Wicca: An Introduction
Wicca is a contemporary nature based initiatory mystery religion which was carefully constructed in the period from the late 1930’s to early 1950’s in England. The correct pronunciation of this Anglo Saxon word used as the title of the religion, is actually “witcha”, the most commonly given definitions of the word are that it is one of the root words for the modern English words “wit” and “wisdom”, that it means to twist, bend or shape, or that it was once the label for a male practitioner of magic (“wicce”, pronounced “witche” being the female equivalent) In its early days (Gerald Gardner spelled the word with one “c”, “Wica”) the religion was usually referred to simply as “The Craft” but by the 1960’s it became clear that this mispronounced Anglo Saxon word was here to stay. As a religion, Wicca draws its inspiration from pre-Christian cultures (almost exclusively Western) and can be said to have, in part at least, a similar ethos and agenda to the ancient mystery schools of Greece and Egypt. Wicca follows in the tradition of secret societies, its initiations and hierarchical degree structure borrows from both freemasonry and the Ordo Templi Orientis. The core material upon which Wiccan rituals and magical practice are based are derived from a wide variety of sources, including European folk magic and western ceremonial magic (Victorian occult lodges such as the Order of the Golden Dawn, which in turn, drew its material from old classic texts on magic, is a prime example) The Wiccan holy calendar, commonly referred to as the wheel of the year, consists of a series of eight seasonal festivals drawn from our European pagan past. Whilst each festival has its own history, there was no one culture which would have celebrated all eight together. The format is a modern construction for Wiccans and other people today in the pagan revival (of which Wicca was at the forefront) who wish to revive some of the traditions of their ancestors, feel more of a connection to the natural world and for whom nature is regarded with awe as something inherently sacred.
Wicca has strong associations with witchcraft – that powerfully evocative and elusive word often used today to refer to entire bodies of folk magical practices across the globe (especially from western culture as this is obviously where the word arises, but every culture has its own word for the phenomenon) It must be understood that in its early days in the 1950’s when the religion of Wicca experienced its first media coverage, Wicca was revealed as being the newly discovered ancient Witch religion! Its founder, Gerald Gardner, posed, not as the creator, but as the discoverer of an ancient pre-Christian pagan nature based fertility religion which venerated a Goddess and a God and employed the usage of sacred and magical chants, ritual dances and spells for healing and aiding the community. It was claimed that this ancient surviving witch cult was actually a benevolent organised pagan priesthood of “The Old Religion” which was at one time prior to the onset of Christianity, the religion of most people in Western Europe. The lurid accounts of the witch hunters in the middle ages of sabbats full of naked witches dancing with the devil in moonlit forests, were, according to Gardner and the few folklorists he was inspired by (Margaret Murray being a key influence here) actually misinterpreted accounts of what were in fact the ritual celebrations and acts of worship of the witches practising their peaceful nature honouring religion. The implication was that the whole impetus for the witch persecutions was actually an act of attack on people who were continuing to practice their native religion rather than abandoning it for the newly introduced Christian religion. During the witch persecutions, members of the religion had to become more secretive and so organised themselves into secret underground covens, passing on the ancient secrets of the old religion to family members at levels of high secrecy. All of this had continued throughout history pretty much unnoticed until Gardner’s discovery of a coven of real live witches living in the New Forest area of England.
If this all sounds very difficult to swallow, it’s because it it! This notion, however, of Witchcraft as an ancient religion, was not an entirely new concept brought about only through Gardner. Whilst other scholars are known to have supported the theory that Witchcraft was a pagan nature religion, such as Karl Ernst Jarcke and Franz Josef Mone, the publication of “The Witch Cult in Western Europe” in 1921 by the aforementioned Egyptologist and folklorist Margaret Murray was the main scholarly influence on Gardner’s Wicca. Murray’s perspective on the history of the witch trials was fresh and differed a lot from most of the prevailing theories of the day. Whilst her books are often ridiculed and weren’t taken seriously by folklorists of the day, and the vast majority of Murray’s theories bare no sound historical evidence to support themselves, the concepts expressed were inspiring to many who sought a pagan revival. When Gardner joined the New Forest coven, their claims were an extension of Murray’s theory in that they claimed (or Gardner claimed, if we are even to doubt whether the people Gardner met believed themselves to be Witches, as some scholars question) to be practising the survival of the very religion Murray details.
Another folklorist who greatly inspired Gardner was the American Charles Godfrey Leland, his book entitled “Aradia or Gospel of the Witches” published in 1899 appears to have had a great impact on Gardner. According to Leland, the publication was actually a translation of an early or late Latin work revealed to him by an Italian fortune teller and Witch by the name of Maddalena. The book was regarded as the sacred gospel of the witches of the old religion as practised in Italy, a religion which, according to Leland, still prevailed in entire villages in the Romagna. The text is a curious mixture of myths and spells. The stories tell of the Witch Queen Diana (also referred to as Tana) and two versions of her sexual union with her brother Lucifer, the sun. A daughter was born of their union, by the name of Aradia, who was sent to Earth as a female messiah of Witches to teach the art of Witchcraft to the oppressed. The Wiccan Charge of the Goddess contains several stanzas from Leland’s work, and “Aradia” is one of the publicly used names for the Goddess in Gardnerian tradition.
Rather than concern itself with supposed historical events and the words and deeds of people regarded to be in positions of mystical and religious authority in the distant past, as many other religions do, Wicca emphasises a spirituality and theological framework rooted in the natural world. Wiccans meditate on our human relationship with and experience of nature, the effect of the seasonal tides on our personal lives – our emotions, our physical, mental and spiritual well being and our relations with others. Wicca teaches the practitioner to open up all of the senses to ones environment, for the Gods reveal themselves through the inner workings of nature. Wiccans learn how to experience their own divine revelations and to listen to and be true to themselves, their own instincts and intuitions, rather than submitting their own wills and basing their lives entirely upon the experiences of others who have gone before.
Wiccans seek to deepen their awareness of the natural world through a number of avenues. Our rituals employ symbols of natural phenomena both physically and metaphorically. The five elements of classical western magic (air, fire, water, earth and spirit) feature heavily in Wiccan ritual structure, they are frequently referred to in our sacred liturgies as well as being physically present on our altars, usually in the simple form of bowls of water and salt for water and earth respectively, a flame for fire and smouldering incense for air. Spirit, or “akasha” is the essence that runs through and binds the physical elements (thus forming the manifested universe) it is the spiritual mortar of the universe. Performing our rites to mark the changing seasons, celebrating the equinoxes and solstices, is another key technique employed to remind ourselves constantly of the ongoing events in the natural world. The ceremonies link our own lives to nature’s tides. Each season forms a new chapter in the Wiccan myth cycle, detailing the stage of the relationship between the Goddess and God at the current point in time. Whether the Goddess is giving birth to the God at the winter solstice, making love to him at Beltane, or sacrificing him at Lammas, we are constantly reminded of the cyclical nature of the universe. The spiritual dimension of the natural world is always affirmed alongside the physical.
Wicca, however, does not purely consist of passive meditations and reflections on the nature of divinity. Wicca encourages action, practice and doing, for Wicca strongly encourages both the study and employment of the art of magic.
When an initiate, naked, bound and blindfolded, is presented to the guardians and Gods of the tradition and initiated into the Wiccan mysteries, they are not simply initiated as a spiritual priest/priestess, but also as a Witch. These two distinct roles work alongside one another. In Wicca, spirituality and magic go hand in hand. It is understandable that some Wiccans will emphasise one over the other, many books written on the subject tend to place greater importance on the spiritual “close to nature” lifestyle than on studying and employing practical magic work in ones life. Presumably one of the reasons some Wiccan authors take this stance is to discourage and dissuade people in today’s materialistic society of instant gratification from believing that if they simply joined a coven they would become all powerful Witches capable of casting spells to meet their every whim free of responsibility. Nothing in our universe is free of charge, everything must be paid for in one way or another. Wicca, like any other priesthood, carries a lot of responsibilities for its members, not simply in terms of helping people in our communities but also in caring for our natural environment by, for example, recycling materials that can be reused , saving energy, cleaning local parks, helping to protect our local wildlife, or leaving offerings for the genius locii.
Spirituality and environmentalism aside, the role of practical/operative Witchcraft in Wicca cannot and indeed should not be pushed aside. When the Goddess speaks to us in the Charge saying “Ye who are fain to learn all sorcery, yet have not won its deepest secrets; to these will I teach things that are as yet unknown” we are reminded of the inherently magical nature of our tradition, the Goddess is, after all, the “Queen of all Witcheries”, people who downplay the role of magic for Wiccans have missed the point. Knowledge of indigenous folk magical practices, basic astrology and the usage of the seven major planets in planetary magic, the crafting and use of talismans and amulets, the folklore and magical properties of herbs, metals and gemstones, techniques of divination and scrying, healing methods etc all form part of a Witch’s lifelong education and magical repertoire.