What is Wicca?
Wicca is a Neopagan religion found in many different countries, though most commonly in English-speaking cultures. Wicca was first publicized in 1954 by a British civil servant and Co-Freemason named Gerald Gardner after the British Witchcraft Act was repealed. He claimed that the religion, of which he was an initiate, was a modern survival of an old witch cult, 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. 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 specific beliefs, rituals, and practices. Most traditions of Wicca remain secretive and require members to be initiated. However, there is a growing movement of Eclectic or Solitary Wiccans who adhere to the religion but do not believe a traditional initiation is necessary.
Gerald Gardner is credited with re-introducing the word 'Wicca' into the English language, although he himself used the spelling 'Wica' 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 "A wizard, soothsayer, sorcerer, magician". The word has long been out of use. Its modern English descendant is the word witch. Other disputed derivations are from the Old English roots wic, 'to bend', or wit, 'wisdom'. Wicca is often called the "Craft of the Wise", alluding to the latter derivation. (see Völva or witch).
Though sometimes used interchangeably, Wicca and witchcraft are not the same thing. Most, but not all, Wiccans consider Wicca to be a form of witchcraft, however Wicca has a distinct set of beliefs, ritual system and organisational structure that distinguish it from other forms of witchcraft. Similarly, most Wiccans and witches consider themselves to be Pagans, but many Pagans are neither Wiccans nor witches.
Wiccans worship the Goddess, with most also choosing to worship the God, her consort (often known as "The Horned One"); they observe the festivals of the eight Sabbats of the year and the full-moon Esbats; they have a code of ethics that they live by. Wicca is thus distinct from witchcraft, which does not require any religious element, and may be practised by people of any religion, or by atheists. The term witchcraft refers to the practical arts of casting spells, herbalism, and performing magic, and does not of itself imply that these arts are used for good or evil, despite the popular negative connotations of the word. Wiccans see their use of witchcraft as positive and good, and black or evil magic is viewed as antithetical to Wiccan beliefs and activities. See Witchcraft for more details on these differences.
Some practitioners of traditional initiatory Wicca consider that the term 'Wicca' only correctly applies to an initiate of a traditional branch of the religion (such as Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca) because solitary Wicca or eclectic Wicca are different in practice from the religion established by Gardner. However, the term has increasingly come to be adopted by people who are not initiates of a traditional lineaged coven. These non-initiatory Wiccans may undertake rituals of self-initiation, and generally work alone as solitaries or in casual groups, rather than in organised covens. Thus non-initiatory Wicca shares some of the basic religious principles, ethics and the ritual system of 'traditional' or 'initiatory' Wicca, but not the organisational structure, or the belief that Wiccan initiation requires a transferral of power from an initiator. Therefore, some practitioners of traditional initiatory Wicca have adopted the term 'British Traditional Wicca' to differentiate themselves from this movement.
While The Craft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Charmed contain references to Wicca, these are dramatic fiction and should not be taken as factual, nor does the fictional character Harry Potter have anything to do with historical or modern witchcraft.
The history of Wicca is much debated. Gardner claimed that the religion was a survival of matriarchal Pagan religions of pre-historic Europe (see Völva), taught to him by a woman known as "Dafo" or "Old Dorothy" (identified by Doreen Valiente as Dorothy Clutterbuck, although modern researchers such as Philip Heselton have theorized that Dafo and Clutterbuck were two separate individuals). Others posit that he invented it himself, following the thesis of Dr. Margaret Murray and sources such as Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches by Charles Godfrey Leland, and the practices of Freemasonry and ceremonial magic. While Clutterbuck certainly existed, Ronald Hutton concluded that she is unlikely to have been involved in Gardner's Craft activities. Nonetheless, a widespread theory  is that after Gardner retired from adventuring around the globe, he encountered Clutterbuck and her New Forest coven in the region. He was supposedly initiated into the New Forest coven in 1939, where he stayed for years until England's ban on witchcraft-related books was repealed. At this point, and later claiming to fear that the Craft would die out, he worked on his book Witchcraft Today, releasing it in 1954. He followed it with The Meaning of Witchcraft in 1960. It is from these books that much of modern Wicca is derived.
While the ritual format of Wicca is undeniably styled after late Victorian era occultism (even co-founder Doreen Valiente admits seeing influence from Crowley), 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 an adaption of the works of Aleister Crowley. Gardner was chartered by Crowley to form an encampment of Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis in England, though he never did (Sutin, pp. 409-410). 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. Roger Dearnaley, in An Annotated Chronology and Bibliography of the Early Gardnerian Craft, describes it as a patchwork.
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. (Doreen Valiente makes this claim regarding the "basic skeleton of the rituals," as Margot Adler puts it in Drawing Down the Moon.) 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. Gardner is not known to have owned or had access to a copy of this book.
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. The argument points to historical claims of Gardner's that agree with scholarship of a certain time period and 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. Crowley published the aforementioned Blue Equinox in 1919.
Today, Gardner's role in Wicca's origin is controversial. Some criticize him for breaking the secrecy of Wicca, and that his explanation for his fear that the Craft would die out wasn't substantial. Others hail him as the savior of the Craft, and argue that Wicca would still be unknown today had he not publicized it.
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 became fans of Gimbutas' theories of matriarchies in Old Europe. Matriarchal interpretations of the archaeological record and the criticism of such work continue to be matters of academic debate. Some academics carry on research in this area (such as 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 the popular press at the time. Gardner used these concepts as his central theological doctrine and constructed Wicca around this core.
Wicca has developed in several directions since it was first publicised by Gerald Gardner. Gardnerian Wicca was an initiatory mystery religion, admission to which was limited to those who were initiated into a pre-existing coven. The Book of Shadows, the grimoire that contained the rituals, was kept secret and was only obtainable from a coven of proper lineage. Despite the fact that several versions of the Book of Shadows have now been publicly published, many traditions of Wicca still maintain strict secrecy regarding the book and certain other aspects of the religion.
Raymond Buckland introduced modern Wicca to America after moving to Long Island. Buckland continued writing the Book of Shadows. 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 that gradually brought more attention and adherents to the extant Neopaganism movement. Some claimed roots as ancient as Gardner's version, and were organised along similar lines. Others were syncretistic, in that they imported aspects of Kabbalah, romanticised Celtic Pagan concepts, and ceremonial magic. In 1971 "Lady Sheba" published what she claimed was a version of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, although the authenticity of this book has never been validated. 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 the creation by feminists of Dianic Wicca, or feminist Dianic Witchcraft. This is a specifically feminist faith that discarded Gardnerian-style hierarchy as irrelevant, amongst other aspects. Many Dianic Wiccans taught that witchcraft was every woman's right and heritage to claim. This heritage might be best characterized by Monique Wittig words on the subject: "But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent." This tradition was comparatively (and unusually for that time) open to solitary witches. 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 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 of its then-extant rituals were contained in that 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
There is some difficulty in describing beliefs and practices because of the fact that there is a great deal of diversity within the religion: between individuals and between traditions. It is commonly understood that most 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. In those traditions, the God plays either no role, or a diminished role. Many Gardnerian Wiccans do not claim to be dualist. They may practice some form of polytheism, often with particular reference to the Celtic pantheons. They may also be animists, pantheists, or indeed anywhere within the broad spectrum of Neopagan forms of worship.
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 Halloween or Samhain (pronounced sow-en or sow-ain), May Eve or Beltane (or Beltaine), Candlemas (or Imbolc, Imbolg, Oimelc) and Lammas (or Lughnasad, which is pronounced LOO-nah-sah). The four lesser festivals are the Summer Solstice (or Litha) and Winter Solstice (or Yule), and the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, sometimes called Ostara (or Eostar or Eostre) and Mabon. See also the Wheel of the Year.
The names of these holidays generally coincide with (or directly draw upon) ancient pan-Germanic and pan-Celtic holidays held around the same times. 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. These eight holidays (or festivals in some cultures) tend to be found in more than a few European culture groups before the invasion of monotheist missionary efforts. In this respect, Wiccans have a link, albeit tenuous, with their ideological ancestors.
Some Wiccans join groups called covens. 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 Wiccan traditions hold that the ideal number of members for a coven is thirteen, though this is not held as a hard-and-fast rule. 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.
Wiccan weddings can be "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. This practice is attested from centuries ago in the fourth and fifth volumes of the Brehon law texts, which are compilations of the opinions and judgements of the Brehon class of Druids (in this case, Irish). The texts as a whole deal with a copious amount of detail for the ancient Celtic tribes in the Isles. 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 the religion, and some Solitary Wiccans choose to study for a year and a day before dedicating themselves to the religion. Wiccans can also be "promoted" into higher ranks such as head priestess or head priest. Rank can be shown through coloured cords. Initiation can include a dramatic aspect, like the re-enactment of a myth which is most common in the initiaion into the coven.
A sensationalized aspect of Wicca, particularly in Gardnerian Wicca, is that some Wiccans practice naked. Though many Wiccans do engage in rituals while skyclad others do not. Some Wiccans wear a pure cotton robe, to symbolise bodily purity, and a cord, to symbolise interdependence and rank. Others wear normal clothes or whatever they think is appropriate. Robes and even Renaissance-Faire-type clothing are not uncommon.
In typical rites, the Wiccans assemble inside a magic circle, which is marked using various means, 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 (used in rituals to channel energy; it can be pronounced as AH-thom-AY, a-THAY-may, et cetera.), boline (or a knife for cutting things in the physical world), 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 ancient 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 pentagram is the symbol most commonly associated with Wicca in modern times. It is often circumscribed — depicted within a circle — and is commonly labeled a 'pentacle' in this form, though that name is disputed . The pentagram is most often shown its point facing upward in specifically Wiccan contexts. A common belief held by Alexandrian Wiccans is that the upper, most important point represents spirit, and the four remaining points symbolise earth, air, fire, and water. This concept, as applied to pentagonous symbols, has slowly worked itself into other traditions, such as Solitary Wicca and Seax-Wica. A notable exception is Gardnerian Wicca, whose adherents will usually deny that the points of the pentagram actually represent anything at all.
Another view, though less common, on the symbolism of the pentagram is that upright it is a charm which protects its wearer through passive energies, such as good will or pleasing emotions, and that if it is inverted, it will protect its wearer in the form of aggressive energies, such as curses or angry emotions (the contrast between the upright "good" pentagram and inverted "bad" pentagram seems to have been invented by Eliphas Levi). 
In either case, these are the elements of nature that symbolize for Wiccans the different places, emotions, objects, and natural energies and forces. For instance, crystals and stones are objects of the element earth, and seashells are objects associated with the element of water. Each of the four cardinal elements (air, fire, water and earth) are commonly assigned a direction, a color, and "creatures." The following list is not true for all traditions or branches of Wicca:
Air: east, yellow, sylphs
Fire: south, red, salamanders
Water: west, blue, undines
Earth: north, green, gnomes
These correspondences may vary between traditions. It is common in the southern hemisphere, for example, 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, most Southern Hemisphere covens will celebrate Samhain on April 30th and Beltane on October 31st, reflecting the southern hemisphere's autumn and spring seasons.
Wiccan morality can be summarised in the form of a text that is commonly titled The Wiccan Rede. The core maxim of that text states "An it harm none, do what thou wilt." ("An" is an archaic word meaning "if".)
Many Wiccans promote the Law of Threefold Return. This is the idea that anything that one does will be returned to them threefold. In other words, good deeds are magnified in like forms back to the doer, and so are ill deeds. It can also be interpreted to mean that your deeds come back to you emotionally, spiritually, and physically, not three times in strength.
Gerina Dunwich, an American author whose books (notably, 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 more than one law 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.
Many traditional Wiccans also follow, or at least consider, a set of 161 laws. A common criticism of these rules is that they represent outdated concepts and/or produce counterproductive results in Wiccan contexts. Many Wiccans also seek to cultivate the Eight Wiccan Virtues as a guideline for their deeds. These may have been derived from earlier Virtue ethics, but were first collected and synthesised 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. This reflects the dualism that is commonly found in traditional Wiccan concepts of the divine.
A recurrent belief amongst Wiccans is that no magic should be performed on any other person without that person's direct permission (excepting pets, which obviously cannot give explicit permission for such an act). This may stem from the Rede's declaration of "An it harm none, do what thou wilt", in that a person may not wish to have a spell cast upon them, and doing so without first obtaining permission interferes with their free will, which falls under the meaning of the word 'harm' as applied in the Rede.
Since Wicca was first publically revealed in 1954, it has not had a long history of persecution. However, some Wiccans claim a historical link between Wicca and earlier religious and/or spiritual traditions, and thus may claim that the witch trials (sometimes termed the Burning Times) were persecutions against their faith. There is no verifiable evidence of any traditional Wiccan lineage predating the early 20th century, and in light of that, individual and group claims of persecution from before this period are treated with a large amount of skepticism by both Wiccans and non-Wiccans.
In modern times, Wiccans have been incorrectly associated with evil witchcraft and Satanism, especially during times of Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria.  The Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 20:27 "And a man or a woman who has [the sorcery of] Ov or Yid'oni, shall surely be put to death; they shall pelt them with stones; their blood is upon themselves."  and Exodus 22:17 "You shall not allow a sorceress to live." ) may incite Christians to be less than sympathetic toward neo-Pagans in general, while Jews have typically understood this passage to historically refer specifically to practitioners of Necromancy. Wiccans also experience difficulties in administering and receiving prison ministry.
Because of the popular negative connotations associated with witchcraft, many Wiccans conceal their faith for fear of persecution. Revealing oneself as Wiccan to family, friends or colleagues is often termed "coming out of the broom-closet".
In 1985, as a result of Dettmer v Landon (617 F Supp 592), the District Court of Virginia ruled that Wicca is a legally recognised religion and is afforded all the benefits accorded to it by law. This was affirmed a year later by Judge J. Butzner of the Federal Appeals Court fourth circuit (799 F 2d 929, 1986). However, Wiccans can still become the object of stigma in America, and many remain secretive about their beliefs.
A "tradition" in Wicca refers to a branch of the religion with specific teachings and practices, often involving the concept of a lineage that is transferred by initiation. There are many such traditions, sub-traditions and lineages; there are also many Solitary Wiccans who do not align themselves with any particular lineage. Some of the well-known traditions include:
Blue Star Wicca
Correllian Nativist Church (Correllian Wicca)
Dianic or Feminist Wicca
Pagans for Peace Tradition
Universal Eclectic Wicca
1 a b Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today, Lake Toxaway, NC: Mercury Publishing.
2 Bosworth, Joseph & T. Northcote Toller. (1998) An Anglo-Saxon dictionary, based on the manuscript collections of the late Joseph Bosworth; edited and enlarged by T. Northcote Toller. Oxford: Oxford University Press (reprint of 1898 edition). ISBN 0198631014
3 Valiente, Doreen (1984). The Search For Old Dorothy. In Farrar, J. & Farrar, S. The Witches' Way. London: Hale.
4 a b Heselton, Philip (2003). Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration, Somerset: Capall Bann Publishing. ISBN 1861631642.
5 Leland, Charles G.  (1998). Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, Blaine, Washington: Phoenix Publishing. ISBN 0-919345-34-4.
6 Hutton, Ronald (1999). The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192854496.
7 Gardner, G. (1954), pp.18-19.
8 Dearnaley, Roger An Annotated Chronology and Bibliography of the Early Gardnerian Craft. Kou Ra Productions. URL accessed on December 9, 2005.
9 Hutton, R. (1999), pp. 33-51.
10 Hutton, R. (1999), pp. 151-170.
11 O'Donovan, J., O'Curry, E., Hancock, W. N., O'Mahony, T., Richey, A. G., Hennessy, W. M., & Atkinson, R. (eds.) (2000). Ancient laws of Ireland, published under direction of the Commissioners for Publishing the Ancient Laws and Institutes of Ireland. Buffalo, New York: W.S. Hein. ISBN 1575885727. (Originally published: Dublin: A. Thom, 1865-1901. Alternatively known as Hiberniae leges et institutiones antiquae.)
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