Wicca

Wicca is a religion found in various countries throughout the world. It was first popularised in 1954 by a retired British civil servant named Gerald Gardner.[1] He claimed that the religion, of which he was an initiate, was a modern survival of an old witchcraft religion, which had existed in secret for hundreds of years, originating in the pre-Christian Paganism of Europe. Wicca is thus sometimes referred to as the Old Religion. The veracity of Gardner's claims cannot be independently proven, and it is thought that Wiccan theology began to be compiled no earlier than the 1920s.[2]

Various related Wiccan traditions have since evolved or been adapted from the form established by Gardner, which came to be called Gardnerian Wicca. These other traditions of Wicca each have distinctive beliefs, rituals, and practices. Many traditions of Wicca remain secretive and require that members be initiated. There is also a movement of Eclectic Wiccans who do not believe that any doctrine or traditional initiation is necessary in order to practice Wicca.[3] The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey estimated that at least 134,000 adults identified themselves as Wiccans in the United States.[4]

Because there is no centralised organisation in Wicca, and no single "orthodoxy", the beliefs and practices of Wiccans can vary substantially, both between individuals and between traditions. Typically, the main religious principles, ethics and ritual structures are shared, since they are key elements of traditional teachings and published works on the subject. In traditional forms of Wicca there is a core religious text known as the Book of Shadows, whose contents are kept secret from anyone but the members of the lineage concerned (i.e. those initiating and initiated by a particular coven). However, several proposed versions of the Book have been published. Sections of these published versions, such as the Wiccan Rede and the Charge of the Goddess, as well as other published writings about Wicca, have been adopted by non-initiates who wished to practice the religion.

As practiced by Gerald Gardner and his followers, Wicca was and is a secretive and exclusive society of religious witchcraft, with entry to the society only gained through initiation by another Wiccan. However since the 1960s other, non-initiated people have adopted the term "Wicca" to describe their beliefs and practices, which vary from those of traditional, lineaged Wicca to a greater or lesser extent. These non-lineaged or "Eclectic" Wiccans now significantly outnumber lineaged Wiccans, and their beliefs and practices tend to be much more varied.[5]

As practiced by lineaged initiates, Wicca is a variety of witchcraft founded on religious and magical concepts, and most of its adherents identify as witches. As such it is distinguished not only by its religious beliefs, but by its initiatory system, organisational structure, secrecy, and practice of magic.[5] Lineaged Wiccans generally will not proselytise, and may even deny membership to some individuals, since once initiated a person is considered to be a priest or priestess and is expected to develop the skills and responsibility that that entails.[5]

Wicca is only one variety of pagan witchcraft, with specific beliefs and practices. Members of Initiatory Wiccan groups worship a goddess and a god; they observe the festivals of the eight Sabbats of the year and the full-moon Esbats, using distinctive ritual forms; and they attempt to live by a code of ethics. Other forms of witchcraft may also adopt some similar specific religious, ethical or ritual elements.

In the Eclectic Wiccan movement there is much more variation in religious beliefs, and secrecy and organisational structure play a less important role. Generally, Eclectic Wiccans will adopt similar ritual structures and ethical principles to initiates. A few Eclectic Wiccans neither consider themselves witches nor practice magic.

Many Wiccans, though not all, call themselves Pagans, though the umbrella term Paganism encompasses many faiths that have nothing to do with Wicca or witchcraft.

For most Wiccans, Wicca is a duotheistic religion. The Goddess and God are seen as complementary polarities and this balance is seen in nature. They are sometimes symbolised as the Sun and Moon, and from her lunar associations the Goddess becomes a Triple Goddess with aspects of "Maiden", "Mother" and "Crone". Some Wiccans hold the Goddess to be pre-eminent, since she contains and conceives all. The God is the spark of life and inspiration within her, simultaneously her lover and her child. This is reflected in the traditional structure of the coven.[6] In some traditions, notably Feminist branches of Dianic Wicca, the Goddess is seen as complete unto herself, and the God is not worshipped at all. Wicca is essentially an immanent religion, and for some Wiccans, this idea also involves elements of animism.[7] A key belief in Wicca is that the gods are able to manifest in personal form, most importantly through the bodies of Priestesses and Priests. The latter kind of manifestation is the purpose of the ritual of Drawing down the Moon (or Drawing down the Sun), whereby the Goddess is called to descend into the body of the Priestess (or the God into the Priest) to effect divine possession.

According to Gardner, the gods of Wicca are ancient gods of the British Isles: a Horned God and a Great Mother goddess.[8] Gardner also states that a being higher than any of these tribal gods is recognised by the witches as Prime Mover, but remains unknowable.[9]

Some Wiccans have a monotheistic belief in the Goddess as One. Many have a duotheistic conception of deity as a Goddess (of Moon, Earth and sea) and a God (of forest, hunting and the animal realm). This concept is often extended into a kind of polytheism by the belief that the gods and goddesses of all cultures are aspects of this pair (or of the Goddess alone). Others hold the various gods and goddesses to be separate and distinct. Still others do not believe in the gods as real personalities, but see them as archetypes[10] or as thoughtforms. A unified supreme godhead is also acknowledged by some groups. Patricia Crowther has called it Dryghten.[11] Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone have observed that Wicca is becoming more polytheistic as it matures, and embracing a more traditional pagan worldview.[12]

The classical elements are a key feature of the Wiccan worldview. Every manifest force or form is seen to express one of the four archetypal elements — Earth, Air, Fire and Water — or several in combination. Some add a fifth or quintessential element, spirit (aka aether, akasha). The five points of the frequently worn pentagram symbolise, among other things, the four elements with spirit presiding at the top.[13] In the casting of a magic circle, the four cardinal elements are visualised as contributing their influence from the four cardinal directions.

Wiccan morality is largely based on the (often misunderstood) Wiccan Rede: An it harm none, do what ye will. This is usually interpreted as a declaration of the freedom to act, along with the necessity of taking responsibility for what follows from one's actions.[14] Another element of Wiccan Morality comes from the Law of Threefold Return, which is understood to mean that whatever one does to another person or thing (benevolent or otherwise) returns with triple force.[15]

Many Wiccans also seek to cultivate a set of eight virtues mentioned in Doreen Valiente's Charge of the Goddess,[16] these being mirth, reverence, honour, humility, strength, beauty, power and compassion. In Valiente's poem, they are ordered in pairs of complementary opposites, reflecting a dualism that is common throughout Wiccan philosophy. Some lineaged Wiccans also take note of a set of 161 laws, commonly called the Ardanes. Valiente, one of Gardner's original high priestesses, has noted that these rules were most likely invented by Gardner himself in mock-archaic language as the byproduct of inner conflict within Gerald Gardner's Bricket Wood coven.[17][18]

Although Gardner initially demonstrated an aversion to homosexuality, claiming that it brought down "the curse of the goddess",[19] it is now accepted in many traditions of Wicca. (See Sexual orientation and Wicca)

Some practitioners of lineaged initiatory Wicca consider that the term 'Wicca' correctly applies only to an initiate of a traditional branch of the religion (Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca, or their offshoots such as Seax-Wica) because eclectic Wicca is different in practice from the religion established by Gardner.[5] However, the term has increasingly come to be adopted by people who are not initiates of a traditional lineaged coven.[20] Eclectic Wiccans may undertake rituals of self-dedication, and generally work alone as solitary practitioners or in casual groups, rather than in organised covens. Thus eclectic Wicca shares some of the basic religious principles, ethics and the ritual system of traditional, lineaged Wicca, but not the organisational structure, or the belief that Wiccan initiation requires a transferral of power from an initiator. Therefore, some lineaged Wiccans have adopted the term 'British Traditional Wicca' to differentiate themselves from this movement.[20]

Within traditional forms of Wicca there are three degrees of initiation. First degree is required to become a witch and gain membership of a coven; those who aspire to teach may eventually undergo second and third degree initiations, conferring the title of "High Priest" or "High Priestess" and allowing them to establish new covens.[5]

At initiation, some Wiccans adopt a Craft name to symbolise their spiritual "rebirth", to act as a magical alter-ego, or simply to provide anonymity when appearing as a witch in public (see Discrimination against and persecution of Wiccans below).

Lineaged Wicca is organised into covens of initiated priests and priestesses. Covens are autonomous, and are generally headed by a High Priest and a High Priestess working in partnership, being a couple who have each been through their first, second and third degrees of initiation. Occasionally the leaders of a coven are only second-degree initiates, in which case they come under the rule of the parent coven. Initiation and training of new priesthood is most often performed within a coven environment, but this is not a necessity, and a few initiated Wiccans are unaffiliated with any coven.

In contrast, Eclectic Wiccans are more often than not solitary practitioners. Some of these "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.

A commonly quoted Wiccan tradition holds that the ideal number of members for a coven is thirteen, though this is not held as a hard-and-fast rule. Indeed, many U.S. covens are far smaller, though the membership may be augmented by unaffiliated Wiccans at "open" rituals. When covens grow beyond their ideal number of members, they often split (or "hive") into multiple covens, yet remain connected as a group. A grouping of multiple covens is known as a grove in many traditions.

Initiation into a coven is traditionally preceded by a waiting period of at least a year and a day. A course of study may be set during this period. In some covens a "dedication" ceremony may be performed during this period, some time before the initiation proper, allowing the person to attend certain rituals on a probationary basis. Some solitary Wiccans also choose to study for a year and a day before their self-dedication to the religion.

In typical rites, the coven assemble inside a ritually cast and purified magic circle. Prayers to the God and Goddess are said, the "Guardians" of the North, South, East and West are welcomed, and spells are sometimes worked. An altar is usually present in the circle, on which ritual tools are placed. Before entering the circle, some traditions fast for the day, and/or ritually bathe. After a ritual has finished, the God, Goddess and Guardians are thanked and the circle is closed.

A sensationalised aspect of Wicca, particularly in Gardnerian Wicca, is the traditional practice of working in the nude, also known as skyclad. This practice seemingly derives from a line in Aradia but may be honoured more in the breach than the observance. Skyclad working is mostly the province of Initiatory Wiccans, who are outnumbered by the less strictly observant Eclectics. When they work clothed, Wiccans may wear robes, cords, "Renaissance-faire"-type clothing or normal street clothes.

Many Wiccans use a special set of magical tools in their rituals. These can include a broom (besom), cauldron, chalice, wand, Book of Shadows, altar cloth, athame (a knife used in rituals to channel energy), boline (a knife for cutting things in the physical world), candles, crystals, pentacle and/or incense. Representations of the God/Goddess are often displayed. 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. For this reason, it is considered rude to touch another's tools without permission.

Wiccans typically mark each full moon (and in some cases new moons) with a ritual called an Esbat. They also celebrate eight main holidays called Sabbats. Four of these, the cross-quarter days, are greater festivals, coinciding with old Celtic fire festivals. These are Samhain, Beltane or May Eve, Imbolc and Lammas (or Lughnasadh). The four lesser festivals are the Summer Solstice (or Litha) and Winter Solstice (or Yule), and the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, sometimes called Ostara and Mabon.

The names of these holidays are often taken from Germanic pagan and Celtic polytheistic holidays. However, the festivals are not reconstructive in nature nor do they often resemble their historical counterparts, instead exhibiting a form of universalism. Ritual observations may display cultural influence from the holidays from which they take their name as well as influence from other unrelated cultures.

Wiccan weddings are commonly called "handfastings". Some Wiccans observe the practice of a trial marriage for a year and a day, which some traditions hold should be contracted on Lammas (Lughnasadh), as this was the traditional time for trial, "Telltown marriages" among the Irish.

Some perform a ritual called a Wiccaning, analogous to a Christening for an infant, the purpose of which is to present the infant to the God and Goddess for protection. Despite this, in accordance with the importance put on free will in Wicca, the child is not necessarily expected or required to follow a Pagan path should they not wish to do so when they get older.

The history of Wicca is much debated. Gardner claimed that the religion was a survival of matriarchal Pagan religions of pre-historic Europe, taught to him by members of the New Forest Coven; their rites were fragmentary, and he had substantially rewritten them. It has been posited by authors such as Aidan Kelly and Francis X. King that Gardner invented the rites in their entirety,[21] incorporating elements from the thesis of Dr. Margaret Murray, incantations from Aradia[22] and practices of ceremonial magic.[23]

Heselton concludes that while Gardner may have been mistaken about the ancient origins of the religion, his statements about it were largely made in good faith. Gardner's account is as follows: After retiring from adventuring around the globe, Gardner encountered the New Forest coven. Subsequently fearing that the Craft would die out,[24] he worked on his book Witchcraft Today, releasing it in 1954, followed by The Meaning of Witchcraft in 1959. It is from these books that much of modern Wicca is derived.

Much of Gardner's rites and precepts can be shown to have come from the writings of earlier occultists and other extant sources, and the remaining original material is uncohesive and mostly takes the form of substitutions or expansions within unoriginal material. Roger Dearnaley describes it as a patchwork.[25]

Some, such as Isaac Bonewits, have argued that Valiente and Heselton's evidence points to an early 20th century revival predating Gardner, rather than an intact old Pagan religion. This argument points to some of Gardner's historical claims which agree with the scholarship of that period but contradict later scholarship. Bonewits writes, "Somewhere between 1920 and 1925 in England some folklorists appear to have gotten together with some Golden Dawn Rosicrucians and a few supposed Fam-Trads to produce the first modern covens in England; grabbing eclectically from any source they could find in order to try and reconstruct the shards of their Pagan past."[26]

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.[27] Both of these ideas were widely accepted in academic literature and the popular press at the time.[28]

Gardnerian Wicca was an initiatory mystery religion, admission to which was limited to those who were initiated into a pre-existing coven. Wicca was introduced to North America by Raymond Buckland, an expatriate Briton who visited Gardner's Isle of Man coven to gain initiation. Interest in the USA spread quickly, and while many were initiated, many more non-initiates compiled their own rituals based on published sources or their own fancy.[29]

Another significant development was the creation by feminists in the late sixties and seventies of an eclectic movement known as Dianic Wicca, or feminist Dianic Witchcraft. Dianic Wicca has no connection of lineage to traditional Wicca, and creatively interprets published materials on Wicca as a basis for their ritual structure. This specifically feminist, Goddess-oriented faith had no interest in the Horned God, and discarded Gardnerian-style hierarchy and lineage as irrelevant. Rituals were created 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 can initiate another witch.

In the UK, initiates of Gardner had begun to perform their own initiations, and a number of lines of Gardnerian descent began to arise. From one of these (although it was originally claimed to derive from a traditional, non-Gardnerian source) came the line known as Alexandrian Wicca. Increasing popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, and in other countries, along with the increasing availability of published material, meant that many people started to practice a form of Wicca without being part of a coven or having participated in an initiation. In response to this, traditionally initiated Wiccans in North America began to describe their version as British Traditional Wicca.

Gardnerian Wicca was an initiatory mystery religion, admission to which was limited to those who were initiated into a pre-existing coven. Wicca was introduced to North America by Raymond Buckland, an expatriate Briton who visited Gardner's Isle of Man coven to gain initiation. Interest in the USA spread quickly, and while many were initiated, many more non-initiates compiled their own rituals based on published sources or their own fancy.[29]

Another significant development was the creation by feminists in the late sixties and seventies of an eclectic movement known as Dianic Wicca, or feminist Dianic Witchcraft. Dianic Wicca has no connection of lineage to traditional Wicca, and creatively interprets published materials on Wicca as a basis for their ritual structure. This specifically feminist, Goddess-oriented faith had no interest in the Horned God, and discarded Gardnerian-style hierarchy and lineage as irrelevant. Rituals were created 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 can initiate another witch.

In the UK, initiates of Gardner had begun to perform their own initiations, and a number of lines of Gardnerian descent began to arise. From one of these (although it was originally claimed to derive from a traditional, non-Gardnerian source) came the line known as Alexandrian Wicca. Increasing popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, and in other countries, along with the increasing availability of published material, meant that many people started to practice a form of Wicca without being part of a coven or having participated in an initiation. In response to this, traditionally initiated Wiccans in North America began to describe their version as British Traditional Wicca.

According to the traditional history of Wicca as given by Gerald Gardner, Wicca is a survival of the European witch-cult that was persecuted during the witch trials (sometimes called the Burning Times). Since then theories of an organised pan-European witch-cult have been discredited, but it is still common for Wiccans to feel solidarity with the victims of the witch trials.[33]

In modern times, Wiccans have been incorrectly associated with black magic and Satanism, especially in connection with Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria.[34] Because of the popular negative connotations associated with witchcraft, many Wiccans continue the traditional practice of secrecy, concealing their faith for fear of persecution. Revealing oneself as Wiccan to family, friends or colleagues is often termed "coming out of the broom-closet".

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 License.