Wicca is a Pagan Witchcraft tradition. Today, the name Wicca is frequently applied to the entire system of beliefs and practices that make up the spectrum of contemporary Pagan Witchcraft. However, although Wicca and Witchcraft are often used interchangeably, it is important to note that there are also Pagan Witchcraft traditions that are not Wiccan.
Wicca was used originally to distinguish the initiatory tradition of Witchcraft practised as a religion, but American popular television series have adopted the word to include what would once have been called natural magic or white witchcraft. When people in Britain describe themselves as Wiccan though, they generally mean that they are practising a form of religious Witchcraft. Media images often show Wiccans as teenage women, but in fact it is practised by males and females of all ages.
Origins of Wicca
Religious Witchcraft is not merely a system of magic, but is a Pagan mystery religion worshipping Goddess and God and venerating the Divine in nature. Its origins lie in pre-Christian religious traditions, folklore, folk witchcraft and ritual magic, but most Witches draw their inspiration from the ‘Book of Shadows’, a book of rituals and spells compiled by of one of Wicca’s major figures Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964).
Gerald Gardner claimed to have been initiated in 1939 into a coven of Witches who met in the New Forest in Hampshire and his two most well known books Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959) produced a huge surge of interest, inspiring a movement that has spread around the world.
Wicca honours the Divine in the forms of the Triple Goddess, whose aspects of Virgin, Mother, and Wise Woman or Crone are associated with the waxing, full and waning phases of the Moon, and as the Horned God.
The principal names by which the God is known are Cernunnos or Herne, both of which mean ‘Horned One’. The emphasis placed on Goddess and God differs between groups, traditions and localities, but most Wiccans believe that for wholeness the image of the Divine must be both female and male.
There are no central authorities in Wicca. Some Witches are solo Witches. Others belong to covens – groups of like-minded people who meet together to worship the Gods and to do magic. Some covens are part of initiatory traditions in which more experienced people act as teachers to newcomers. Others are formed by groups of friends who want to meet and learn together. The classic number of people in a coven is thirteen, but many covens are smaller. Some are mixed sex groups; others cater for Witches who prefer single sex covens.
Rites and celebrations
The major festivals of Wicca are known as sabbats. These are held eight times throughout the year and mark changes in the seasons. The festivals are Winter Solstice or Yule on December 20/21, the shortest day, Summer Solstice or Midsummer on June 21/22, the longest day, and the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes (March 20/21 and September 20/21) when the hours of darkness and light are equal. The other four festivals are Imbolc, February 1/2; Beltane or May Eve on April 30/May 1; Lughnasadh also known by its Anglo-Saxon name of Lammas or Loaf Mass, August 1/2, and Samhain, also known as All Hallow’s Eve, October 31/November 1. Witches also honour their deities at monthly rites known as esbats, which are held on the full Moon, when the mind is thought to be more magically powerful.
Sabbats begin at sunset and end at sunset the next day and most rites are held at night, lit evocatively by candles if indoors or by the moon, bonfires and lanterns if outside. For indoor rituals, some Witches have rooms set aside as temples in their houses, which they use for rites. Others use their ordinary living space.
Rites take place in a consecrated space, the circle, and even if there is a temple, the circle space is created anew for each rite. The space is first swept with a broomstick or besom to purify it and then blessed with the four elements – air, fire, water and earth. The circle is then symbolically sealed by drawing a circle around it in the air with a wooden wand or a black-handled knife known as an athame. The four directions – east, south, west and north – are then honoured. Within the sacred space, the Goddess and God are invoked and magic performed. Rituals usually end with blessing a chalice of wine and cakes that are shared among the participants.
Magic and ethics
Like many Pagan religions, Wicca practices magic. Witches believe that the human mind has the power to effect change in ways that are not yet understood by science. In their rituals, as well as honouring their deities, Witches also perform spells for healing and to help people with general life problems. Magic is practised according to an ethical code that teaches that magic may only be performed to help people when it does not harm others.
Witches believe that the energies that we create influence what happens to us: negative magic rebounds on the perpetuator but magnified. This process is often known as ‘Threefold Law’. Other important ethical teachings are that people should strive to live in harmony with others and with themselves, and with the planet as a whole. Environmental issues are important to Wiccans.
Wicca teaches reincarnation. After death, the spirit is reborn and will meet again those with whom it had close personal ties in previous lives. The aim of reincarnation is not to escape life on Earth, but to enjoy experiencing it again and again until everything that can be learned has been absorbed. When the spirit ceases to reincarnate, it remains in a blissful realm known as ‘The Land of Youth’ or the ‘Summerland’.
Wicca and other contemporary Pagan spiritualities
Wiccan ideas and rites have been taken up by the Goddess spirituality movement. They appeal to both women and men who have rejected male-dominated religions and who prefer to venerate the Divine in female form as Goddess.
There are many similarities between Wicca and Druidry. Both emphasize the importance of developing close links with Nature and their rites frequently take place out of doors. Both also stress the importance of guardianship of the Earth and environmentalism. Some distinctions are that Druidry is more purely Celtic than Wicca, there is less emphasis on magic in Druidry, and Druidry more actively encourages the development of music and poetry as paths to spiritual growth.