Folklore, History & the Study of Myth

The Writings of Gary R. Varner

Journalist, Adventurer, Folklorist

The Folklorist


t was Leland’s early childhood in Philadelphia that spurred on his interests in the mysterious world of Indians, witches, and the ancient cultures that existed before. Folklore and old stories occupied the minds of many people in Philadelphia who were surrounded by an area rich in history and myth.

His niece and biographer wrote, “Not only did statues walk, but there were great marble dogs in Race Street by which the small boy who was wise ran quickly, for they howled when anybody in the neighborhood died; a dreadful sound, surely, even for grown-up people to hear.  Then, there were Indians who came from their graves to hold their weekly market in Independence Square and, had he only waked at the midnight hour, he might (who knows?) have seen, from the Fifth Street windows, the statue of Franklin stalking among their shadows. There was the Quaker girl, too, whose ghost on summer nights wandered among the flowers in the garden of the old Pennington House, a ghost no one need have been afraid of. These and other pleasant terrors lurked at every corner, in every open place in town. …And when he invested in the Dime Novels of the day, half the time it was to read some horror of the Salem witches; when he wandered into the kitchen, Irish servants whispered of fairies, or old coloured women muttered ‘Voodoo incantations.’ One there was, a cook, who had gone so far as to put ‘a spell of death’ on all who dared take her place.” (1)


His environment, as well as his ancestry, no doubt contributed to his natural inclination to be fascinated with the unknown.  Besides being descended from the first white settler in New England, he was also related to John Leland, an antiquary, and Charles Leland the Secretary of the Society of Antiquarians during Charles I’s time. His mother was a member of the Godfrey family—Rhode Island Puritans. One of her ancestors was a “High German” doctor said to practice sorcery. 


According to Elizabeth Pennell, “The unseen, the strange, the extraordinary,--that was what reconciled him to life, from boyhood…to old age…” (2)


Leland’s foray into folklore was, contrary to the experience of most folklorists, one of luxury. His niece would write, “Much as he loved the people of the road, to play tramp would have been no less abhorrent to him than to pose as “Bohemian” in New York. Later, when he went gypsying, it was from his own comfortable quarters. He never lived with the Indians, as Cushing did. He might walk a mile to meet a tinker, but nothing would have induced him to set up a tinker’s forge, like Borrow.” (3)


His research consisted of chance meetings with the Indians and paid accounts from both Indian and Gypsy informants. Rarely did he question the materials that were sent to him but willingly paid for them by the page. Even when he did suspect that his informants were sending materials freely adapted from poems, fiction or the classics he never refused the material but simply adapted them to his needs—and his needs were to create a fantasy of what he believed the ancient cultures, religions and traditions should be.


His most serious example of scholarly fraud was his attempt to place the origin of Algonquin myth in the Norse Eddas. He not only modified Indian art to reflect Old World mythic images, but he falsified Native American mythology to establish a connection between the two cultures. While his work may have been accepted by the public it was immediately challenged by leading scholars of his day as being untenable.


There is disturbing evidence that Leland was, in fact, a racist and his “noble savage” and “noble Gypsy” views were used to enforce his constructed world of fantasy. Thomas Parkhill wrote, “As improbable as it seems to contemporary sensibilities, Leland wanted to show these ‘Indians’ to be in some sense Aryan. According to his story, if the ‘Algonquin’s’ mythology derives from the Norse, then their myths, like the Norse’s, are related to Vedic mythology and are thus ‘Aryan.’ If Leland’s ‘Indians’ are Aryans, or even Aryan-like, they would be seen as strong, aggressive, virile—showing manly virtue.” (4) 


Strangely enough, Joseph Campbell, that American icon of folklore and mythology, is the lone scholar who has embraced Leland’s hypothesis of a Norse-Algonquin kinship. Parkhill noted, “Sadly, Campbell depends on Leland to be an authority when scholars unanimously agree he is not; and he relies on a story, the centerpiece of Leland’s work, that Leland had forged to his own specifications.” (5) While we may justify Campbell’s oversight to simply not checking Leland’s sources this does cast a pall over Campbell’s stature among scholars. 


Leland pictured himself as an individual totally at ease with all people, although he also implied that he was above them both intellectually and culturally. Pennell noted, “he had always, he said, been able to win the confidence of Indians and Negroes. It was natural then that he and the Gypsies, as soon as they met, should understand each other.” (6) In his own words, Leland wrote of these people, “who have all at least this one point in common with Savages, New Jerseymen, Red Indians, Negroes, Gypsies, and witches, that they by mystic sympathy know those who like them, and take to them accordingly, guided by some altogether inexplicable clue or Hexengarn, even as deep calleth unto deep and star answereth star without a voice.  Whence it was soon observed at Heidelberg by an American student that ‘Leland would abuse the Dutch all day long if he saw fit, but never allowed anybody else to do so.’  The which thing, as I think, argues the very ne plus ultra of sympathy.” (7)


One of Leland’s pet projects was his study of “Shelta.” According to Leland, Shelta is an ancient Romany language based in Irish Gaelic. He described it as a “back-slanged and rhyming cant based on old or pre-aspirated Irish Gaelic.” He was certain that it was also identified with Ogham, the ancient writing system of the Irish and the Druids. There is no evidence of this connection, however. In Leland’s opinion, Shelta was a natural origin for the language of the gypsies as the Irish “are given to mysterious languages and secrets.” Leland proclaimed himself to be the “first discoverer of Shelta” although this is unlikely as the first vocabulary of the language was published in 1808. Shelta does in fact exist as a secret language and is used to conceal meaning from outsiders, used primarily in gypsy business negotiations or when speaking around the police. Officially known as Gammon, it may date back to the 13th century. According to linguists, Shelta has a syntax primarily based in English with heavy influence from Irish, English and other non-Gaelic languages. A survival of the language into common usage is the English word “bloke,” meaning “a man”, which may have originated in the mid-19th century. Linguists believe it probably derives from the Shelta word "buachaill", meaning “boy” or "lad". There are approximately 86,000 worldwide speakers today, all of whom are “travelers.” Leland labeled the language the “5th Celtic tongue.”   


Although Leland obviously was not the “discoverer” of the language, he was responsible for the first publication of the word “Shelta” in his 1882 book, The Gypsies.


Leland wrote to fellow folklorist David MacRitchie on October 30, 1891 suggesting that papers on Shelta be requested from other researchers for presentation in the Folk-Lore Journal. He wrote:


“The world—even the learned—does not know as yet that a quite new (or ancient) language has been discovered in Great Britain, with tales and songs. If it had been some infinitesimally trifling and worthless Himaritic or Himalayan up-country nigger dialect, every scholar in England would have heard of it long ago. But the old language of the bards—or at worst, an old Celtic tongue—is of no interest to anybody.” (8)


Obviously, Leland’s “love of the Negro” did not extend to language. Leland reportedly “discovered” the language from “an English vagrant in North Wales and an Irish tinker in Philadelphia.”


Leland’s greatest desire was to “discover.” Regardless if he manipulated his informants or modified legends and traditions, regardless if the item of discovery had already been found by another, he lived to be regarded as a revealer of the lost and mysterious. One of his idiosyncrasies was to change the legends, which he received from his informants, from their original into poetic format—he seemed to feel that all ancient tales must have been created in metre for them to be authentic. In a letter addressed to J. Dyneley Prince on February 16, 1902, Leland’s co-author for his book on Algonquin legends, he wrote:


“Just as the learned world is amazed that, with the exception of the Emperor Claudius, no Roman scholar ever tried to collect or preserve any Etruscan record or trace of the language…so will the world in days to come marvel that no scholar (save you and I) ever took pains to preserve the Algonkin poems…” (9)


The next month he wrote to Prince that “…in truth I think it would have been better in a more Edda-like metre. However, it is better that the sing-song, wheel-and-bucket Kalevala-Bulgarian metre of [Longnfellow’s] Hiawatha.” His desire for the Algonquin legends to be more similar to an “Edda-like metre” again shows how he consciously attempted to falsify his information to support his own brand of reality and to fit his own agenda. This will be clearer to the reader in the next chapter.


That same day, he sent another missive to Prince, which alluded to his desire for recognition as a pioneer in folklore:


“…I am proud to be a first pointer-out—just as I am of having been acknowledged to be the first discoverer of Shelta…also of Italian-Latin witch lore and mythology, which latter has not as yet been credited to me, but will be some day.”  (10)


And again, on March 22, 1902:


“This [the Algonquin legends] was like my discovery of the Shelta tongue, which also took years, and I am very proud that I have two such discoveries credited to me, for the Shelta also has yielded a large crop of legends and poems, and is rapidly being recognized as the corner-stone of British Celtic literature. …as I had gone through and through the Gyps with success, I was to a degree qualified for Injuns.” (11)


Leland’s desire to prove that an ancient religion religious cult still existed in the contemporary world is illustrated in his 1891 book, Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune Telling:


 “…it is certainly interesting to observe that among these people there is still extant, on a very extended scale indeed, a Shamanism which seems to have come from the same Tartar-Altaic source which was found of yore among the Accadian-Babylonians, Etruscan races, and Indian hill-tribes. This, the religion of the drum and the demon as a disease—or devil doctoring…many fragments of this primitive religion, or cult, still exist, under very different names, in the most enlightened centres of civilization.” (12)


He would use his book Aradia as a platform to advance his premise. His earlier view of this Shamanic religion was not as eloquent as he portrayed it in Aradia, however. He wrote, “Not only is Fetish or Shamanism the real religion of criminals, but of vast numbers who are not suspected of it. There is not a town in England or in Europe in which witchcraft…is not extensively practiced, although this is done with a secrecy the success of which is of itself almost a miracle.” (13)


Witchcraft, spell work and other mystical practices certainly are practiced in this very day…they are recreated every few decades to reflect the changing characteristics of a society that wishes to experience mystery and the unknown, and in the hope of influencing others. Witchcraft and shamanism are also practiced in certain indigenous cultures unchanged as they always have been. For the most part, however, people are accused of being witches by others who desire the individual’s possessions or standing in the community or who wish to place blame for failure on someone else. Leland’s statement that shamanism is “the real religion of criminals” is unfounded and irresponsible. It was, at best, sensationalism used to sell books. His statement as well that “there is not a town in England or in Europe in which witchcraft…is not extensively practiced” has no foundation but is used to introduce his theories of an ancient religion surviving into contemporary society.


Even though his niece would write that Leland “loved” the gypsy his attitude towards gypsies, other cultures and races was not a respectful one. He wrote that shamans seem “to have a Tartar-Mongol-mongrel-Turanian origin” (14) and that “the old Shamanism…was deeply based among the inferior races” (15) which are certainly statements of one who believes he is inordinately superior.


His interest in witchcraft was life long. While he denigrated those who practiced sorcery or witchcraft in their indigenous cultures, he was not above professing to practice it himself and keeping amulets and charms in his pockets along with “the Black Stone of the Voodoos.”


Leland’s possession of the Black Stone, according to his memoirs, endowed him with the powers as a “master of Voodoo sorcery.” He often used this title in his books implying that he had received it from practitioners of the Voodoo religion. He would recall a visit to the home of a friend of his mothers, a Mr. Gay who lived in Boston and his discovery of a similar black stone in the man’s garden:

“While there, I found in the earth in the garden an oval, dark-green porphyry pebble, which I, moved by a strange feeling, preserved for many years as an amulet.  It is very curious that exactly such pebbles are found as fetishes all over the world, and the famous conjuring stone of the Voodoos, which I possess, is only an ordinary black flint pebble of the same shape.  Negroes have travelled a thousand miles to hold it in their hands and make a wish, which, if uttered with faith, is always granted.  Its possession alone entitles any one to the first rank as master in the mysteries of Voodoo sorcery.  Truly I began early in the business!  I may here say that since I owned the Voodoo stone it has been held in several very famous and a few very beautiful hands.” (16)

While Leland believed that he was beloved and accepted by gypsies, Indians and practitioners of Voodoo how much of this belief was true or only in his mind or embellished upon in his books, we may never know. Elizabeth Pennell wrote that Leland “was called Master by witches and gypsies.” (17) After his repeated falsification of myths to create a pseudo-history of religion, it is possible that he also created his relationships with the gypsies and Indians to bolster his reputation in literary circles. Other than his decade long relationship with Maddalena, which was primarily conducted through the mail, he only had chance encounters with Native Americans and those he would claim practiced voodoo. His statement that he was a “master in the mysteries Of voodoo sorcery” simply because he possessed an amulet stone, without any reference to the stone or its background, is indicative of his desire to be in the center of the public’s eye as a discoverer, a leader and a “master”. Unfortunately, his many claims cannot and were not substantiated.


An example of placing himself in a mysterious light based on his writings is the following:

“When all the slaves in Nashville were set free by the entrance of our troops, the poor souls, to manifest their joy, seized a church (nobody opposing), and for three weeks held heavy worship for twenty-four hours per diem.  But not a white soul was allowed to enter—the real and deeply-concealed reason being that Voodoo rites (which gained great headway during the war) formed a part of their devotion.  However, I was informed that an exception would be made in my case, and that I was free to enter.  And why?  Had Jim surmised, by that marvellous intuition of character which blacks possess, that I had in me “the mystery”?  Now, to-day I hold and possess the black stone of the Voodoo, the possession of which of itself makes me a grand-master and initiate or adept, and such an invitation would seem as natural as one to a five-o’clock tea elsewhere; but I was not known to any one in Nashville as a “cunjerer,” and the incident strikes me as very curious.” (18)

His constant use of derogatory language concerning individuals of other races is not what one would expect of someone loved and respected by whole ethnic groups as he claimed. In his memoirs, he would state, “I have found other blacks who believed that all good darkies when they die go to Guinea…” (19) He would also declare “Compared to the awful massacres and cruelties inflicted by the blacks on one another, the white slave trade seemed to be philanthropic and humane.”(20) This is, of course not substantiated in any account of the slave trade that Leland could have accessed in his day.


  As a scholar, Leland excelled. He was a gifted linguist, artist and writer. His ability to formulate ideas into plans and to put the plans into action was clearly one of his talents. As a folklorist, he showed many of the traits of other well-privileged males of the 19th century. He was aristocratic in attitude, had a huge ego, felt himself above the rest of his peers and far above everyone else. While he did some good in his folklore studies, his manufacture of the myths and traditions of those he studied simply to create a fantasy world of his own making so he could be regarded as its “discoverer” reduces his real accomplishments. His behavior also detracted from the true mysteries and wonders of the cultures he studied—the gypsy, the Native American and the Old World witches.


Was Charles Godfrey Leland a self-serving fraud who valued a false reputation more than true scholarship? It is possible that his relationship with his father created the overwhelming need he felt to be #1 in his pursuits. According to a letter he wrote to his wife in 1863 he felt that his father viewed him in an unsavory light:


“My father regarded me as a failure in life, or as a literary ne’er-do-well, destined never to achieve fortune or gain an état, and he was quite right.” (21)


He would take steps to change this perception and they would influence people 150 years later in his writings about the witches of Italy. Writings that many still believe to be authentic evidence of a long hidden cult of witches.



1. Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. Charles Godfrey Leland a Biography, Vol. I. London: Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd., 1906, 14-16.

2. Ibid., 24.

3. Ibid., 277.

4. Parkhill, Thomas C. Weaving Ourselves into the Land: Charles Godfrey Leland, “Indians,” and the Study of Native American Religions. Albany: State University of New York 1997, 65.

5. Ibid.

6. Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. Charles Godfrey Leland a Biography, Vol. 2. London: Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd., 1906, 129. 

7.  Leland, Charles G.  Memoirs.  London: William Heinemann 1894, 142.

8. Ibid., 226-227.

9.Ibid., 246.

10. Ibid., 247.

11. Ibid., 248.

12. Leland, Charles Godfrey. Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune Telling. Edison: Castle Books 1995, xxix.

13. Ibid, xxxi.

14. Ibid., 5. Emphasis added.

15. Ibid., 6.

16. Leland, Charles G.  Memoirs.  London: William Heinemann 1894, 61.

17. Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. Charles Godfrey Leland a Biography, Vol. 1. London: Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd., 1906, 6.

18. Leland, op cit., 285-286.

19. Ibid., 118.

20. Ibid.

21. Pennell, op cit., 278.






Leland Among the Indians

Leland had always been interested in Native Americans and he viewed them as America’s gypsies. As Pennell wrote, the Indians “grow very Gypsy-like, while over them always is the mystery of their race and their legends.” (1) In fact, he eventually became enamored of their ways and history.

In 1866, Leland was on a journalistic assignment, which took him across three thousand miles of the American West, documenting the new railroad line. During this trip, he stopped at Fort Riley, Kansas where he purchased a whip from a local Kaw Indian. The Kaw are a Siouan group.  


According to Leland’s account of the event, which he wrote of in his memoirs, he took several of his party with him to meet with the Indians with the intent to buy more of the whips. When the Indians appeared to question the authenticity of his money, he replied Washitaw, which is a Pawnee word for “good.” At once, the Kaw became excited and a verbal exchange between Leland and the Kaw commenced.


“…Great was the amazement and delight of the Kaws…and their chief curiously inquired, ‘You Kaw?’ To which I replied, ‘O nitchee, me Kaw, Washita good Injun me.’ He at once embraced me with frantic joy, as did the others, to the great amazement of my friends. A wild circular dance was at once improvised to celebrate my reception into the tribe; at once our driver Brigham dryly remarked that he didn’t wonder they were glad to get me, for I was the first Injun ever seen in that tribe with a whole shirt on him. 


“The Indians yelled and drummed at the Reception Dance. ‘Now you good Kaw—good Injun you be—all same me,’ said the Chief….From that day I was called the Kaw chief…I rode and whooped like a savage.” (2)


 Apparently, the dance was the only memorable event of his “initiation” for nothing else transpired from his meeting. He did meet with some Apaches later on this trip but it wasn’t until 1882 that he began to collect the legends and traditions of the Passamaquoddy Indians of New Brunswick. It was these stories that would become The Algonquin Legends published in 1884.


Current scholars believe that Leland’s account suggest that he may have been a racist. Thomas Parkhill, Associate Professor at St. ThomasUniversity, wrote:


“His description of his encounter with the Kaw tribe, written in November 1866 for Eastern newspaper readers, cast the members of this Plains nation in a very bad light. For Leland the Kaw were part of the ‘wild tribes’ and thus still a threat to the US conquest of that territory…The Kaw, still trying to follow an older life-way, Leland describes as ‘miserable, shirking, thievish-looking specimens.” (3)


       However, Leland’s use of “Injun” and his other disparaging remarks practically disappears by the time The Algonquin Legends is published in 1884 (although he continued to refer to the Indians as “Injuns” just a year before his death). As Parkhill points out, “…Leland was anxious for his audience to see the stories of his “Indians” as infused with all that was noble, trustworthy, with lofty moral values. To accomplish this Leland made approving use of the “Indian” stereotype.” (4)


This, of course, was not the first time that authors would manipulate the reading public in order to garner sales. His true feelings probably were in the middle of these two extremes.


Pennell used to visit Leland at the Indian camps at Campobello where he was collecting the various legends for his book. She would write, “With their dark faces, their love of bright colours, their courteous manner, their outdoor life, the Indians were enough like Gypsies for me quickly to feel at home amongst them. …I was allowed to sit there while Tomah [an Indian informant] told his stories, and the Rye [Leland] made his notes, interrupting every now and then, with that emphatic outstretched hand of his, to settle some difficulty or get the uttermost meaning of the last ‘By Jolly!’.” (5)


 Soon, with the help of additional materials supplied by a missionary among the Micmacs, the wife of the local Indian agent, and an Indian member of the Main legislature, Leland had amassed a huge amount of ethnographic material on the Indians of the North East. By the end of the winter of 1884 the book was published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company.


According to Pennell Leland “allowed himself the luxury of a theory. He attributed the Algonquin sagas to a Norse origin—he compared them to the Eddas, and their heroes to Odin and Thor and Loki.” (6)


Pennell noted “unconventionality in treatment and independence in theory are anathema to the folk-lorist and comparative mythologist.” (7)


It is true that established researchers are inclined to dispute any theory, regardless of how much evidence accompanies it, if it doesn’t fit within the narrow confines of “established science.” However, Leland’s theory, like many other claims he would make, was so far out of the range of possibility that his reputation was once again in jeopardy. In an obituary written by Frederick York Powell, a noted Professor of Modern History, Leland was remembered thusly:


 “He could and did made careful and exact notes (this of his folk-lore researches in general), but when he put the results before the public, he liked to give them the seal of his own personality and to allow his fancy to play about the stories and poems he was publishing, so that those who were not able quickly to distinguish what was folk-lore and what was Leland were shocked and grumbled (much to his astonishment and even disgust), and belittled his real achievement.”


 Pennell noted that his book on Algonquin legends “fared worse, for the book was in many quarters violently criticized….One reason for his love for the Children of Light [the Indians] of his own country was that they, with their myths, had given ‘a fairy, an elf, a naiad, or a hero, to every rock and river and ancient hill in New England,’ and that he, by collecting these myths, could repeople his native land with fairies of yore, and walk in spirit trodden paths, and find goblins in the woods.” (8)


It was this romanticism of Leland’s which created the mythic world in his image. An image of a traditional witchcraft cult, a noble race of Indians, gypsies and pagans that, in actuality, did exist but not as Leland pictured them.


It was this creative and romantic notion of Leland’s that got him in trouble time and again. Parkhill wrote of one of Leland’s Algonquin myths:


 “We already know that Leland constructed ‘Of Glooskap’s Birth…’ if not out of whole cloth, at least out of pieces of material that should have caused him to hesitate. We also know he was persistent to the point of showing disrespect to his consultants. This characteristic of his story-gathering technique calls attention to his overall folklore collecting methods.” (9)


 It was this method, which, years later, produced Aradia: The Gospel of the Witches. Leland’s other methods included providing liquor and tobacco to his Indian friends, as well as small cash gifts. Leland would pay $1 for every eight pages of legend. Parkhill writes, “By ordering stories of a certain length, no doubt to conform to his reader’s expectations and perhaps to keep his project in budget, Leland was no longer merely gathering stories, he was shaping them.” (10)


 In fact, he often rewrote the stories to fit his perception of what would interest his readers. This appears to have been a fault that plagued him throughout his career, both as a journalist and as a folklorist. His rewrites were often identified by his contemporary reviewers who saw his “heavy editing hand” at work.


It wasn’t just the legends that he altered freely either. In particular a birchbark illustration by Tomah Joseph, one of Leland’s Indian informants, was used as an illustration in Leland’s piece on Algonquin legends which appeared in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. Reportedly, the same illustration, although “improved” by Leland, was used for the frontispiece of Algonquin Legends. The two are obviously different. In the original by Joseph the illustration is that of Mikamwes, an “other-than-human person.” The figure is sitting on a stream bank amid water plants and holding a long stick-like object in the water. The “improved” version shows a similar figure but with pointed ears. Leland’s caption under the altered illustration reads “The Indian Puck, or Robin Goodfellow” and “The Mik un Wess always wears a red cap like a Norse Goblin.” In fact, the original illustration shows a figure without a cap or with pointed ears. His purpose in this fabrication was to give credence to his theory that the Algonquin myths originated in Norse lore. His effort to prove his theories with altered stories and illustrations was tireless. Parkhill noted that Joseph Campbell, yet again taken by Leland’s myths, “unwittingly chose [the illustration of Mikunwesu] to grace the Table of Contents of his Atlas, thus ensuring ‘the eclectic folklorist’s’ work would endure for generations.”(11)  


He was involved in the same deception up until his death, writing to his co-author of Kulóskap the Master, J. Dyneley Prince on January 27, 1902, “…I think I had better do the birch-bark drawings, having had much practice therein under first-class Injun teachers.” (12)


As indicated, Leland’s treatment of the Algonquin myths was purely to advance his Norse theory. As Parkhill noted, “Matching detail for detail, Leland forces this ‘Indian’-Norse connection at every turn.” (13)


Leland had written an article in the Atlantic Monthly in 1884 and presented a lecture to the Royal Society of Literature in 1886 with the premise that the Algonquin traditions had originated in the Norse Eddas. According to Leland, “there is hardly a song in the Norse collection which does not contain an incident found in the Indian poem-legends, while in several there are many such coincidences.” (14)


According to Parkhill, Leland’s legends were obviously so out of touch with reality “they might well be laughed at. Considering what he felt was in the balance, he could not just pass them on untouched. He must show that they were worthy of attention, even if that meant adding a little here and there, changing a lot here and there.” (15) Parkhill also pointed out that Leland never missed a change for self-aggrandizement so the legends had to be worthy of his name, even if that meant they bore no semblance to their original character. 


 Leland also had an interesting view of grave robbing, excusing his forays into pot hunting but condemning others for the same act. He wrote in his Memoirs:


‘…one morning there was brought in an old silver cross which had just been found in an Indian grave on the margin of the lake, not very far away.  I went there with some others.  It was evidently the grave of some distinguished man who had been buried about a hundred years ago.  There were the decayed remains of an old-fashioned gun, and thousands of small beads adhering, still in pattern, to the tibiæ.  I dug up myself—in fact they almost lay on the surface, the sand being blown away—several silver bangles, which at first looked exactly like birch-bark peelings, and, what I very much prized, two or three stone cylinders or tubes, about half an inch in diameter, with a hole through them.  Antiquaries have been much puzzled over these, some thinking that they were musical instruments, others implements for gambling. I also purchased from a boy a red stone pipe-head, which was found in the same grave.”


He then righteously states, “A frequent source of grief to me has been to see objects of great value, illustrating some point in archæology, seized as ‘curiosities’ by ignorant wealthy folk.” (16) His scholarship was similarly conducted. 


Leland’s use of manipulation and deception in his research and writing of The Algonquin Legends were perfected during this time and were used to the fullest with the publication of Aradia in 1899. 






1. Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. Charles Godfrey Leland a Biography, Vol. 2. London: Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd., 1906, 229

 2. Ibid. 231-232.

 3. Parkhill, Thomas C. Weaving Ourselves into the Land: Charles Godfrey Leland, “Indians,” and the Study of Native American Religions. Albany: State University of New York 1997, 50.

 4. Ibid.

 5. Pennell, op cit., 235.

 6. Ibid., 237.

 7.  Ibid.

 8.  Pennell, op cit., 238.

 9. Ibid, 52.

 10. Ibid. 54.

 11. Parkhill, op cit., 59.

 12. Pennell, op cit., 243.

 13. Parkhill, op cit.,61.

 14. As quoted in Parkhill, 62.

 15. Ibid., 105.

 16. Leland, Charles G. Memoirs. London: William Heinemann 1894, 360.


Charles G. Leland & his views on religion

Leland’s view of religion was basically in tune with Neoplatonism. (1) He rejected most organized religion in favor of those lesser restrictive churches. He wrote “To me who hear God, the Unknown, in yonder surf billows roaring in sunshine as if wild with joy, I am worthy of worship, for it is I who conceive God moving in glorious beauty, and it is God in Me who inspires the thought.” (2) Sorcery was, according to Leland’s mind, the original religion. Black magic, witchcraft and shamanism were the basis for Mankind’s religious traditions and those traditions continue in the rural landscapes of modern society. It was Leland’s desire to convince everyone that the romantic world of magic and mystery still existed as it always had. He went to great lengths to create such a world. His parents were Unitarians and Leland was exposed to the Unitarian tradition at an early age. He remained a Unitarian even after his parents eventually joined an Episcopalian church during his adolescence. “In later life,” wrote Margery Silver, “he described his own religion as a kind of rationalistic and ethical pantheism, in which everything and everybody was conceived as an emanation from the mind of God.” (3)

An early influence on Leland’s religious views was Bronson Alcott, the mystic. Alcott was hired by Leland’s mother as a tutor for the young man. “...Mr. Alcott was the most eccentric man who ever took it on himself to train and form the youthful mind,” he would recall later. “He did not really teach any practical study; there was indeed some pretence at geography and arithmetic, but these we were allowed to neglect at our own sweet will. His forte was ‘moral influence’ and ‘sympathetic intellectual communion’ by talking; and oh, heaven! what a talker he was! He was then an incipient Transcendentalist, and he did not fail to discover in me the seeds of the same plant. He declared that I had a marvellous imagination, and encouraged my passion for reading anything and everything to the very utmost. It is a fact that at nine years of age his disquisitions on and readings from Spenser’s “Faerie Queen” actually induced me to read the entire work, of which he was very proud.” (4)

“All of the new theories, speculations, or fads which were beginning to be ventilated among the Unitarian liberal clergy found ready welcome in his dreamy brain, and he retailed them all to his pupils, among whom I was certainly the only one who took them in and seriously thought them over.” (5)

Eventually though Alcott’s eccentric personality became too much and Leland “was removed, and with good cause, from Mr. Alcott’s school, for he had become so very ‘ideal’ or eccentric in his teaching and odd methods of punishment by tormenting without ever whipping, that people could not endure his purely intellectual system.” (6)

Leland was exposed to Transcendentalism by age 17 by his mother. “There came a rumour that there was something springing up in Boston called Transcendentalism,” he would recall. “Nobody knew what it was, but it was dreamy, mystical, crazy, and infideleterious to religion. Firstly, it was connected with Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and finally with everything German. The new school of liberal Unitarians favoured it.” (7)

Two Unitarian ministers by the names of Channing and Furness entranced the young Leland with their sermons. Leland would write in 1847, “I never met a man who was up to Transcendentalism who wasn’t up to almost anything literary!”

Leland was very well read and found much to his liking in the works of Emerson and Carlyle as well as others. He fairly based his religious views on their works. However, he also found fault with them. In his Memoirs, he would relate his disdain of the very men that he would credit his conversion to a Pantheistic faith:

“I was far more deeply read and better grounded than were even its most advanced leaders in Anglo-Saxony. For I soon detected in Carlyle, and much more in Emerson, a very slender knowledge of that stupendous and marvellous ancient Mysticism which sent its soul in burning faith and power to the depth of ‘the downward-borne elements of God,’ as Hermes called them. I missed even the rapt faith of such a weak writer as Sir Kenelm Digby, much more Zoroaster! Vigourous and clever and bold writers they were—Carlyle was far beyond me in literary art—but true Pantheists they were not. And they were men of great genius, issuing essays to the age on popular, or political, or ‘literary’ topics; but philosophers they most assuredly were not, nor men tremendous in spiritual truth. And yet it was precisely as philosophers and thaumaturgists and revealers of occulta that they posed—especially Emerson. And they dabbled or trifled with free thought and ‘immorality,’ crying Goethe up as the Light of Lights, while all their inner souls were bound in the most Puritanical and petty goody-goodyism.

“They paddled in Pantheism, but as regards it, both lacked the stupendous faith and inspiration of the old adepti, who flung their whole souls into God; and yet they sneered at Materialism and Science.

“I did not then see all of this so clearly as I now do, but I very soon found that, as in after years it was said that Comteism was Catholicism without Christianity, so the Carlyle-Emersonian Transcendentalism was Mysticism without mystery. Nor did I reflect that it was a calling people from the nightmared slumber of frozen orthodoxy or bigotry to come and see a marvellous new thing. And when they came, they found out that this marvellous thing was that they had been awakened, ‘only that and nothing more’; and that was the great need of the time, and worth more than any magic or theosophy. But I had expected, in simple ignorant faith, that the sacred mysteries of some marvellous cabala would be revealed, and not finding what I wanted (though indeed I discovered much that was worldly new to me), I returned to the good old ghost-haunted paths trodden by my ancestors, to dryads and elves and voices from the stars, and the archæus formed by the astral spirit (not the modern Blavatsky affair, by-the-bye), which entyped all things . . . and so went elving and dreaming on ’mid ruins old.” (8)

Like most of humankind, Leland was searching for his faith. What he was able to find wasn’t quite “it” though. And so he continued his search among the ancient mystery religions. It was this search that ultimately resulted in his books of questionable scholarship.

His searches would result in some clarification for him in his understanding of religion and how certain aspects of it continued throughout time. He would find, as many do, that certain symbols, icons and teachings to be universal in nature. He came to believe, and wanted to believe that some of those ancient Mystery Cults continued to exist.

While in Germany he would report “…we climbed into an old Gothic church-tower, in which I found a fifteenth-century bell, bearing the words, Vivas voco, mortuos plango, fulgura frango, and much more—
‘The dead I knell,
the living wake,
And the power of lightning break!’
which caused me to reflect on the vast degree to which all the minor uses and observances of the Church—which are nine-tenths of all their religion to the multitude—were only old heathen superstitious in new dresses. The bell was a spell against the demons of lightning in old Etrurian days; to this time the Tuscan peasant bears one in the darkening twilight-tide to drive away the witches flitting round: in him and them “those evening bells” inspired a deeper sentiment than poetry.” (9)

Leland attempted to explain his beliefs in a rambling letter to Lily Doering, a much younger friend who was beginning to take up painting. He wrote to her on November 1, 1879:

“…Everybody seems to take it so much for granted that I have ‘no fixed principles in religion,’ when in fact there is not a man living with such a clearly defined, soul-inspiring faith as mine. …It is a higher, clearer, more definite and more humane form of the Religion of Humanity than any one has yet set forth….It has done me much good, the writing out of this. But I want a few readers—and believers. The object and aim and end of religion should be to make people better—to induce them to work and develop all their powers and never to rest in seeking and realizing the ideals of all things, and the road to this is by Love—by mutual aid and worship. What is Jehovah? An infinite Jew. What is the Virgin? The ideal of maternity….Now since Man has always created God in his own image, why does he not go to the archetype and realize and worship himself in others? …In Man are more excellencies of every kind than are combined in any other being. He or she is the most complete, the most beautiful, the most intelligent—the highest form created. Therefore, if the effort to become better and higher and to rise to the Superior be religion, its true form exists in Humanity…This will one day swallow up all religions, for it is the Beginning and the End of them all. The Son of Man and the Son of God and God’s Messenger all mean Man who has attained a sincere seeking for Ideals. Therefore this Theo-anthropism is Christian…” (10)

Leland was fairly quiet about his religious views—outside those he espoused in his relationships with the Gypsies and the Indians. Other than his experience with the Unitarian Church, he attended the Presbyterian Church at Princeton, as it was a required activity. The sermons couldn’t capture his attention however and it is said that he would read books during the service. He did have a lifelong aversion to the Catholic Church although his reasons have not been stated. He wrote in his Memoirs about the Quakers, comparing them to the Catholic Church:

“Like the Roman Catholic, it is utterly unfit for all the world, and incapable of grappling with or adapting itself to the natural expansion of science and the human mind.” (11)

Leland did appreciate the efforts that the Catholic Church took to obtain and protect works of art, however. He wrote “I like to go into the Catholic churches. You can have no idea of the sublime magnificence of a Catholic cathedral. One really feels overcome by these beautiful, melancholy, old Gothic piles. And then,” he noted, “it is beautiful to see highborn, beautiful ladies kneeling down by poor beggar women, all in enthusiastic prayer. You can see a rough, savage fellow often kneeling in tears before the Virgin. If they are wrong,” he wrote, “they are at least sincere. The Catholics in my humble opinion are much abused.“ (12)

He was strongly opposed to Christian missionaries who were in the process of “converting” the Indians. He wrote, in his rather ethnocentric manner, “How absurd it is to try to force on such people Catholic or Protestant forms, which they do not understand and never will, while their souls take in with joy the poly-pantheistic developments of supernaturalism, and that which suits their lives. Like the little boy who thought he would like to have a Testament, but knew he wanted a squirt, the Indian, unable to rise to the grandeur of monotheistic trinitarianism, is delighted with goblins, elves, and sorcery. He can manage the squirt.” (13)

While his niece wrote that he “not only studied witchcraft with the impersonal curiosity of the scholar, but practiced it with the zest of the initiated,” (14) other than this statement there is no evidence to suggest that he did so. He did carry amulets with him, such as his “Black Stone of Voodoos” and small rocks he had found with holes in them, but the actual practice of witchcraft was more than likely a state of mind rather than an actual physical act. He never indicated in his writings that he was a participant and, in fact, was almost totally silent concerning witchcraft in his Memoirs. In fact, Leland was most certainly a Christian based on his preference for statues of Madonna’s and crucifixes he kept in his apartments.

Leland believed that witchcraft was the “first stage” of shamanism, which he also believed to be the first and universal religion of the paleolithic period. He considered voodoo to be a direct offshoot of this prehistoric and evil religion. “An immense amount of it [witchcraft-shamanism] in its vilest conceivable forms,” he wrote, “still exists among negroes as Voodoo.” (15)

Leland believed that the coming of Cro-Magnon man was “the grandest incident in the history of humanity” and the Cro-Magnon, with his “high civilization” developed a “refined” religion, which would replace the savage shamanistic-witchcraft traditions that existed before. However, he also believed that voodoo and witchcraft continued to exist because “inferior races and the inferior scions of the Cromagnon stock clung to it…” (16)

At the same time, however, he would write that in the present day “…there are men who, with no logical belief whatever in any kind of supernaturalism, study it, and love it, and are moved by it, owing to its endless associations with poetry, art, and all the legends of infancy and youth.” (17) This sounds like the opposite of a belief system followed by “inferior races” who practice a religion of the “vilest conceivable form.” It also sounds as if Leland is describing himself and his love for the romantic paganism of his own creation.

As Leland aged, his views on religion became less about witches and more along the lines of mainstream Christian traditions. He lived in Florence almost exclusively and perhaps it was his environment more than anything else that turned his religious thoughts to the mainstream traditions. His sitting room was adorned with Madonna’s and he would write to his friend Mary Owen in 1890 concerning a silver cross that he felt was unaffordable, “I suffer as much from want of that cross,” he wrote, “as a poor man suffers from want of bread.” (18) Both Leland and Belle journeyed to Rome where they met the Pope during one of his appearances, Leland remarking “…Belle went down on her knees before the Pope…”. “Mrs. Leland,” he wrote, “at least was much gratified with a full sight and quasi-interview with His Holiness.” (19)

We may never be clear as to Leland’s true feelings towards religion or his view of his life in association with religion. Just before his death, he was working on a book titled Mind in Nature, or Materialism the Only Basis for a Belief in God and the Immortality of the Soul. The title is indicative of the very confused nature of Leland and his views of the world and spirit.


1. Neoplatonism, per Edward Moore of St. Elias School of Orthodox Theology, is often described as ''mystical'' or religious in nature, it developed outside the mainstream of Academic Platonism. The origins of Neoplatonism can be traced back to the era of Hellenistic syncretism, which spawned such movements and schools of thought as Gnosticism and the Hermetic tradition.
2. Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. Charles Godfrey Leland a Biography, Vol. 2. London: Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd., 1906, 49.
3. Silver, Margery. “Introduction” in Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune Telling. Edison: Castle Books 1995, xiv.
4. Leland, Charles G. Memoirs. London: William Heinemann 1894, 46.
5. Ibid., 47.
6. Ibid. 50.
7. Ibid. 77.
8. Ibid., 78-79.
9. Ibid, 148-149.
10. Pennell, op cit. 48-50.
11. Leland, Memoirs, 30.
12. Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. Charles Godfrey Leland a Biography, Vol.1. London: Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd., 1906, 102.
13. Leland. op cit., Memoirs, 357.
14. Pennell, op cit., Vol. 1. 6-7.
15. Leland, Charles Godfrey. Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune Telling. Edison: Castle Books 1995, 6.
16. Ibid.
17. Ibid., 7.
18. Pennell, Elizabeth Robins. Charles Godfrey Leland a Biography, Vol. 2. London: Archibald Constable & Co. Ltd., 1906, 335.
19. Leland, Memoirs, op cit., 385.