We regard Wicca as a diverse, spiritually rich and dynamic religion. To use more conventional terminology, we see Wicca as a major religious movement in the same context as the other major world religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism or Taoism. Just as each of these religions have their own diverse denominations, we in Wicca have our diverse traditions. The Baptists, Catholics and Mormons all claim Christianity (although I doubt they would acknowledge each other as such). Gardnerians, Alexandrians, Dianics, eclectics, solitaires and a host of others claim Wicca. The difference between Wiccan traditions and, for example, the Christian sects mentioned above is that Wiccans generally practice more intra-traditional tolerance. Most (but unfortunately not all) Wiccans acknowledge traditions other than their own as valid and legitimately Wiccan. And so do we in the Sacred Well Congregation, and we encourage all others to do so. We regard the elitism and exclusionary attitudes of a few groups as counter-productive to the general Wiccan community.
Before we get into the discussion of the various traditions of Wicca, there is one point of confusion, contention, actually, that should be clarified. Are the terms witchcraft and Wicca one and the same thing? No. 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 the application of the magical arts to craft weal or woe. Witches are those who employ witchcraft and may or may not incorporate a systematized religious practice. Wicca is a term brought into popular usage by G. B. Gardner some fifty years ago and denotes a system of religion that incorporates the practice of magic. Wicca, then, is a proper subset of witchcraft, and most Wiccans commonly refer to themselves as witches, and refer to Wicca as simply "the Craft." While we will use the term Wiccan and witch more or less interchangeably throughout this material, the subtle differences should be borne in mind.
The Major Traditions of Wicca
According to Vivianne Crowley (1994, pg 102), the various traditions, "although different, share sufficiently similar deities, forms of worship, language, symbolism and philosophy to make them recognisable as one religion." Dr. Crowley cites four main branches of the Craft: Traditional, Hereditary, Gardnerian and Alexandrian. To that, we will add a sixth: Eclectic.
- Traditional: "... 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."
- Hereditary: "similar [To traditional] but are passed down through the bloodline or sometimes through marriage."
- Alexandrian, and
- 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. For further information, see the Greencraft Website. 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.
- Eclectic: 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 that 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 "Wiccan" 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.
The mere fact that influences from other traditions are brought into the practice of Wicca does not necessarily mean that the religion ceases to be Wiccan. Wicca, almost from its inception, incorporated some Eastern concepts, such as the Chakras and Kundalini imagery. As we mentioned earlier, Gardner unashamedly drew on many sources. Many Wiccan groups, including our own, recognize and honor the native spirits of the land in which they live. And the spirits of the land honor them.
As previously noted, all religions tend to evolve as they grow; all are subject to the normal course of social evolution. Even the hereditary or family traditions must evolve with culture, language and social institutions. Judaism today is not the same Judaism practiced by Moses in the wilderness; Christianity today is not the Christianity preached by the Nazarene; Islam is not the same Islam expounded by Mohammed on the mountain. As the societies and cultures which gave these religions home went through normal and inevitable evolution, so did the religions. It is the same with Wicca. But instead of several centuries, the process has taken only a few decades. Indeed, most of us have witnessed radical social and cultural changes within our own lifetimes.
- So that brings us back to the basic question, then, what really defines Wicca as a religious practice? Over the years, the precise definition has been argued into absurdity. For our purposes, we will adopt Dr. Crowley's general definition:
- Wicca is a religion with various traditions that "although different, share sufficiently similar deities, forms of worship, language, symbolism and philosophy to make them recognisable as one religion."
With this as the fundamental element, we delineate our own set of practices a bit more narrowly. Wicca is an earth-based nature religion with some branches, including our own, claiming a "Western Mystery Tradition." Traditional Craft Wicca (TCW) as we define it, is an initiatory tradition that celebrates the Sacred Myths surrounding the Charge and Descent of the Goddess and Sacred Myths of the death and rebirth of the God. Most of what is regarded as Sacred Mythology is drawn from Celtic and Germanic sources, with an ample smattering of Classical Mediterranean, Egyptian and Middle Eastern mythology as well as considerable ritual material drawn from Freemasonry and ceremonial magic. Traditional Craft Wicca includes, but is not limited to, most of the Gardnerian, Alexandrian and American Elven Traditions. We qualify this with "most" because some covens of these traditions have moved so far from the original philosophy and practices that they are hardly recognizable as such, yet still claim their original "lineage."
Within the Sacred Well and Greencraft, our particular practice of Traditional Craft Wicca is based on the Alexandrian Tradition as it has evolved on the Continent over the years. Again, we see Wicca as a dynamic and evolving religion. If it degenerates into rigid dogma or tablets of stone, then it will fall victim to the same stagnation and fundamentalism that has plagued the more "standard" religions. So our practice has indeed been cross-fertilized with elements of other traditions, but as Arghuicha points out:
Greencraft is a "line" within the Alexandrian movement. Though we didn't take away a grain of sand from the Alexandrian tradition, we did add some specific characteristics. Since all covens hived off from the same mother coven, they all share this. 'This' contains: -a tree-alphabet and tree calendar, as is used by many, but far from all, other covens, all over the world and a 'Celtic' rune-system which is different from futhark. The alphabet, calendar and runes, we share with the 'Tuatha De Danann' a movement founded by Michael Ragan in the USA who graciously offered us the use of the runes (as yet still unpublished). -a specific set of Tarot (limited edition restricted to Greencraft and 'friends') -a specific non-hebrew form of Kaballah and Tree of Life, based partly on R. J. Stewart's 'materia celtica' and 'Merlin tarot' deck. -an association of Trees, power- Animals and Celtic pantheon with the tarot and the tree of life That we are in no way proponents of 'orthodoxy' in Wicca will be clear to all.
Further, Traditional Craft Wicca (TCW) as we practice it, draws from four larger bodies of arcane practice:
- Ceremonial or High Magic (Golden Dawn, OTO, freemasonry, rosicrucians etc. and Wicca have this in common) which has its roots in Renaissance Neo-Platonist magic. It should be remembered that a tree is more than merely its roots. The ceremonial part of Wicca, has evolved and continues to evolve since the days of Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders. Ceremonial magic is not necessarily a religion. Wicca is a religion and we worship both the God and the Goddess.
- Shamanistic techniques including but not limited to: drumming, dancing, chanting and sensory deprivation. We are mostly on good terms with other shamanistic traditions, since we share this common interest with them. Here also we have to move forward and develop those techniques against our specific Wiccan background and specificity. Shamanism as such is not a religion. Wicca is.
- Folk Magic. We consider ourselves witches. This should be more than merely a declaration of solidarity with the victims of the Burning Times. It means Wicca also has a link to the 'country wise-woman's magic'. This has always been Cecil Williamson's main interest, and it's one of the reasons we're glad the Boscastle museum is in 'pagan hands'. The country wise- woman, as often as not, was more or less a 'Christian.' As Wiccans we obviously are not.
- Nature Religions. On the pan-theistic level, this means an interest in- and respect for- all Gaia's children: trees, animals, stones. All of life and all of creation, manifest and unmanifest.
Wicca is a religion that connects to the old, pre-Christian, pagan religions. The distance separating us from Neolithic man is a technical one, not a difference of religious need or religious experience. Wicca is different from the major established religions because it builds upon the ancient shamanistic nature traditions.
Wicca does not offer all the answers but rather teaches the methods to discover and establish links of communication between the individual and the surrounding universe. Where it does offer an answer, this answer is never dogmatic. It is an answer that you experience rather than one you have to 'believe in' or 'accept'. The methods to achieve these experiences have been passed on from times before documented history and are still valid and pertinent.
Wicca is a part of paganism, but not all paganism is necessarily Wiccan. What makes Wicca so specific within the larger pagan movement, is primarily the polarity between the God and the Goddess, between the Male and the Female principle. In Wicca this polarity is reflected on the human level as well as in nature and on the divine level. It is the driving force of the universe and of nature.
In Wicca all gods and goddesses from pre-Christian traditions can be of value. Roman, Greek, Celtic, Germanic, Egyptian, Babylonian, Sumerian gods and goddesses, all may contribute to completing the intuitive perception we have formed of the Goddess and the God. They can be seen as aspects of the divine. In a Jungian sense they are archetypes.
A witch will always search for the polar tension in her/his rituals because the divine without that polar tension can never become part of the witches' experiential reality: For example, a physicist would never study only one pole of a magnet. The pole, positive or negative, is only one aspect of the whole magnet. If the magnet were cut in two, there would not be a positive piece and a negative piece. There would be two whole magnets, each with a positive and a negative pole.
In the perception of the witch, this polarity principle can be applied to all levels of reality to order them and understand better how they function. The same polar principle can also be applied to the divine and this is called the 'magnetic' character of the God and the Goddess. All gods and goddesses are symbols that the witch may use and worship to establish links with the divine to reduce the intangible and un-'knowable' to human dimensions and to link the macrocosm with the microcosm without destroying the divine character of it.
In practice the elder gods were personifications of forces in nature and aspects of the life-force as the creative energy that permeates the universe. For a Wiccan there is no sharp boundary separating the 'natural' from the 'divine': the gods are 'natural gods' and nature is 'divine nature'. Hence our concept that the divine is both within and without, immanent and transcendent.
The last millennia of Western civilization have been characterized by a systematic increase of patriarchal thinking. This had its repercussions also in religion. Already in classical times people started to suppress the role, the power and the religious function of the female. It's not surprising therefore that from the seven days of the week in Germanic and Roman religion only two are associated with a goddess. In those days the pantheon was already dominated by a male deity and the goddess was reduced to worship by religious 'sects' or 'mystery'-religions', that were only for 'initiates' and were suspected by the authorities. This reduction of the role of the Goddess went hand in hand with the decline of the role of women in society.
With the rise of Christianity finally the goddess had to go into hiding altogether. We can find her still though, albeit in disguise and stripped of all characteristics that seemed undesirable to the powers that be, as the virgin Mary. Nature, the physical and the material became the province of Satan. In medieval witch hunts it was mainly women who were the victims of super- patriarchic and fanatic Christianity.
Today society is slowly moving toward a greater equilibrium where polarity has again a part: With the return of the Goddess, we also witness an appreciation of nature and an increasing ecological consciousness. Jungian psychology through its concept of animus/anima created and rediscovered the appreciation of the polar tensions within the human psyche. Even in Christian religions today, women are claiming their right to be clergy and religious artists sometimes present Christ as a woman.
Wicca, therefore can be considered both a religion of the past and a religion for the future because these new currents in society's consciousness only confirm what Wicca has always maintained and can be found in every Wiccan ritual.
Another distinction between Wicca and most other established religions derives from the fact that Wicca is not a 'revealed' religion but rather an 'experiential' religion. In a 'revealed' religion, the 'truth' of the teachings are independent of the actual experiences of the believer whereas in Wicca the 'truths' of the teachings have to be perceived by the individual as such. In Wicca there is no such thing as 'divine authority' nor is there a privileged class that has to interpret the divine and the divine 'Will' to the believers.
In modern witchcraft each Wiccan is allowed to be and accepted as a unique individual with his or her own personality structure, needs, perception and intuition. To the individual witch any ritual and/or statement about the divine makes sense only if she/he 'recognizes' and 'experiences' the ritual or statement as valuable and true.
Wicca is a pragmatic religion. For the individual witch, Wiccan symbols and rituals only have meaning if they 'work'. To the witch, the gods only 'exist' in so far as they 'work', since this is what enables the witch to link phenomena and characteristics of the cosmos to everyday reality and to better order chaos and understand and control otherwise unexplainable events.
In Wicca the 'material' and the 'spiritual' principles are perceived as being in balance just as the male and female are in balance and as equally valuable. The material aspect can be perceived as female and the spiritual as male where the two complement each other and neither is more 'valuable' than the other. Wicca does not teach escapism from this world; instead Wicca teaches harmony and balance with this world. For a witch, pursuing only material gain is out of balance just as pursuing only spiritual development is out of balance. There is no valid reason for being ashamed of living in comfort just as there is no virtue in being addicted to "spirituality" while living in abject poverty. In this world spiritual self realization is not possible without a sound material foundation.