Wicca, Neo-Paganism, the Craft, and Dianic
Name: Wicca, Wicce, the Craft or Neo-Paganism
Wicca means "to bend or alter" from the Old English
Founder: Gerald B. Gardner is considered the first founding father of
all modern incarnations of Wicca. Some of his
students later went on to found other Wiccan traditions, from which arose more branches, continuing the process of
Date of Birth: Gardner was born on June 13, 1884 and died February 13, 1964.
Birth Place: Lancashire, England.
Year Founded: 1951.
History: Gardner was a retired British civil servant who claimed to have been initiated into the New Forest Coven by
Dorothy Clutterbuck in 1939. The New Forest Coven claimed to be a traditional Wiccan coven where rituals and
practices had been passed down since pre-Christian times. In 1951, laws prohibiting the practice of witchcraft in
England were repealed and soon thereafter in 1954, Gardner published his book, Witchcraft Today. His work was
based on the thesis by the anthropologist, Margaret Murray, that witchcraft has existed since pre-Christian times but
was hidden because of persecution.
More recently, the actual legitimacy of Gardner's claims has been refuted with the
existence of claims that Gardner was
never initiated by a Dorothy Clutterbuck and that the rituals and practices outlined in his book are simply a synthesis of
several sources, including Murray's work, the writings of Aleister Crowley and Freemasonry. Critics and experts have since drawn the conclusion that Gardner probably was involved in a form of Wicca, as in the Old Religion of earth magic and herbal practices, but in time created a more ritualized and romanticized Wiccan form. The Wiccan tradition he created eventually became known as Gardnerian Wicca.
Although Gardner's claims in Witchcraft Today that Wicca has existed since pre-Christian times have since been
refuted, this is not to say that Wicca did not exist during the pre-Christian era. It is simply that the Old Religion of
Wicca focused more on herbal medicine and magical lore. Regardless of its relatively benign practice, as Christianity began to spread across Europe, so did its influence especially when the Kings converted to Christianity. Further into the countryside, the common people tended to practice both the Old Religion and Christianity but as the Church became more and more hierarchical and patriarchical, the drive to cease all Pagan practices substantially increased. With the increasing persecution, the Inquisition and witch-hunts, it is understandble why practitioners of the Old Religion eventually went underground and remained anonymous until the coming of Gerald Gardner.
One of Gardner's students, Alexander Sanders later revised Gardnerian rituals and practices into another Wiccan
tradition, called Alexandrian for the ancient city of Alexandria. Even though by all observations, Alexandrian Wicca
directly evolved from Gardnerian Wicca, Sanders claimed to have been initiated as a child by his grandmother, Sybil
Leek. As the self-proclaimed "King of the Witches," Sanders appeared as a guest on several television shows and just
like Gardner, worked towards publicizing Wicca, which drew criticisms from the older, more traditional constituents of
Eventually these two main Wiccan traditions migrated from Britain to the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. As to be expected, several new branches emerged during this time due to the influx of ideas. Eventually in 1972, an Alexandrian High Priestess, Mary Nesnick, created a tradition called Algard Wicca which bases its foundation upon the similarities between Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca. Another form of Wicca, Dianic, also began to emerge in the United States in 1971. Unlike other traditions, Dianic focuses on the worship of Diana, the ancient greek Goddess and consequently, a higher percentage of women and feminist beliefs are found in Dianic covens. The Dianic tradition formed in two separate locations; first in Venice, California by Zsuzsanne Emese Bedapest and in Dallas, Texas by Morgan McFarland and Mark Roberts. More currently, however, a larger proportion of members in Wicca are known as eclectic practitioners. That is, they are not a part of any specific Wiccan craft and often not part of a coven. Instead, these practitioners draw upon several sources to form their own
individualized and innovative religious practices.
Sacred Texts: There is no sacred text encompassing all of Wicca, in all its many and eclectic incarnations. However
each Coven has a Book of Shadows, which contains rituals, invocations and charms. They contain things that have
been learned from experience and from each other. Witches often copy from each others' books that which appeals to
them so functionally, no two are ever exactly like. Ideally a Book of Shadows should contain only methods that have
proven successful and consistent whereas failed ideas are excluded. Along with the Book of Shadows, other essential
texts are two grimoires: The Greater Key of Solomon the King which dates from medieval times and The Book of
the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage which was published in the late 1900s.
Contractual/ Covenantal: Convenantal
Size of Group: Because of its lack of hierarchical structure and
methods for initiating members, the actual number of
practicing members of the many Wiccan traditions has been difficult to ascertain. Also several of its constituents have
been hesitant to reveal their religious affiliation due to a fear of public persecution and prejudice. A recent estimate is
that there exist somewhere between 300-30,000 covens in the United States today. This tremendous range in estimated size effectively says that no one knows.
Notes: Modern Wicca has its foundation in pre-Christian religions, a distinct worship of nature and Arctic
shamanism. Because none of its traditions and rituals are branches of any existing and established religious group and
since its belief system is highly innovative, Wicca qualifies as a cult because it remains in constant conflict and high
tension with its surrounding society. In fact, it is a conflict that has existed for almost all the Christian Era. And as is
evident from the brief history, its contemporary expressions seem highly prone to sectarian splinter.
II. Beliefs of the Group
Wiccan practitioners believe in a balanced polarities, especially that of the feminine and masculine. These two aspects
of nature are embodied in two dieties, known as the Goddess and God. Traditionally most Pagan gods such as Diana,
Hecate, Pan and Zeus are considered to represent the different aspects of the Goddess and God. Most traditions
worship the two dieties as equals where none deserves more importance than the other. This usually translates into a
balance between the feminine and masculine forces in a coven, although men tend to be a minority in the Wiccan
religion. However a few branches, such as Dianic, give more importance to the feminine
According to Wiccan tradition, the Goddess is the immanent existing force and the origin of all creation as in the Earth,
nature and life itself. Evidence of Goddess worship since the pre-Christian era exists in the form of small statues and
carvings of voluptous female figures that have been found throughout Europe. The Goddess has three faces: the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. These faces correspond to the many different cycles in nature: the waxing, full and waning phases of the moon; the menstrual cycle and the cycle of life in birth, life and death. The God aspect is better known as the Horned God from the ancient Celtic god, Cernunnos ("The Horned"). Evidence of a belief in the Horned God dates back to cave paintings from the Paleolithic times in Europe. Other representations of the Horned God later appeared in Egypt, Mesopotamia and India. The Horned God is worshiped as the masculine side of nature as well as the opener of the gates of life and death. The Horned God
represents the fertility that allows the Goddess to create life so in essence, all life originates from Him. He also known
as the Hunter so eventually, He is a bringer of death. According the Wiccan belief, the Horned God represents a masculine force that is wild, strong and expressive without being violent, patriarchical and destructive. Essentially, the Horned God is the perfect opposing force and complement to the Triple Goddess.
Due to its innovative nature, Wicca does not have a written set of rules for its members to follow. However three main
beliefs guide practitioners through their actions and beliefs. The first law is known as the Wiccan Rede which states:
"An ye harm none, do what ye will." The basic meaning is that members are allowed to follow whatever path they
choose so long as no harm befalls others, including themselves. The Wiccan rede also serves as an ethical guideline for
magical practices in everyday life and ritual.
The second law that Wiccans follow is the Threefold Law, which simply states that a person's deeds return to him/her
three times over. The Threefold Law has large implications in governing one's behavior because due to its meaning, the
repercussions of both good and evil behavior return to their originator three times over.
The final belief is that of reincarnation. Wiccans do not believe in heaven or hell since death is considered to be another
form of existence. Some Wiccans believe that a soul is continually reborn whereas others believe that once a soul
learns all the life lessons, it is granted eternal rest in a place called the Summerlands. Reincarnation is the ultimate
method for curbing the misuse of magic and evil behavior since it deals out a type of cosmic justice in that person is
reborn in a position that befits their deeds from the previous life.
Although Wiccan practices vary greatly from tradition to tradition and coven to coven, most practitioners follow a basic
system of ritual and celebration. Covens range in number of members, but traditionally have a maximum of thirteen. When the number of members in a coven exceeds thirteen, the common belief is that the coven should split, to continue the self-perpetuation process. Wiccans do not have any holy buildings for their rituals. Due to their beliefs, any place in contact with the Earth will suffice. Instead Wiccans worship what is known as the Circle. The area is purified by the four elements and then the Circle is cast, usually by someone walking clockwise along its perimeter and drawing an actual circle, sometimes with a wand or athame which are two common Wiccan tools. After this, the four cardinal directions are greeted and invoked, according to the tradition and preference of the practitioners.
Wiccans conduct their magical and sacred rites within the Circle, invoking the names of the Goddess and God and the
powers of nature. Once the Circle has been cast, the space within represents an altered consciousness that is "between
worlds." The Circle also serves to contain energy that is built up during the magical rites until it is ready to be released
in what is known as the Cone of Power. When the Cone of Power is released, the energy goes into the purposes that
the Wiccan practitioners desired for it during their rites. Also common during Wiccan rituals, a cup of wine is raised and an athame is dipped into it. The cup is then passed around the Circle to be drunk by the practitioners with the words, "Blessed Be." Cakes are then passed around as well, to complete the socialising and fellowship that is present in covens. Sometimes rituals are also conducted skyclad (naked) or in special costumes, depending on the Wiccan tradition. The purpose of either is to increase the unity with nature and magical potential. At the end of the rites, the Circle is opened, usually the counterclockwise direction.
Wiccans have a set of tools commonly used for casting circles and during rituals. The broom, a stereotypical Wiccan symbol, actually serves the purpose of purifying a space before casting a circle. An altar is also commonly set up in the center of the circle where the members cast magic. The main tools utilized by members are the wand, cup, pentacle and athame, which is a type of black-handled dagger. These objects represent fire, water, earth and air, respectively. In some traditions, the wand is symbol for air and the athame a symbol for fire. With the altar and practitioner, if solitary, or High Priestess, in a coven, located in the center of the circle, the fifth element of spirit is present during the spellcasting. This totality of the elements and nature perfectly complement the image of the Goddess and God during the ritual.
The most well-known ritual is that of "Drawing Down the Moon," in which the spirit of the Goddess and God are drawn down into the High Priestess and High Priest, respectively. The ritual usually occurs during a full moon and consists of an invokation and the High Priestess holding up the cup, full of water, while the High Priest raises the athame. After "Drawing Down the Moon," the High Priestess and High Priest are the dieties incarnate. In the succeeding time, they convey knowledge and information to the other members of the coven. Sometimes they answer questions about personal issues and give insight and understanding about the spiritual realms.
There are three types of Wiccan gatherings: Sabbats, Esbats and special purpose. In a special purpose gathering, a coven meets to deal with a common goal or issue that needs immediate attention, such as casting a health spell to aid a sickly friend. Most magical rites are performed at Esbats, which are small gatherings that correspond to the phases of the moon. Covens usually celebrate the Esbats alone, a practice which helps to reaffirm the bonds within a coven. Larger and more tribal festivals also take place during the year. These holidays, known as Sabbats, celebrate four major agricultural and pastoral festivals (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine and Lammas) and four minor solar festivals of the solstices (Winter and Summer) and equinoxes (Vernal and Autumnal). During these gatherings, several covens often meet together to share and enjoy the festivities.
III. Issues and Controversies: Past and Present
Wicca, in all its incarnations, is probably one of the longest and most persecuted religions in history. With the coming of
Christianity in Europe, the Old Religion was almost immediately opposed. Although the rulers easily converted, the common folk were less accessible. Eventually during the 15th century, what became known as "The Burning Times" came to pass. As the Church spread lies about the Wiccan tradition and accused female practitioners of being handmaidens of Satan, Wiccans were increasingly persecuted as the hysteria increased. With the aid of witch-hunting manuals such as the Malleus Maleficarum, thousands of accused witches across Europe, a large portion of which were not even practitioners of the Old Religion, were hunted down and killed well into the 18th century in Europe. Even today, the actual number of people who died during that time is unknown.
While the "Burning Times" were moving towards their end in Europe, in 17th century Salem, another witch-hunt was beginning. As with the European witch-hysteria, Salem fostered an environment ready for such a hysteria, strained as its inhabitants were between economics, lifestyles and politics as a result of their new surroundings and Puritan values and beliefs. With the addition of an interest in the occult and some knowledge in voodoo lore from a slave, the stage was set for another general panic and witch-hunt to begin. In 1692, a group of closely-knit girls ranging in age from nine to nineteen started to meet together to discuss the future. Because of a slight fascination with magic, one of the girls eventually created a crude crystal ball and from there, the path to the Witch Trials began. As time went on, the girls' parents began to show concern about their children's "odd" behavior and most likely were the original instigators of the belief in the presence of witchcraft.
Only under persistent questioning did the girls finally begin to accuse other people in Salem of the practice of witchcraft. At this time, members of the clergy were struggling to reassert authority and create religious fervor. The accusations served as an opportunity to do exactly that. With the aid of Cotton Mather's The Wonders of the Invisible World, the witch-craze was justified and even further driven into a panic. Before the Witch trials ended, several people had been hanged and many more had been tortured or spent months in prison.
Today, Old Salem has been into a Maritime National Site for its esteemed status as a major center for the Eastern luxuries trade and its legacy of ships leaving its ports to open new trading markets overseas. Shortly after the Witch trials ended, New England trade increased and much later after the Revolutionary War, the sea port substiantially flourished. Even though most of the museums and historic landmarks are devoted to Old Salem's maritime heritage, the Visitor Center and a private museum present interesting ways to learn about the Salem Witch trials.
Almost unbelievably the witch-hunts have persisted to the present day. As recent as 1986-1996 in South Africa, thousands of people have been accused of witchcraft, although the term does not apply to a religion and practice similar to that of Wicca. The victims have been accused of powers that are remarkably similar to the accused powers of witches in Medieval Europe. Despite all beliefs to the contrary and regardless of an actual involvement in Wicca or the occult, witch-hunts have continued to occur across time and culture.
One of the more common and present day controversies of Wicca, one that has its links to the European witch-hunt, is
that of its supposed link to Satanism. One of the unlying reasons for this is the marked similarity between the visual representations of the Horned God and Satan. More than one theorist has suggested that one of the ways the Church aided in the persecution of Wicca and its predecessors was taking the Horned God and making Him into the Christian incarnation of evil. Such a legacy probably helps to further the present-day prejudice against Wiccans. There have been allegations of members losing custody of their children and facing discrimination because of their religious beliefs. Despite all the misinformation concerning Wicca in popular culture, it should be obvious that none of it applies to true adherents of the Wiccan craft. Ideas such as human sacrifice and child molestation are in direct opposition to the Wiccan Rede. Unfortunately this ignorance and misinformation is a direct result of the tendency for Wiccan practitioners to remain anonymous and unnamed. Even with such public awareness groups as the Witches' League for Public Awareness and The Witches' Web, the stigma that has been associated with the word "witch" is likely to remain for a long time.
Another issue connected to Wicca is that of the feminist movement. Traditional Wiccan adherents and feminist proponents have had an uneasy relationship since Wicca was first introduced in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. For the traditional Wiccan, the Goddess was a symbol of nature but for the feminist, the Goddess was the symbol of the empowerment of women. Feminist practitioners such as Zsuzsanne Bedapest and her branch of Dianic Wicca have emphasized the feminine aspect much more than traditional Wicca, to the extent that men are excluded from their covens (Neitz, 367). This does not sit well with traditional Wiccans who stress the balance of masculinity and femininity. Such obvious disregard for one polarity, in Wiccan belief, would throw the magical forces askew. Perhaps another attractive aspect of Wicca is the opportunity for feminists to identify with the persecuted of Europe's Witch-hunt who were victims of the strongly patriarchical structure of Christianity. Since its connection to Wicca, the feminist movement has then focused its purpose on stripping away all the dark connotations of the word "witch" and restore to it instead the old attachments of healing and female power.
Sociology of Religion Homepage