According to legend, George Pikingill literally died in the shadow of the cross, cursing God and the residents of Canewdon, England, where he was both revered and feared. Since his death in 1909, his stature has only grown; depending on who you believe, he was either an uneducated, but gifted, local cunning man, or he was the father of modern witchcraft.
Pikingill was born sometime around 1816 in the English county of Essex to Susannah Cudner and Charles Pickingill, a blacksmith – which is of no small import given the occult lore surrounding the art of smithing, and original blacksmith Tubal Cain. Some believe he was of Romani stock as well, which would link him to the hereditary mysteries of the gypsies.
What is known for sure is that he married, had four children and worked as a farm laborer in Canewdon most of his life. Everything else is up for debate, including his age. He was purported to be England’s oldest living man until his death, but even this claim is controversial as it appears ol’ George aged himself in census reports to gain early relief from the parish.
In the 1950’s folklorist Eric Maple was engaged in a study of magic and witchcraft in Southern England when came upon the residents of Canewdon. There he heard tales of how Pickingill was, in fact, a “cunning man” who cured ailments and aided people in finding lost items. He was also told that George had a dark side as well and would not hesitate to curse, as well as cure. He was so feared by the villagers that his basic needs, including beer, were met for fear of reprisal. Yet he was also revered for the amount of work he was able to accomplish, although some say that was work performed by his familiars, rather than George himself. Of note, it was claimed that George could control animals, which would have made him invaluable as a “horse whisperer.” If true, this could indicate that Pickingill was a member of the Horseman’s Guild, a secret occult society not unlike that purported to exist among blacksmiths. Also, if true, it might lend some credence to the more extraordinary claims about Pickingill that were to follow.
In the 1970’s, an occultist by the name of Bill Liddell began writing articles that Pickingill was the progenitor of modern English witchcraft and beyond. Liddell claimed that Pickingill founded nine covens throughout southern England based on his family’s hereditary practice. Whether or not this was done as he travelled as a Horseman or whether or not people came to him for instruction, is not entirely clear. What is alleged to have taken place, though, is that Pickingill chose nine women who carried “witch blood” to instruct in the ways of the “Pickingill Craft.” What is most interesting about this claim is that the style of witchcraft that Pickingill allegedly passed on was Luciferian in nature, as well as inundated with Norse paganism, and French Satanism. His craft appears to be an intersection of traditional northern European paganism and the left-handed mysteries of the Saracen cult that was said to be passed to the Knights Templars, and which venerated the horned god Baphomet.
Also of note is the way he passed on these mysteries. It is claimed that he would sexually initiate the women into the mysteries, providing them with the basic instruction of a three-degreed system in which men initiated women and women initiated men, and then leave them with his “Black Book” that was purported to be similar to a “book of shadows” to build their own coven upon. It is also claimed that the rites included circle casting, ritual nudity, emphasis on the Goddess over the God, the five-fold kiss, the rite of Drawing Down the Moon, the Charge of the Goddess and the use of magical cords, all of which are found in Gerald Gardner’s Wicca. If true, it appears that that the Pickingill Craft contained the seeds of both Modern Traditional Witchcraft, which is more Luciferian in nature, and Wicca. But how, exactly?
It is well known that Gardner had some contact with the New Forest Coven in Hampshire, England. What is unknown is whether or not New Forest was indeed one of Pickingill’s Nine. Liddell claims that it was. If so, then it could be possible that Gardner’s Wicca was greatly influenced and informed by Pickingill’s Craft, albeit as a somewhat sanitized version (there are, after all, no devils or black masses to be found in Wicca).
It isn’t just Gardner who is said to have been influenced by Pickingill, Lidell also alleges that the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley was initiated into one of the Nine (possibly the infamous Cambridge coven, which is a fascinating subject in and of itself for another time). Crowley is to have said that he did have some contact at a young age with the witch-cult before turning to ceremonial magick. It is also claimed that during his travels Pickingill also helped found the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Rosicrucian Society, which could have some credence given that some traditional witches incorporated grimoires like the Key of Solomon into their practice, and if Pickingill really was an accomplished cunning man, he may have had knowledge and an understanding of ceremonial magick.
Now surely this all seems like the stuff of legend, and maybe it is. Certainly Liddell’s claims have been questioned and critiqued, although it is interesting that Liddell’s character has been vouched for repeatedly by those who know him. It would be convenient to claim Pickingill as source of nearly every strain of occultism to emerge from England in the past one hundred years, or so, and that is part of the problem. If this legend is true, then despite the problems with Margaret Murray’s scholarship about the existence of a continual European Witch-Cult, there does appear to be some basis for the legitimization of some aspects of Gardner’s Wicca as a tributary along the long red stream of hereditary witchcraft. Therefore, it is possible that the motive of Liddell and others that circulate the Pickingill Craft legend is to bolster historical legitimacy for practices that are actual modern creations. At the same time, the proof may be in the pudding. Certainly a lot of what has been attributed to Pickingill’s Craft is, indeed, being practiced today. The Luciferian aspects cut from Wicca found a home in the Clan of Tubal Cain, which existed long before Liddell ever made his claims. Does this mean that Tubal Cain was another of the Pickingill Nine? Or does this just mean that Liddell incorporated that bit of lore into the Pickingill legend to make it more believable? We may never know. What we do know though is that George Pickingill is either the most important witch to ever live, or is a great repository for modern English folk-tales – either way he has indeed become immortal, like only the greatest witches can.