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Wicca

WICCA

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 (18841964), 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 (18161909) 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).

[l. harrington]

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