Wicca for Beginners
Excerpt from Wicca for Beginners: Fundamentals of Philosophy & Practice
What makes a Wiccan a Wiccan?
For illustration purposes, here are some definitions:
- A Wiccan is a person who is following the Wiccan religion/spiritual path and has either undergone a Wiccan initiation or has formally and ritually declared him- or herself Wiccan.
- Some Wiccans use the words Wiccan and witch interchangeably, but there are witches who do not consider themselves Wiccans. Wiccans are a subgroup of witches.
- Wiccans and witches are both subgroups of a larger group: pagans. Pagans are practitioners of earth-based religions. Most Wiccans and witches consider themselves pagan, but not all pagans are Wiccans or witches. Christians sometimes call anyone who is not a Christian, Muslim, or Jew a pagan, but we're not going with that definition.
So, just what is Wicca? There are a lot of answers to that question. Here are a few of the more widely accepted ones.
Wicca Is a New Old Religion
Wicca is a new religion that combines surviving folk traditions and more modern elements. It is loosely based on Western European pagan rites and rituals that have been performed for centuries-before, during, and after the time of Jesus-such as reverence of nature, observance of the cycle of the seasons, celebration of the harvest, and doing magic. Some of the structure of these old rites still survives in Wicca, but most of the religion's structure and many of its practices are more modern. Some of the framework of the religion is culled from medieval grimoires (books of magic), occult organizations such as the Golden Dawn, and techniques that today's Wiccans make up on the fly because they suit their purposes or the situation. Wicca is a living, evolving religion.
Wicca isn't the same thing as the kind of witchcraft you read about in most of the history books, but the histories of the two are intertwined. Witchcraft, in some form or another, has probably been around as long as people have been. Certainly it's mentioned in classical literature, like in the stories of Medea and Circe, and of course in documents of the early Christian Church. One of the earliest and most famous church documents about witchcraft is the Canon Episcopi, which had a profound and long-lasting impact on the philosophy of Christians toward witchcraft and paganism. It was incorporated into canon law in the twelfth century, but it is believed to be much older (one possible year of origin is AD 906). The Canon said, essentially, that witchcraft was an illusion that originated in dreams, and to believe in it was heresy, or against the teachings of the church. A famous section of the Canon states:
Certain abandoned women, perverted by Satan, seduced by illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and openly profess that, in the dead of night, they ride upon certain beasts with the pagan goddess Diana, with a countless horde of women, and in the silence of the dead of the night to traverse great spaces of earth, and obey her commands as their mistress . . . but it were well if they alone perished in their infidelity and did not draw so many others along with them into the pit of their faithlessness. For an innumerable multitude, deceived by this false opinion, believe this to be true, and so believing, wander from right faith and relapse into pagan errors when they think there is any divinity or power except the one God.
The idea that believing in witchcraft and paganism was heresy persisted until the reign of Pope Innocent VIII, who issued Summis desiderantes affectibus, a papal bull reversing the Canon and stating that witchcraft did exist and that to perform it was heresy. Although several church letters advocating positions that would reverse the Canon Episcopi had been issued prior to Summis desiderantes affectibus, the new bull was most effective because it was published in 1484, around the time of the invention of the printing press, and attached as a prefix to the widely distributed Malleus Maleficarum, the infamous manual on finding, torturing, and prosecuting suspected witches, which was written by Dominican inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger.
This bull cleared the way for the Inquisition, the European witch hunts, and the deaths of thousands of people accused of the heresy of witchcraft. And along with the Malleus, it helped to solidify, codify, and spread several of the ideas that came to be associated closely with medieval witchcraft. These included the notion that witches signed a pact with the devil (often solemnized by kissing his behind, something no self-respecting Wiccan would do). Of course, this made the consequences for witchcraft much more serious than they had been, and the witch hunts were born.
Pre-Christian rites were considered superstition at best, and witchcraft or devil worship at worst, so, since witchcraft was now formally considered a heresy by the church, people who were accused of performing pagan rites were prosecuted. During the witch hunts, many European pre-Christian pagan traditions died out, took on a Catholic veneer, or went underground. Some of this would have happened even without the hunts, since traditions rarely last completely intact for thousands of years. However, pockets of pagan practice and vestiges of the old ways survived. We see remnants of some of them today in traditions like the Morris men and Maypole dancers in England.
On one hand, this history of witchcraft and the church has nothing to do with Wicca. The Satanic witchcraft that the church persecuted, if it ever even existed, was a Christian heresy that included a pact with the devil, black magic, human sacrifice, and other atrocities. Wiccans do not believe in Satan, Wicca is not a Christian heresy (it's a religion unto itself), and Wiccans find black magic and human sacrifice as abhorrent as anyone else does. On the other hand, the impact that the history of Satanic witchcraft does have on Wiccans is twofold. First, the church equated even benevolent pre-Christian pagan practices, which are a root of modern Wicca, with Satanic witchcraft. Second, many people today still believe that Satanic witchcraft and paganism are the same thing.
In 1921, Dr. Margaret Murray wrote The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, in which she hypothesized that medieval witchcraft was in fact not a Christian heresy, but an organized pagan fertility cult that had survived, reasonably intact, through the Middle Ages. Her theory had great romantic appeal, but she had no proof. Her book implied that medieval witches were much more organized than they could possibly have been without phones, cars, the Internet, or even a common language (the vernacular of commoners was often different than that of nobles), and that there was more consistency between covens of witches than historians had previously believed. Over the years, most of Murray's theories have been discredited, and the consistency between accounts of medieval witchcraft has been attributed more to the impact of the Malleus Maleficarum than to survival of an intact pagan cult. If many of the inquisitors who tried witches and kept records of the trials were operating from the same manual, so to speak, they were likely to get the same results. But however fanciful Murray's ideas about witchcraft, they had a lasting effect on what would become modern Wicca, and several of them persist to this day.
In 1951, the last witchcraft law was repealed in England, which freed Gerald Brosseau Gardner to write Witchcraft Today, published in 1954, and The Meaning of Witchcraft, published in 1959-two nonfiction books that would have a tremendous impact on the Wiccan religion. Gardner was a British civil servant who was born in the late 1800s and lived most of the first half of his life abroad, working in Ceylon, Borneo, and Malaysia. He studied foreign cultures and became an expert on the kris, a Malaysian ritual knife. When he returned to England, he looked for others who were interested in esoteric teachings, and his search brought him to a Rosicrucian theater run by a group called the Fellowship of Crotona. Gardner wasn't too impressed with the theater or the Fellowship, but there was a small group of participants that intrigued him. This group later took Gardner into their confidence and told him that they were witches and that they had known him in a previous life. Gardner claims that through them he was initiated and became a witch himself.
Gardner was very interested in making sure Wicca survived. However, many of the Wiccans he knew were elderly, and young people weren't drawn to Wicca at that time, so he was concerned that Wicca would die out. He asked his high priestess if he could write a book about witchcraft to spark new interest in it. Initially she refused to let him do so, but she eventually allowed him to write a novel with witch ideas in it, called High Magic's Aid. Later he left her coven, started his own, and wrote Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft.
It's important to point out here that there was and is another type of modern witch, often referred to as fam trad, which is short for family tradition. Family traditions are those that have been passed down, either intact or in fragmentary form, through generations, and some of them claim to have roots that reach back to the medieval witch hunts or before. Most of them do not claim that witchcraft was an organized pagan cult, as Margaret Murray did; rather, that it consists largely of family folk magic and traditions. Most fam trad witches do not call themselves Wiccans, and their practice is often very different from what we would consider American Wicca. In fact, when Gerald Gardner's tradition appeared on the scene, it was fam trad witches who disparagingly called it the Gardnerian tradition. They considered Gardner's Wicca inferior since it didn't have a long history (or a verifiable history, for that matter) and because Gardner, in his zeal to preserve Wicca, was a bit of a publicity hound. The name stuck, however, and eventually lost its negative connotations. There are still lots of Gardnerian Wiccans today, and much of today's Wicca is descended from or inspired by Gardner's work-including the word Wicca itself, which he didn't invent, but popularized.
Gardner believed at least some of Margaret Murray's theory about witchcraft being a surviving pagan religion (Murray even wrote the introduction to Witchcraft Today). He claimed that rituals and spells his teachers had given him were fragmentary-that pieces had been lost over time-and that he took the pieces and put them back together, borrowing things from other occult sources to fill the gaps. These reconstructed rituals are still in use by Gardnerian Wiccans today. Whether he himself was initiated into an existing tradition or not, the rituals he passed on, although possibly containing old witch material, were not themselves an intact tradition from before the witch hunts. (This didn't stop him from occasionally letting the press believe that they were, hence the fam trad witches' distrust of him.) Wherever it truly came from, Gardner's Wicca became the root, source, or inspiration for most of the Wiccan traditions we have today.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Gardnerian Wicca, Alexandrian Wicca (a tradition that is very similar to Gardnerian Wicca), and other Wiccan and witchcraft traditions jumped the pond from the United Kingdom to the United States. Here they found fertile ground. The traditions took root and grew, and several new traditions sprouted up that were either direct offshoots of the British trads and fam trads or inspired by them.
The feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s left its mark on Wicca too. During this time, when American women were discovering and testing their power, women (and some men too) embraced Wicca because of its worship of the Goddess and the divine feminine, something that they yearned for but didn't find elsewhere. Whereas the Wicca of Gardner's time honored both the God and the Goddess relatively equally, during this period the Goddess became more prominent in the practice of many Wiccans, and some Wiccans dropped worship of the God altogether. Other women began Dianic Wiccan groups, which were named after the goddess Diana and consisted only (or mostly, in some cases) of women.
Fed in part by the feminist movement and in part by good old ingenuity, eclectic Wicca began to be popular in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, and it's probably the largest subgroup of Wiccans today. Eclectic Wiccans create their own rituals and practices by pulling together materials from many sources. An eclectic friend of mine affectionately calls it shopping cart Wicca because she equates it with rolling a cart down the aisle in the grocery store and picking from the shelves only the things she wants, likes, or can use. In this way, eclectic Wiccans are able to customize their practice to their own personal needs and beliefs. With the rise of eclectic Wicca, Wicca truly became a new old religion.
Wicca Is an Earth-Based Religion
The Wiccan path is based on the earth rather than the heavens. While practitioners of many of the world's religions focus on what will happen to them after they die, Wiccans focus on participating in the cycle of life, here and now. As one of my teachers puts it, Wiccans aren't trying to get off the wheel. What she means by the wheel is the wheel of the year, a term that Wiccans use to describe the cycle of the seasons through the eight major Wiccan holidays, or sabbats. Wiccans believe that they actively participate in turning the wheel-in nature, essentially-while practitioners of some other religions try to transcend it. Wiccans celebrate all that nature, the earth, and the physical body have to offer: the experience of life and love, sex, and even death.
A lot of the symbolism of the Wiccan religion is based on nature and earth imagery. Wiccans work with the four natural elements: earth, air, water, and fire. They see the sun as a symbol of their god, and the moon as a symbol of their goddess. They celebrate the earth's renewal each spring and its sleep each winter. Most importantly, they strive to be in tune with nature and its changes and walk lightly on mother earth. Many Wiccans are environmentalists or vegetarians because of their reverence for the earth, but forgetting Earth Day or grabbing a burger for lunch won't get you kicked out of the Wiccan country club.
Wicca Is Experiential
Wicca is an experiential religion. What this means is that how Wicca works in a person's life is heavily influenced by that person's experiences. There is no central church of Wicca, and no Wiccan Bible, Torah, or Koran to outline the beliefs, rules, and teachings of the religion. You learn Wicca by living it. Your experience tells you what is true, what works for you, and what you believe. We walk this path somewhat like scientists, testing things out and shifting our beliefs according to the outcomes.
Once you have experienced something, you own it. It is part of you. You understand it at a level that you couldn't by just reading about it. It's like skydiving. You can guess what it's like to jump out of a plane-feeling the wind buffeting your body, watching the earth rush up to meet you-but until you actually do it, you don't really know what it's like. You have not integrated skydiving into your personal repertoire of experiences. It's the same with the Wiccan religion. Until you have performed Wiccan rites or tried to do a spell, you have no frame of reference for it. You can read books like this one and guess what it would be like, but you're not a Wiccan until you do something Wiccan. Ours is a religion where actions truly do speak louder and more powerfully than words.
Does that mean that Wiccans don't learn things from books? Quite the contrary. Many Wiccans keep a book of shadows, a collection of spells and rituals, and I know Wiccans who will run out and buy newly published Wicca books instead of groceries on payday. But Wiccan books do not tell us how to think, believe, or behave. They give us inspiration and a framework for our own experimentation with the religion.
Wicca Is a Mystery Tradition
There are certain spiritual experiences that are nearly impossible to put into words. Many of them have to do with big topics such as death, love, deity, and birth-things that are core to our existence as humans and yet otherworldly at the same time. If you've ever had a transcendent moment where you just knew that deity was real or you felt particularly connected to nature or the cosmos, as if every bit of you were a part of it, you have probably touched the mysteries.
Mystery religions are those that create a setting or a venue where people can have an immediate experience of the reality of the divine. These paths teach that there are things that are beyond the reach of our five senses, but are nevertheless integral parts of us that we can touch directly, although the method will be different for each of us.
Each religion has its own mysteries, or revelations. Some of the Wiccan mysteries-for example, the interplay between the God and Goddess-are mirrored in our sabbat rites. When we participate in the rites, we act out what is happening on a cosmic level, be it the change of seasons, the union of the God and Goddess, or any other of a number of Wiccan mysteries, and for that moment we are aligned with the gods. One of the best historic, non-Wiccan examples of this is the Eleusinian Mysteries, the ancient rites of Demeter and Persephone that were held for thousands of years at Eleusis in Greece. At a certain time of year, many Greeks made the pilgrimage to Eleusis, purified themselves in the sea, and participated in the rites, which included secret revelations and teachings and built-in triggers for mystical experiences. Once they had seen and experienced the mysteries of the rites, they were not allowed to reveal them to others. There were many reasons for this. No two people experienced the rites the same way. Telling someone what the rites were beforehand would color and possibly ruin their experience of them. And the secrecy kept the rites sacred and protected-apart from daily life and intact for coming generations. Punishment for revealing the mysteries was severe, and the threat of it appears to have worked, because to this day no one really knows the exact content of the rituals. The secret died with the participants.
Some Wiccan mysteries unfold during meditations or dreamwork. Still others come during an Aha! moment when a Wiccan has been walking the path for a while, and suddenly important teachings click into place. As I said, the experience is different for everyone. But Wicca, with its focus on natural cycles and emphasis on meditation and psychic abilities, provides many opportunities to touch the mysteries of the divine and the cosmos.
Wicca Is European Shamanism
One of the best ways I've heard Wicca described is that it is European shamanism. In America, we are used to hearing stories about Native American shamans who do magic and healing for their tribes, but people of European descent have a shamanistic tradition too: witchcraft. Historian Mircea Eliade, in his classic 1964 book Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, defines the word shaman as a person who enters an altered state of consciousness in order to take a spiritual journey to retrieve information, heal, work magic, tell the future, or commune with the dead. A shaman is more than a medicine man or a magician, although he or she is often both of these things; a shaman may also be a priest, mystic, and psychopomp (one who can move back and forth between the worlds of the living and the dead).
The concept of the world tree exists in one form or another in cultures across the globe. The world tree is a symbol for the connection between the spiritual realms and earth. The roots of the tree lie in the underworld, the trunk is the human material world, and the branches and leaves are the heavens or celestial realms. The tree can be real or a metaphor. The shaman travels up and down the world tree and between the spiritual and earthly realms to perform his or her tasks for the tribe or group. Shamans use many techniques to travel the world tree, including trance, shapeshifting, and magic.
According to Eliade, a person can be either born a shaman or made one through a shamanic crisis or an initiation ceremony. Children born with special features-like a caul or birthmark, certain disabilities, or unusual abilities-were considered potential shamans in many cultures. The idea was that if a person, by way of some sort of physical attribute, was different enough from the rest of the group or tribe, he or she would naturally be able to see and experience things that others could not, and therefore would be more suited to travel between the worlds. It makes some sense; people who are blind perceive their surroundings differently than people with sight do, and the world looks different to a person in a wheelchair than it does to one who can walk.
A shaman could be made if he or she went through a shamanic crisis-an event so traumatic that it changed his or her life irrevocably. The shamanic crisis could come on naturally, such as with a severe illness or near-death experience. It could also be induced from the outside by an initiation ceremony or trial.
Wicca incorporates a lot of these ideas. Wiccans are taught to be in tune with their psychic abilities. Magic circles, the sacred space of Wiccans, are said to be between the worlds, and Wiccans travel between the worlds to meet the gods, get information, and heal. Wiccans often enter ecstatic or trance states in order to work magic or commune with the divine. Many Wiccans have life-altering experiences that lead them to the Wiccan path, and Wiccan groups often initiate new members in a symbolic death and rebirth ceremony meant to provide a mini-shamanic crisis and shift the initiate's perspective.
This death and rebirth stuff may sound frightening, and frankly, sometimes it is, but it is not negative or dark or bad. It is meant to spur us to overcome our fears, step into our power, and take charge of our spiritual paths, which is difficult to do if nothing in our lives ever challenges us.
Wicca Is a Magical System
Last, but not least, Wicca is a magical system. There is more than one kind of magic. There is everyday magic, where you do spell work for things like finding a new job or protecting your home. Wiccans make use of this type of magic all the time. But there is also the kind of magic that you use to manifest your own personal power and divinity. In essence, it's working your will to find your purpose in life and align with your higher self.
As you can see, there are a lot of interpretations of Wicca. Now that you have made it through the philosophical stuff and you know something about what Wicca is (or what others think it is), you're ready to explore what Wiccans actually believe in chapter 2. But there is one important thing to take from this chapter before you move on: If you choose to walk this path, your Wiccan experience can be pagan, experiential, shamanistic, mystical, magical, or all or none of the above, but the one thing it certainly will be is your own. Wicca, from any angle, is a path of empowerment and personal growth. Like many things in life, Wicca is what you make of it. The joy-and the challenge-is discovering what it will make of you.