Sunday, April 29, 2007

Wicca - the Neopagan Religion

Wicca is a Neopagan religion and a religious movement found in various countries throughout the world. It was first popularised in 1954 by a retired British civil servant named Gerald Gardner after the British Witchcraft Act was repealed. He claimed that the religion, of which he was an initiate, was a modern survival of an old witchcraft religion, which had existed in secret for hundreds of years, originating in the pre-Christian Paganism of Europe. Wicca is thus sometimes referred to as the Old Religion. The veracity of Gardner's claims cannot be independently proven, and it is thought that Wiccan theology began to be compiled no earlier than the 1920s.

Various related Wiccan traditions have since evolved or been adapted from the form established by Gardner, which came to be called Gardnerian Wicca. These other traditions of Wicca each have distinctive beliefs, rituals, and practices. Many traditions of Wicca remain secretive and require that members be initiated. There is also a movement of Eclectic Wiccans who do not believe that any doctrine or traditional initiation is necessary in order to practice Wicca. The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey estimated that at least 134,000 adults identified themselves as Wiccans in the US.

Core concepts

Because there is no centralised organisation in Wicca, and no single "orthodoxy", the beliefs and practices of Wiccans can vary substantially, both between individuals and between traditions. Typically, the main religious principles, ethics and ritual structures are shared, since they are key elements of traditional teachings and published works on the subject.

Lineaged and Eclectic Wicca

As practiced by Gerald Gardner and his followers, Wicca was and is a secretive and exclusive society of religious witchcraft, with entry to the society only gained through initiation by another Wiccan. However since the 1960s other, non-initiated people have adopted the term "Wicca" to describe their beliefs and practices, which vary from those of traditional, lineaged Wicca to a greater or lesser extent. These non-lineaged or "Eclectic" Wiccans now significantly outnumber lineaged Wiccans, and their beliefs and practices tend to be much more varied.

Wicca as a magical religion

As practiced by lineaged initiates, Wicca is a variety of witchcraft founded on religious and magical concepts, and most of its adherents identify as witches. As such it is distinguished not only by its religious beliefs, but by its initiatory system, organisational structure, secrecy, and practice of magic. Lineaged Wiccans generally will not proselytise, and may even deny membership to some individuals, since once initiated a person is considered to be a priest or priestess and is expected to develop the skills and responsibility that that entails.

Wicca is only one variety of pagan witchcraft, with specific beliefs and practices. Members of Initiatory Wiccan groups worship a goddess and a god; they observe the festivals of the eight Sabbats of the year and the full-moon Esbats, using distinctive ritual forms; and they attempt to live by a code of ethics. Other forms of witchcraft may also adopt some similar specific religious, ethical or ritual elements.

In the Eclectic Wiccan movement there is much more variation in religious beliefs, and secrecy and organisational structure play a less important role. Generally, Eclectic Wiccans will adopt similar ritual structures and ethical principles to initiates. A few Eclectic Wiccans neither consider themselves witches nor practice magic.

Many Wiccans, though not all, call themselves Pagans, though the umbrella term Paganism encompasses many faiths that have nothing to do with Wicca or witchcraft.

Wiccan views of divinity

For most Wiccans, Wicca is a bitheistic religion. The Goddess and God are seen as complementary polarities and this balance is seen in nature. They are sometimes symbolised as the Sun and Moon, and from her lunar associations the Goddess becomes a Triple Goddess with aspects of "Maiden", "Mother" and "Crone". Some Wiccans hold the Goddess to be pre-eminent, since she contains and conceives all. The God is 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 some traditions, notably Feminist branches of Dianic Wicca, the Goddess is seen as complete unto herself, and the God is not worshipped at all. Wicca is essentially an immanent religion, and for some Wiccans, this idea also involves elements of animism. A key belief in Wicca is that the gods are able to manifest in personal form, most importantly through the bodies of Priestesses and Priests. The latter kind of manifestation is the purpose of the ritual of Drawing down the Moon (or Drawing down the Sun), whereby the Goddess is called to descend into the body of the Priestess (or the God into the Priest) to effect divine possession.

According to Gerald Gardner the gods of Wicca are ancient gods of the British Isles: a Horned God and a Great Mother goddess. Gardner also states that a being higher than any of these tribal gods is recognised by the witches as Prime Mover, but remains unknowable.

Some Wiccans have a monotheistic belief in the Goddess as One. Many have a duotheistic conception of deity as a Goddess (of Moon, Earth and sea) and a God (of forest, hunting and the animal realm). This concept is often extended into a kind of polytheism by the belief that the gods and goddesses of all cultures are aspects of this pair (or of the Goddess alone). Others hold the various gods and goddesses to be separate and distinct. Still others do not believe in the gods as real personalities, but see them as archetypes or as thoughtforms. A unified supreme godhead is also acknowledged by some groups. Patricia Crowther has called it Dryghten.Janet Farrar and Gavin Bone have observed that Wicca is becoming more polytheistic as it matures, and embracing a more traditional pagan worldview.

The elements

The classical elements are a key feature of the Wiccan world-view. Every manifest force or form is seen to express one of the four archetypal elements — Earth, Air, Fire and Water — or several in combination. Some add a fifth or quintessential element, spirit (aether, akasha). The five points of the frequently worn pentagram symbolise, among other things, the four elements with spirit presiding at the top. In the casting of a magic circle, the four cardinal elements are visualised as contributing their influence from the four cardinal directions.


Wiccan morality is largely based on the (often misunderstood) Wiccan Rede: 'An it harm none, do what ye 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. Another element of Wiccan Morality comes from the Law of Threefold Return, which is understood to mean that whatever one does to another person or thing (benevolent or otherwise) returns with triple force.

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 take note of a set of 161 laws, commonly called the Ardanes. Modern authors, specifically Doreen Valiente, have also noted that these rules were most likely invented by Gardner himself in mock-archaic language as the byproduct of inner conflict within Gerald Gardner's original coven.

Although Gardner initially demonstrated an aversion to Homosexuality, claiming that it brought down "the curse of the goddess", it is now accepted in many traditions of Wicca.

Secrecy and initiation

Some practitioners of lineaged initiatory Wicca consider that the term 'Wicca' correctly applies only to an initiate of a traditional branch of the religion (Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca, or their offshoots such as Seax-Wica) because eclectic Wicca is different in practice from the religion established by Gardner. However, the term has increasingly come to be adopted by people who are not initiates of a traditional lineaged coven. Eclectic Wiccans may undertake rituals of self-dedication, and generally work alone as solitary practitioners or in casual groups, rather than in organised covens. Thus eclectic Wicca shares some of the basic religious principles, ethics and the ritual system of traditional, lineaged Wicca, but not the organisational structure, or the belief that Wiccan initiation requires a transferral of power from an initiator. Therefore, some lineaged Wiccans have adopted the term 'British Traditional Wicca' to differentiate themselves from this movement.

Within traditional forms of Wicca there are three degrees of initiation. First degree is required to become a witch and gain membership of a coven; those who aspire to teach may eventually undergo second and third degree initiations, conferring the title of "High Priest" or "High Priestess" and allowing them to establish new covens.

Organisation within Wicca

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.

In contrast, Eclectic Wiccans are more often than not solitary practitioners. Some of these "solitaries" do, however, attend gatherings and other community events, but reserve their spiritual practices (Sabbats, Esbats, spell-casting, worship, magical work, etc.) for when they are alone.

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 a waiting period of at least 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.


In typical rites, the coven assemble inside a ritually cast and purified magic circle. Prayers to the God and Goddess are said, the "Guardians" of the North, South, East and West are welcomed, and spells are sometimes worked. An altar is usually present in the circle, on which ritual tools are placed. 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 and the circle is closed.

Ritual attire

A sensationalised aspect of Wicca, particularly in Gardnerian Wicca, is the traditional practice of working in the nude, also known as skyclad. This practice seemingly derives from a line in Aradia but may be honoured more in the breach than the observance. Skyclad working is mostly the province of Initiatory Wiccans, who are outnumbered by the less strictly observant Eclectics. When they work clothed, Wiccans may wear robes, cords, "Renaissance-faire"-type clothing or normal street clothes.


Many Wiccans use a special set of altar tools in their rituals; these can include a broom (besom), cauldron, chalice, wand, Book of Shadows, altar cloth, athame (a knife used in rituals to channel energy), boline (or a knife for cutting things in the physical world), candles, crystals, pentacle and/or incense. Representations of the God/Goddess are often displayed. The tools themselves are just that — tools — and have no innate powers of their own, though they are usually dedicated or charged with a particular purpose, and used only in that context. For this reason, it is considered rude to touch another's tools without permission.

Ritual occasions

Wiccans typically mark each full moon (and in some cases new moons) with a ritual called an Esbat. They also celebrate eight main holidays called Sabbats. Four of these, the cross-quarter days, are greater festivals, coinciding with old Celtic fire festivals. These are Samhain, May Eve or Beltane, Imbolc and Lammas (or Lughnasadh). The four lesser festivals are the Summer Solstice (or Litha) and Winter Solstice (or Yule), and the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, sometimes called Ostara and Mabon.

The names of these holidays are often taken from Germanic pagan and Celtic polytheistic holidays. However, the festivals are not reconstructive in nature nor do they often resemble their historical counterparts, instead exhibiting a form of universalism. Ritual observations may display cultural influence from the holidays from which they take their name as well as influence from other unrelated cultures.

Wiccan weddings are commonly called "handfastings". Some Wiccans observe the practice of a trial marriage for a year and a day, which some traditions hold should be contracted on Lammas (Lughnasadh), as this was the traditional time for trial, "Telltown marriages" among the Irish. This practice is documented in the fourth and fifth volumes of the Brehon law texts, which are compilations of the opinions and judgements of the Brehon class of Druids (in this case, Irish). The texts as a whole deal with a copious amount of detail for the Insular Celts.

Some perform a ritual called a Wiccaning, analogous to a Christening for an infant, the purpose of which is to present the infant to the God and Goddess for protection. Despite this, in accordance with the importance put on free will in Wicca, the child is not necessarily expected or required to follow a Pagan path should they not wish to do so when they get older.


The term "Wica" (pronounced /ˈwɪ.kə/) first appears in the writings of Gerald Gardner (Witchcraft Today, 1954, and The Meaning of 'Witchcraft, 1959). He used the word as a mass noun referring to the adherents of his tradition of witchcraft, rather than the religion itself. The religion he referred to as 'witchcraft', never 'Wicca'. The word seems to be based on the Old English word wicca (pronounced /wɪtʃʌ/), which meant '(male) witch' or 'wizard', and is is a predecessor of the modern English "witch".

Gardner himself claimed he learned the term from existing members of the group who initiated him into witchcraft in 1939: "I realised I had stumbled on something interesting; but I was half-initiated before the word "Wica" which they used hit me like a thunderbolt, and I knew where I was, and that the Old Religion still existed."

source: wikipedia