– Part II(A) of World Religion Series –
What do you picture when I say the word “witch”? Is it an old woman with a pointed hat riding a flying broomstick? A hunched hag with a nose wart stirring a mysterious bubbling cauldron? Old Hollywood certainly did no favors to the image of witchcraft or wiccans by implanting these impressions in us all! But let’s take a look at the truth.
Before we dig in, we should take a quick look at some terminology so we all understand the twists and turns here. “Witchcraft” is an action; something done or performed. “Wicca” is a religion whose adherents are referred to as “Wiccans”. Wiccans may or may not practice witchcraft, however the majority do. “Witch” is the term used for practioners of witchcraft. However “witch” has become synonymous with any Wiccan and, at this point in history, can be used interchangeably with Wiccan without offense. “Witch-cult” is the term given to the practice of witchcraft in antiquity; a large pan-European belief system.
A Brief History Of Wicca As A Religion
Although witches have been a presence since before the Middle Ages (references date back to the 13th century), the religion of Wicca is a relative newcomer to the world scene.
The father of modern Wicca is Gerald Gardner, even though he never called his belief system “Wicca”, preferring to use the “Witchcraft” term. In September 1920, Gardner was initiated into the New Forest Coven in Britain. It was Garder’s belief and claim that the New Forest Coven was a surviving group of original witch-cult members.
In 1946, Gardner feared that witchcraft could be a dying practice. So he began his own coven, calling it the Bricket Wood Coven, with another former member of the New Forest Coven, Edith Woodford-Grimes. Gardner and Woodford-Grimes became the High Priest and High Priestess of the Bricket Wood Coven. Gardner implanted in his New tradition a lasting foundation of Wicca, the notion of an equal God and Goddess (this was terrifically unique and intriguing within the patriarchal, male-dominated society of Britain in the 1940s). However, Woodford-Grimes only stayed with the Bricket Wood Coven for 6 years, citing concerns over the publicity that Gardner was attempting to bring to the religion. Prior to Gardnerian Witchcraft, all aspects of witchcraft were practiced in extreme privacy. However, Gardner aimed to change the pact of secrecy of the religion and to gain popular understanding and acceptance. This proved to be a brilliant and well-timed strategy, but it did tend to make some traditionalists very uneasy.
In 1953, Gardner initiated Doreen Valiente into the Bricket Wood Coven and she became the new High Priestess of the coven. With the assistance of Valiente, Gardner wrote the Bricket Wood Coven Book of Shadows during this time. Many of the rituals included in the Book of Shadows came from late Victorian-era occultism, however much of the spiritual content is derived from much older pagan religions, and includes both Hindu and Buddhist influences. Valiente was able to rewrite many of the spells and incantations into poetic verse. The partnership with Valiente was also short lived, as she left the coven due to Gardner’s continued publicity hunt and the new rules and restrictions he began placing on the Bricket Wood Coven and the other covens following Gardnerian Witchcraft.
The distinction of coining the terms “Wicca” and “Wiccan” goes to Charles Cordell in 1954. He used the terms to describe any followers of the Witch-cult traditions, regardless of the faction.
Gardnerian Witchcraft was brought to the United States in the 1960s by a British Airways employee named Raymond Buckland and his wife. The Bucklands were initiated into Witchcraft in Britain by Monique Wilson and, upon their move to the United States, began the Long Island Coven. The Long Island Coven based their practices on the Gardnerian Book Of Shadows. The Bucklands continued to lead the Long Island Coven until 1973, at which time the Bucklands stopped strictly following Gardnerian Witchcraft and formed a new tradition called Saex Wicca which combined Gardnerian Witchcraft with Anglo-Saxon pagan iconography.
In 1971, American Zsuzsanna Budapest fused Wiccan practices with the burgeoning feminist ideals and politics to form Dianic Wicca. This tradition focused exclusively on the Goddess, Diana. Dianic Covens are exclusively female, and many are actually designed specifically for lesbian Wiccans.
Truthfully, there are MANY offshoots and variations within the Wiccan religion. I have only touched on the most historically relevant. As you will see, Wiccan beliefs and coven traditions are as diverse as the stars in the night sky.
What Makes Wicca So Unique?
Wicca is considered an earth-centered modern religion. Adherents worship and appreciate the balance of nature in its own right. Whether looking at the stars on a clear night, the peak of a snow-capped mountain, or the intricate and dainty web of a spider, Wiccans feel the reverence for nature. There is really no distinction made between Mother Earth, the Goddess, and the Wiccan. Nature is a part of them and they are a part of nature, equally. As such, there is not a specified location to congregate. No church; or temple; or center; or other artificial edifice to signify that “Wiccans meet here”. Some Wiccans prefer to meet in a nature setting, some in homes. The earth IS their church.
There is no holy book for the practice of Wicca. No Bible; Torah; or Quran. The closest one may get to a guiding book in Wicca would be the Book of Shadows of the coven (if you are even in a coven).
Wicca involves both a female and a male creator being, the Goddess and the God. As a representation of the balance held dear by Wiccans, both the feminine and masculine are represented in the creators. This may not seem all that groundbreaking to us today, but imagine the heresy of this belief during the male-dominated balance of history! Having a female revered as a creator would have boiled some blood for sure!
The major “holidays” of Wicca are referred to as “Sabbats”. Exact timing of the Sabbats are based upon the solstice and equinoxes, as well as lunar phase. There are 8 Sabbats per year.
- Yule – Midwinter Solstice. Usually in December. Common practices are giving of gifts; feasting; decorating using sprigs of holly, mistletoe, ivy, yew and pine (known as the “Yule Log”); bringing in and decorating of an evergreen tree. Sound familiar?
- Imbolc – Candlemas. Falls on February 1st. Marks the earliest rumblings of the forthcoming spring. Commonly used as a time for pledges; rededications; initiations; purification and cleaning.
- Ostara – Spring Equinox. Marks the vernal equinox. A time when sun and darkness are equal, with sunlight on the rise. Ostara is a time of new beginnings and of life emerging from the grip of winter.
- Beltane – May Eve. Known as May Day in the modern United States. As in ancient Irish pagan religions, the day is still celebrated by dancing around the maypole. The festival is meant to recognize life in its fullest; the greening of the world; and youthfulness.
- Litha – Summer Solstice. Falls at the end of June/early July. Marks the day when the sun shines longest that year and festivities begin at sunrise, continuing until sunset. It is also the turning point for when the sun’s power begins to lessen. Litha is, arguably, the most anticipated Sabbat and is the only day during which Stonehenge is closed to public viewing and available only to those celebrating the Sabbat.
- Lammas – Lughnasadh. The first of three harvest festivals. Traditionally celebrated by baking bread in the figure of the God and eating it, meant to symbolize the sanctity and importance of the harvest.
- Mabon – Autumnal Equinox. Typically falls in September. The second of three harvest festivals. Mabon is a ritual of thanksgiving for the fruits of the earth and a recognition of the need to share them to secure blessings during the harsh upcoming winter months.
- Samhain – Halloween. The third harvest festival. Samhain (pronounced sow-wen), is a night celebration of the lives of the dead; paying respects to passed relatives; elders of faith; and loved ones. In some rituals, the dead are invited to attend the festivities. It is considered a dark festival in which the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest allowing for movement between worlds and easier communication.
The yearly Sabbats equally divide the calendar and are represented by a circle divided into 8 quadrants (picture an empty Trivial Pursuit piece). This circle is called the Wheel Of The Year.
I hope you have enjoyed Part 1 of this Wiccan exploration. Be sure to come back for Part 2 on April 12, 2021. We will be discussing the differences in practicing Wicca in a coven, a circle or as a solitary practitioner; as well as talking spells and magick (not a typo- come back to see why not). Until then my friends, blessed be.