WICCA . Wicca originated in 1940s England as an attempt to recreate what was believed to be an ancient religious system indigenous to Britain and Europe, characterized by the veneration of nature, polytheism, and the use of magic and ritual. It was heavily influenced by the occult revival of the late nineteenth century, including secret, magical societies such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (established in 1888), the notorious magician Aleister Crowley (1875–1947), Freemasonry, and Spiritualism. The rediscovery of classical ideas of nature and deity in Romantic literature and archaeology provided additional sources, as did British folklorist and Egyptologist Margaret Murray's (1862–1963) "anthropological" study of witchcraft in Europe, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921).
These threads were woven into early Wicca by Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884–1964), a British civil servant who had spent much of his working life in the Far East and had a lifelong passion for folklore and archaeology, visiting many sites of archaeological significance on travels to the Near East. Gardner returned to England when he retired in 1936, living in London and the New Forest before moving to the Isle of Man in 1954. Once back in England, Gardner, already a Freemason, joined the Folklore Society, the Co-Masons, the Druid Order, and the Rosicrucian Fellowship of Crotona. This latter group, he claimed, contained a hidden, inner group of hereditary witches who initiated him in 1939. They also allegedly allowed Gardner to publish their rituals in fictional form in his novel High Magic's Aid (1949), which he wrote under the pseudonym Scire. Gardner was not able to publish more open accounts of witchcraft under his real name until the 1736 Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951 and replaced with the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which gave freedom for individuals to practice witchcraft as long as no harm was done to person or property. Released from a law that subjected any person alleged to have magical powers to prosecution, Gardner wrote Witchcraft Today (1954), which contains an introduction by Margaret Murray, followed by The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959), taking both himself and witchcraft into the public spotlight.
In Witchcraft Today Gardner set out his belief that witchcraft was not only the original indigenous religion of Britain, dating from the Stone Age, but that it had survived the persecutions of the Great Witch Hunt in early modern Europe, continuing in secret but now threatened with extinction. These claims followed closely Murray's thesis that an old religion involving worship of a horned god representing the fertility of nature had survived persecution and existed throughout western Europe. Murray argued that the witch-cult was organized in covens that met according to the phases of the moon and the changing seasons, conducting rituals that involved dancing, feasting, sacrifices, and ritualized sex in honor of the horned god. Later, in The God of the Witches (1933), Murray traced the development of this vegetation god and introduced the idea of a fertility goddess into the cult.
Gardner's absolute belief in and perpetuation of Murray's argument led many early Wiccans to believe that they were continuing this ancient tradition of witchcraft, although scholars had refuted the validity of her use of trial records since The Witch Cult was first published and dismissed most of her evidence over time. Most, though not all, Wiccans today acknowledge that there is little evidence for a continuous, pre-Christian witchcraft tradition indigenous to western Europe, but Gardner's aim of reviving what he believed to be a dying religion appears to have been fulfilled. His numerous media appearances brought Wicca to public attention throughout the 1950s, during which time he encouraged people to set up covens operating according to the outlines in his books and initiated many people into Wicca. One of these was Doreen Valiente (1922–1999), one of the key figures in modern Wicca. She worked with Gerald Gardner as his high priestess and revised the Book of Shadows, a book of rituals, information, and lore for which he claimed ancient provenance, which she felt to be too influenced by the writings of Aleister Crowley. Valiente eventually left his coven in 1957, after falling out with him over ever-increasing publicity seeking, and periodically withdrew from the public face of Wicca throughout her life. She was nevertheless consistent in her support for what she termed the old pagan religions: in 1964 she was president of the Witchcraft Research Association, she was a founding member of the Pagan Front in 1971, and in November 1998 she spoke at the annual Pagan Federation conference in London. Her life within Wicca, witchcraft, and paganism is documented in many of her books, including The Rebirth of Witchcraft (1989), Witchcraft for Tomorrow (1978), and Witchcraft: A Tradition Renewed (1990, with Evan Jones).
Another key figure is Patricia Crowther (b. 1932), who was initiated by Gerald Gardner in 1960 and established covens in Yorkshire and Lancashire. She was an actress and dancer whose husband, Arnold Crowther, was an old friend of Gerald Gardner. Patricia Crowther is the author of a number of books on witchcraft, including Lid Off the Cauldron (1981) and her autobiography, One Witch's World (1998), published as High Priestess: The Life and Times of Patricia Crowther (2000) in the United States. In the early twenty-first century, she continued to run a coven in Sheffield, and it was an ex-member of her coven, Pat Kopanski, who was instrumental in the initiation into Wicca of Alex Sanders (1926–1988), who developed a second branch of Wicca in the 1960s.
Sanders was a resident of Manchester who claimed a witch ancestress from Snowdonia, in North Wales. His branch of Wicca was based on Gardnerian lines, but Alexandrian Wicca, as it came to be known, was more heavily influenced by ceremonial, ritual magic—Sanders worked for the John Rylands library in Manchester, where he read classical texts on ritual magic, and he had been trained as a medium through visits to a Spiritualist church with his mother during childhood. In 1961 Sanders allegedly wrote to local Wiccans whom he had seen on television, but they took a dislike to him, and it was apparently not until 1963 that he was initiated into Wicca by a priestess in Derbyshire. Sanders went on to act as high priest to a coven in Nottinghamshire, but the group dissolved in 1964, and he then met the seventeen-year-old Arline Maxine Morris (b. 1946). They began running a coven together in 1965, were discovered by a local newspaper, and went on to manipulate the media to such an extent that they became the most famous witches in the world by 1966. Such media attention attracted many people and led to a whole network of covens springing up around them, although longer-established Gardnerian Wiccans denounced Alex as a charlatan. Like Gardner, Sanders sought publicity for Wicca, often of a sensational nature, and by the 1970s he had become known as the King of the Witches.
In 1967 Alex and Maxine Sanders moved to London, and in 1969 Alex Sanders was sensationally publicized in a newspaper article. This article led to many media appearances, a romanticized biography, King of the Witches, by June Johns (1969), and a film, Legend of the Witches (1969), as a result of which Alexandrian Wicca grew exponentially. In 1973 the relationship between Alex and Maxine broke down, and they divorced in 1982 but remained friends. While Maxine continued to run the coven, Alex retired from the limelight to Sussex, where he continued to teach Wicca until his death from lung cancer on Beltane Eve 1988. He was also a prolific initiator, and many covens in Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere in northern Europe sprang from visits to him during this period.
A number of the Sanderses' initiates—particularly Stewart Farrar (1916–2000), Janet Farrar, and Vivianne Crowley—have been responsible for writing extremely influential books on Wicca. Stewart met Alex and Maxine Sanders while working as a journalist in 1969 and was initiated by Maxine in 1970. He and Janet ran their own coven in London, married in 1974, and subsequently moved to Ireland in 1976. Here, they continued to train and initiate people in Wicca and became prolific Wiccan authors whose many books include What Witches Do: A Modern Coven Revealed (1971), Eight Sabbats for Witches (1981), The Witches' Way (1984), The Witches' Goddess (1987), The Witches' God (1989), Spells and How They Work (1990), and, with Gavin Bone, The Pagan Path (1995) and The Healing Craft (1999). The Witches' Way contains the bulk of the contemporary Gardnerian rituals and was published with the active help of Doreen Valiente, who wrote most of them and had herself made a large amount of material available in her 1978 book, Witchcraft for Tomorrow. It thus made the core ritual format and texts of Gardnerian Wicca available to all. After Stewart's death, Janet married Gavin Bone, and they continue to initiate, write, and speak at pagan conferences.
Wiccan priestess, psychologist, and university lecturer Vivianne Crowley was initiated into both Alexandrian and Gardnerian Wicca, and in 1979 she founded a Wiccan coven that combined the two traditions. In 1988 she founded the Wicca Study Group along with her husband, Chris, and it is now Europe's largest Wiccan teaching organization. She is a member of the Pagan Federation council, serving as honorary secretary (1988–1994), prison chaplaincy coordinator (1991–1995), and interfaith coordinator (1994–1996). Crowley has a doctorate in psychology and has trained in transpersonal counseling with the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology in London. Her books include the best-selling Wicca: the Old Religion in the New Millennium (1989; 1996), Phoenix from the Flame: Pagan Spirituality in the Western World (1994), Principles of Paganism (1996), Principles of Wicca (1997), and A Woman's Guide to the Earth Traditions (2001).
Wicca is not, however, confined to northwestern Europe. It has become a global phenomenon and can be found in most countries populated by people of European descent, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It has spread through such people as Ray Buckland, an initiate of Gerald Gardner, who subsequently emigrated to the United States in 1967, taking Gardnerian Wicca with him. Buckland later became disillusioned with the perceived hierarchy in Gardnerian Wicca and went on to form a more egalitarian tradition of Wicca, which he called Seax, or Saxon Wica [sic]. He is the author of several do-it-yourself guides to Wicca, including The Tree: Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft (1974). The explosion in how-to books on Wicca since the 1980s and, more recently, internet sites has become the main means by which Wicca has spread and grown, evolving and at times mutating quite dramatically.
During the late 1970s and 1980s, for example, a further important development in Wicca took place as the feminist consciousness movement influenced the emergence of feminist Wicca and witchcraft in North America. The Hungarian-born American feminist activist Zsuzsanna Budapest was one of the prime movers behind the development of feminist witchcraft, forming the women-only Susan B. Anthony Coven, running a shop called The Feminist Wicca in California, and self-publishing The Feminist Book of Light and Shadows (1978). The book was a reworking of available Gardnerian Wicca, which excluded all mention of men and male deities and included her own rituals, spells, and lore. It was later expanded and published as The Holy Book of Women's Mysteries in 1986.
Starhawk (Miriam Simos) (b. 1951) is one of the most prominent feminist pagan activists in the United States. Her feminist activism in the 1970s led her to the Goddess movement, and she studied feminist witchcraft with Budapest and Faery Witchcraft with Victor Anderson. After practicing as a solitary, Starhawk formed Compost, her first coven, from participants in an evening class on witchcraft and then a second, Honeysuckle, for women only. She was elected president of the Covenant of the Goddess in 1976–1977, published her first book, The Spiral Dance, in 1979, and was one of the founders of the Reclaiming Collective in San Francisco in 1980. The Spiral Dance has proved to be an ever-popular volume since it was first published in 1979, selling over 100,000 copies in its first ten years of publication. The book is based on Anderson's Faery tradition but incorporates strictly feminist principles into modern witchcraft, principles that are expanded in her later books Truth or Dare (1987) and Dreaming the Dark (1988). Starhawk combines nature worship, politics, activism, psychology, and goddess worship in an attempt to heal spiritual and political divisions in society and individuals. Such themes come out even more strongly in her two novels, The Fifth Sacred Thing (1993) and Walking to Mercury (1997). European Wiccan attitudes towards Starhawk's redirection of witchcraft toward political activism tend to be cautious. Recently, Starhawk has actively reclaimed her Jewish roots as well as being a witch, an exploration that has led to her sometimes referring to herself as a "Jewitch."
The religion described by Gardner and developed since the 1950s positions nature as central, through deities representative of nature and rituals associated with seasonal change, and through the growing concern for the environment since the 1970s. Although some versions of feminist Wicca focus exclusively on the divine female, perceptions of deity in Wicca are directly linked to nature and are generally regarded as empowering for both men and women, since they include both goddesses and gods. For example, The Great Charge, rewritten by Doreen Valiente from earlier versions, focuses specifically on the goddess as the embodiment of nature, and is one of Wicca's most well-known liturgical texts. It describes the goddess as "the beauty of the green earth, the white moon among the stars, the mystery of the waters" and as "the soul of nature who gives life to the universe." Her counterpart is Lord of the Greenwood, Sun King, Corn King, Leader of the Wild Hunt, and Lord of Death, a god intimately connected with nature represented through the seasonal cycle of festivals.
Each year most Wiccans celebrate eight festivals, known as sabbats; these make up a ritual cycle known as the Wheel of the Year. Four main rituals are celebrated at the four seasonal festivals described by Murray as the witches' sabbats and based on the agricultural year. These are Candlemas on February 1, May Day on May 1, Lammas on August 1, and Hallowe'en on October 31. During the 1980s these festivals became Celticized as a result of the Farrar's relocation to Ireland and North American interest in Celtic ancestry; they thus tend now to be known as Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnasadh, and Samhain respectively. The four other festivals that make up the Wheel are astronomically fixed: the Winter and Summer Solstices around December 21 and June 21, and the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes around March 21 and September 21. The Winter Solstice is often called Yule and, particularly in North America, the Summer Solstice tends to be called Litha, with the equinoxes known as Ostara (Spring) and Mabon (Autumn).
At each of the festivals, deities are addressed in aspects appropriate to the season. For example, at Hallowe'en or Samhain, gods and goddesses associated with death and the underworld such as Hekate, Hades, Rhiannon, or Anubis might be addressed, as Wiccans celebrate death as part of the cycle of life and seek to prepare themselves for the dark winter months ahead. The Wiccan sabbats are intended to deepen the participants' understanding of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth as revealed in the changes evident in nature, for deities, humans, and the natural world are all seen as interconnected. For this reason many Wiccans living in the Southern Hemisphere have reversed the festivals. For example, Summer Solstice rituals take place on December 21 to celebrate the fullness of life reflected in nature at that time of the year in such countries as in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Most Wiccans live in urban areas, and rituals that celebrate nature and venerate nature deities help them to feel more in touch with the natural world. This, along with a rise in active concern for the environment since the 1970s, has been a major reason for the growth in popularity of Wicca and Neopaganism in general throughout the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. However, Wiccans demonstrate a range of attitudes toward protecting the natural world, from radical environmentalism and direct protest to more abstract views derived from the idealized nature of Romanticism or from Western esotericism. In the latter, nature is a reflection of a greater divine reality, being at once both an intermediary between humanity and divinity and being imbued with divinity itself. Thus, environmental activism does not necessarily follow from a ritual or spiritual engagement with nature, although this is often the case in North American Wicca as practiced and taught by Starhawk, for example. Nature, and Wiccans' understandings of it, are extremely complex; one cannot assume that Wicca and environmentalism go hand in hand.
Such complexity is evident in the diversity of Wiccan traditions that have emerged around the world. Practices borrowed from Native Americans have been adopted and adapted by Wiccans in North America, for example, while many European Wiccans turn to Saxon, Celtic, or Germanic traditions, seeking inspiration from the supposed indigenous traditions of northern Europe. The classical pagan cultures of Greece, Egypt, and Rome are also mined for inspiration. Feminist witchcraft has had a great impact on Wicca in North America, which has then spread to New Zealand and Australia, but has been less influential in Britain, where the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions remain strong. Nevertheless, the multitude of North American Wiccan derivations—including Starhawk's Reclaiming, Faery Wicca, Dianic Wicca, and Seax Wica—have crossed back to Europe, and Starhawk's version in particular has grown in popularity because of its stress on political and environmental action.
Wicca has no centralized, institutional structure, and Wiccans have only a few beliefs to which they all adhere. These include the Wiccan Rede or Law—"Do what thou wilt an it harm none"—and the Law of Threefold Return, which states that whatever a person does, for good or ill, will return to them threefold. The lack of any central organizational structure allows for an enormous level of variety, and Wicca at the beginning of the twenty-first century looks likely to retain its complexity and differentiate further as it continues to spread and grow.
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today. 2d ed. Boston, 1986. A comprehensive study of neopaganism in North America in the early 1980s.
Crowley, Vivianne. Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium. London, 1996. Provides an account of the combined Alexandrian/Gardnerian tradition, with a strong Jungian flavor.
Gardner, Gerald B. Witchcraft Today. London, 1954.
Gardner, Gerald B. The Meaning of Witchcraft. London, 1959. The second of two fact-based accounts of Wicca by its founder.
Greenwood, Susan. Witchcraft, Magic and the Otherworld: An Anthropology. Oxford, 2000. An anthropological study of modern magic as practiced by British pagans.
Hanegraaff, Wouter J. New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. New York, 1998. A comprehensive critical examination of the links between New Age and the Western Esoteric Traditions.
Harvey, Graham. Listening People, Speaking Earth: Contemporary Paganism. London, 1997. A broad introduction to the range of modern pagan traditions and their expression.
Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford, 1999. The first scholarly history of Wicca and its development since the mid-nineteenth century.
Luhrmann, Tanya M. Persuasions of the Witches' Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Basingstoke, 1994. An ethnographic account of ritual magic groups in London in the early 1980s, which explores the nature of belief.
Murray, Margaret A. The Witch Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology. Oxford, 1921. A key text in the development of Wicca, which directly influenced Gerald Gardner.
Pearson, Joanne E., Richard H. Roberts, and Geoffrey Samuel, eds. Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World. Edinburgh, 1998. An examination of paganism as "nature religion," with contributions from scholars in a wide range of disciplines.
Pearson, Joanne E. A Popular Dictionary of Paganism. London, 2002. A short-entry dictionary encompassing terms and ideas commonly found within paganism and providing information on key figures and historical developments.
Pearson, Joanne E., ed. Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age. Aldershot, 2002. A textbook exploring forms of spirituality including paganism, Celtic spirituality, the appropriation of Native Indian peoples' practices, and New Age.
Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. New York, 1979. A classic text on feminist Faery Wicca.
Joanne E. Pearson (2005)
According to the U.S. Census, the number of individuals professing to be Wiccans rose from the 8,000 reported in 1990 to 134,000 self-proclaimed witches in 2001. A study released in November 2001 by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York found that the number of adults who subscribe to a pagan religion was more than 140,000.
Since the Middle Ages, witchcraft, the "old religion," or Wicca, the "ancient craft of the wise," have been used interchangeably to name the followers of the same nature religion. While the interchangeability of the names remains true today, even those men and women who practice Wicca or witchcraft have difficulty reaching a consensus regarding what it is exactly that they believe and whether or not Wicca can truly be traced back to ancient times or whether it developed as a new natural religion in the early nineteenth century and gained momentum in the mid-twentieth century. As one practitioner of Wicca said, no Wiccan can decide for another what Wicca really is. One definite assertion that may be made about Wicca is that practitioners of the religion are not Satanists. They do not worship the devil or glory in the exaltation of evil. Worship of and agreements with the devil presuppose his existence, and the Wiccans do not believe in the Satan of Christianity.
Oberon Zell (formerly Tim Zell, primate of the neo-paganistic Church of All Worlds, St. Louis, Missouri, and publisher of The Green Egg ) does not believe Satanism can be classed as a religion, but is merely a Christian heresy. According to Zell, a true pagan religion is one that originated in nature and is characterized by natural modes of expression, contrasted with those religions that owe their existence to a philosophy taught by one or more great prophets and formulated in various creeds and dogmas. Those who follow Wicca, the craft of the wise, maintain that their faith qualifies as a true pagan religion with its beliefs and practices rooted in the processes of nature.
Generally speaking, Wiccans believe that the sources of good and evil lie within each individual, thus universally agreeing with the eight words of the Wiccan Rede: "If it harm none, do what you will." The craft is therefore concerned with the properties of the human mind, including that little-known, little-used area of the psyche termed "the occult." Wiccans do not believe that there is anything supernatural about the manifestations and phenomena associated with this extrasensory area of the mind. They believe that psychic powers lie dormant in everyone, to a greater or lesser degree, and the disciplines of Wicca are designed to develop these to the fullest.
Wicca is a polarized religion, embodying within its worship the male principle in the figure of the Horned God and the female in that of the goddess. Thus its adherents believe that Wicca presents a truer picture of the nature and workings of the universal creative principle than do those religions that overemphasize either the male or the female values and relegate the other to a subordinate status. Wicca incorporates both cognates of the universal creative principle.
In Witchcraft Here and Now, Sybil Leek defined witchcraft as a religion of a primitive and transcendent nature, "with overtones embodying the female in her most elevated octave" together with the "adoration of creative forces." In her view, such a religion provided "…the total aspect of godliness, in a god which has no name or a thousand different ones, one which has no sex but is both sexes and neutral as well."
Wiccans believe in good and evil as expressions of the same indestructible energy, which, like matter, is neither created nor destroyed but can be changed in form. Because Wiccans do not have a god or devil in the conventional sense of absolute good and absolute evil, they consider these qualities to be positive and negative expression of the same life-energy, neither of which are permanent forms but subject to change as situations and circumstances change.
Wicca conceives of spirit as part of the universal creative principle, existing as a thought form. In keeping with its transcendental nature, Wicca views spirit as the convenient expression for a certain kind of matter, which is thought to contain a dynamic energy of its own. This energy is capable of being transmitted by means of mental activity and can be used to transmute other forms of energy into matter.
Witchcraft/Wicca generally accepts the doctrines of reincarnation and karma but rejects the idea of original sin. Witches believe that the human spirit is at birth like a blank page upon which one's actions and experiences write the details of one's character. This is somewhat qualified by the belief that the ways in which individuals will react to their experiences during a particular incarnation is to a large extent determined by the karmic patterns inherited from past lives. Through a series of incarnations, the spirit seeks to perfect itself by learning to live to an ever-increasing extent in accord with nature's laws. The good is sought in those areas subject to human will. Evil, then, consists of the conscious rejection of the good and the conscious effort to embrace evil. This belief carries with it the idea that humans are free to choose good or evil but can lose this freedom through the constant and prolonged choice of one path or the other. On one side are what some religions would call "saints" and on the other, those who habitually choose evil, with the great majority of men and women falling somewhere in between the two extremes.
At this point, one can see an important difference between Wicca and Satanism. Witches seek the good by willing the good, while those who practice black magick or who follow the "left-hand path" have yielded control of their thoughts and actions to the flesh, that part of human nature motivated solely by the search for satisfaction of instinctual and egotistical demands. That is not to say that witches believe the material aspect of humankind is evil, but, rather, that the striving for evil inherent in the instinctually ordered flesh must be controlled and directed by the will in such a manner that its needs are satisfied, but not at the price of others' wellbeing and existence. Wicca seeks to be a polarized, or balanced, religion in which its adherents recognize that all emotions carried to an excess cause an imbalance.
The popular and enduring confusion of witchcraft and Satanism can be traced to two primary causes: the ignorance of those educators and journalists responsible for dissemination of public information and the practice of evangelical Christian clergy of linking the ancient craft of the wise with devil worship. Oberon Zell once observed that practitioners of the old religion/Wicca/neo-paganism often find themselves in the awkward position of having a public image that was not created by them, but by their persecutors. In Zell's thought, such an injustice would be much as if the Nazis had succeeded in eradicating Judaism to the extent that, generations later, the common opinion of what the Jewish faith was all about was derived solely from the anti-Semitic propaganda of the Third Reich—just as the opinion of what Wicca is all about has been largely derived from the tortured testimonies of those who were put on trial for witchcraft by the Inquisition. Zell's analogy makes the point that today's Wiccans may no longer be tortured or burned alive at the stake, but they still suffer from persecution of character at the hands of unknowing, indifferent, or biased journalists, clergypersons, and educators.
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers and Other Pagans in America Today. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.
Buckland, Raymond. Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1987, 1997.
Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 1987.
Grimassi, Raven. Encyclopedia of Wicca & Witchcraft. St. Paul, Minn.: Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
Lewis, James R. Magical Religion and Modern Witchcraft. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
Wicca is a contemporary nature-based religion that most practitioners believe is a reconstruction of the practices of pre-Christian tribal Europe. Its public appearance coincides with the repeal of the anti-Witchcraft law in Britain in the early 1950s and the publication there of Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft Today. Whether Gardner simply passed on what he had been taught in secret, as he claimed, creatively contributed to the development of an existing practice, or invented the religion has been and continues to be a matter of debate. However, most Wiccans today are more interested in the efficacy of the spiritual practice than in its origins.
In 1962 Raymond and Rosemary Buckland immigrated to the United States and began teaching about Wicca. The religion's appeal to members of the anti-authoritarian counterculture was strong, and Wiccan covens, groups usually numbering from three to thirteen, began spreading across the country. The first Wiccan church to be granted federal tax-exempt status as a religious entity was in Missouri in 1965. Within a fairly short time, different Wiccan sects or traditions appeared, and, as the religion continued to grow, it began to gain adherents in mainstream society. By 1978 the U.S. Army's handbook for chaplains contained a section on Wicca, and by 1993 Wicca had been institutionalized to the extent that several Wiccan groups were among the sponsors of and participants at the World Parliament of Religions.
Many Wiccans prefer the label of witch and refer to their religion as Witchcraft or simply the Craft, in part to honor those people persecuted during the witch-hunts of history. Practitioners believe that these people were their spiritual ancestors. Others find the words "witch" and "Witchcraft" too confrontational, and there is a growing trend to embrace instead the word "Wicca," the Old English term for a male who practices Witchcraft. It is important to note that, despite misconceptions, Wicca has nothing to do with Satanism, which Wiccans argue borrows from and is a reversal of Jewish and Christian beliefs. Wiccans do not believe in the existence of the Devil or any similar entity.
Wiccans hold divinity to be immanent in nature, and they celebrate, honor, and/or worship the Divine as the Goddess in her triple aspects of Maiden, Mother, and Crone, also represented by the phases of the moon. Many traditions also honor her male consort, often referred to as the Horned God of the Forest or Lord of the Dance. Goddesses and gods from different cultures and religions may be invoked as well and used as a focus for personal or group "work."
This work is usually done within "sacred space," which is created by "casting a circle," invoking the energies of the four cardinal points of the compass and the elements of air, fire, water, and earth that these represent, and then envisioning a surrounding circle of energy. Magical work or "spellcasting" is based on the belief in immanence and loosely corresponds with the argument in quantum physics that, on a subatomic level, everything is interconnected. Wiccans believe that if energy is drawn up from the earth into their bodies and manipulated correctly, it can be sent out into the world and affect matter for a desired goal. This is achieved through the focus of attention or "will" during altered states of consciousness that are achieved through the use of ritual tools, meditation, dance, chant, drumming, and other means. Magic, sometimes spelled "magick" to distinguish it from sleight of hand, can be done for something mundane and tangible, such as a pay raise, or for something less concrete, such as healing the earth.
There is no sacred, authoritative text that is accepted by all Wiccan traditions, although several have a Book of Shadows, which originated with Gardner and which has been added to in various ways. The Wiccan Rede is the closest thing to a universal religious law. Its wording varies slightly in different traditions but says basically, "As long as it harms none, do what you will." As everything is interconnected, magic done for negative purposes is believed to come back to the one who performed it and to be three times stronger than it was when sent out.
Wiccans can be solitary practitioners or members of an autonomous coven, usually led by a high priestess, with or without a high priest. Some traditions, however, are egalitarian and have shared leadership. Eight major religious holidays or sabbats are celebrated as a way of attuning to the seasonal changes in nature. Their dates coincide with the spring and fall equinoxes; summer and winter solstices; and "crossquarter days," the midpoint between solstice and equinox. Wiccans in the United States tend to be white, educated, and largely middle class, with females outnumbering males. Because of the tremendous cross-fertilization that occurs at festivals and the influence of the women's movement on mainstream society, American Wicca is generally more feminist than its foreign counterparts.
Adler, Margot. Drawing Down the Moon, 2nd ed. 1979, 1986.
Berger, Helen. A Community of Witches. 1998.
Lozano, Wendy G., and Tanice G. Foltz. "Into the Darkness: An Ethnographic Study of Witchcraft and Death." QualitativeSociology 13, no. 3 (1990): 211–235.
Starhawk. The SpiralDance. 1979.
Wicca, a self-professed return to witchcraft that takes its name from the Old English word for witch, is also known by its adherents as the "Craft of the Wise" and the "Old Religion." They claim that Wicca is based on pre-Christian religious ideas and rituals that have survived despite attempts to eliminate them. Adherents augment the shamanistic core of this "Old Religion" tradition with elements from other traditions such as Christianity, the new age movement, and classical paganism. Wicca places a special emphasis on the feminine aspect of divinity, on the role of the priestess in cultic activity, on the lunar and solar cycles, and on the magical and healing properties of various natural substances such as herbs. Organized groups of practitioners are called covens. The principal deities are the Goddess and her consort, the Horned God; its principle tenet, the "Wiccan Rede," is stated as "An it harm none, do as ye will." Holidays include the four "great Sabbats" of Imbolc (Feb. 2), Beltane (May 1), Lammas (Aug. 1), and Samhain (Oct. 31) and the four "lesser Sabbats" of the spring and autumn equinoxes and the summer and winter solstices. Esbats are the regular coven gatherings during the full moon where ritual activities take place.
The modern resurgence of Wicca has been heavily influenced by Gerald B. Gardner (1884–1964), a British amateur anthropologist who claimed to have been initiated in 1939 into a coven of witches that traced its lineage through covens founded by George Pickingill (1816–1909) to Julia Brandon, an 11th century witch. Gardner's books, The Book of Shadows and Witchcraft Today, became guides for those who subsequently formed covens across Europe and the United States. Gardner wrote that the witches of this coven considered their "craft of the wise" as the indigenous religion of Britain, yet the practices that he recounted have been described as an amalgam of shamanistic ritual, Masonry, Rosicrucianism, pagan folklore, ancient mythology and nudism. Gardnerian Wiccans undergo formal initiation into covens, with three degrees of advancement. Their worship gives primacy to the Goddess and emphasizes the role of the priestess in ritual activity, which is often performed "skyclad" (i.e., nude). Adherents claim that ecstatic dancing and other shamanistic techniques raise power from their bodies which can then be directed to magical effect. Other strands of contemporary Wicca include those that trace their origins to pre-Christian or medieval customs and myths (e.g. Celtic and Teutonic) and others that originated in the 1960s and 1970s as variations of Gardnerian Wicca or as eclectic combinations of elements from various traditions of witchcraft, Christianity, New Age, animism, and mythology.
Bibliography: m. adler, Drawing down the Moon (Boston 1986). r. hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (New York 1999). l. orion, Never Again the Burning Times: Paganism Revived (Prospect Heights, Ill. 1995). starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, 10th anniversary edition with a new introduction and commentary (San Francisco 1989).
The first world religion to originate in England, Wicca represents a new religious expression inspired by pre-Christian ethnic and tribal religions. The word wiccan as a plural for witch was used in Old English; its singular forms were feminine wicce with the masculine form as wicca. Pronounced with hard C's instead of the former "witch-a," the term Wicca was adopted by Gerald Gardner and other English Witches in the 1940s to distinguish their life-affirming and fertility-based Pagan religion from Satanism or individual sorcery.
Although Wiccan writers are prolific, Wicca has no sacred texts as such to guide belief and practice. Most Wiccans view the Divine as dual (male/female) or plural, accept the idea of reincarnation, and see the natural world as a manifestation of divine force rather than as something created by a transcendent god. Attunement of the self to natural cycles through seasonal rituals is Wicca's central public religious practice.
Wicca as a religion has no central authority nor organization, although various umbrella groups such as the Covenant of the Goddess in North America and the Pagan Federation in the United Kingdom include many individuals and groups. The primary organization remains the coven, ideally numbering thirteen persons but in actuality often comprised of fewer. Because of Wicca's rapid growth, however, some adherents now seek more formal organizational plans and credentialing of leaders (priests and priestesses), a trend resisted by those Witches who hold individual and small-group practice and experience to be primary. Wiccans often identify with a particular "tradition"—a school of teaching or an initiatory lineage—but the boundaries between traditions are loosely drawn, and new traditions are constantly being created.
Estimates of the number of Wiccans in North America in 2000 ranged from 300,000 to the low millions. Sociological studies of Wicca show its followers as tending to be younger and better-educated than the population overall.