Part of the Thelema & Religion series
Wicca is a Neopagan religion that can be found in many English-speaking countries. Originally founded by the British civil servant Gerald Gardner, probably in the 1940s, it was first openly revealed in 1954. Since its founding, various related Wiccan traditions have evolved or been created, the original being Gardnerian Wicca, which is the name of the tradition that follows the specific beliefs and practices established by Gerald Gardner.
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Gerald Gardner is credited with re-introducing the word into the English language, although he himself used the spelling Wica repeatedly in his published work of 1954. The spelling "Wicca" is now used almost exclusively, Seax-Wica being the only major use of the four-letter spelling.
In Old English, wicca meant necromancer or male witch. Some contend that the term wicca is related to Old English witan, meaning wise man or counselor, but this is widely rejected by language scholars as false etymology. Nonetheless, Wicca is often called the "Craft of the wise" as a result of this misconception.
It appears that the word may be untraceable beyond the Old English period. Derivation from the Indo-European roots '*wic' or '*weik' is seemingly incorrect by phonological understanding.
Though sometimes used interchangeably, "Wicca" and "Witchcraft" are not the same thing. The confusion comes, understandably, because both practitioners of Wicca and practitioners of witchcraft are often called witches. In addition, not all practitioners of Wicca are witches, and not all witches are practitioners of Wicca.
Wicca refers to the religion. This can be a reference to both the initiatory tradition, where initiates are assigned a degree and generally work in covens, and to Solitary Wicca, where practitioners self-dedicate themselves to the tradition and generally practice on their own. Both Initiates and Solitary Wiccans worship the Goddess, with most also choosing to worship the God, and both celebrate the Sabbats and Esbats.
Witchcraft, or, as it is sometimes, called "The Craft,” on the other hand, requires no belief in specific gods or goddesses and is not a specific spiritual path. Thus, there are Witches who practise a variety of religions besides Pagan ones, such as Judaism and Christianity. It is considered to be a learned skill, referring to the casting of spells and the practice of magick. To add to the confusion surrounding the term witchcraft in popular older usage, or in a modern historical or anthropological context, the term often means the use of black or evil magic of a sort that Wicca is said not to encourage.
See Witchcraft for more details on these differences.
History of Wicca
The history of Wicca is a much debated topic. Gardner claimed that the religion was a survival of matriarchal religions of pre-historic Europe, taught to him by a woman named Dorothy Clutterbuck. Many believe he invented it himself, following the thesis of Dr. Margaret Murray and sources such as Aradia: Gospel of the Witches by Charles Godfrey Leland, and the practices of Freemasonry and ceremonial magic; and while Clutterbuck certainly existed, historian Ronald Hutton concluded that she is unlikely to have been involved in Gardner's Craft activities.
While the ritual format of Wicca is undeniably styled after late Victorian era occultism, the spiritual content is inspired by older Pagan faiths, with Buddhist and Hindu influences. Whether any historical connection to Pagan religion exists, the aspiration to emulate Pagan religion (as it was understood at the time) certainly does.
Gardner probably had access to few, if any, traditional Pagan rites. The prevailing theory is that most of his rites were the result of his adapting the works of Aleister Crowley. There is very little in the Wiccan rites that cannot be shown to have come from earlier extant sources. The original material is not cohesive and mostly takes the form of substitutions or expansions within unoriginal material, such as embellishment of Crowley lines.
Philip Heselton, writing in Wiccan Roots and later in Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration, argues that Gardner was not the author of the Wiccan rituals but received them in good faith from an unknown source. He notes that all the Crowley material that is found in the Wiccan rituals can be found in a single book, The Equinox vol 3 no. 1 or Blue Equinox.
The idea of primitive matriarchal religions, deriving ultimately from studies by Johann Jakob Bachofen, was popular in Gardner's day, both among academics (e.g., Erich Neumann, Margaret Murray) and amateurs such as Robert Graves. Later academics (e.g. Carl Jung and Marija Gimbutas) continued research in this area, and later still Joseph Campbell, Ashley Montagu and others highly esteemed Gimbutas's work on the matrifocal cultures of Old Europe. Both matrifocal interpretation of the archaeological record, and the foundations of criticism of such work, continue to be matters of academic debate. Some academics carry on research in this area (consider the 2003 World Congress on Matriarchal Studies). Critics argue that matriarchal societies never actually existed, and are an invention of researchers such as Margaret Murray.
The idea of a supreme Mother Goddess was common in Victorian and Edwardian literature: the concept of a Horned God—especially related to the gods Pan or Faunus—was less common, but still significant. Both of these ideas were widely accepted in academic literature, and in the popular press. Gardner used these concepts as his central theological doctrine, and constructed Wicca around this core.
Wicca has developed in several directions and institutional structures from the time it was brought to wider attention by Gerald Gardner. Gardnerian Wicca was an initiatory mystery religion, admission to which was at least in theory limited to those who were initiated into a pre-existing coven. "The Book of Shadows", the grimoire that contained the Gardnerian rituals, was a secret that could only be obtained from a coven of proper lineage. Some Wiccans such as Raymond Buckland, then a Gardnerian, continued to maintain this stance well into the 1970s. Further degrees of initiation were required before members could found their own covens. Interest outstripped the ability of the mostly British-based covens to train and propagate members; the beliefs of the religion spread faster by the printed word or word of mouth than the initiatory system was prepared to handle.
Other traditions appeared. Some claimed roots as ancient as Gardner's version, and were organised along similar lines. Others were syncretistic, importing aspects of Qabalah or ceremonial magick. In 1971 "Lady Sheba" published a version of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, dispelling what little secrecy remained as to the contents of Gardner's rituals. Increasing awareness of Gardner's literary sources and the actual early history of the movement made creativity seem as valuable as Gardnerian tradition.
Another significant development was creation by feminists of Dianic Wicca or feminist Dianic Witchcraft, a specifically feminist faith that discarded Gardnerian-style hierarchy as irrelevant; many Dianic Wiccans taught that witchcraft was every woman's right and heritage to claim. This heritage might be characterized by the quote of Monique Wittig—"But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent." This tradition was particularly open to solitary witches, and created rituals for self-initiation to allow people to identify with and join the religion without first contacting an existing coven. This contrasts with the Gardnerian belief that only a witch of opposite gender could initiate another witch.
The publications of Raymond Buckland illustrate these changes. During the early 1970s, in books such as Witchcraft - Ancient and Modern and Witchcraft From the Inside, Buckland maintained the Gardnerian position that only initiates into a Gardnerian or other traditional coven were truly Wiccans. However, in 1974, Buckland broke with the Gardnerians and founded Seax-Wica, revealing its teachings and rituals in the book The Tree: The Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft. This "tradition" made no claims to direct descent from ancient Saxons; all its ritual was contained in the book, which allowed for self-initiation. In 1986 Buckland published Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft, a workbook that sought to train readers in magical and ritual techniques as well as instructing them in Wiccan teachings and rituals.
Beliefs and practices
It is commonly understood that Wiccans worship two deities, the Goddess and the God sometimes known as the Horned God. Some traditions such as the Dianic Wiccans mainly worship the Goddess; the God plays either no role, or a diminished role, in Dianism. Many Gardnerian Wiccans do not claim to be duotheistic, but rather, may practice some form of polytheism, often with particular reference to the Celtic pantheons; they may also be animists, pantheists, agnostics or indeed any of the other spectacular range of possibilities.
Wiccans celebrate eight main holidays (or Sabbats): four cross-quarter days called Samhain, Beltane (or Beltaine), Imbolc (also called Imbolg, Oimelc, or Candlemas) and Lammas (or Lughnasadh), as well as the solstices, Litha and Yule, and equinoxes, Ostara (or Eostar or Eostre) and Mabon (see Wheel of the Year). They also hold Esbats, which are rituals held at the full and new moon.
Generally, the names are of ancient Germanic or Celtic holidays held around the same time, although two do not have any historical precedent. Ritual observations may include mixtures of those holidays as well as others celebrated at the same time in other cultures; there are several ways to celebrate the holidays.
Some Wiccans join groups called covens, though others work alone and are called "solitaries". Some solitaries do, however, attend "gatherings" and other community events, but reserve their spiritual practices (Sabbats, Esbats, spell-casting, worship, magical work, etc.) for when they are alone. Some Wiccans work with a community without being part of a coven.
Many beliefs hold that the ideal number of members for a coven is thirteen. When a coven grows beyond their ideal number of members, they often split into multiple covens, yet remain together as a group. A grouping of multiple covens is known as a grove.
Wiccans weddings can be called "bondings", "joinings", or "eclipses" but are most commonly called "handfastings". Some Wiccans observe an ancient Celtic practice of a trial marriage for a year and a day, which some Traditions hold should be contracted on Lammas (Lughnasadh), although this is far from universal. When someone is being initiated into a coven, it is also traditional to study with the coven for a year and a day before their actual initiation into to the religion, and some Solitary Wicca choose to study for a year and a day before dedicating themselves to the religion.
A much sensationalized aspect of Wicca, particularly in Gardnerian Wicca, is that some Wiccans practice skyclad (naked). Though many Wiccans do this, many others do not. Some Wiccans wear a pure cotton robe, to symbolise bodily purity, and a cord, to symbolise interdependence and which is often used during rituals. Others wear normal clothes or whatever they think is appropriate. Robes and even Renaissance-Faire-type clothing are not uncommon.
In usual rites the Wiccans assemble inside a magick circle, which is drawn out in a ritual manner followed by a cleansing and then blessing of the space. Prayers to the God and Goddess are said, and spells are sometimes worked. Traditionally, the circle is followed by a meal. Before entering the circle, some Traditions fast for the day, and have a thorough wash.
Many Wiccans use a special set of altar tools in their rituals; these can include a broom (besom), cauldron, Chalice (goblet), wand, Book of Shadows, altar cloth, athame (personal knife), altar knife, boline, candles, and/or incense. Representations of the God/Goddess are often also used, which may be direct, representative, or abstract. The tools themselves are just that—tools, and have no innate powers of their own, though they are usually dedicated or charged with a particular purpose, and used only in that context. It is considered rude to touch another's tools without permission.
There are different thoughts in Wicca regarding the Elements. Some hold to the earlier Greek conception of the classical elements (air, fire, water, earth), while others recognize five elements: earth, air, water, fire, and spirit (akasha). It has been claimed that the points of the frequently worn pentagram symbol, the five pointed star, symbolise five elements.
The pantacle (a pentagram (five-pointed star) inside of a circle) is most often shown with its point facing upward. Alexandrian Wicca believe that the upper point represents spirit, and the four remaining points symbolise earth, air, fire, and water. This symbolism has slowly worked itself into other traditions such as Solitary Wicca and Seax-Wica, but most Gardnarian Wicca will deny that the points of the pentagram or pentacle actually represent anything at all. Some people believe that the top point of the pentacle was chosen to represent the spirit as it is often recognized as being more important than the four elements. When, in Satanism for example, the pentacle is usually inverted, the point representing spirit faces downward, and it is often taken that this symbolises that it is less important than physical things.
Another much less common view on the symbolism of the pentacle is that the upright pentacle is a protective charm which protects its wearer through passive energies, such as good will or pleasing emotions, and that the inverted pentacle protects its wearer using aggressive energies, such as curses or angry emotions.
In either case, these are the elements of nature that symbolize different places, emotions, objects, and natural energies and forces. For instance, crystals and stones are objects of the element earth, and seashells are objects of the water element. Each of the four cardinal elements, air, fire, water and earth, are commonly assigned a direction and a color. The following list is not true for all traditions, or branches of Wicca:
- Air: east, yellow
- Fire: south, red
- Water: west, blue
- Earth: north, green
Elemental, directional correspondences, and colors may vary between traditions. It is common in the southern hemisphere, for instance, to associate the element fire with north (the direction of the equator) and earth with south (the direction of the nearest polar area.) Some Wiccan groups also modify the religious calendar to reflect local seasonal changes; for instance, in Australia Samhain might be celebrated on April 30th, and Beltane on October 31st to reflect the southern hemisphere's autumn and spring seasons.
Wiccan morality is ruled according to a modification of the Law of Thelema called the Wiccan Rede, which (in part) states "An it harm none, do what thou wilt." ("An" is an archaic word meaning "if".) Others follow the slightly adapted Rede of "An it harm none, do what ye will; if harm it does, do what ye must." Either way, the Rede is central to the understanding that personal responsibility, rather than a religious authority, is where moral structure resides.
One of the major differences between Wiccans and other types of witchcraft is the Rede. Many "traditional" witches or witches that follow other paths do not believe in the Rede. This is a major topic of controversy within the Wiccan and Pagan communities.
Many Wiccans also promote the Law of Threefold Return, or the idea that anything that one does may be returned to them threefold. In other words, good deeds are magnified back to the doer, but so are ill deeds.
Gerina Dunwich, an American author whose books (particularly Wicca Craft) were instrumental in the increase in popularity of Wicca in the late 1980s and 1990s, disagrees with the Wiccan concept of threefold return on the grounds that it is inconsistent with the Laws of Physics. Pointing out that the origin of the Law of Threefold Return is traceable to Raymond Buckland in the 20th century, Dunwich is of the opinion that "There is little backing to support it as anything other than a psychological law." Her own personal belief, which differs from the usual interpretation of the Threefold Law, is that whatever we do on a physical, mental, or spiritual level will sooner or later affect us, in either a positive or negative way, on all three levels of being.
A few Wiccans also follow, or at least consider, a set of 161 laws often referred to as Lady Sheba's Laws. Some find these rules to be outdated and counterproductive.
Most Wiccans also seek to cultivate the Eight Wiccan Virtues. These may have been derived from earlier Virtue ethics, but were first formulated by Doreen Valiente in the Charge of the Goddess. They are Mirth, Reverence, Honour, Humility, Strength, Beauty, Power, and Compassion. They are in paired opposites which are perceived as balancing each other.
Many Wiccans also believe that no magick can be performed on any other person without that person's direct permission (excepting pets and young children who can be protected by parents and owners). Sometimes when permission is expected but not yet attained magical energy will be placed on the astral plane for the receiver to gather if and when he/she is ready.
There are many traditions, sub-traditions, and lineages of Wicca; among these is Solitary Wicca, which is Wicca practiced by oneself and often in secret. Other Wiccan traditions include:
- Alexandrian Wicca
- Celtic Wicca
- Dianic or Feminist Wicca
- Faery Wicca
- Feri Tradition
- Gardnerian Wicca
- Kemetic Wicca
- Myjestic Order
- Odyssian Wicca
- West Country Wicca
- Eclectic Wicca
Many Wiccans keep a "Book of Shadows" as a journal or diary which contains thoughts, spells, and ideas. These can be electronic files (as from a word processor), notebooks, or journals purchased at specialty stores (which usually also carry incense, tarot cards, candles, and other sundries).
Some Wiccans hold their Book of Shadows as repositories strictly for spells and keep a separate book, sometimes called the "Book of Mirrors" to contain their thoughts, feelings and experiences concerning the practice of their faith.
A generally accepted and informative book describing the various "paths" within the American pagan community is Margot Adler's Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today.
- Circle of Pagans (http://www.circleofpagans.co.uk/)
- Il Culto della Dea: Italian Pagan & Wiccan Community (http://www.artewicca.it/)
- Mystic Wicks Online Pagan Community and Pagan Forums (http://www.mysticwicks.com/)
- Wicca: For the Rest of Us (http://wicca.timerift.net/)
- WiccanWeb.ca (http://www.wiccanweb.ca/)
- Witches' Voice (http://www.witchvox.com/)
- UK Pagan (http://ukpagan.com)
- Avalonia Forums (http://www.avalonia.co.uk/forum/index.htm)
- Why Wiccans Suck (http://www.whywiccanssuck.com/) - A critique of the effect of pop-culture on traditional Wicca
- Avalonia Wicca, Witchcraft & Magick (http://www.avalonia.co.uk)
- Circle of Shadows (http://www.freewebs.com/gerinadunwich/) - official website of Wiccan author Gerina Dunwich
- Occult, Magick & Pagan Ebooks (http://www.rinf.com/e-books/magick_books.html)
- Wicca and Neo-Paganism (http://www.sacred-texts.com/pag/index.htm) - from the Sacred-Texts.com
- Witchcraft & Magick (http://www.spiritual.com.au/witchcraft.html)
- Circle Amaurot (http://www.circleamaurot.com/)
- Church and School of Wicca (http://www.wicca.org/)
- Lycian Sanctuary, The (http://www.lycianwicca.org/) - official site of the Lycian Tradition of Wicca
- Pagan Federation, The (http://www.paganfed.org) - the foremost Pagan organisation in the United Kingdom.
- Pagan Network, The (http://www.pagan-network.org/) (formerly WiccaUK)
- WICA.org.uk (http://www.wica.org.uk/)
- VZW Arcadia (http://www.vzw-arcadia.org/) - Belgian Wiccan organization
- Witch School (http://www.witchschool.com/) - Online site of the Corellian Tradition. Take online courses for free.
- Reclaiming Collective in San Francisco (http://www.reclaiming.org/)
- Free Introductory Lessons (http://www.avalonia.co.uk/wicca_free_lessons/index.htm) - Learn the basics of Wiccan Practice
- Gardnerian Wicca Website (http://www.gardnerian.com/) - includes information on the genealogy of various Wiccan divisions
- Gerina Dunwich's Cauldron (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/gerinadunwichscauldron/)
- Goddess Knotwork on Wicca (http://goddess.knotwork.com/wicca/)
- Wicca (http://www.religionfacts.com/wicca/index.htm) - ReligionFacts.com article on Wicca
- Wicca, the Religion (http://www.religioustolerance.org/witchcra.htm) - from ReligiousTolerance.org
- Wiccan Wheel of the Year, The (http://www.avalonia.co.uk/book_of_shadows/sabbats_wiccan.htm) - Extensive Article on the 8 Wheel of the Year Celebrations
- 25,000 Year Old Religion (http://www.shadowdrake.com/neopagan/w25k.html)
- Wiccans and Christians: Some Mutual Challenges (http://www.jesus.com.au/html/page/wicca)