Wicca is a Neo-Pagan, earth based, mystery religion. There is special meaning in each and every one of these words. The Latin roots of the word “Wicca” mean "wise ones," or wisdom. The Germanic and Saxon roots mean to bend, change or alter. The infinitive verb form of the root means "to wicker." So, the name of the religion implies creating change in our lives, and in the universe, by wise people.
Neo-Pagan means a new form of an ancient religion. Wicca is (often) an eclectic religion based on Celtic Shamanism and borrowing occasionally from many pagan faiths. Unlike other pagan religions of the world (Hindu, Buddhism, Native American Shamanism, Taoism, Shinto etc.) who can trace their lineage and practices back thousands of years, what we practice in Wicca today is a reconstruction of tradition. It is based on historical documents, word of mouth and the somewhat intact practices of "heritage" Witches such as the Strega of Tuscany, and a few European Covens who claim to be heritage Witches.
The history of Celtic Shamanism dates back in central Europe and the British Isles more than 35,000 years. The religion saw its popular revival in the early to mid part of this century in Europe by Gerald Gardner, allegedly initiated into a surviving "Heritage Coven" in southern England. He borrowed heavily from other traditions, including the Golden Dawn and the Masonic Lodge, and enlisted the help of Aleister Crowley and Doreen Valiente to help write ritual and mythos.
Gardner’s protégé, Raymond Buckland, brought the practice to the United States in 1961. He taught and practiced the "Gardnerian" tradition of his mentor until founding his own tradition Seax-Wicca (Saxon Witchcraft) in the late sixties.
Today there are many traditions borrowing from Native American shamanism, Hindu, (and others) with many incorporating Qabbalistic practices, Chakras etc., into their belief systems. The common defining theme is the Earth based mystery aspect.
Wiccans see the Divine Reality as at once a unity of masculine and feminine entities that define a transcendental Divinity and also as polar masculine and feminine aspects that define all things and all phenomena and can be experienced immanently. In other words, the God/Goddess is both outside us and within us, and is an energy force that connects all things. We see ourselves as a necessary part of the God/Goddess…and so we see ourselves, in part, as Gods and Goddesses.
The practice of seeing the Earth as the Goddess manifest and all its creatures as part of the God/Goddess is the theme that drives the term "Earth based." We call it a mystery religion because we have learned to see our Gods in the Lunar Cycles and in the Wheel of Life that are the natural cycles of the year. To better understand difficult concepts, and to fix them in our minds and hearts, and for the phenomena to have personal meaning, we have developed the many myths and legends that we tell defining the behavior of our God/Goddess in prose and poetry.
Wiccans believe in reincarnation and see death as a necessary transformation for the spirit to be renewed and resurrected into a new life where the spirit continues to develop and learn. Many believe the spirit learns more with each incarnation until earth reincarnations are no longer required, and the spirit then resides in a higher level of existence.
Wiccans practice witchcraft (magic) as a form of focused prayer. Since all things are connected we believe we can channel energy and thought patterns to effect change in the material world to get things we need in our secular lives, to improve the state of the universe, and to experience the Divine Reality. We do this by altering our state of consciousness so our Higher Self, which operates at the Cosmic level, can manipulate thought into the material change we consciously seek. The key to learning witchcraft is to learn to communicate (via various techniques) with the Higher Self (also referred to as Cosmic Consciousness or Spiritual Consciousness).
Neo-Pagan religions are modern reconstructions of what their adherents believe to be the ancient, pre-Christian Neolithic religions practiced in Classical and tribal Europe, and the Near and Middle East. However, Neo-pagan religions are distinct from religions such as Lukumi, Santeria, Native American and African tribal religions in that Neo-pagan religions have no clear lines of demarcation back to their original sources.
It should be noted that some groups or individuals reject the term "Neo-pagan" and refer to themselves simply as "Pagans." This is largely a matter of semantics.
Most Neo-pagan religions have far less in the way of definitive texts and archaeological evidence on which to base their religious practice than do some of the more contemporary, organized world religions. In this context, "contemporary" refers to those religious movements that have evolved and gained prominence in the last four thousand years. As those religions have grown, they have inevitably gone through many permutations over time, at least with regard to their more public and exoteric aspects.
For instance, it is readily apparent that Judaism as practiced today is different from what Moses practiced in the wilderness, though modern Judaism appears to embody the intent and essential beliefs of the ancient Hebrews. Similarly, the external forms of Christianity as practiced today are different from those of Christianity as practiced by the church at Jerusalem in the first century.
While some remote, indigenous tribal religions have, on the other hand, survived as fairly cohesive practices despite the onslaught of Western civilization, virtually none of the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of localized tribal religions of pre-Christian Europe survived completely intact. However, vestiges of the Old Religions survive in myth, folklore, superstition, legend, and even our calendars. The precise forms and practices of our ancestors, however, have been lost or convoluted through centuries of oppression, persecution, and the simple vicissitudes of time.
While we may believe essentially the same way our ancient ancestors believed, few of us are under any illusion that we do exactly the same things in exactly the same manner as they were done in ancient times.
The last several decades have witnessed dramatic increases in the numbers of people seeking spirituality outside of traditional organized religions. They are experiencing a phenomenon described by C. G. Jung in his book entitled Modern Man in Search of His Soul. Specifically, many thousands of people today are seeking alternatives to what they perceive to be the dogmatic and rigid orthodoxy of religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, principally because they find these religions to be lacking in their ability to foster a tangible, personal connection to a sense of divinity inherent in the earth itself. Those closest to their roots are returning to the tribal religions of Africa, Australia, and the Americas, or to the Eastern spiritual paths of Asia. Others, who have difficulty finding clearly defined spiritual heritage, are turning to the various branches of Neo-paganism.
Neo-paganism acknowledges and reveres the old religions of distant antiquity and attempts to bring those ancient forms of spirituality into the modern world. Even if these reconstructed or reinterpreted religious movements cannot be fully authenticated as continuous traditions with direct links to ancient times, they nevertheless serve as sources of genuine spiritual and existential fulfillment to their adherents. A familiar chant often heard at Wiccan and Pagan gatherings embodies this attitude:
We are an old people,
We are a new people,
We are the same people,
Stronger, wiser than before
There is, then, no demonstrable reason to reject the validity and legitimacy of Neo-Paganism out of hand, or to dismiss its multi-faceted spirituality as frivolous. However, further debate over the antiquity or modernity of Neo-Paganism would take this discussion well beyond the scope of this treatise and would be better left to scholars and antiquarians.
We (i.e., the authors) view Wicca in particular as a faith that is rooted in the Old Religions, re-created and re-structured for contemporary times, and looking with penetrating gaze toward the future. It is an old religion. It is a new religion. It is a living religion.
Wicca is probably the largest and most diverse of all of the Neo-Pagan religions. No accurate figures are available, but some estimates place the number of people in the world who claim to be Wiccan at well over two million.
There are probably as many "traditions" within Wicca as there are denominations within Christianity. The tenets, practices, and politics vary as much among the Wiccan traditions as they do among the Christian denominations. Wiccans can be liberal or conservative, vegetarian or omnivore, a career military member or a conscientious objector, a prison warden or a prison inmate.
What sets Wicca apart from most other religions of the world is that Wiccans have no evangelical mandate. Wiccans generally regard religion and spirituality as an individual endeavor, and they make no effort to recruit or convert other people to their belief system(s). Intrinsic in this attitude is a shared sense of openness, respect, and tolerance for each other's varied beliefs and practices, as well as for those of practitioners of other religions.
Wicca, as practiced today, is a modern interpretation of ancient tribal religions of Northern Europe, with few reservations about drawing on source material of other times and other cultures.
Modern Wicca or "Witchcraft" owes much to the writings of Margaret Murray, a cultural anthropologist, who authored The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches earlier this century. These books promoted the concept that some of the "witches," who were victims of the so-called "Burning Times" (circa 1450-1792), represented remnants of an earlier religion that was practiced in Europe before the takeover of Christianity. Dr. Murray posited that there was a single, unified witch cult with branches throughout Europe. Although this theory has been examined by other researchers and rather convincingly refuted, it is important to note that Wiccans around the world have utilized her work as a springboard for synthesizing modern forms of Pagan spirituality from remnants of old traditions.
A century and a half before, scholars in France and Germany independently examined evidence from a number of "witch trials" and also concluded that the "witchcraft" as identified by the Inquisition in all probability actually contained the residual elements of old agrarian religions. While Murray may not be literally correct regarding the presence of a unified, pan-European witch cult, there is ample evidence of scattered groups in pre-Christian times who shared similarities of beliefs, practices, and deities.
Dr. Gerald B. Gardner, a retired British civil servant, is recognized alternatively either as the originator of Wica (Wicca) in total, or as the principle orchestrator of its “revival.” To this day, this issue remains a source of contention among various “authorities.”
Gardner, according to his own account, was initiated into an "old Coven" in the New Forest area in Southern England in 1939. In 1949, he published a novel entitled High Magic’s Aid. This book purported to be a reasonably accurate account of Witchcraft in fictionalized form. In 1951, the last remaining laws against witchcraft were repealed in England. In 1954, Gardner wrote Witchcraft Today in which he allegedly made public some of the "secret" beliefs and practices of the "Old Religion." His last work published in 1959 was The Meaning of Witchcraft, which he presented as a "factual" history of Wicca in Northern Europe. This book included many rituals and symbols of "Witchcraft" as Gardner defined it at that time.
With regard to his description of the actual rituals and practices of Wicca, he was honest enough to admit that he was compelled to "fill in the blanks" of much of what had been lost of the Old Religion over the ages. He drew elements and concepts from ceremonial magic, the Golden Dawn, Freemasonry, and Eastern Religions and philosophy. Gardner and one of his close associates, Doreen Valiente, formulated much of the material in the older Gardnerian "books of shadows."
After Gardner initiated the public movement, Wicca evolved in several (and sometimes apparently contradictory) directions. Dr. Raymond Buckland and his wife brought "organized" Wicca to the United States in 1963. They trained and initiated dozens of people in the Gardnerian Tradition. Buckland was heavily criticized for training too many people too quickly and subsequently leaving them to their own devices. Some of Buckland’s initiates "canonized" the Book of Shadows and held so closely to the letter of the law that their practices are hardly recognizable to the "Old School" Gardnerians in Europe. Others interpreted Buckland's and Gardner's ideas more liberally, and from them other traditions evolved, notably the original American versions of the Faërie and later the Elven Traditions. Buckland himself modified Gardnerian practice to suit his own convictions, and he later founded other traditions of his own. Nonetheless, it was Buckland who was the primary catalyst for the growth and development of Wicca in the United States.
Another key player in the "revival" appeared in the early 1960s. Alexander Sanders, and his then wife Maxine, founded the “Alexandrian” tradition. Sanders first claimed to have been initiated by his grandmother into a "family tradition," but later dropped the claim. The Alexandrian Tradition uses the Gardnerian as the basic foundation and incorporated more theatrics and ceremonial magic. The Alexandrian Tradition remains smaller than the Gardnerian Tradition. Alexandrian Wicca was strong in Europe, particularly on the Continent, but it did not take root in the US until the mid to late 1960s. Like the Gardnerian Tradition before it, Alexandrian Wicca evolved in innovative ways with many discernible changes. This rapid evolution in several branches of Wicca contributed in part to a unique phenomenon that sets Wicca apart from many other religions.
Wicca has no system of dogma or infallible doctrines, no "absolute" orthodoxy, and no national or international hierarchical structure per se. There is no pope, prophet, or prelate who categorically speaks for all traditions. Individual practitioners and covens are largely autonomous and answer to no organization or authority other than themselves.
The last twenty years have witnessed an explosive growth worldwide of men and women from all walks of life embracing Neo-Paganism as a way to fill their spiritual needs.
First, we have to acknowledge the role of psychology in defining religion. Since man first became aware of his "awareness," that is, his sentience, he has sought to explain his role in the Universe and to define his relationship with the Divine Reality.
Men of old felt their Divinity as a result of observing the Cycles of Life. They could literally see where they fit. They constructed myths to help put into words the things they intuitively felt. They felt their God/Goddesses in their lives; they felt them in a way that modern man is only now beginning to feel them -- after a conscious decision to turn away from revealed religions.
The clergy, and politicians, beginning at the time of the fall of the Greco-Roman empires used this same psychology of religion, (mans need to define his place in the Universe) to construct or at least perpetuate a religion of control, conquest and exploitation.
After the seeming failure of the Old Gods in the Roman and Greek empires, the governing powers embraced a very patriarchal religion, and gave legitimacy by Monarchy. Thus, man started a long and harmful path; splitting men from women and taking man away from nature and the land. This has caused extinction of some species, degradation in the natural environment and a general decline in the quality of life contemporary man experiences, despite so-called "technological advances."
It is only after learning more about human nature, and the psyche, through the modern science of psychology, that mankind is beginning to realize what happened. We are coming to realize the need to turn back to the Old Gods, or at least to embrace similar social concepts and life styles to live a more healthy life and heal the scarred planet.
Margot Adler offers perhaps the best insight into the rationale behind this in her critically acclaimed book "Drawing Down the Moon." Her work is a fairly holistic look at the Neo-Pagan Movement, with a focus on Wicca. She summarizes the results of her research explaining the various aspects of this phenomenon and the multi-faceted diversity of Neo-Pagans, as follows: Asked: "Why is this phenomenon occurring?..." and "Why are you involved?" responses were (paraphrasing):
1. Beauty, Vision and Imagination
Many saw paganism as speaking to part of a general visionary quest--steeped in poetry, art, drama, music, science fiction and fantasy—citing religion as a human need for beauty--paganism met those visionary needs.
2. Intellectual Satisfaction
Regardless of formal educational level, nearly all are avid readers and possessed of a fairly strong intellect. They loved reading ancient texts stimulating those visual and sanguine feelings of religion—the immanence of paganism’s Gods we often speak of.
Most pagans saw their spiritual path as a winding path full of evolution, change and increase through introspection, study and experiential participation.
The Neo-Pagan movement provided many women a new sense of self worth and empowerment. It revered their past contributions to the great societies and encouraged them to seek leadership and to experience their religion from a participatory rather than passive, secondary role.
5. Environmental Response
Many stated Neo-paganism was a response to a world in crisis. Most pagan traditions revere nature. Many felt a revival of animism was needed to counter the forces destroying the natural world.
Many said they had become pagans because they could live as they chose without the medieval notions of sin and guilt. It was a “religion without the middleman.” Others wanted to participate in ritual rather than observe them from the sidelines. Paganism is polytheistic and tolerant of other paths…the Constitution of the United States and the concept of the rights of the individual and responsibilities to the greater community make our country ripe for the growth of paganism.
Overall, Margot Adler states the nature of paganism, new age thinking in our society, and the permissiveness of our constitution make the modern day west a lucrative breeding ground for an explosive "and much needed" growth of Paganism.
Prior to any discussion of the various traditions of Wicca, one source of significant confusion and contention warrants some clarification. The terms "Wicca" and "witchcraft" have often been assumed to refer to the same thing, though in actuality they do not.
Witches and witchcraft were in existence long before recorded history. We find references to them in the Greek Classics, in the Bible, and in the myth and folklore of every civilization.
Witchcraft is simply the application of the magical arts to work weal or woe. Witches are those individuals (female or male) who employ witchcraft and may or may not utilize it as part of a specific religious practice.
"Wicca" is a term brought into popular usage by G. B. Gardner some fifty years ago. Its etymological derivation is thought to be from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning "to bend" or another similar word meaning "wise one," depending upon the source consulted.
Wicca is an organized system of religious beliefs and practices that incorporate magic (witchcraft). Wicca, then, is a proper subset of witchcraft, and many Wiccans commonly refer to themselves as Witches (with a capital "W"), and refer to Wicca as simply "the Craft."
Given the sheer multiplicity of traditions that currently incorporate the word "Wicca" as part of their name, it is simply not feasible for any one of them to assume exclusive rights to the term. Although it was Gardner who first coined the term, Wicca has grown so diverse that its definition has grown arguably more complex. But that is often the case with any religion as it evolves over time, as noted above with regard to the various Christian Denominations as well as the sects of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
Moreover, Wicca has benefited in this regard from modern technology and a highly mobile world population. Wiccan traditions, in their current and varied forms, have developed rapidly -- in a matter of decades, as opposed to centuries.
The Major Traditions of Wicca
Vivianne Crowley points out that the various traditions of Wicca, "...although different, share sufficiently similar deities, forms of worship, language, symbolism and philosophy to make them recognizable as one religion."
Using this as a broad working definition, Dr. Crowley cites four main branches of the Craft: Traditional, Hereditary, Gardnerian and Alexandrian. To that, we will add a fifth: Eclectic, and properly note the Greencraft Tradition as an evolved form of the Continental Alexandrian Tradition.
"... different and separate localized traditions which have brought in outsiders, some of whom subsequently transplanted the tradition to other countries many thousands of miles away from the original source."
"... similar to traditional but are passed down through the bloodline or sometimes through marriage."
Gardnerian, Alexandrian, & Greencraft
"... derived largely from one particular tradition, based in the New Forest area of the South of England; although this has been cross fertilized by contact with other traditions."
As noted above, the Greencraft Tradition is a metamorphosis of the Alexandrian Tradition that was brought to the Benelux in the 1970s. Greencraft emerged as an identifiable stand-alone Tradition in Amsterdam in 1994. It is in no way associated with "Green Witchcraft," which stems from a series of popular books by the same title.
Gardnerian, Alexandrian and Greencraft, together with their variants, which include Danann, Whitecroft (European version), and some segments of the American Elven traditions, form the core of what we call "Traditional Craft Wicca" or TCW.
These are essentially American variants, although there are some eclectic traditions in Europe.
Some were begun by people who had been initiated into one of the "British Traditions," as they were known at the time. For a variety of reasons, the organizers of these traditions felt compelled to reorganize or reform the traditions through which they were brought into the Craft.
A similar phenomenon takes place in virtually all religions as they begin to take root in a popular base. Some of these Eclectic traditions were formed by people with little or no formal "coven" training. Perhaps they could not find a traditional coven, perhaps they chose not to.
As more and more material became openly available, more and more interest was generated in Wicca and Witchcraft. People began to read and explore on their own, and incorporated whatever they felt particularly drawn to in their own unique practice of Wicca.
Many of what are called "Eclectic" traditions incorporates elements of Santeria, African or Native American tribal religions, or Hinduism and other Eastern philosophies into their practice of Wicca. Some of these Eclectic traditions draw so heavily on these other elements that they no longer appear to share "... similar deities, forms of worship, language, symbolism and philosophy to make them recognizable as one religion." Nevertheless, they continue to identify themselves as Wiccan.
There are other groups, such as the Temple of Danann; founded by Michael Ragan, it began as group of traditionally trained Gardnerians who were steeped in their Irish heritage. Michael began the Temple of Danann as "Irish Wicca," but they have evolved their Tradition to the point that they now no longer refer to themselves as "Wicca" at all.
The benchmark of Wicca is that it is a dynamic and ever-evolving spiritual path. There are no tablets of stone, golden scrolls or immutable dogma.
[This series is adapted from Spiritual Philosophy and Practice of Wicca in the US Military, by Dr. David L. Oringderff (Taniquetil) and Lt. Col. Ronald M. Schaefer, USAF (Astralaya).]