Wicca is a modern-day, nature-based pagan religion. Though rituals and practices vary among people who identify as Wiccan, most observations include the festival celebrations of solstices and equinoxes, the honoring of a male god and a female goddess, and the incorporation of herbalism and other natural objects into rituals. Wiccans practice their religion according to an ethical code, and many believe in reincarnation.
WHAT IS WICCA?
Wicca is considered a modern interpretation of pre-Christian traditions, though some involved claim a direct line to ancient practices. It may be practiced by individuals or members of groups (sometimes known as covens).
Wicca also has some commonalities with Druidism in its environmental component, and is considered the inspiration of the goddess movement in spirituality.
There is great diversity among individuals and groups that practice a Wiccan religion, but many are duotheistic, worshiping both a female goddess and a male god (sometimes referred to as a Mother Goddess and a Horned God).
Other Wiccan practices are atheist, pantheist, polytheist or respectful of gods and goddesses as archetypal symbols rather than as actual or supernatural beings. Rituals in Wicca often include holidays centered around phases of the moon; solar equinoxes and solstices; elements such as fire, water, earth and air; and initiation ceremonies.
The rituals of modern Wiccan practice can be traced to famed first-wave feminist, Egyptologist, anthropologist and folklorist Margaret Murray.
She wrote several books on medieval religion centered around witch cults in medieval Europe that inspired British seekers to create their own covens and structure worship around her descriptions, starting with 1921’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.
Later scholarship disputed Murray’s claims about witch cults, but her influence could not be erased within Wicca.
Wicca was first given a name in Gerald Gardner’s 1954 book Witchcraft Today, in which he announced it as “wica,” the extra “c” being added in the 1960s. According to Gardner, the word was derived from Scots-English and meant “wise people.”
Gardner, considered the founder of Wicca, was born in 1884, north of Liverpool in England. A world traveler with an interest in the occult, Gardner first heard the word “Wica” used in the 1930s when he became involved with a coven in Highcliffe, England. He was initiated into the group in 1939.
In 1946 Gardner bought land in the village of Brickett Wood to establish a center for folkloric study, that would serve as headquarters for a coven of his own.
Gardner died of a heart attack in 1964 while onboard a ship off the North African coast. He was buried in Tunis. Only the ship’s captain attended. In 1973, his extensive personal collection of artifacts was sold to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.
Gardner met famed occultist Aleister Crowley in 1947. When Gardner formally wrote out his Wiccan rituals, he drew strongly from Crowley’s own, dating back to 1912.
The two men had similar ideas. Crowley had, in 1914, proposed the idea of forming a new religion that would pull from old pagan traditions worshipping the earth, celebrating equinoxes and solstices and other hallmarks of nature-based worship.
BOOK OF SHADOWS
Gardner’s fantasy novel High Magic’s Aid, published in 1949, is considered one of the first standards of Wicca, but his Book of Shadows, a collection of spells and rituals, is central to Wiccan practice.
Written in the 1940s and 1950s, initiates were required to make their own copy by hand. The origin of the title is unknown, but some believe he borrowed it from the work of Scottish children’s author Helen Douglas Adams.
Future Wiccan leader Doreen Valiente met Gardner in 1952 when she contacted him following an article in Illustrated magazine that presented to their readers the reality of covens and their practices in a context of normal, educated people.
Under Gardner’s direction, Valiente would revise the Book of Shadows for more popular consumption, exorcising Crowley’s influence. In 1957, Valiente split from Gardner’s coven with other members and rivals to Gardner sprang up, each with a coven of their own. Valiente would become a prominent Wiccan advocate and scholar.
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In 1963, Gardner initiated British expatriate and Long Island resident Raymond Buckland, who founded the Gardnerian Brentwood Coven, considered the first Wiccan coven in the United States.
Buckland became a vigorous promoter of Wicca in the United States and in the 1970s, moved to New Hampshire and developed Seax-Wica, which invoked Anglo-Saxon mythology into Wiccan practice.
Sybil Leek was a popularizer of Wicca in America. Claiming to be a hereditary witch, Leek became involved with the New Forest coven in the late 1940s, continuing her practice through several covens in England before moving to the United States and settling in Los Angeles.
Leek transformed her Wiccan practice into celebrity status centered around astrology, writing numerous books and a regular column in Ladies Home Journal.
Alex Sanders founded a strain known as Alexandrian Wicca in the 1960s.
Known as a publicity seeker, he catapulted to fame following an autobiography and a film in 1970, Legend of the Witches. Called “the King of the Witches,” Sanders typically pushed myths about his own lineage, claiming royal ancestry and alleging that his grandmother was not only a Wiccan, but had learned a strain of witchcraft that supposedly originated in Atlantis, and involved King Arthur and Merlin.
Sanders attracted a younger generation of followers, and the lurid stories about him are considered to have had the effect of popularizing Wicca as an alternate lifestyle in the 1970s.
Laurie Cabot, “the Witch of Salem,” began to gain attention in the United States in the late 1960s teaching classes at Salem State College and helping police solve cases.
Her occult store in Salem is one of the first in America, and she established the popular Witches’ Ball. Governor Michael Dukakis declared her the “Official Witch of Salem” in 1977 and in 1986 founded the Witches League of Public Awareness.
WICCA AND FEMINISM
The 1970s saw the American version of Wicca transform from the magic-based pagan discipline claiming British heritage to a natured-based spiritual movement, with heavy tones of environmentalism and feminism. In turn, this influenced the religion in England.
The feminist influence in Wicca strengthened in the 1970s and 1980s, brought about by women who had entered the religion attracted by the female deity, but were faced with a misogynist reality in the religion’s ranks.
In 1971 Wiccan activist Z. Budapest started the Susan B. Anthony coven, which practiced Dianic Wicca, a form of matriarchal lunar worship. Budapest wrote the Feminist Book of Shadows. A number of feminist covens were outgrowths from Budapest’s coven.
WICCA AND THE LAW
In 1986, Wicca was recognized as an official religion in the United States through the court case Dettmer v. Landon.
In the case, incarcerated Wiccan Herbert Daniel Dettmer was refused ritual objects used for worship. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Wicca was entitled to First Amendment protection like any other religion.
In 2004, the Indiana Civil Liberties Union fought to reverse a judge’s decision that divorcing Wiccans were not allowed to teach their faith to their sons.
In 2005, U.S. Army Sgt. Patrick D. Stewart became the first Wiccan serving in the U.S. military to die in combat. His family was refused a Wiccan pentacle on his gravestone. As a result of a court case initiated by the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, Wiccan symbols are now accepted by the Veterans Administration.
The number of practicing Wiccans in the United States has proven difficult to estimate, with sources reporting anywhere from 300,000 to three million practitioners.