Wicca is primarily a religion where the practitioners interact with the world on many levels – physical, spiritual, magical and emotional. Witchcraft is the craft of magic. Wicca and Witchcraft overlap – all Wiccans are also witches, but not all witches are Wiccans. But the practice of witchcraft (in the sense of doing spells and so on) is only part of the practice of Wicca.
Initiatory Wicca is essentially an esoteric mystery religion in which every practitioner is a priestess or priest. This may also apply to other systems, but we are mainly discussing the initiatory Craft here. A mystery religion is one in which the dramas of the psyche are enacted by and for the benefit of its initiates, but because these mysteries often involve non-verbal concepts, they cannot be communicated. Also, some material is oathbound (initiates are forbidden to disclose it).
There are three degrees in initiatory Wicca. After the first degree initiation, the initiate is responsible for their own spiritual development; in some groups, the period between first and second is where the new initiate is helped to develop their spirituality by their Coven and High Priestess and High Priest; after the second, they may take on responsibility for assisting others’ development; after the third, their psyche is fully integrated with itself. (The third degree is generally regarded as a personal step in British Gardnerian Wicca, not something that is required in order to be able to run a coven.)
Modern initiatory Wicca has many variants (Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and offshoots of these) but all share an adherence to a similar ritual structure and the practice of initiation.
The term Wicca has come to be applied to many different non-initiatory variants of the original form, such as solitary or non-initiatory wicca. There is nothing wrong with this – it can be argued that this is a natural outgrowth of any religious impulse.
Everyone’s experience of Wicca is different
Many people experience a feeling of spiritually coming home. The words, the energies, and the space are beautiful and resonant. Crossing the threshold into a new realm, a realm that feels closer to the gods and goddesses. This is the place between the worlds, where we walk on the edge of time and space, with one foot in the otherworld. The circle is a space where you can commune with the universe, develop the self, engage in sacred play, and honour the divine with each other. There is freedom from unnecessary social constraint. Celebrating the beauty of the night and the human body, and the firelight flickering on the naked flesh. The ecstatic leaping across the fire, wild and free. The flames, symbolic of life and passion… The feeling of journeying together to other worlds, communing with the ancestors, the land, and the spirits of the land. Walking with gods and goddesses.
The above is just an example of how Wicca feels – it’s not the same for everyone. If you want to find out more about how it feels, browse some websites about Wicca.
Early modern Wicca was inspired by the general interest in the early 20th century in ancient paganisms, esoteric orders of the 19th century, and a passionate interest in nature and magical realms. It appears that the basic structure of modern Wicca was devised by two women in the Bournemouth area in the mid-1920s. They passed this on to Gerald Gardner via Dafo. Gardner genuinely believed that he had found an ancient practice which could be traced back centuries, possibly even millennia. 1 There were, however, other covens practising in other parts of Britain, but little is known about these other than that they existed, and most claims that traditional and hereditary Craft existed before Gardner have not been proven – but nor have they been disproved. As archaeologists will tell you, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Gardner proceeded eventually to publish High Magic’s Aid (a fictional account of medieval witchcraft) andWitchcraft Today, an account of the Wica (as it was spelt in those days, referring to the people and not the practice) that he had encountered. He augmented the rather sketchy rituals with material from Co-Masonry and Aleister Crowley.
Many people joined Gardner’s early covens, including Doreen Valiente, who added quite a lot of new material into Gardner’s Book of Shadows, and took out some of the more obviously Crowley-derived phrases (though she left quite a lot in).
There was and is a strong strain of folklore-inspired material in the Craft. Gardner was a member of the Folklore Society and had extensively researched the local folklore during his time in Malaya. Many of the themes found in the celebration of festivals are inspired by folklore.
There were also many literary influences on the Craft, in particular Rudyard Kipling, James Branch Cabell, and many other writers with a strong sense of landscape.
During the 1980s, the Craft became more left-wing, radical, feminist and ecology-oriented. Gardner’s political stance was conservative, in spite of some of his more radical ideas. However, Gardner was by no means a typical conservative, as while in Malaya he actually talked to Malayans, unlike most of his contemporaries. He was also strongly committed to naturism, a very unusual interest in the 1940s and 50s.
The modern Craft both draws upon its roots in the Western Mystery Tradition, and looks to traditional forms of folk magic, folklore, and the pagan traditions of the British Isles for inspiration. The structure of rituals remains reasonably constant, but the content varies quite a lot according to the inclinations and tastes of individual covens. Only initiations remain fairly standard, in order to ensure that they will be recognised across the whole Craft, should a covener wish to transfer to another coven.
Gods and other beings
Wicca encompasses a variety of beliefs:
- A belief in many gods and goddesses, spirits of place, nature and elemental spirits (polytheism)
- A belief that “all the gods are one God and all the Goddesses are one Goddess” (duotheism)
- A belief that there is no duality of good versus evil (monism)
- Devotion to a specific deity (henotheism)
- Belief that there is only one deity, usually the Goddess or the Great Spirit (monotheism)
- A belief that everything has a soul, including trees, rocks, animals, birds, places (animism)
- A belief that the divine is immanent or manifest in the physical world (pantheism)
- A combination of one or more of the above
There is a strong emphasis in the early Books of Shadows on the union of masculine and feminine, but many covens have dropped this on the grounds that the universe is more complicated than that. Polytheist Wiccans honour the Horned God and the Moon Goddess as patron deities of the Craft, and do not regard them as “The God” and “The Goddess”. This two-deity approach seems to be a feature of popular exoteric Wicca, though some initiated Wiccans adhere to the dictum that “All the Gods are one God, and all the Goddesses are one Goddess”, regarding various deities as aspects or archetypes of the masculine principle or the feminine principle. Most people feel that polytheism and duotheism are incompatible, though some see this as a matter of perspective. Some Wiccans (mainly of the Dianic persuasion) are Goddess-monotheists. Most Wiccans believe that their deities are immanent in the universe, not external to it. Many are also animists, believing in nature-spirits and spirits of place. Polytheist Wiccans believe that each deity is distinct, and not an aspect of some other deity. They may take the view that some deity-names are a different culture’s name for the same being, but they do not conflate all deities into one. Fortunately it is possible to accommodate all these different views within Wicca because of the autonomy of covens and the diversity in unity of Wiccan practice.
Many Wiccans gather in covens. All covens have a High Priestess and High Priest, but the extent to which these are leaders in the generally-accepted sense of the word varies from one coven to another. Their role is more like that of a facilitator or mentor; their aim is to empower their coveners to develop as priestesses and priests in their own right, passing on their experience and knowledge to their coveners, and usually learning from them in the process. Covens are autonomous, but as their founders will have been trained in another coven, they usually maintain contact with their previous High Priestess and sometimes seek guidance from her. The maximum size of a coven is usually limited by the size of the room where they meet.
Most coven members will also practice on their own (either a full ritual or meditation and visualisation), and sometimes will become solitary for a time if they move to another part of the country and cannot find a compatible coven or simply because that is what they wish to do at the time.
Solitary Wicca is also practised by non-initiates, either because they do not want to join a coven or cannot find a compatible one. Solitaries sometimes perform a self-dedication or self-initiation ritual.
Rites and celebrations
Wiccans celebrate eight festivals and the thirteen Full Moons of the year. They will sometimes meet on other festivals and other phases of the Moon.
The structure of a ritual
The basic structure of a ritual is similar to that of a story. It has a beginning (the opening of the circle), a middle (the purpose for which the ritual is being conducted be it celebratory or magical) and an end (the closing of the circle).
Wicca is practised in a sacred circle, and most rituals have a structure broadly based upon the Western Mystery Tradition. This involves consecrating the space, orienting it to sacred geometry, raising some power, performing the ritual, sharing consecrated food and drink, and then closing the circle and bidding farewell to the beings and powers that have been called upon. Coveners usually bring a contribution to the feast.
There are eight festivals in the Wiccan year: Samhain or Hallowe’en (31st October); Yule (21st December); Imbolc (2nd February); Spring Equinox (21st March); Beltane (1st May); Midsummer or Litha (21st June); Lammas or Lughnasadh (1st August); and Autumn Equinox (21st September). The dates, practice and meaning of these vary according to where the coven is located, when particular plants actually come out, and the local traditions where the coven members live. Some covens celebrate on the nearest weekend to the actual festival. Some writers have tried to fit the festivals to the story of the interaction between “The God” and “The Goddess”, but few covens of my acquaintance actually celebrate the festivals in this way.
It is now generally recognised that the eight festivals were not all celebrated by the same culture (in spite of wild claims made on some web sites), and some of them are retro-engineered Christian festivals 4, but this is in keeping with the eclectic nature of Wiccan practice. Whatever the dubious origins of the festivals, they have now taken on a life of their own, and could be considered a valid development of pagan tradition, provided that spurious claims for their antiquity are dropped.
While the Solstices and Equinoxes are fixed points governed by the movements of specific movements of the Sun and Moon, the other four, Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain are moveable and relate to the passing of the seasons as they display themselves wherever the practitioner happens to be geographically. They do not have to be conducted on specific dates such as 1st May or 31st October. The allocation of specific dates to these festivals is an entirely modern feature.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the equinoxes and solstices are reversed, so the winter solstice is in June, and so on.
Most Wiccans practice magic for healing and other ethical results. The intention behind the working of magic is not to impose one’s will on the universe, but to bend the currents of possibility somewhat to bring about a desired outcome. Magic is generally practised at Full Moons rather than major festivals.
The Wiccan attitude to ethics is mainly based on the Wiccan Rede, “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”. However, it is significant that this injunction occurs as part of the first degree initiation, and was probably originally meant to show the new initiate that it is impossible to do anything without causing some harm, so it is necessary to consider carefully the consequences of one’s actions (Dee Weardale, pers. comm.) The other famous (and often misquoted) injunction occurs at the second degree, and is generally known as the Law of Threefold Return. The actual text enjoins the initiate to return good threefold wherever s/he receives it. To my mind, the most important aspect of Wiccan ethics is the list of the eight virtues which occurs in the Charge of the Goddess. These are beauty and strength, power and compassion, mirth and reverence, honour and humility. Each of these pairs of virtues points to the need for balance. Virtue ethics seem to have originated in ancient Greek philosophy, though whether Doreen Valiente was aware of this when writing The Charge of the Goddess is not known.
Most Wiccans believe in reincarnation, with the possibility of rest between lives in a region generally referred to as the Summerlands. Some believe that the spirit joins the Ancestors, whilst the soul is reincarnated. The degree to which the personality survives death is a matter of personal belief. Early Wiccan liturgy refers to the possibility of meeting one’s loved ones again in future lives. Philip Heselton suggests convincingly that this is because the coven that Gerald joined believed that they had been in a coven together in a previous life.
Wicca and other contemporary Pagan spiritualities
Wicca and Druidry are closely linked, both by their origins (Gerald Gardner and Ross Nichols were close friends 4) and by the fact that many Wiccans are also members of Druid groves. Owing to the large number of books available on Wicca, there are many people practising some form of Wicca outside the initiatory Craft, and much eclectic Pagan practice bears a close resemblance to the structure of Wiccan rituals and festivals. As more information becomes available on other paths and traditions, however, this may change. The rise of Heathenry and other reconstructionist paths should be welcomed as a valuable contribution to the diversity of Paganisms being practised in Britain today.
2 May 2005
Thanks to James Pengelly for his comments and feedback on this article.