Wicca: An introduction.
By John Macintyre
Wicca is a Pagan witchcraft tradition; an approach to religion that combines both high magic and spellcraft within a religious framework that has a very strong emphasis on Goddess-worship. While probably the largest, the best known - in name at least - and most influential tradition within modern Paganism, Wicca is nonetheless a word that can mean very different things to different people. In the strict sense, it refers to the Gardnerian & Alexandrian initiatory traditions - bodies of collective experience and teachings evolved and handed down within close-knit, oathbound, coven lineages. More generally, it is often used to describe a very much broader category of both group and solitary Pagan Witches who are influenced to at least some degree by these traditions. In recent years, and particularly in the United States, the name has been increasingly applied to almost anything remotely Pagan. This article will focus mainly on the first of these meanings, and owes more to personal experience, observation and discussion within the Craft than written sources. It will not seek to describe Wicca in terms of how magic is worked, how the Goddess(es) and God(s) are honoured within the Craft, or what is worn or not worn in ritual. Enough, some would say more than enough, has already been published about that and some of it sits uneasily with initiatory oaths. Instead it will try to give some kind of explanation - a personal and limited explanation necessarily - of what Wicca is about, and why some Pagans practice it.
Despite the huge amount that has been written over the years about Wicca in books, magazines and, more recently, on internet sites, it remains a tradition that is often poorly understood even within the Pagan community. What is written here will doubtless contribute a degree of further confusion! This is not solely due to the highly variable quality of what has been placed in the public domain, but in large part reflects the nature of the tradition itself. Perhaps the most important thing to grasp about Wicca is that it is a living tradition, much more complex and diverse than any published sources could begin to adequately cover. No one can really do more than give a personal impression according to their experience and understanding of it.
Wicca first came to public knowledge in 1954 with the publication of Gerald Brosseau Gardner's 'Witchcraft Today'. This proclaimed, and purported to describe, the survival within the British Isles of an ancient pre-Christian religion. One which was rooted in the Stone Age, had endured through the witch-persecutions of the early modern period, and continued to be practised in out of the way corners of the England of his day. The minor sensation which resulted was understandable, as religious practices involving the worship of Pagan Goddesses and Gods, powerful women in the role of Priestesses, magic, reverence for nature, ritual nudity, predominantly humanist ethics, and a celebratory approach to life in general, stood somewhat in contrast to the established conventions of the time! But while newspapers fulminated, and the prurient were delighted to find something new to be appalled by, a steadily growing number of people found that Wicca stirred very deep spiritual chords.
"It gave a particular value and emphasis to precisely those phenomena which western societies had long feared or subordinated, honouring the night above the day, the moon above the sun, the feminine above the masculine, and wild nature above civilisation, presenting itself as a form of paganism which made no compromises with Christianity, and holding up the figure of the witch for admiration and emulation."
Hutton, Witches, Druids & King Arthur (2003) 194-5'
Most of the early historical claims regarding Wicca, strongly influenced as they were by the theories put forward by Margaret Murray in "The Witch Cult in Western Europe" (1921), do not stand up to even cursory scholarly scrutiny. The precise origins of the Craft remain obscure. The existence of any specifically Pagan, Witchcraft coven in England has not been conclusively proven prior to the 1940's, although Philip Heselton's recent researches build an extremely persuasive though necessarily circumstantial case. On balance, most Wiccans nowadays would agree that the Craft as we know it has not been handed down through unbroken lineages over the centuries, but is a relatively modern, syncretic, tradition building on scattered, fragmentary survivals, Freemasonry and Ceremonial Magic, drawing inspiration from the magnificent literary and iconographic heritage of ancient Paganism, influenced by the radical anti-clericism of Michelet and Leland amongst others and, above all, giving form and expression to a deep-rooted spiritual undercurrent long suppressed within conventional Western society. One that decisively rejects the concepts of the Fall and of Original Sin. One that seeks direct, authentic and often ecstatic relationship with divinity as whole human beings. One which experiences that divinity as both Goddess and God, as Goddesses and Gods, immanent within every part and process of this living earth.
It has become fashionable in some sections of the modern Pagan community to disdain Gardner, a reaction both unjust and ungrateful when set beside his major and enduring contribution to the modern Pagan revival. The validity of Wicca lies not in the pseudo-historical fantasies of some of its adherents, but in the effectiveness with which it revived Pagan Goddess-worship within our modern Western culture and the major role it plays in sustaining it today. Few Wiccans regard Gardner as having been a guru, prophet or spiritual leader of any kind, but most hold his memory in affectionate respect. For all his many human foibles and failings, he will be remembered and honoured for considerably longer than his detractors.
"In religious terms, it might be said that he was contacted by a divine force which had been manifesting with increasing strength during the previous two hundred years, and that it worked through him to remarkable effect. A secular way of saying the same thing,is that cultural forces which had been developing for a couple of centuries combined in his emotions and ideas to produce a powerful and extreme response to the needs which they represented."
Hutton. The Triumph of the Moon (1999), 239-4
Following its emergence, Wicca underwent extensive development through the inspired work of Doreen Valiente and Alex Sanders whose significance cannot be overstated. The process of evolution and development has never really stopped, nor should we wish or expect it to. One of the notable characteristics of Wicca identified by Hutton is that "it is eclectic and protean; it takes ideas from many sources and applies them in many - and often constantly altering ways." ('Triumph of the Moon' (1999), 398').
In studying Wicca, it is important to consider not only modern writings specifically about the Craft but also the extant primary sources for indigenous, pre-Christian, religions. The surviving mythology, folklore, literature and iconography of Pagan Europe strongly influenced Wicca from the beginning, and continues to do so today. In particular, the development of Wicca has been extensively shaped by concepts derived from the Mystery cults of Graeco-Roman antiquity, and it is not unreasonable to consider the initiatory Craft as a modern form of these. In many ways you will learn as much of what Wicca is about through studying the Bacchae, Apuleius' Metamorphoses, the Tain bo Cuailnge, the Voluspa, or other such material as from studying modern Wiccan literature, valuable though some of it is. The surviving sources on ancient religion, along with scholarly interpretations of them, are of considerable, though often understated, importance, in journeying along a Wiccan path. Not because they tell you what to do - the forms of religion are necessarily an expression of the cultures they develop within and while much of ancient religion is profoundly inspiring it cannot be recreated unchanged across a gulf of many centuries' cultural transformation - but because they will help to give you insights into some of the ways in which earlier Pagan cultures understood relationships between human beings and the divine, and this in turn will help to inform your own understanding of the Goddess(es) and the God(s) as you encounter them within the Mysteries.
Apart from its very strong emphasis on Goddess worship, Wiccan theology is fluid and diverse, being rooted in a primarily experiential relationship with the divine. There are Wiccans who hold every conceivable shade of polytheistic belief from 'duotheism' to 'hard polytheism'. There are Wiccans - particularly those influenced by the Dianic tradition - who embrace non-exclusive forms of Goddess-monotheism. Some Wiccans regard deities as Jungian archetypes within the collective unconscious, others experience them as both internal and external realities independent of humanity. Some believe "All the Gods are one God and all the Goddesses are one Goddess"after Dion Fortune's famous model, with some of these in turn regarding the Goddess and God as polar facets of a single and unknowable divine power. Others believe the many Pagan Gods and Goddesses to be distinct entities and develop specific forms of priestcraft in relation to one or more of them. Some regard deities as anthropomorphised symbols of impersonal natural forces, some regard them as individuated beings imbued with personality. And many see little point in speculating on theological matters that are ultimately beyond human understanding, for the Gods, the Divine, call It or Them what you will, can no more be trapped within the patterns of mortal thought than water can be caught in a fishing net.
"For man is not able with his human mind to search out the counsels of the Gods, but was born of a mortal mother"
Pindar. Dithyrambs. 61.3-4.
The predominant religious emphasis within Wicca lies in exploring forms of mystical connection with divinity, rather than on developing a systematic theology. In practice, Wiccan covens may worship universal syncretic archetypes of Deity - the Goddess and the God -, honour deities from a number of different pantheons, or work almost exclusively within a single pantheon of deities - Celtic, Greek, Norse, Egyptian, Roman or those of other historical cultures. Many also work extensively with local nature spirits, Faerie, elemental powers and the ancestors. As with most aspects of Wicca, the more one learns the more wary one becomes of generalisations.
Like all the modern Pagan traditions, the core of Wicca is personal experience of the sacred rather than interpretations of the written word. While it is something that can, to some degree at least, be talked about in language, it is not something that can really be learned or understood through language. Wicca is not a religious tradition that tells its practitioners what to believe or provides them with an authoritative model of sacred cosmology. Rather it is an opener of gateways, an uncoverer of hidden paths, to the old Pagan Goddesses and Gods, through and along which the dedicated seeker may come to understand such matters for themselves.
Wicca, in the strict sense in which it is being considered here, is an initiatory Mystery tradition. One that a person who seeks for it, who is right for it, and who has made themselves ready for it, enters into through a ceremony of initiation. Although this involves testing, traditional ritual forms, and the taking of oaths, when properly entered upon it is anything but formulaic. Initiation is not a matter of the right words being spoken, and the right actions being performed, although these things are part of it. It is a matter of entering upon, integrating, and wholeheartedly affirming and committing oneself to a particular kind of spiritual experience that words and ritual drama can only hint at. The process is analogous to that described in some of the ancient Graeco-Roman Mystery cults, which the classicist Walter Burkert identified as participation in "rituals of a voluntary, personal and secret character that aimed at a change of mind through experience of the sacred". ('Ancient Mystery Cults' (1987), 11').
The basic unit of the Craft is the coven, a small, very closely-knit, group of initiates who worship and work magic together. The descriptions of coven structure and organisation one generally finds in books on Wicca tend to present a rather idealised and 'tidied-up' version of what is usually encountered in practise. Some covens are rigidly hierarchical with their High Priestesses, or High Priestesses & High Priests, exercising unquestioned authority. Some operate through a kind of guided consensus under their influence. Some have what amount to formal constitutions under which specific responsibilities and ritual offices are rotated amongst the experienced members, and some function without hierarchies of any kind on an informal, 'circle of equals' basis. Obviously, different forms of organisation meet the needs of different people, or those of the same people at different stages in their lives. All of the above coven structures can work very well or very badly depending on circumstances and the social dynamics involved. The lifespan of covens varies tremendously according to their member's character and attitudes and most covens tend to number rather fewer than the traditional thirteen. Most Wiccans would wryly concede there's more than a grain of truth in Terry Pratchett's humorous observation that the natural size of a coven is one!
Above the level of the coven Wicca is organised - if that is not altogether too strong a term - along extremely decentralised lines. The initiatory Craft as a whole is held together by a complex web of relationships connecting covens, lineages and individuals through a bewildering array of unsystematic but extensively overlapping local, national, and international networks, kinship and interest-based extended groups, friendships, feuds, love affairs, gatherings, projects and other connections, forming a kind of broadly tribal grouping that for all its inner diversity still retains a very strong sense of collective identity. There is no central, or even significant local, authority, for each individual coven or family of covens is autonomous. However, the sheer range and density of the web of personal and group relationships makes it possible both for information to circulate with surprising rapidity and for a fair degree of self-policing to be exercised.
Although some individuals may command widespread respect and influence within the Craft on the basis of their experience, achievements, skill, charisma and reputation for knowledge, integrity, and wisdom, such status is always personal and cannot be institutionalised. While abuses of power can, and sometimes do, occur within covens, it is difficult to imagine problems of the kind that have troubled the institutions of other religions arising on anything like the same scale. The coven structure is well suited to a religious tradition with a very high percentage of unconventional, strong-willed, radical, questioning, and independent-minded - some would say bloody minded - individuals. While the titles of High Priestess and High Priest are fairly common within the Craft, the authority implied is always very limited and very localised. In Wicca, priestcraft is essentially a matter of the relationship between the initiates and the Gods, and the distinction between clergy and congregation found in more conventional religious forms is almost entirely absent.
Wicca draws on an understanding of human beings as very much a part of nature, of our being intimately and inextricably woven within the web of life. Ritual practice revolves around both the now familiar Wheel of the Year - the Pagan Celtic festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh, and the solstices and equinoxes, and the phases of moon. Most Wiccans believe in reincarnation, whether person, general or purely metaphorical, but the emphasis is very much on living rightly in this life in this world, rather than on anxieties regarding possible afterlives.
The guiding ethic of the Craft, the Wiccan Rede - "An it harm none, do what ye will" - is very widely known. This is sometimes interpreted, particularly by non-Wiccans, as requiring absolute pacifism, or even absolute non-existence on the grounds that it is impossible to live without causing harm, but as is often the case with attempts at reductio ad absurdum this misses the point. The Rede does not exist in isolation. It needs to be understood from within a Wiccan world view shaped by what are sometimes termed the eight Wiccan virtues of mirth and reverence, honour and humility, strength and beauty, power and compassion. A world view in which everything is connected to everything else, and everything affects everything else. Where it is taken for granted that the individual is not an isolated moral agent but an intimate part of a web of cause and effect in which anything and everything they may or may not do inevitably has consequences, and the primary ethical responsibility is to consider such probable consequences, to act, or refrain from acting, in such a way as to avoid, prevent or minimise harm, and to take responsibility for the effect one has in shaping the outcome of the situation you are in.
The Rede is neither a law nor a commandment (rede is an old English word meaning 'advice' or 'counsel') but the expression of a humanistic, situational, ethical attitude which encourages us to seek peaceful and harmonious outcomes but does not preclude either self or collective defence nor the needs of justice. Hard ethical choices are seldom about whether harm will happen, but rather about where it will fall! The responsibility for living by the Rede rests ultimately between the individual Witch, their conscience, and their deities. In practice we find Wiccans who devote their lives to the Peace Movement, Wiccans who are serving members of the armed forces, Wiccans who are vegans, and Wiccans who hunt, amongst many others. The Wiccan Rede can sustain a broad range of honourable approaches to ethical responsibility.
Wicca, like other forms of Pagan Witchcraft, obviously involves magic and when people look at Wicca, sometimes the first and even the only thing they see is magic. It's undeniable that quite a few Wiccans follow a path that is primarily focussed on operational spellcraft, but spellcraft is a part only, and perhaps a rather superficial part, of what magic is and can be within Wicca. Magic is also a process of transformation of consciousness that can bring us between the worlds into the realm of the Gods, into the presence, awareness and even temporary manifestation of divinity. In this sense, magic goes far beyond the subtle influencing of reality to reveal itself as an aspect of the raw energy of creation, connection, interaction, transformation, realisation, destruction and renewal that underlies reality. As Apuleius of Madaura wrote in his Apologia some 19 centuries ago, magic is:
"an art acceptable to the immortal Gods, an art which includes knowledge of how to worship them and pay them homage. It is a religious tradition dealing with things divine."
To walk - even to dance - with the Gods, to reach out from the heart beyond the limits of the self and find a deep connection with the sacred which reaches back into your own soul. The words flow easily but they cannot convey the reality of this Mystery. Perhaps it is best to leave it there.
If you want to know something of what Wicca is truly about - not the details of ritual techniques but the living Mystery that inspires and sustains the initiatory Craft, then go out one night under the full moon and the beauty of the night sky. Listen to the sound of running water, feel the wind on your skin as it stirs the branches of the trees, understand that everything you are is part of this living world, and open your heart to the Goddesses and Gods.
Suggestions for further reading.
Margot Adler: "Drawing Down the Moon" (1979).
Vivianne Crowley: "Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age" (1989)
Janet & Stewart Farrar: "Eight Sabbats for Witches" (1981).
Janet & Stewart Farrar: "The Witches Way" (1984)
Gerald Gardner: 'Witchcraft Today' (1954).
Gerald Gardner: 'The Meaning of Witchcraft' (1959).
Philip Heselton: 'Wiccan Roots' (2000).
Philip Heselton: 'Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration' (2003).
Prof. Ronald Hutton: 'Witches, Druids and King Arthur' (2003).
Prof. Ronald Hutton: 'The Triumph of the Moon' (1999).
Starhawk: "The Spiral Dance" (1979)
Doreen Valiente: "Witchcraft for Tomorrow" (1978).
Dorren Valiente: "The Rebirth of Witchcraft" (1989).
© John Macintyre 2005, all rights reserved.