A Short History of Wicca

April 1st, 2015

Wicca is a religious system that came into being in the early 1950’s. There has been a great deal of confusion about the origins of Wicca because Wicca and Wiccan are terms that have often been confused and used interchangeably with pagan or paganism. Paganism is not Wicca. Wicca falls under the umbrella that encompasses almost every religion that does not fall under the “Abrahamic faiths” which include Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Wiccans, and witches as well as those that fall under the title of Reconstructionists will identify themselves under the  banner of Pagan or Neo-pagan. This is often because with the complex nature of some of the systems of belief it is easier to explain the general premises of Pagan belief which tend to encompass most of these belief systems. Paganism is a broad title in which to place these different systems of belief but it has often led to the belief that Paganism is a religion in and of it self.

Those that follow a pagan path are people who hold fast to the beliefs and practices that include accepting, embracing and working with the powers of nature, a belief in the “Great Mother” or the “Mother Goddess” and the connection of each individual with deity. Pagans understand and work the cycles of nature, the seasons, the moon cycles and so on. This understanding and interaction leads to different type of connection to the earth and to the various Gods and Goddesses. This brings up the question of magickal practice. Magick is not a requirement to paganism though many traditions that fall under the umbrella of Paganism have integrated a magickal practice into their beliefs.

Wicca is similar to ancient Pagan religions in that they hold to the belief of polarity in the duality of their deities. They believe in both the female and the male aspect of deity known as the Goddess and the God. The God and Goddess are the balance of the other and are intertwined with nature. They bear many names ranging from the well known “Mother Earth” and “Father Time” to simply the God and Goddess or Lord and Lady. It ancient times the people had a deity or spirit for every nature phenomena that occurred. Rivers, fountains, trees, winds and weather all had their deities or spirits. Like ancient pagans Wiccans have a deep and abiding connection to the earth. They also had Gods and Goddess for activities of every day life, such as Goddesses of the hearth, or Gods of the hunt. They created rituals to honour and seek the blessing of these Gods and spirits. These are just a few of the similarities Wicca has to ancient Pagan religions and is part of the reason why Wicca falls under the broader umbrella of Paganism.

Many believe that Wicca has ancient roots and while there are similarities and traditions that are borrowed from ancient pagan cultures and belief structures there is not a direct history of Wicca before Gerald Gardiner came on the scene in the early 1950’s. With the advent of Christianity people were being lead away from the earth based pagan religions. The growth of Christianity hijacked many of the pagan celebrations and traditions and turned them into Christian events. Through the expansion of the Christian realm came a great deal of persecution for those who believed something other than the “word of God” that was found only in the Bible.  It was during these times that pagan became a negative connotation for any that did not believe the Christian way. This led to the idea that non-Christians were evil or witches.

It was during the continuing growth of Christianity, that persecution spread across Europe and to the Americas and brought the excommunications, tortures and even the violent deaths of untold numbers of people. People were coerced into converting to Christianity or were driving into hiding if they were to continue to follow their own beliefs.  Even until the early 1900’s there were still laws and discrimination against those who continued to practice any sort of pagan faith or witchcraft.

In the late 1940’s Gerald Gardner as self proclaimed hereditary witch created a tradition based on his extensive understanding not only of archaeology but the occult. Taking from what was known of ancient practices, and using texts from Asia and Western Magical Texts Gardner developed a new religion which focused on the worship of the Mother Goddess.  So in truth the origins of Wicca are in the drawing together of various sources into an organized structure of beliefs.

Gerald  Gardener was an accomplished archaeologist who spent time in Southeast Asia, Malaysia and other locations. Through his study and travel he became very knowledgeable in the occult and different types of magickal thought. He was also quite involved with the Masons which further added to his cultural and occult knowledge. When he returned to England in 1939 he was heavily involved in the occult and it is believed that he may have become an active member of the Corona Fellowship of Rosicrucians thought there are some that would dispute this fact.[1] Gardner stated that this was where he met Dorothy Clutterbuck who initiated Gardner into the Craft. It was during the next 10 years that Gardner developed Wicca as a religious structure, however, it wasn’t until 1954 when he published “Witchcraft Today” that Wicca began to grow and flourish.

Some of the material that Gardner stated that he used as he was developing the structure and content of the Wiccan tradition included books on Celtic mythology and culture, Egyptian and Classical mythology, and the writings of Aleister Crowley. He also included fundamentals from Rosicucianism and Freemasonry. He used his extensive knowledge and research to thoroughly develop the foundation of  what we know today as Wicca.  He died in 1964 returning from his yearly Lebanon vacation.

The other significant figure in the development of Modern Wicca was Doreen Valiente. Born in 1922 she was initiated by Gerald Gardner in 1953 and from then on she worked closely with him. It was not long after her initiation that she became the High Priestess of the primary coven started by Gardner. Valiente was an avid and eager student. She was concerned with the abundance of “Crowley-isms” that were in Gardner’s rituals and Book of Shadows. She asked Gardner if she might make some changes and the result was a more poetic version of the various rituals and Book of Shadows.

Valiente was most noted for the “Charge of the Goddess,” which has become a classic part of Wiccan poetry. Additionally she wrote a number of books including The Rebirth of Witchcraft, ABC of Witchcraft: Past and Present, and Witchcraft for Tomorrow.  Her writing had become a staple for new Wiccans and covens as they develop their own rituals and celebrations.  

Like most other religions Wicca is not immune to differing political, practical, philosophical, and traditional differences. While all Wiccans tend to hold to the rule “An it harm none, do as ye will”[2] and also understand the law of three[3] that what you send out comes back to you whether it be for good or ill, and tolerance of other faiths and individuals, there are differences that have necessitated the development of different Wiccan Traditions. Basically if you accept these three premises as well as believing in the Goddess and the God and the cycles of nature you will be accepted under the banner of Wicca.

As we know the first Wiccan tradition is that which was organized by Gardner and was quickly labelled Gardnerian in honour of it founders. Numerous other traditions quickly followed. The chart below gives a sample of some of the major contributors to the Wiccan traditions. This is by no means a complete or exhaustive list of the different traditions. I would recommend the book Which Witch is Which by Patricia Telesco for general overviews of many of the other traditions that were created in the years following Gardner’s creation of his tradition. There are other books as well that are tradition specific that offer good overviews of the philosophies, structures, and beliefs of the individual traditions.

Alexdrian 1960 Alex and Maxine Saunders formed this branch of Wicca loosely based on Gardnerian but with their of philosophy and ritual structure.
Georgian 1970 Formed by George Patterson in Bakersfield California. Went through a few names including Universal Church and the Church of Wicca but was eventually named after its founder.
Dianic 1971 Zsuzsanna Budapest, formed the foundations of what developed into the Dianic traditions she was a Hungarian immigrant, and hereditary Witch, who came to the United States at the time of the communist invasion of her home country. Dianic covens are predominately women only and work solely with the Goddess.
Algard 1972 Formed by Mary Neswick. She has been initiated in both Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca and took what she learned from both of these branches to form her own form of Wicca.
Seax 1973 Raymond Buckland formed a branch of Wicca based on traditions from the ancient Seax religion. He is considered the father of American Wicca.

None of these were officially recognized as “religions” until 1985 when the Federal Appeals Court recognized Wicca as a religion. Other branches of Wicca include, Green or Kitchen Witch, Correllian, Celtic Reconstructionist, Faery, Dragon, and numerous others branches. In addition Eclectic Wicca has  become a fast growing branch as it allows a person to take what they feel works for them from the many traditions and to craft that into a practice that works for them.

Some of the other significant events that have moulded and shaped the face of Wicca include the formation of the Council of American Witches in 1974. It was made up of  witches from various traditions and they created a statement of 13 principles and definitions that were common to their different traditions. This was done with the purpose of correction some of the misinformation that was being propagated about their traditions/religion. Even though the Council is not longer in existence their work still remains as the foundation of many other groups and traditions.

The growing freedom of press, the increasing openness and willingness of people to write about their faith and traditions and the advent of the internet has given rise to a wide range of books, articles, classes, and websites where people can get information about Wicca in all its various forms. This has created growth and greater learning for all that seek to worship and live the Wiccan life. Wicca is a young religion in comparison to many other organized religions but it does draw on the knowledge and wisdom of the past and will continue to grow and expand as the years go by.

[1] Note should be taken that some of Gardner’s claims about his activities and his “hereditary witch” status are under question by others in the Wiccan community. I personally do not really care whether he truly was from a line of historical witches or if he tripped over some occult themes and decided to create his own religion. He gave a very significant contribution to the world as far as I am concerned in his work to create this religion.

[2] This is known as the Wiccan Rede.

[3] Also known as the Threefold Law

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