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Wicca (English pronunciation: //) is a modern pagan, witchcraft religion. It was developed in England during the first half of the 20th century and it was introduced to the public in 1954 by Gerald Gardner, a retired British civil servant. It draws upon a diverse set of ancient pagan and 20th century hermetic motifs for its theological structure and ritual practice. The word witch derives from Middle English wicche, Old English wicce (/ˈwɪttʃe/) (feminine) "witch" and wicca (/ˈwɪttʃɑ/) (masculine) "wizzard".
Wicca is a diverse religion with no central authority or figure defining it. It is divided into various lineages and denominations, referred to as traditions, each with its own organisational structure and level of centralisation. Due to its decentralized nature, there is some disagreement over what actually constitutes Wicca. Some traditions, collectively referred to as British Traditional Wicca, strictly follow the initiatory lineage of Gardner and consider the term Wicca to apply only to such lineaged traditions, while other eclectic traditions do not.
Wicca is typically duotheistic, worshipping a god and goddess traditionally viewed as a mother goddess and horned god. These two deities are sometimes viewed as facets of a greater pantheistic godhead. However, beliefs range from hard polytheism to even monotheism. Wiccan celebration follows approximately eight seasonally based festivals known as Sabbats. An unattributed statement known as the Wiccan Rede is the traditional basis of Wiccan morality. Wicca often involves the ritual practice of magic, though it is not always necessary.
The term Wicca first achieved widespread acceptance when referring to the religion in the 1960s and 70s. Prior to that, the term Witchcraft had been more widely used. Whilst being based upon the Old English word wicca, a masculine term for sorcerers, the actual individual who coined the capitalised term Wicca is unknown, though it has been speculated that it was Charles Cardell, who certainly used the term Wiccen during the 1950s.
Application of the word Wicca has given rise to "a great deal of disagreement and infighting". Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca are often collectively termed British Traditional Wicca, and many of their practitioners consider the term Wicca to apply only to these lineaged traditions. Others do not use the word Wicca at all, instead preferring to be referred to only as Witchcraft, while others believe that all modern witchcraft traditions can be considered Wiccan.
Popular culture, as seen in television programs such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, tends to use the terms Wiccan and Wicca as completely synonymous with the terms Witch and Witchcraft respectively.
Beliefs vary markedly between different traditions and individual practitioners. However, various commonalities exist between these disparate groups, which usually include views on theology, the afterlife, magic and morality.
Wiccan views on theology are numerous and varied and there is no universally agreed-upon religious canon, but Wicca is traditionally a duotheistic religion that venerates both a Triple Goddess associated with the moon, stars, and often the Earth, and a Horned God associated with the sun, forests and animals. These two deities are variously understood through the frameworks of pantheism (as being dual aspects of a single godhead), duotheism (as being two polar opposites), hard polytheism (being two distinct deities in a larger pantheon which includes other pagan gods) or soft polytheism (being composed of many lesser deities). In some pantheistic and duotheistic conceptions, deities from diverse cultures may be seen as aspects of the Goddess or God. However, there are also other theological viewpoints to be found within the Craft, including monotheism, the concept that there is just one deity, which is seen by some, such as Dianic Wiccans, as being the Goddess, whilst by others, like the Church and School of Wicca, as instead being genderless. There are other Wiccans who are atheists or agnostics, not believing in any actual deity, but instead viewing the gods as psychological archetypes of the human mind which can be evoked and interacted with.
According to the Witches Janet and Stewart Farrar, who held a pantheistic, duotheistic and animistic view of theology, Wiccans "regard the whole cosmos as alive, both as a whole and in all of its parts", but that "such an organic view of the cosmos cannot be fully expressed, and lived, without the concept of the God and Goddess. There is no manifestation without polarisation; so at the highest creative level, that of Divinity, the polarisation must be the clearest and most powerful of all, reflecting and spreading itself through all the microcosmic levels as well".
Wicca is traditionally and primarily a religion centred upon the idea of gender polarity and the worship of a Moon Goddess and a Horned God. (This core theology was originally described by Gerald Gardner, the founder of the religion; and Doreen Valiente, who wrote much of the original liturgical materials.) The Goddess and the God may be regarded as the Divine Feminine and the Divine Masculine. They are complementary opposites or dualities, bearing similarities to the concept of yin and yang in Taoism. The God and Goddess are generally seen as lovers and equals, the Divine Couple who together co-create the cosmos.
For most Wiccans, the God and Goddess are seen as complementary polarities in the universe that balance one another out, and in this manner they have been compared to the concept of yin and yang found in Taoism. As such they are often interpreted as being "embodiments of a life-force manifest in nature" with some Wiccans believing that they are simply symbolic of these polarities, whilst others believing that the God and the Goddess are genuine beings that exist independently. The two divinities are often given symbolic associations, with the Goddess commonly being symbolised as the Earth (i.e. Mother Earth), but also sometimes as the Moon, which complements the God being viewed as the Sun.
Traditionally the God is viewed as a Horned God, associated with nature, wilderness, sexuality, hunting and the life cycle. The Horned God is given various names according to the tradition, and these include Cernunnos, Pan, Atho and Karnayna.
At other times the God is viewed as the Green Man, a traditional figure in European art and architecture, and they often interpret him as being associated with the natural world. The God is also often depicted as a Sun God,particularly at the festival of Litha, or the summer solstice. Another expression of the God is that of the Oak King and the Holly King, one who rules over winter and spring, the other who rules over summer and autumn. He has also been seen in the roles of the Leader of the Wild Hunt and the Lord of Death.
The Goddess is usually portrayed as a Triple Goddess, thereby being a triadic deity comprising a Maiden goddess, a Mother goddess, and a Crone goddess, each of whom has different associations, namely virginity, fertility and wisdom. She is also commonly depicted as a Moon Goddess, and is often given the name of Diana after the ancient Roman deity. Some Wiccans, particularly from the 1970s onwards, have viewed the Goddess as the more important of the two deities, who is pre-eminent in that she contains and conceives all. In this respect, the God is viewed as the spark of life and inspiration within her, simultaneously her lover and her child. This is reflected in the traditional structure of the coven. In one monotheistic form of the Craft, Dianic Wicca, the Goddess is the sole deity, a concept that has been criticised by members of other more egalitarian traditions.
According to Gerald Gardner, "the Goddess" is a deity of prime importance, along with her consort the Horned God. In the earliest Wiccan publications, she is described as a tribal goddess of the witch community, neither omnipotent nor universal, and it was recognised that there was a greater "Prime Mover", although the witches did not concern themselves much with this being.
The concept of having a religion venerating a Horned God accompanying a goddess had been devised by the Egyptologist Margaret Murray during the 1920s. She believed, based upon her own theories about the early modern witch trials in Europe, that those two deities, though primarily the Horned God, had been worshipped by a Witch-Cult ever since western Europe had succumbed to Christianity. Whilst now widely discredited, Gerald Gardner was a supporter of her theory, and believed that Wicca was a continuation of that historical Witch-Cult, and that the Horned God and Goddess were therefore ancient deities of the British Isles. Modern scholarship has disproved his claims, however various horned gods and mother goddesses were indeed worshipped in the British Isles during the ancient and early medieval periods.
Many Wiccans believe that the God and Goddess are merely two aspects of the same godhead, often viewed as a pantheistic deity, thereby encompassing everything in the universe within its divinity. In his public writings, Gardner referred to this being as the Prime Mover, and claimed that it remained unknowable, although in the rituals of his tradition, Gardnerianism, it is referred to as Dryghten, which had originally been an Old English term meaning The Lord. Since then it has been given other names by different Wiccans, for instance Scott Cunningham called it by its name in neoplatonism, The One. Other Wiccans such as Starhawk use the term Star Goddess to describe the universal pantheistic deity that created the cosmos, and regard her as a knowable deity that can and should be worshipped.
As well as pantheism and duotheism, many Wiccans accept the concept of polytheism, thereby believing that there are many different deities. Some accept the view espoused by the occultist Dion Fortune that "all gods are one god, and all goddesses are one goddess" – that is that the gods and goddesses of all cultures are, respectively, aspects of one supernal God and Goddess. With this mindset, a Wiccan may regard the Germanic Ēostre, Hindu Kali, and Christian Virgin Mary each as manifestations of one supreme Goddess and likewise, the Celtic Cernunnos, the ancient Greek Dionysus and the Judeo-Christian Yahweh as aspects of a single, archetypal god. A more strictly polytheistic approach holds the various goddesses and gods to be separate and distinct entities in their own right. The Wiccan writers Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone have postulated that Wicca is becoming more polytheistic as it matures, tending to embrace a more traditionally pagan worldview. Some Wiccans conceive of deities not as literal personalities but as metaphorical archetypes or thoughtforms, thereby technically allowing them to be atheists. Such a view was purported by the High Priestess Vivianne Crowley, herself a psychologist, who considered the Wiccan deities to be Jungian archetypes that existed within the subconscious that could be evoked in ritual. It was for this reason that she said that "The Goddess and God manifest to us in dream and vision."
Wicca is essentially an immanent religion, and for some Wiccans, this idea also involves elements of animism. A belief central to Wicca is that the Goddess and the God (or the goddesses and gods) are able to manifest in personal form, most importantly through the bodies of Priestesses and Priests via the rituals of Drawing down the Moon or Drawing down the Sun.
Belief in the afterlife varies among Wiccans, although reincarnation is a traditional Wiccan teaching dating back to the New Forest coven in the 1930s. The influential High Priest Raymond Buckland said that a human's soul reincarnates into the same species over many lives in order to learn lessons and advance spiritually, but this belief is not universal, as many Wiccans believe in the reincarnation of the soul through different species. However, a popular saying amongst Wiccans is that "once a witch, always a witch", indicating a belief that Wiccans are the reincarnations of previous witches.
Typically, Wiccans who believe in reincarnation believe that the soul rests between lives in the Otherworld or Summerland, known in Gardner's writings as the "ecstasy of the Goddess". Many Wiccans believe in the ability to contact the spirits of the dead who reside in the Otherworld through spirit mediums and Ouija boards, particularly on the Sabbat of Samhain, though some disagree with this practice, such as the late Alexandrian High Priest Alex Sanders, who stated that "they are dead; leave them in peace." This belief was likely influenced by Spiritualism, which was very popular at the time of Wicca's emergence, and with which Gardner and other early Wiccans such as Buckland and Sanders had some experience.
Despite some belief therein, Wicca does not place an emphasis on the afterlife, focusing instead on the current one; as the historian Ronald Hutton remarked, "the instinctual position of most [Wiccans], therefore, seems to be that if one makes the most of the present life, in all respects, then the next life is more or less certainly going to benefit from the process, and so one may as well concentrate on the present".
Many Wiccans believe in magic, a manipulative force exercised through the practice of witchcraft or sorcery. Many Wiccans agree with the definition of magic offered by ceremonial magicians, such as Aleister Crowley, who declared that magic was "the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will", while another prominent ceremonial magician, MacGregor Mathers stated that it was "the science of the control of the secret forces of nature". Many Wiccans believe magic to be a law of nature, as yet misunderstood or disregarded by contemporary science, and as such they do not view it as being supernatural, but a part of what Leo Martello calls the "super powers that reside in the natural". Some Wiccans believe that magic is simply making full use of the five senses in order to achieve surprising results, whilst other Wiccans do not claim to know how magic works, merely believing that it does because they have observed it to be so. Some spell it "magick", a variation coined by the influential occultist Aleister Crowley, though this spelling is more commonly associated with Crowley's religion of Thelema than with Wicca.
During ritual practices, which are often staged in a sacred circle, Wiccans cast spells or "workings" intended to bring about real changes in the physical world. Common Wiccan spells include those used for healing, for protection, fertility, or to banish negative influences. Many early Wiccans, such as Alex Sanders, Sybil Leek and Doreen Valiente, referred to their own magic as "white magic", which contrasted with "black magic", which they associated with evil and Satanism. Sanders also used the similar terminology of "left hand path" to describe malevolent magic, and "right hand path" to describe magic performed with good intentions; terminology that had originated with the occultist Helena Blavatsky in the 19th century. Some modern Wiccans however have stopped using the white-black magic and left-right hand path dichotomies, arguing for instance that the colour black should not necessarily have any associations with evil.
Scholars of religion Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge claimed in 1985 that Wicca had "reacted to secularisation by a headlong plunge back into magic" and that it was a reactionary religion which would soon die out. This view was heavily criticised in 1999 by the historian Ronald Hutton who claimed that the evidence displayed the very opposite: that "a large number [of Wiccans] were in jobs at the cutting edge [of scientific culture], such as computer technology."
There exists no dogmatic moral or ethical code followed universally by Wiccans of all traditions, however a majority follow a code known as the Wiccan Rede, which states "an it harm none, do what ye will" (a variation of the Thelemic abjuration put forward by Aleister Crowley: "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law; Love is the Law, Love under Will"). This is usually interpreted as a declaration of the freedom to act, along with the necessity of taking responsibility for what follows from one's actions and minimising harm to oneself and others. Another common element of Wiccan morality is the Law of Threefold Return which holds that whatever benevolent or malevolent actions a person performs will return to that person with triple force, or with equal force on each of the three levels of body, mind and spirit, similar to the eastern idea of karma. The Wiccan Rede was introduced into Wicca by Gerald Gardner and formalised publicly by Doreen Valiente, one of his High Priestesses. The Threefold Law was an interpretation of Wiccan ideas and ritual, made by Monique Wilson and further popularised by Raymond Buckland, in his books on Wicca.
Many Wiccans also seek to cultivate a set of eight virtues mentioned in Doreen Valiente's Charge of the Goddess, these being mirth, reverence, honour, humility, strength, beauty, power, and compassion. In Valiente's poem, they are ordered in pairs of complementary opposites, reflecting a dualism that is common throughout Wiccan philosophy. Some lineaged Wiccans also observe a set of Wiccan Laws, commonly called the Craft Laws or Ardanes, 30 of which exist in the Gardnerian tradition and 161 of which are in the Alexandrian tradition. Valiente, one of Gardner's original High Priestesses, argued that the first thirty of these rules were most likely invented by Gerald Gardner himself in mock-archaic language as the by-product of inner conflict within his Bricket Wood coven – the others were later additions made by Alex Sanders during the 1960s.
Although Gerald Gardner initially demonstrated an aversion to homosexuality, claiming that it brought down "the curse of the goddess", it is now generally accepted in all traditions of Wicca, with certain groups like the Minoan Brotherhood openly crafting their philosophy around it, and various important figures in the Craft, such as Alex Sanders and Eddie Buczynski, being openly homosexual or bisexual.
Many traditions hold a belief in the five classical elements, although they are seen as symbolic as representations of the phases of matter. These five elements are invoked during many magical rituals, notably when consecrating a magic circle. The five elements are air, fire, water and earth, plus aether (or spirit), which unites the other four. Various analogies have been devised to explain the concept of the five elements; for instance, the Wiccan Ann-Marie Gallagher used that of a tree, which is composed of earth (with the soil and plant matter), water (sap and moisture), fire (through photosynthesis) and air (the creation of oxygen from carbon dioxide), all of which are believed to be united through spirit.
Traditionally in the Gardnerian Craft, each element has been associated with a cardinal point of the compass; air with east, fire with south, water with west, earth with north and the spirit with centre. However, some Wiccans, such as Frederic Lamond, have claimed that the set cardinal points are only those applicable to the geography of southern England, where Wicca evolved, and that Wiccans should determine which directions best suit each element in their region, for instance, those living on the east coast of North America should invoke water in the east and not the west because the colossal body of water, the Atlantic ocean, is to their east. Other Craft groups have associated the elements with different cardinal points, for instance Robert Cochrane's Clan of Tubal Cain associated earth with south, fire with east, water with west and air with north, and each of which were controlled over by a different deity who were seen as children of the primary Horned God and Goddess. The five elements are symbolised by the five points of the pentagram, the most prominently used symbol of Wicca.
The natural cycles are significant in Wicca. The lunar and solar cycles are most often the basis around which Wiccans place ritual celebrations. While both the God and the Goddess are usually honoured at both kinds of rituals, the Goddess is mainly associated with the Moon, and the God is mainly associated with the Sun.
The Neopagan researcher and High Priestess Margot Adler, who defined ritual as being "one method of reintegrating individuals and groups into the cosmos, and to tie in the activities of daily life with their ever present, often forgotten, significance" noted that rituals, celebrations and rites of passage in Wicca are not "dry, formalised, repetitive experiences", but are performed with the purpose of inducing a religious experience in the participants, thereby altering their consciousness. She noted that many Wiccans remain sceptical about the existence of the gods, afterlife etc but remain involved in the Craft because of its ritual experiences, with one, Glenna Turner, saying that "I love myth, dream, visionary art. The Craft is a place where all of these things fit together – beauty, pageantry, music, dance, song, dream."
The High Priest and Craft historian Aidan Kelly claimed that the practices and experiences within Wicca were actually far more important than the beliefs, stating that "it's a religion of ritual rather than theology. The ritual is first; the myth is second. And taking an attitude that the myths of the Craft are 'true history' in the way a fundamentalist looks at the legends of Genesis really seems crazy. It's an alien head-space." Similarly, Adler stated that "ironically, considering the many pronouncements against Witchcraft as a threat to reason, the Craft is one of the few religious viewpoints totally compatible with modern science, allowing total scepticism about even its own methods, myths and rituals".
The practice of Wicca often involves the ritual practice of magic, ranging from the "low magic" or "folk magic" of shamanism and witchcraft to more elaborate and complex rites influenced by the ceremonial magic of the Western Hermetic Tradition.
There are many rituals within Wicca that are used when celebrating the Sabbats, worshipping the deities and working magic. Often these take place on a full moon, or in some cases a new moon, which is known as an Esbat. In typical rites, the coven or solitary assembles inside a ritually cast and purified magic circle. Casting the circle may involve the invocation of the "Guardians" of the cardinal points, alongside their respective classical elements; air, fire, water and earth. Once the circle is cast, a seasonal ritual may be performed, prayers to the God and Goddess are said, and spells are sometimes worked; these may include various forms of 'raising energy', including raising a cone of power for the purposes of sending healing or other magic to persons outside of the sacred space. These rites often include a special set of magical tools. These usually include a knife called an athame, a wand, a pentacle and a chalice, but other tools include a broomstick known as a besom, a cauldron, candles, incense and a curved blade known as a boline. An altar is usually present in the circle, on which ritual tools are placed and representations of the God and the Goddess may be displayed. Before entering the circle, some traditions fast for the day, and/or ritually bathe. After a ritual has finished, the God, Goddess and Guardians are thanked, the directions are dismissed and the circle is closed.
A central aspect of Wicca (particularly in Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca), often sensationalised by the media is the traditional practice of working in the nude, also known as skyclad. This practice seemingly derives from a line in Aradia, Charles Leland's supposed record of Italian witchcraft. Other traditions wear robes with cords tied around the waist or even normal street clothes. In certain traditions, ritualised sex magic is performed in the form of the Great Rite, whereby a High Priest and High Priestess invoke the God and Goddess to possess them before performing sexual intercourse to raise magical energy for use in spellwork. In nearly all cases it is instead performed "in token", thereby merely symbolically, using the athame to symbolise the penis and the chalice to symbolise the womb.
One of Wicca's best known liturgical texts is "The Charge of the Goddess". The most commonly used version used by Wiccans today is the rescension of Doreen Valiente, who developed it from Gardner's version. Gardner's wording of the original "Charge" added extracts from the works of Aleister Crowley's work, including The Book of the Law, (especially from Ch 1, spoken by Nuit, the Star Goddess) thus linking modern Wicca irrevocably to the revelations of Thelema. Valiente rewrote Gardner's version in verse, keeping the material derived from Aradia, but removing the material from Crowley.
Wiccans celebrate several seasonal festivals of the year, commonly known as Sabbats. Collectively, these occasions are termed the Wheel of the Year. Most Wiccans celebrate a set of eight of these Sabbats; however, other groups such as those associated with the Clan of Tubal Cain only follow four. In the rare case of the Ros an Bucca group from Cornwall, only six are adhered to. The four Sabbats that are common to all British derived groups are the cross-quarter days, sometimes referred to as Greater Sabbats. The names of these festivals are in some cases taken from the Old Irish fire festivals, though in most traditional Wiccan covens the only commonality with the Celtic festival is the name. Gardner himself made use of the English names of these holidays, stating that "the four great Sabbats are Candlemass [sic], May Eve, Lammas, and Halloween; the equinoxes and solstices are celebrated also." In the Egyptologist Margaret Murray's The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) and The God of the Witches (1933), in which she dealt with what she believed to be a historical Witch-Cult, she stated that the four main festivals had survived Christianisation and had been celebrated in the pagan Witchcraft religion. Subsequently, when Wicca was first developing in the 1930s through to the 1960s, many of the early groups, such as Robert Cochrane's Clan of Tubal Cain and Gerald Gardner's Bricket Wood coven adopted the commemoration of these four Sabbats as described by Murray.
The other four festivals commemorated by many Wiccans are known as Lesser Sabbats, and comprise the solstices and the equinoxes, and were only adopted in 1958 by members of the Bricket Wood coven, before subsequently being adopted by other followers of the Gardnerian tradition, and eventually other traditions like Alexandrian Wicca and the Dianic tradition. The names of these holidays that are commonly used today are often taken from Germanic pagan holidays. However, the festivals are not reconstructive in nature nor do they often resemble their historical counterparts, instead exhibiting a form of universalism. Rituals observed may display cultural influence from the holidays from which they take their name as well as influence from other unrelated cultures.
|Sabbat||Northern Hemisphere||Southern Hemisphere||Origin of Name||Associations|
|Samhain, aka Halloween||31 October to 1 November||30 April to 1 May||Gaelic Polytheism (see also Gaels)||Death and the ancestors|
|Yuletide||21 or 22 December||21 June||Germanic paganism||Winter solstice and the rebirth of the Sun|
|Imbolc, aka Candlemas||1 or 2 February||1 August||Gaelic Polytheism (see also Gaels)||First signs of spring|
|Ostara||21 or 22 March||21 or 22 September||Germanic paganism||Vernal equinox and the beginning of spring|
|Beltane, aka May Eve or May Day||30 April to 1 May||31 October to 1 November||Gaelic Polytheism (see also Gaels)||The full flowering of spring; fairy folk|
|Litha||21 or 22 June||21 December||Possibly Neolithic||Summer solstice|
|Lughnasadh, aka Lammas||1 or 2 August||1 February||Gaelic Polytheism (see also Gaels)||First fruits|
|Mabon, aka Modron||21 or 22 September||21 March||No historical pagan equivalent.||Autumnal equinox; the harvest of grain|
Various rites of passage can be found within Wicca. Perhaps the most significant of these is an initiation ritual, through which somebody joins the Craft and becomes a Wiccan. In British Traditional Wiccan (BTW) traditions, there is a line of initiatory descent that goes back to Gerald Gardner, and from him is said to go back to the New Forest coven; however, the existence of this coven remains unproven. Gardner himself claimed that there was a traditional length of "a year and a day" between when a person began studying the Craft and when they were initiated, although he frequently broke this rule with initiates.
In BTW, initiation only accepts someone into the first degree. To proceed to the second degree, an initiate has to go through another ceremony, in which they name and describe the uses of the ritual tools and implements. It is also at this ceremony that they are given their craft name. By holding the rank of second degree, a BTW is considered capable of initiating others into the Craft, or founding their own semi-autonomous covens. The third degree is the highest in BTW, and it involves the participation of the Great Rite, either actual or symbolically, and in some cases ritual flagellation. which is a rite often dispensed with due to its sado-masochistic overtones. By holding this rank, an initiate is considered capable of forming covens that are entirely autonomous of their parent coven.
According to new-age religious scholar James R. Lewis, in his book Witchcraft today: an encyclopaedia of Wiccan and neopagan traditions, a high priestess becomes a queen when she has successfully hived off her first new coven under a new third-degree high priestess (in the orthodox Gardnerian system). She then becomes eligible to wear the "moon crown". The sequence of high priestess and queens traced back to Gerald Gardner is known as a lineage, and every orthodox Gardnerian High Priestess has a set of "lineage papers" proving the authenticity of her status.
This three-tier degree system following initiation is largely unique to BTW, and traditions heavily based upon it. The Cochranian tradition, which is not BTW, but based upon the teachings of Robert Cochrane, does not have the three degrees of initiation, merely having the stages of novice and initiate.
Some solitary Wiccans also perform self-initiation rituals, to dedicate themselves to becoming a Wiccan. The first of these to be published was in Paul Huson's Mastering Witchcraft (1970), and unusually involved recitation of the Lord's Prayer backwards as a symbol of defiance against the historical Witch Hunt. Subsequent, more overtly pagan self-initiation rituals have since been published in books designed for solitary Wiccans by authors like Doreen Valiente, Scott Cunningham and Silver RavenWolf.
Handfasting is another celebration held by Wiccans, and is the commonly used term for their weddings. Some Wiccans observe the practice of a trial marriage for a year and a day, which some traditions hold should be contracted on the Sabbat of Lughnasadh, as this was the traditional time for trial, "Telltown marriages" among the Irish. A common marriage vow in Wicca is "for as long as love lasts" instead of the traditional Christian "till death do us part". The first ever known Wiccan wedding ceremony took part in 1960 amongst the Bricket Wood coven, between Frederic Lamond and his first wife, Gillian.
Infants in Wiccan families may be involved in a ritual called a Wiccaning, which is analogous to a Christening. The purpose of this is to present the infant to the God and Goddess for protection. Parents are advised to "give [their] children the gift of Wicca" in a manner suitable to their age. In accordance with the importance put on free will in Wicca, the child is not expected or required to adhere to Wicca or other forms of paganism should they not wish to do so when they reach adulthood.
In Wicca, there is no set sacred text such as the Christian Bible, Jewish Tanakh or Islamic Quran, although there are certain scriptures and texts that various traditions hold to be important and influence their beliefs and practices. Gerald Gardner used a book containing many different texts in his covens, known as the Book of Shadows (among other names), which he would frequently add to and adapt. In his Book of Shadows, there are texts taken from various sources, including Charles Godfrey Leland's Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches (1899) and the works of 19th–20th century occultist Aleister Crowley, whom Gardner knew personally. Also in the Book are examples of poetry largely composed by Gardner and his High Priestess Doreen Valiente, the most notable of which is the Charge of the Goddess.
Similar in use to the grimoires of ceremonial magicians, the Book contained instructions for how to perform rituals and spells, as well as religious poetry and chants like Eko Eko Azarak to use in those rituals. Gardner's original intention was that every copy of the Book would be different, because a student would copy from their initiators, but changing things which they felt to be personally ineffective, however amongst many Gardnerian Witches today, particularly in the United States, all copies of the Book are kept identical to the version that the High Priestess Monique Wilson copied from Gardner, with nothing being altered. The Book of Shadows was originally meant to be kept a secret from non-initiates into BTW, but parts of the Book have been published by authors including Charles Cardell, Lady Sheba, Janet Farrar and Stewart Farrar.
Today, adherents of many non-BTW traditions have also adopted the concept of the Book of Shadows, with many solitaries also keeping their own versions, sometimes including material taken from the published Gardnerian Book of Shadows. In other traditions however, practices are never written down, meaning that there is no need for a Book of Shadows.
In certain Traditional Witchcraft traditions, different forms of literature are used, for instance in the 1734 Tradition, the published articles of Robert Cochrane along with letters he wrote to Joseph Wilson, Robert Graves and others are held in high esteem whilst in the Sabbatic tradition, various grimoires are followed, such as the Azoetia of Andrew Chumbley.
In the 1950s through to the 1970s, when the Wiccan movement was largely confined to lineaged groups such as Gardnerian Wicca, a "tradition" usually implied the transfer of a lineage by initiation. However, with the rise of more and more such groups, often being founded by those with no previous initiatory lineage, the term came to be a synonym for a religious denomination within Wicca. There are many such traditions and there are also many solitary practitioners who do not align themselves with any particular lineage, working alone. There are also covens that have formed but who do not follow any particular tradition, instead choosing their influences and practices eclectically.
Those traditions which trace a line of initiatory descent back to Gerald Gardner include Gardnerian Wicca, Alexandrian Wicca and the Algard tradition; because of their joint history, they are often referred to as British Traditional Wicca, particularly in North America. Other traditions trace their origins to different figures, even if their beliefs and practices have been influenced to a greater or lesser extent by Gardner. These include Cochrane's Craft and the 1734 Tradition, both of which trace their origins to Robert Cochrane; Feri, which traces itself back to Victor Anderson and Gwydion Pendderwen; and Dianic Wicca, whose followers often trace their influences back to Zsuzsanna Budapest. Some of these groups prefer to refer to themselves as Witches, thereby distinguishing themselves from the BTW traditions, who more typically use the term Wiccan (see Etymology).
Many traditions, including those of British Traditional Wicca, require formal initiation within an established coven for membership of their respective traditions. In this manner, all BTW's can trace a direct line of descent all the way back to Gardner. Other traditions, however, do not hold this to be necessary.
Lineaged Wicca is organised into covens of initiated priests and priestesses. Covens are autonomous, and are generally headed by a High Priest and a High Priestess working in partnership, being a couple who have each been through their first, second and third degrees of initiation. Occasionally the leaders of a coven are only second-degree initiates, in which case they come under the rule of the parent coven. Initiation and training of new priesthood is most often performed within a coven environment, but this is not a necessity, and a few initiated Wiccans are unaffiliated with any coven.
A commonly quoted Wiccan tradition holds that the ideal number of members for a coven is thirteen, though this is not held as a hard-and-fast rule. Indeed, many U.S. covens are far smaller, though the membership may be augmented by unaffiliated Wiccans at "open" rituals. When covens grow beyond their ideal number of members, they often split (or "hive") into multiple covens, yet remain connected as a group. A grouping of multiple covens is known as a grove in many traditions.
Initiation into a coven is traditionally preceded by an apprenticeship period of a year and a day. A course of study may be set during this period. In some covens a "dedication" ceremony may be performed during this period, some time before the initiation proper, allowing the person to attend certain rituals on a probationary basis. Some solitary Wiccans also choose to study for a year and a day before their self-dedication to the religion.
A large number of Wiccans do not exclusively follow any single tradition. These eclectic Wiccans each create their own syncretic spiritual paths by adopting and reinventing the beliefs and rituals of a variety of religious traditions connected to Wicca and broader Paganism.
While the origins of modern Wiccan practice lie in covenantal activity of select few initiates in established lineages, eclectic Wiccans are more often than not solitary practitioners uninitiated in any tradition. A widening public appetite, especially in the United States, made traditional initiation unable to satisfy demand for involvement in Wicca. Since the 1970s, larger, more informal, often publicly advertised camps and workshops began to take place. This less formal but more accessible form of Wicca proved successful. Eclectic Wicca is the most popular variety of Wicca in America and eclectics now significantly outnumber lineaged Wiccans.
Eclectic Wicca is not necessarily the complete abandonment of tradition. Eclectic practitioners may follow their own individual ideas and ritual practices, while still drawing on one or more religious or philosophical paths. Eclectic approaches to Wicca often draw on Earth religion and ancient Egyptian, Greek, Saxon, Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, Asian, Jewish, and Polynesian traditions.
In the 1920s and 30s, the Egyptologist Dr. Margaret Murray published several books detailing her theories that those persecuted as witches during the early modern period in Europe were not, as the persecutors had claimed, followers of Satanism, but adherents of a surviving pre-Christian pagan religion – the Witch-Cult. These hypotheses, which were argued over by academics for decades, have since been widely rejected.
It was during the 1930s that the first evidence appears for the practice of a pagan Witchcraft religion (what would be recognisable now as Wicca) in England. It seems that several groups around the country, in such places as Norfolk, Cheshire and the New Forest had set themselves up as continuing in the tradition of Murray's Witch-Cult, albeit with influences coming from disparate sources such as ceremonial magic, folk magic, Freemasonry, Theosophy, Romanticism, Druidry, classical mythology and Asian religions.
The history of modern Wicca starts with Gerald Gardner (the "Father of Wicca") in the mid-20th century. Gardner was a retired British civil servant and amateur anthropologist, with a broad familiarity in paganism and occultism. He claimed to have been initiated into a witches' coven of New Forest, Hampshire, in the late 1930s. Intent on perpetuating this craft, Gardner founded the Bricket Wood coven with his wife Donna in the 1940s, after buying the Naturist Fiveacres Country Club. Much of the coven's early membership was drawn from the club's members and its meetings were held within the club grounds. Many notable figures of early Wicca were direct initiates of this coven, including Dafo, Doreen Valiente, Jack Bracelin, Frederic Lamond, Dayonis, Eleanor Bone and Lois Bourne.
The Witchcraft religion became more prominent beginning in 1951, with the repeal of the Witchcraft Act of 1735, after which Gerald Gardner and then others such as Charles Cardell and Cecil Williamson began publicising their own versions of the Craft. Gardner and others never used the term "Wicca" as a religious identifier, simply referring to the "witch cult", "witchcraft", and the "Old Religion". However, Gardner did refer to witches as "the Wica". During the 1960s, the name of the religion normalised to "Wicca". Gardner's tradition, later termed Gardnerianism, soon became the dominant form in England and spread to other parts of the British Isles.
Following Gardner's death in 1964, the Craft continued to grow unabated despite sensationalism and negative portrayals in British tabloids, with new traditions being propagated by figures like Robert Cochrane, Sybil Leek and most importantly Alex Sanders, whose Alexandrian Wicca, which was predominantly based upon Gardnerian Wicca, albeit with an emphasis placed on ceremonial magic, spread quickly and gained much media attention. Around this time, the term "Wicca" began to be commonly adopted over "Witchcraft" and the faith was exported to countries like Australia and the United States.
It was in the United States and in Australia that new, home-grown traditions, sometimes based upon earlier, regional folk-magical traditions and often mixed with the basic structure of Gardnerian Wicca, began to develop, including Victor Anderson's Feri Tradition, Joseph Wilson's 1734 Tradition, Aidan Kelly's New Reformed Orthodox Order of the Golden Dawn and eventually Zsuzsanna Budapest's Dianic Wicca, each of which emphasised different aspects of the faith. It was also around this time that books teaching people how to become Witches themselves without formal initiation or training began to emerge, among them Paul Huson's Mastering Witchcraft (1970) and Lady Sheba's Book of Shadows (1971). Similar books continued to be published throughout the 1980s and 1990s, fuelled by the writing of such authors as Doreen Valiente, Janet Farrar, Stewart Farrar and Scott Cunningham, who popularised the idea of self-initiation into the Craft. Among witches in Canada, anthropologist Dr. Heather Botting (nee Harden) of the University of Victoria has been one of the most prominent, having been the first recognized Wiccan chaplain of a public university. Original high priestess of Coven Celeste, she is one of the founders of the Canadian Aquarian Tabernacle Church.
In the 1990s, amid ever-rising numbers of self-initiates, the popular media began to explore "witchcraft" in fictional films like The Craft and television series like Charmed, introducing numbers of young people to the idea of religious witchcraft. This growing demographic was soon catered to through the Internet and by authors like Silver RavenWolf, much to the criticism of traditional Wiccan groups and individuals. In response to the way that Wicca was increasingly portrayed as trendy, eclectic, and influenced by the New Age movement, many Witches turned to the pre-Gardnerian origins of the Craft, and to the traditions of his rivals like Cardell and Cochrane, describing themselves as following "Traditional Witchcraft". Prominent groups within this Traditional Witchcraft revival included Andrew Chumbley's Cultus Sabbati and the Cornish Ros an Bucca coven.
According to Gerald Gardner's account in Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft, Wicca is the survival of a hypothetical European witch-cult that was persecuted during the witch trials. Theories of an organised pan-European witch-cult, as well as mass trials thereof, have been largely discredited, but it is still common for Wiccans to claim solidarity with witch trial victims.
The notion of the survival of Wiccan traditions and rituals from ancient sources is contested by most recent researchers, who suggest that Wicca is a 20th-century creation which combines elements of freemasonry and 19th-century occultism. However, historians such as Ronald Hutton have noted that Wicca not only predates the modern New Age movement but also differs markedly in its general philosophy.
In his 1999 book The Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton researched the Wiccan claim that ancient pagan customs have survived into modern times after being Christianised in medieval times as folk practices. Hutton found that most of the folk customs which are claimed to have pagan roots (such as the Maypole dance) actually date from the Middle Ages. He concluded that the idea that medieval revels were pagan in origin is a legacy of the Protestant Reformation.
Modern scholarly investigations have concluded that Witch trials were substantially fewer than claimed by Gardner, and seldom at the behest of religious authorities. For example, in the 1996 book Witches and Neighbors, Robin Briggs examines the history of witchcraft in medieval Europe and refutes the widely-told story that large numbers of independent women were burned at the stake by vindictive Christian ecclesiastics for the crime of practising naturalistic healing or neopagan religion. Most scholars estimate that a total of 40,000 people were executed as witches during the entire medieval period, and that church authorities participated reluctantly in this process, which was largely fuelled by the political turmoil of the Reformation.
The actual number of Wiccans worldwide is unknown, and it has been noted that it is more difficult to establish the numbers of members of Neopagan faiths than many other religions due to their disorganised structure. However, Adherents.com, an independent website which specialises in collecting estimates of world religions, cites over thirty sources with estimates of numbers of Wiccans (principally from the USA and UK). From this, they developed a median estimate of 800,000 members.
In the United States, the American Religious Identification Survey has shown significant increases in the number of self-identified Wiccans, from 8,000 in 1990, to 134,000 in 2001, and 342,000 in 2008. Approximately 75 percent of American Wiccans are female. Wiccans have also made up significant proportions of various groups within that country; for instance, Wicca is the largest non-Christian faith practised in the United States Air Force, with 1,434 airmen identifying themselves as such.
In the United Kingdom, census figures on religion were first collected in 2001. A campaign by the Pagan Federation before the 2001 Census encouraged Wiccans, Heathens, Druids and others to describe their religion simply as "Pagan" but no detailed statistics were reported outside of the six main religions. For the 2011 census a more detailed breakdown of responses was reported with 56,620 people identifying themselves as Pagans, 11,766 as Wiccans and a further 1,276 describing their religion as "Witchcraft".
Wicca emerged in a predominantly Christian country, and from its inception suffered opposition from certain Christian groups and from the popular tabloids like the News of the World. Some Christians still believe that Wicca is a form of Satanism, despite important differences between these religions. Due to negative connotations associated with witchcraft, many Wiccans continue the traditional practice of secrecy, concealing their faith for fear of persecution. Revealing oneself as Wiccan to family, friends or colleagues is often termed "coming out of the broom-closet". In a similar way, some people have accused Wicca of being anti-Christian, a claim disputed by Wiccans such as Doreen Valiente, who stated that whilst she knew many Wiccans who admired Jesus, "witches have little respect for the doctrines of the churches, which they regard as a lot of man-made dogma".
In the United States, a number of legal decisions have improved and validated the status of Wiccans, especially Dettmer v. Landon in 1986. However, Wiccans have encountered opposition from some politicians and Christian organisations, including former president of the United States George W. Bush, who stated that he did not believe Wicca to be a religion.
In Canada, Dr. Heather Botting ("Lady Aurora") and Dr. Gary Botting ("Pan"), the original high priestess and high priest of Coven Celeste and founding elders of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church, successfully campaigned the British Columbian government and the federal government in 1995 to allow them to perform recognised Wiccan weddings, to become prison and hospital chaplains, and (in the case of Heather Botting) to become the first officially recognized Wiccan chaplain in a public university. The Bottings had been initiated into Wicca in 1966 by Gerald Gardner's London-based high priestess, Lysbeth Turner.