Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner
Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner
"The Deities," from Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner
By Scott Cunningham
Published in 1988 by Llewellyn Publications
Scott Cunningham is a leading authority on Wicca, a modern religious movement that falls under the broader heading of neo-paganism (neo meaning "new"). Neo-paganism encompasses a number of modern groups that find religious truth in ancient practices and beliefs. Some neo-pagans, for example, identify themselves specifically as followers of Asatru, a god from ancient Norse (Scandinavian) mythology. Others call themselves Druids, whose religion is based on ancient Celtic practices. (The Celts were an early ethnic group found primarily in western Europe and the British Isles.) Other groups include shamans (priests or priestesses who use magic rituals to cure the sick or foretell the future), members of such movements as Goddess Spirituality or Sacred Ecology, and Wicca. Many of these terms tend to overlap in meaning because neo-paganism has no formal theology (a system of beliefs and teachings) or organization.
"The sight of a perfect blossom in a field of bare earth can instill feelings rivaling those of the most powerful formal rite. Living in nature makes every moment a ritual."
Wicca is a form of modern witchcraft, but the word witchcraft causes considerable confusion. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, witchcraft usually refers to those who have made a religious error of belief or practice. However, it more popularly refers to worship of Satan, or the devil. Witchcraft has often been mistakenly associated with bizarre rituals that may involve blood, animal sacrifices, unconventional sexual practices, and the like. Throughout the history of Christianity, many women and men have faced the wrath of the Christian church for supposed Satan worship and witchcraft. In 1692, for example, nineteen people, mostly women, were executed after the infamous witch trials in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. The church and the community believed that these people had been practicing black arts as witches. The accused, however, were innocent victims of unfortunate events.
Modern practitioners of witchcraft strongly deny that they worship evil or engage in strange practices. They maintain that witchcraft, as practiced by Wiccans and other groups, is an Earth-centered religion that sees the divine in the natural world, including, for example, the cycle of the seasons and the phases of the Moon. Most such groups have a strict code of behavior based on not doing harm to others.
While various neo-pagan groups, including Wiccans, follow different traditions and practices, they do have characteristics in common. Many are either solitary practitioners (reflected in the title of Scott Cunningham's book) or practice in very small groups, variously referred to as covens, circles, groves, kindreds, garths, hearths, and other terms. These groups have little if any official ruling structure; that is, no ruling body has authority over members. Most believers prefer to practice their rituals outdoors when they can, which is consistent with their emphasis on nature. Many practice in secret, largely because many people associate neo-paganism with Satan worship and may discriminate against them, avoiding them or treating them unfairly in other ways.
Another characteristic that neo-pagan religions share is that they are generally reconstructed from ancient Western pre-Christian religions that have all but disappeared. In the case of Wicca, several theories have been offered about its origins, but a well-regarded theory is that Wicca evolved from ancient Celtic worship of the goddess of fertility and the god of the hunt. As Celtic society spread across northern Europe and the British Isles, the Celts carried Wiccan practices with them. The religion largely died out as a result of persecution (treating people unfairly, and often with violence, because of extreme differences) by the Romans, the Saxons, and the Norman French. Later, the Christian Church tried to forcefully eliminate Wicca during "the Burning Times," when accused witches were handed over to local authorities who saw to their deaths by hanging, drowning, or, though less common, burning at the stake. This took place roughly between the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries.
Neo-pagan groups, including Wicca, tend to have similar teachings. They follow a belief system that is either duotheistic (believing in two deities, typically a god and a goddess) or polytheistic (believing in many deities). Neo-pagans feel close to the cycles of nature. Holy days tend to fall on the first day of each of the four seasons, that is the summer and winter solstices (respectively, the longest and shortest days of the year) and the spring and autumnal equinoxes (the first day of spring and autumn).
The emergence of Wicca as a modern religious movement can be traced to the 1950s in England and the efforts of a British civil servant named Gerald Gardner, who wrote extensively on witchcraft. Later, in 1974, a number of Wiccans gathered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they drafted a statement containing the principles of Wiccan belief. The following list summarizes some of the most important principles, along with ways they are reflected in Cunningham's book.
- Wiccans practice rites attuned to, or in step with, the "natural rhythm of life forces," Cunningham notes, referring to rituals that follow "the course of the Sun through its astronomical year … as well as the monthly waxing and waning of the Moon." A waxing moon means the moon is appearing larger, and is one where the side of the moon facing east is dark. A waning moon is one where the side of the moon facing west is dark. This gives the appearance that the moon is getting smaller.
- Wiccans encourage and support responsibility toward the environment. Cunningham points out that "many of us are involved in ecology—saving the Earth from utter destruction by our own hands."
- Wiccans "acknowledge a depth of power far greater than that apparent to the average person," as stated at the 1974 meeting. They find power and divine awe in seemingly ordinary aspects of nature, such as flowers and trees.
- The creative power of the universe is both masculine and feminine and contained within each person: "Wicca," writes Cunningham, "reveres [respects and honors] these twin deities [called the God and Goddess] because of its links with nature."
- Wiccans seek the interaction of the outer and inner (psychological) worlds and, as Cunningham writes, "can contact and communicate with [the God and Goddess] because a part of us is in them and they are within us."
- Wiccans do not have an organized structure of authority to oversee their religious beliefs. Throughout his book, Cunningham makes clear that every practitioner can be his or her own priest or priestess, performing rituals without the assistance of a class of specialists, a class that other religions would describe as priests (in Christianity) or rabbis (in Judaism) or imams (in Islam).
- Wisdom, religion, and "magick" (a spelling sometimes used in religious contexts to distinguish it from tricks and entertainment) are united in a way of living, or a life philosophy. As Cunningham notes elsewhere in the book, "magic plays a special role in Wicca. It allows us to improve our lives and return energy to our ravaged [damaged] planet."
- Wicca opposes Christianity and other religions only to the extent that they deny spiritual freedom to others.
- Meaning in the universe comes from fulfilling and affirming life: "Wiccans emphasize the bright aspects of the deities because this gives us purpose to grow and evolve to the highest realm of existence."
- Wiccans do not worship Satan, the devil, or evil. Cunningham makes clear throughout his book that worship of the God and Goddess is worship of the creative, life-affirming powers of the universe, those powers that sustain and support the universe.
Do Witches Carry Brooms?
A common image of witches, and one that is reflected every year by children in Halloween costumes, is that they ride on broomsticks. While this is a stereotype, it is one based on an element of truth. Wiccans commonly use brooms as sacred tools, typically starting rituals by sweeping a sacred place where an altar is set up. This sweeping is not just for cleanliness. As part of the ritual, it symbolizes the act of purifying, or making holy, the sacred space for worship.
In fact, witches in many cultural traditions were believed to have been associated with brooms. In Mexico before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the fifteenth century, the witch deity Tlazelteotl was often pictured naked, riding on a broom. The ancient Chinese worshipped a broom goddess they called on to bring good weather. In Europe, witches were believed to ride in the air on brooms, which some at the time believed "proved" that they were allied with the dark powers of Satan.
Things to remember while reading Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner:
- Wicca is regarded as a form of paganism. The modern word pagan has negative associations, suggesting that a person is backward and ignorant. The word comes from a Latin word, paganus, meaning "country dweller." The word was used by the ancient Romans after the empire converted to Christianity. People in rural areas tended to hold on to ancient religious beliefs rather than to adopt Christianity. People in cities who did become Christians thought of people outside of the cities as backward.
- Scholars debate the origins of Wicca. While most practitioners and religious scholars trace Wicca to the 1950s and the books of Gerald Gardner, others disagree about the nature of his role. They believe that Gardner adapted his claims about Wicca from various other authors, religious historians, and even a prominent witch named Dorothy Clutterbuck, who was well know in England at the time.
- Many neo-pagans, including Wiccans, have adopted the pentagram as a symbol. This symbol consists of a circle with a five-pointed star inside, with the tips of the points touching the circle. It is widely believed that the pentagram is a satanic symbol, but it is not. The circle represents the magic circle used for rituals, and the five points of the star represent the five elements of earth, air, water, fire, and spirit.
Excerpt from the Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner
All religions are structures built upon reverence of Deity. Wicca is no exception. The Wicca acknowledge a supreme divine power, unknowable, ultimate, from which the entire universe sprang.
The concept of this power, far beyond our comprehension, has nearly been lost in Wicca because of our difficulty in relating to it. However, Wiccans link with this force through their deities. In accordance with the principles of nature, the supreme power was personified into two basic beings: the Goddess and the God.
Every deity that has received worship upon this planet exists with the archetypal God and Goddess. The complex pantheons of deities which arose in many parts of the world are simply aspects of the two. Every Goddess is resident within the concept of the Goddess; every God in the God.
Wicca reveres these twin deities because of its links with nature. Since most (but certainly not all) nature is divided into gender, the deities embodying it are similarly conceived.
In the past, when the Goddess and God were as real as the Moon and Sun, rites of worship and adoration were unstructured—spontaneous, joyous union with the divine. Later, rituals followed the course of the Sun through its astronomical year (and thusly the seasons) as well as the monthly waxing and waning of the Moon.
Today similar rites are observed by the Wicca, and their regular performance creates a truly magical closeness with these deities and the powers behind them.
Fortunately, we needn't wait for ritual occasions to be reminded of the Gods' presence. The sight of a perfect blossom in a field of bare earth can instill feelings rivaling those of the most powerful formal rite. Living in nature makes every moment a ritual. The Wiccans are comfortable in communicating with animals, plants and trees. They feel energies within stones and sand, and cause fossils to speak of their primeval beginnings. For some Wiccans, watching the Sun or Moon rise and set each day is a ritual unto itself, for these are the heavenly symbols of the God and Goddess.
Because the Wicca see Deity inherent in nature, many of us are involved in ecology—saving the Earth from utter destruction by our own hands. The Goddess and God still exist, as they have always existed, and to honor them we honor and preserve our precious planet.
In Wiccan thought, the Deities didn't exist before our spiritual ancestor's acknowledgement of them. However, the energies behind them did; they created us. Early worshippers recognized these forces as the Goddess and God, personifying them in an attempt to understand them.
The Old Ones didn't die when the ancient Pagan religions fell to upstart Christianity in Europe. Most of the rites vanished, but they weren't the only effective ones. Wicca is alive and well and the Deities respond to our calls and invocations.
When envisioning the Goddess and God, many of the Wicca see Them as well-known deities from ancient religions. Diana, Pan, Isis, Hermes, Hina, Tammuz, Hecate, Ishtar, Cerridwen, Thoth, Tara, Aradia, Artemis, Pele, Apollo, Kanaloa, Bridget, Helios, Bran, Lugh, Hera, Cybele, Inanna, Maui, Ea, Athena, Lono, Marduk—the list is virtually endless. Many of these deities, with their corresponding histories, rites and mythic information, furnish the concept of deity for Wiccans.
Some feel comfortable associating such names and forms with the Goddess and God, feeling that they can't possibly revere nameless divine beings. Others find a lack of names and costumes a comforting lack of limitations.
As stated earlier, the Wicca as outlined in this book is "new," although built upon established rituals and myths, firmly rooted within the earliest religious feelings which nature aroused within our species. In these rituals I've used the words "the God" and "the Goddess" rather than specific names such as Diana and Pan. […]
They have been given so many names they have been called the Nameless Ones. In appearance they look exactly as we wish them to, for they're all the Deities that ever were. The Goddess and God are all-powerful because they are the creators of all manifest and unmanifest existence. We can contact and communicate with them because a part of us is in them and they are within us.
The Goddess and God are equal; neither is higher or more deserving of respect. Though some Wiccans focus their rituals toward the Goddess and seem to forget the God entirely, this is a reaction to centuries of stifling patriarchal religion, and the loss of acknowledgement of the feminine aspect of Divinity. Religion based entirely on feminine energy, however, is as unbalanced and unnatural as one totally masculine in focus. The ideal is a perfect balance of the two. The Goddess and God are equal, complementary.
The Goddess The Goddess is the universal mother. She is the source of fertility, endless wisdom and loving caresses. As the Wicca know Her, She is often of three aspects: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone, symbolized in the waxing, full and waning of the Moon. She is at once the unplowed field, the full harvest and the dormant, frost-covered Earth. She gives birth to abundance. But as life is Her gift, She lends it with the promise of death. This is not darkness and oblivion, but rest from the toils of physical existence. It is human existence between incarnations.
Since the Goddess is nature, all nature, She is both the Temptress and the Crone; the tornado and the fresh spring rain; the cradle and the grave.
But though She is possessed of both natures, the Wicca revere Her as the giver of fertility, love and abundance, though they acknowledge Her darker side as well. We see Her in the Moon, the soundless, ever-moving sea, and in the green growth of the first spring. She is the embodiment of fertility and love. […]
The God The God has been revered for eons. He is neither the stern, all-powerful deity of Christianity and Judaism, nor is He simply the consort of the Goddess. God or Goddess, they are equal, one.
We see the God in the Sun, brilliantly shining overhead during the day, rising and setting in the endless cycle which governs our lives. Without the Sun we could not exist; therefore it has been revered as the source of all life, the warmth that bursts the dormant seeds into life and hastens the greening of the Earth after the cold snows of winter.
The God is also tender of the wild animals. As the Horned God He is sometimes seen wearing horns on His head, symbolizing His connection with these beasts. In earlier times, hunting was one of the activities thought to be ruled by the God, while the domestication of animals was seen to be Goddess-oriented.
The God's domains include forests untouched by human hands, burning deserts and towering mountains. The stars, since they are but distant suns, are sometimes thought to be under His domain.
The yearly cycle of greening, maturation and harvest has long been associated with the Sun, hence the solar festivals of Europe […] which are still observed in Wicca.
The God is the fully ripened harvest, intoxicating wine pressed from grapes, golden grain waving in a lone field, shimmering apples hanging from verdant boughs on October afternoons.
With the Goddess He also celebrates and rules sex. The Wicca don't avoid sex or speak of it in hushed words. It's a part of nature and is accepted as such. Since it brings pleasure, shifts our awareness away from the everyday world and perpetuates our species, it is thought to be sacred. The God lustily imbues us with the urge that ensures our species' biological future.
Symbols often used to depict or to worship the God include the sword, horns, spear, candle, gold, brass, diamond, the sickle, arrow, magical wand, trident, knife and others. Creatures sacred to Him include the bull, dog, snake, fish, stag, dragon, wolf, boar, eagle, falcon, shark, lizard and many others.
What happened next …
In Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, Cunningham goes on to explain both the theory and the practice of Wicca. He explains the roles of numerous sacred objects used in Wiccan worship, including the broom, the wand, the cauldron, the magic knife, the crystal sphere, and others. He draws on the Book of Shadows, a handbook of Wiccan rituals that discusses music, dance, construction of altars, and many other symbolic practices and items. The Book of Shadows has no particular author or publisher. It has been handed down, usually in handwritten form (though versions are available widely on the Internet), by generations of Wiccans.
Did you know …
- Wiccans estimate their numbers to be about 750,000 in the United States, which would make Wicca the fifth-largest religion in the country. For many years, Wiccans faced persecution, physical attacks, and discrimination. This could affect their ability to get and hold jobs and run businesses. For this reason, many tended to keep their beliefs private. Wiccans acknowledge that in the twenty-first century non-Wiccans have become more tolerant because of growing public awareness that Wiccans are not worshipers of Satan or of evil.
- Wiccans believe that the ideal number of persons in a coven is thirteen. When the number grows larger than thirteen, the coven splits, or "hives," into two or more covens. The covens remain associated as a larger unit called a grove.
- Wiccan wedding ceremonies are referred to most commonly as "handfastings." Some Wiccans adhere to an ancient Celtic practice of a "trial marriage" for a year and a day.
Consider the following …
- Some people, including government officials and the court system, have not regarded Wicca as a "religion" but more as a philosophy or a way of life. Respond to this point of view.
- Most mainstream religions that recognize a deity, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, think of the deity as masculine. Explain how and why Wicca recognizes a female as well as a male deity.
- Define the word "witchcraft" as a Wiccan might use it. Explain how the Wiccan use of the term differs from the popular use of the term.
For More Information
Buckland, Raymond. Wicca for One: The Path of Solitary Witchcraft. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 2004.
Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Saint Paul, MN.: Llewellyn Publications, 1988.
Grimassi, Raven. Encyclopedia of Wicca and Witchcraft. Saint Paul, MN.: Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
Holland, Eileen. The Wicca Handbook. Boston: Weiser Books, 2000.
Herne. "What Is Wicca." The Celtic Connection. http://www.wicca.com/celtic/wicca/wicca.htm (accessed on June 5, 2006).
"Wicca: A Neopagan, Earth-Centered Religion." Religious Tolerance.org. http://www.religioustolerance.org/witchcra.htm (accessed on June 5, 2006).
Reverence: Respect, devotion for.
Personified: Represented as a being, given a concrete form.
Pantheons: Official groups.
Conceived: Formed an idea of.
Instill: Impart, produce.
Rivaling: Competing with.
Rite: An established ceremony, particularly in a religion.
Primeval: Original, ancient.
Inherent: Part of the inner nature or essence of something.
Upstart: Newly powerful.
Invocations: Acts of prayer or calling upon a spirit or god.
Envisioning: Forming a picture of.
Manifest: Clear to see, obvious to the senses.
Patriarchal: Characteristic of rule by men, not women.
Crone: An old woman, often one who is ugly.
Dormant: In a state of rest or inactivity, usually when growth and development have stopped.
Oblivion: The state of nothingness.
Incarnations: Lifetimes, the times spent in a particular human body.
Temptress: A woman who is considered extremely appealing.
Eons: Long periods of time, ones that are too long to measure.
Consort: Husband, companion.
Intoxicating: Capable of making drunk.
Verdant: Lush or flourishing with vegetation.
Lustily: With energy and enthusiasm.
Sickle: A tool with a semicircular blade on a handle, used for cutting tall grass.
Trident: A spear with three prongs.