Grannies are in and popular, especially among many a Pagan. Preferring grannies already has a venerably long tradition, which seem to be still continuing.
One of the most important characteristics of the Granny Phenomena is, of course, a granny. This "granny" isn't necessarily always a grandmother. "She" can also be a grandfather or some other (old or elderly) relative. Grandmothers are the most common relative in question, so in this article the words "granny" and "grandmother" are used to denote other possible relatives popping up in the Granny Phenomena.
The Granny is usually left unnamed. She isn't "my grandmother Mathilda Smith from the Pineside house in the village of Millwither", but simply just "Granny". The reasoning behind leaving the Granny unnamed is often said to be duty to keep certain things secret/oaths of secrecy, responsibilities of not revealing an elderly person to witch hunters, and "this is how it's always been". The better known the location and the person in question, the more likely it is that the Granny is said to be long dead. There are practical reasons for leaving the Granny unnamed and/or declaring her dead: if the name isn't known or the person in question is no longer among the living, nobody can go and check with her the truth behind the claims. Nobody can possibly reveal the person riding on the Granny Phenomena to be a fraud, either. You can't, of course, ask the friends of the said Granny - the family secrets weren't revealed to any outsider at all.
This secretive Granny has either taught the family traditions to her grandchild, or even initiated her to the family mysteries. For some strange reason, one generation is always skipped. Furthermore, the one being taught or getting initiated is, most often than not, the only one in her generation deemed fit enough to carry on the traditions. If you ask any details about the actual initiation or training, you won't easily get any kind of answers. Furthermore, you won't be told about the details of the teachings. For goodness' sake, these are things that are part of the family tradition and therefore no outsider has any business knowing them at all! However, for some strange reason, it seems to be rather common that teachings and mysteries which actually get published are misleadingly similar to material published earlier. The Books of Shadows of those "Family Tradition Witches" who came out of the woodwork after Gardner went public contained teachings interestingly resembling those of Gerald Gardner, while the secrets of "countryside Witchery" can be read in folklorists' books dealing with folk traditions. Sometimes including the folklorists' possible misinterpretations and/or with the geographical area of the traditions described in the books being different from where the famtrad claims to originate.
The Granny story is used to build up a personal history: to stretch the roots of one's Paganism to way back to the beginnings of history and at the same time, to something that is a "better, more genuine" Paganism than the versions "everybody else" are practicing. The actual motives vary from one representative of the Granny Phenomena to another. For an ordinary everyday Pagan a Granny story brings along a feeling of belonging to something and of having a long history - instead of having been converted to Paganism and learned from books. At the same time, somebody with a Granny can look down on everybody else, building her ego. "Anybody can read books and learn from them, anybody can log on to the Net and download information. Anybody can claim to be a Witch/Pagan after doing the reading. I am not `anybody'. I have Family Tradition background and skills I've inherited from my lineage. I'm special and better than all the others." Or, to put it shortly: having a Granny gives some a reason to belittle all those poor souls without a Granny of their own.
For Pagan authors and those striving to teach others, the initial reason for riding on the wake of the Granny Phenomena may be more driven by plain old monetary reasons. Advertising yourself and your teachings as "the unbroken continuum of ancient traditions kept secret for decades and countless of generations - and with my help you will be now able to tap into these mysteries" can win much more interested seekers (and bread on the author's and/or teacher's table) than another type of approach, albeit a more honest one: "I took bits of teaching from here, bits from there, smaller portions from many other sources, cooked it all up to a whole I spiced with some of my very own ideas", or even: "I copied this so called tradition from group X, but as I don't want to be just one of the many teachers of said tradition and instead want to have my name written down in Pagan history with a much bigger font size, I put a `Family Tradition' label on everything I copied and elevated myself as the highest teacher of my very own tradition."
To put it in other words: it is quite possible to sell a greater number of books and/or to get larger amounts of students with a Granny story. The most appropriate target for people spreading Granny stories are relatively new or naive Pagans, who haven't as yet read enough Pagan literature (or interacted with other Pagans) to notice that there could be something fishy with certain claims of ancient traditions, or who are under the illusion that somebody being Pagan somehow makes her automatically more ethical than the rest of humanity and therefore incapable of committing fraud.
Yet another reason for assuming a Granny is wishing to get status within the Pagan community - a status you otherwise wouldn't be able to get. It may be quite difficult for a beginner to get appreciation among fellow Pagans - depending on the Pagan community, of course - when you're still in the phase of relatively little knowledge, skills or practice. By utilizing the Granny Phenomena, you can try to gain admiring looks and at the same time cover your own greenness. After all, somebody carrying on a Family Tradition is not allowed to share her information with outsider. However, hinting about possessing secrets nobody else can get their hands on isn't forbidden at all.
The history of the Granny Phenomena within Neo-Paganism is rather Wiccan influenced, or at least inspired by what went on during the early phases of Wiccan history. After some quite successful Granny stories within the Wiccan community, other Family Traditions including non-Wiccan ones emerged. Some were more and some less truthful with their origins.
Back when it was said that "the only real Witch is a Wiccan Witch", "only Witch can make a Witch" and "Wiccan and Witch are synonymous", the Granny story served as something to get a (good) reputation with, a way gaining followers, and other similar purposes. When you didn't have Gardnerian initiation(s) under your belt (or didn't want to "use" one you had), but still very much wanted to get a part of all the interest people were showing towards a new religion on the rise, there still was another option: a Granny. By claiming to be a representative of a more genuine, real Family Tradition Witchcraft and having been initiated to this way, you could get followers. Especially, if you were also telling that "all the others" had learned their ways only through books/covens/otherwise "indirectly". This is the way the term "Gardnerian" was born. Robert Cochrane, self-proclaimed Witch Magister of a Family Tradition developed the term as an insult: they aren't Witches, they are Gardnerians.
The originator of the Granny Phenomena is often said to have been Alex Sanders. Having tried to actually get into a Gardnerian coven, but not quite making it, Sanders didn't get disheartened. He got a hold of (stories exactly how this happened vary, but there usually is a Gardnerian priestess involved) Gardnerian texts. Sanders wanted credibility for himself, so he told that he got initiated by his grandmother. The story involved being responsible for a number of Witches and getting crowned as "King of the Witches" by the covens he led. Sanders was quite successful with his granny story. The media was interested and there were many interested students. When it came to the Gardnerians, well. they couldn't say much of the origins of Sanders' texts without breaking their oaths.
Robert Cochrane (Roy Bowers), mentioned earlier, claimed at the early 1960's: "I come from an old family of Witches. My mother told be things told to her by her grandmother, who was told them by her grandmother." (paraphrased) However, it is also said that Cochrane was earlier initiated into Gardnerian Wicca, which would make his tradition originating from the same source that that of Sanders.
To give an example of a more present day "very old tradition", there's the family tradition called "Order of the Royal Oak", calling itself an Orthodox Celtic Church dating from the 1660's and led by "Lady Amythyst". However, the tradition's website manages to talk about the founder of the trad and that she's Wiccan.
What about Gardner himself? You could actually say that Gardner had a granny story as well. When he came back to England from the Far East, Gerald Gardner was already elderly and had spent too much time abroad to present a granny of his own. His "Granny" was old Dorothy Clutterbuck who initiated him to her coven and taught him Wicca dating back from times long past. These days, the history of Wicca is known better.
Of the non-Wiccans, one could mention Raven Grimassi, who doesn't name the relative he claims was teaching him. However, he does tell that he was the only one being taught Italian traditions of his family of three brothers. Interestingly, it took years of previous studies of Wicca and Occultism, before Grimassi brought forward his first "Strega tradition" called Aridian. Aridian tradition includes (which the author these days admits) Wiccan influences. The authenticity of Grimassi's family tradition is being questioned by Italian Witches and Pagans actually living in Italy, pointing out inconsistencies and downright faults in Grimassi's texts. Grimassi, on the other hand, says this is due to jealousy instead of any faults in his books.
The granny phenomena among Finnish Neo-Pagans could be, in part, explained with the fast urbanization of the 1960-1970's. The parents of many a Neo-Pagan were born on the countryside, but left the agrarian life with its agrarian customs, moving to a town. For many a new town dweller, the countryside represented suffocating insularity, very harsh discipline within the family, continuous heavy work and living in the past. Once out of the agrarian life, they weren't that interested in old ways or traditional folk beliefs. To them they held no "exoticness", but were a part of everything they wanted to leave behind.
With the descendants of new town dwellers, the situation is different. They don't have the same "burden" on their shoulders as their parents do, so they're able to view the agrarian ways of life quite differently. To them, the countryside represents something romantic and the old folkways are new and exotic instead of being "it's just the way it has always been". To them, farming traditions are represented by nice holiday memories, not the harder day-to-day toil.
Let us have an imaginary example of somebody utilizing the granny phenomena. We'll have her be a relatively young woman called Lisa. (Of course, our example could be elderly, male and called Matt - but stereotyping is quite permitted when one is creating a caricature!) Lisa has found Paganism, one way or another. She might have bumped into it through a newspaper article, while surfing the net, via a friend, or by reading an interesting book. Taking into consideration the amount of information available on different Pagan religions, it's most likely that the first religion she encountered was Wicca due to the large amount of information (albeit varied in quality) available on Wicca.
With deepening interest, Lisa reads more on the subject and gets familiar with for example the worldviews of Pagans and Witches, their ways and skills. Part of what she reads starts to sound suspiciously familiar - for example healing with hands or using herbs, seeing things before they happen, giving small gifts to the earth, talks of elves and fairies, or beliefs connected to food.
Lisa starts to ponder the familiarity and thinks back to her stays at her grandparents. Then it hits - the insight. "Oh my goodness, it was my granny who was talking about things like this and she taught a little about it to me as well! My granny is a Pagan and a Witch! It's as clear as day!" Lisa's heart is pounding and filled with pride and happiness. She isn't just another ordinary everyday Pagan newbie or a beginner Witch. She's one of the rare and admirable people, one in a family tradition! Lisa's mother (or father) isn't at all aware of this wonderful fact, but this just has to mean that granny didn't consider her (or him) worthy of being taught the family ways so the tradition skipped a generation like it traditionally does. There's nothing new in that, Lisa has been reading about things like that. "My granny has hidden her being a Witch quite well," ponders Lisa, but continues to herself: "Not that it's surprising. All the other neighbors are so bigoted, they'd burn my poor granny if they found out she's a Witch."
When meeting other Pagans Lisa explains her background with pride, feeling at least a little (if not more) superior. She's got a Granny, others don't. They are just book-learned, or at the very best been taught by somebody belonging to a tradition that has been founded by somebody. Her situation is different. Hers is a family tradition and whatever she can learn from books (and over the net, and reading lists) is just more butter on her family tradition bread.
But who am I to say that Lisa's granny isn't really a Pagan and a Witch? I can't, of course. There have been people skillful with the Witch's ways and/or having reputation of being a Witch around the countryside in different parts of the world since times begun. However, it's much more probable that Lisa is one of the riders on the Granny Phenomena and that her grandmother might be quite upset for being considered a Witch or - goodness gracious - a Pagan. If asked, she would quite likely call herself an ordinary, devout, proper Christian and everything her silly granddaughter is thinking about being "witchery" is just part of the old customs that have always been practiced in the village. And that's that. ("However, the late old Esther in my home village. People were talking about her a bit. I think she was a Witch. Once she gave an evil eye to my poor mother's cow and what do you know, she never gave that much milk after that than before! But I'm not one of them, no.")
Being so excited about her "tradition", Lisa has overlooked a number of facts. Unlike what many sources claim, all Paganism wasn't "rooted out" or "driven underground to be guarded by highly secretive family traditions" long ago. Part of the traditions lived on in one form or another, changing for with time and blending into the ordinary life getting Christian influences and/or otherwise becoming "folk traditions" without being associated with Witchcraft of Paganism. The existence of traditions among the eldest of the family doesn't necessarily mean that the family is any more Pagan than the next one, or give proper cause to claim the existence of a family tradition. It's quite likely that granny's next-door neighbor could tell about quite similar old ways and teach quite similar skills if somebody went over and asked her as well. For example foreseeing things before they happen, like knowing when there will be visitors coming over, can be considered by the granny (and other villagers) quite normal and handy in the world of long distances and poor communication. Elves, brownies and fairies are part of traditions, which have always just been there. Knowing the healing properties of herbs and learning spells or incantations to help has been important in the areas where you just couldn't pop into the doctor's office when feeling like it. Healing with hands can be considered a gift from the Christian God etc. To put it shortly: in most cases the material is of more wide-spread (as opposed to family-kept) traditions that aren't necessarily considered Pagan at all by their practitioners.
Don't mistakenly think that all this would mean that Lisa should throw everything she learned from her granny away due to the non-Paganism of the traditions and feel depressed. Not at all! What she could throw away is the idea of belonging to a family tradition unless it truly is the case. In case of uncertainty, one can always ask the granny in question. Passing traditions on to the next generation is important - whether the traditions are "truly Pagan" or not. Otherwise they will be lost with time. So, let us be proud of our grannies, but not stupid and proud.
Even paths that started off with a granny story can become something worthwhile and important to many people. Not because of the granny story, but by their own merits.