gardner says as much when he calls Shiva "the god of Death and Resurrection."
Another parallel that has been proposed is that of Persephone in the Underworld. The similarities here are very slight; a Goddess who comes to the Underworld (she does not go there on her own), and a King of Death. That she helps transform death may be implied, but it is not made explicit, although it may very well have been in the Eleusinian mysteries, about which we know so little. That this was implied is indicated by the statements of initiates (conveniently collected in Eliade, 1967, 301-2) that only those who have undergone the mysteries can hope for a happy afterlife. (Cf. what was said earlier about only Gardnerian initiates being reincarnated.) Thus the structure of these myths bear few similarities, but their meanings are similar.
The final possibility is Christian influence. It is no surprise that a Christian myth may have influenced Gardnerianism. After all, members of the New Forest coven were surely inhabitants of their era and land, and Christian influence, conscious or not, would have been hard to avoid.
I see two possible Christian sources. The less known of the two is the harrowing of hell. The original version is found in the Gospel of Nicodemus (also called The Acts of Pontius Pilate), chap. 15-19. According to this story, after Jesus died on the cross, he went to Hades (the land of the dead) to release the captive souls and bring them to heaven. He defeated Death/Satan, and then destroyed the prison of Hades. Adam prostrated himself before Jesus and prayed a psalm. The dead were then taken to heaven by Jesus.
The elements of this story that correspond to the Legend are the descent of a deity to the land of the dead, the confrontation with a personified death, the victory over death with the establishment of a kind of salvation, and the prostration of one of the characters before the deity. This is the basic structure of the Legend of the Descent as well.
The most disturbing possibility (at least to many Wiccans) is that the Legend represents a Paganized version of the Atonement. This, the central doctrine of Christianity, states that by submitting to death (and "descend[ing] into hell") Jesus ensured the salvation of mankind. Since reincarnation is the Wiccan functional equivalent to Christian salvation, the Legend of the Goddess submitting to Death to bring about rebirth is an almost perfect counterpoint. Nowhere is it said that the Goddess died, which is to be expected in a religion in which it is the God who dies and the Goddess who gives birth. Her descent is equivalent to her dying, however. The scourging of the Goddess may equate to the scourging of Jesus, although in one case it takes place after the descent and in the other before. It is quite possible that the other differences reflect the difference between a Trinity form of monotheism, and the sexual duotheism of Wicca, with the added influence of the other myths already discussed.
None of these possible sources can explain the Legend by itself. And yet, it is possible that all of them together can. We have in the Legend a Goddess descending to the Underworld (Ishtar) and encountering the Lord of the Underworld (Persephone, Death/Satan, Shiva) and then freeing the souls of the dead (Harrowing of Hell, Atonement) by establishing reincarnation (Shiva), thereby becoming queen of the Underworld (Persephone). Did, then, Gardner compose this myth himself, with influence from other sources? It is unfortunate that we possess so few texts and cannot compare earlier versions. Working with what is available however, this is probable. Gardner's own references to similarities with other myths is highly suggestive in this regard.
It is significant that Valiente, who had such an effect on Wicca and has been a great help in determining the sources of so many other aspects of Gardnerian Wicca, claims ignorance on the subject. This makes it almost certain that the Legend was already composed when Valiente joined Gardner's coven. Gardner’s mention of the similarity with the myths of Istar and Shiva must be interpreted to mean that he it is likely that composed the Legend himself, or that it was composed by one of his associates.
But what is the meaning of the Legend? Kelly (p. 129) calls it "a theologizing of the scourging." This is consistent with Kelly's emphasis on the importance of scourging in Gardnerian Wicca. In the Craft Laws, which were almost certainly written by Gardner himself (Valiente, pp. 70-2) later than the Legend of the Descent, the Legend is interpreted to justify the High Priest being the leader of the coven and the High Priestess being required to resign when she grew old. Since these laws were appear late, however (in 1956 or 1957, according to Valiente), the Legend preceded them, and this represents Gardner's theologizing based on the Legend rather than necessarily its original purpose. However, that the Legend is more than a justification for scourging is shown by the fact that the Gardnerian Book of Shadows calls for it to be enacted during Second Degree initiations and at Samhain.
Mircea Eliade (1959, p. 188) wrote that the purpose of religious initiations are to introduce the initiand to the sacred, death, and sexuality. In Wicca, these introductions are in the initiations of the three degrees. Because its ritual included the acting out of the Legend of the Descent, the Second Degree is obviously the one which concerns itself with death. It is through taking part in the enactment of the Legend of the Descent that the initiate confronts death and learns its mysteries.
The Legend of the Descent is also enacted at Samhain. Samhain is both an occasion for the revering of death and a New Year ritual. New Year rituals are times when, like so many other beginnings, the world is made new. Before this can happen, the old world must be destroyed. This is the function of the Legend of the Descent at Samhain; the Goddess of Life goes to Death, and the natural order of things is destroyed. The world is then recreated through the Great Rite, which is also called for at Samhain.
If, then, the Legend is only concerned with providing a theological basis for scourging, I am amazed that Gardner had the good sense to place it where he did. There is no other place in the year or the life of a Wiccan where it would be more appropriate, and it is good that Gardner saw this too.
There is much more to the Legend, however. Not only does it describe the victory of life over death, it describes how this came to be. It was through the intervention of the Goddess, who brings birth, that rebirth was made possible.
The moment of the origin of rebirth is not specified. The God implies that it already existed, when he answers the Goddess' challenge, but the explanation of the commentary at the end of the Legend is quite clear that it comes from love, and therefore should not have come into being until the Goddess came to the Land of the Dead. This may simply be an oversight on the part of the Legend's composer, or it may reflect a meaning that I have missed.
It is interesting that it was not through any actions of the Goddess (unless her descent is considered an action) that the victory over death was won. Rather, it is by her very presence. Death is moved simply by her acceptance of fate.
The Goddess submits to fate. "It is fate; better so." The God explains how death is the way things must be. "'Tis age and fate, against which I am helpless." The meaning of the Legend might almost be considered to be that we must submit to the way things are.
But the Goddess shows a way out. She is herself the very personification of fate, and yet by her bold actions and her sacred presence she points to a way to escape fate. For part of fate, if is considered properly, is not merely death but also rebirth. The cyclical nature of this is a common thread within Neo-Paganism.
The similarities between the Legend of the Descent and the Christian doctrine of Atonement go deep, then. Not only is the Legend, like the Atonement, the explanation of the victory of life over death; it may also be seen as the defining statement of the beliefs of its religion. It is only suitable, then, that it is Wicca's only myth. Perhaps it is the only one Wicca really needs.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1959.
-----(ed.). Essential Sacred Writings from Around the World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1976 (1967).
Farrar, Stewart. What Witches Do. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1971.
Gardner, Gerald. Witchcraft Today. New York: Citadel Press, 1970 (1954).
-----The Meaning of Witchcraft. New York: Magical Childe, 1982 (1959).
The Gospel of Nicodemus. The Apocryphal New Testament. London: William None, 1820.
The Homeric Hymns. Boer, Charles (trans.). Chicago: The Swallow Press, 1970.
Johns, June. King of the Witches: The World of Alex Sanders. London: Morrison and Gibb, Ltd., 1969.
Kelly, Aidan. Crafting the Art of Magic, Vol I. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1991.
Leland, Charles G. Aradia: Gospel of the Witches. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1974 (1897).
Pritchard, James B. The Ancient Near East: An Anthology in Texts and Pictures, Vol. I. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958.
Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. London: Robert Hale, 1989.
Wolkstein, Diane, and Kramer, Samuel Noah. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. New York: Harper and Row, 1983.