Wicca is a neopagan, nature-based religion popularised in 1954 by Gerald Gardner, a retired British civil servant, who at the time called it Witchcraft and its adherents "the Wica". He said that the religion, of which he was an initiate, was a modern survival of an old witchcraft mystery religion that had existed in secret for hundreds of years, originating in the pre-Christian paganism of Europe. The veracity of Gardner's statements cannot be independently proven, however, and it is possible that Wiccan theology began to be compiled no earlier than the 1920s.
Wiccans typically worship a Horned God and a Triple Goddess, who are sometimes represented as being a part of a greater pantheistic Godhead, and as manifesting themselves as various polytheistic deities. Other characteristics of Wicca include the ritual use of magic, a liberal code of morality and the celebration of eight nature-based festivals.
Various Wiccan lineages or 'traditions' have since branched out of that popularised by Gardner, which came to be called Gardnerian Wicca. Each lineage has distinctive rituals, oral traditions and liturgy, and most remain secretive and require that members be initiated. Other traditions have also formed independently of Gardnerian lineage, including a growing movement of Eclectic Wiccans who do not believe that any doctrine or traditional initiation is necessary in order to practise Wicca.
The term Wicca has varying usage. Traditionally Wicca referred only to initiatory witchcraft in the lineage of Gerald Gardner and the New Forest coven (e.g. Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca), sometimes referred to as British Traditional Wicca in North America. More recently Wicca has become more inclusive and encompasses a number of traditions inspired by but independent of that lineage.
Although Wiccan views on theology vary, the vast majority of Wiccans venerate a Goddess and a God. These are variously understood through the frameworks of pantheism (as being dual aspects of a single godhead), duotheism or polytheism. In some pantheistic and duotheistic conceptions, deities from diverse cultures may be seen as aspects of the Goddess or God.
For most Wiccans, Wicca is a duotheistic religion worshipping both a God and a Goddess, who are seen as complementary polarities (akin to the Taoist philosophy of yin and yang), and "embodiments of a life-force manifest in nature." The God is sometimes symbolised as the sun, and the Goddess as the moon.The God Traditionally the God is viewed as a Horned God of nature. He is often seen as a god of woodlands, sexuality, and hunting. In this form he is equated with the ancient pagan deities such as the Celtic god Cernunnos and Greek god Pan. At other times the God is viewed as the Green Man, a traditional figure in art and architecture of Europe, or as a sun god.The Goddess The Goddess is usually portayed as a Triple Goddess with aspects of "Maiden", "Mother" and "Crone". Some Wiccans see the Goddess as pre-eminent, since she contains and conceives all; the God is the spark of life and inspiration within her, simultaneously her lover and her child. This is reflected in the traditional structure of the coven. In some traditions, notably feminist Dianic Wicca, the Goddess is seen as complete unto herself, and the God is not worshipped at all, though this is a controversial belief.
Gardner's beliefs According to Gerald Gardner, the gods of Wicca are prehistoric gods of the British Isles: a Horned God and a Great Mother goddess. Little evidence, however, has been produced for this.
Sometimes however it is written as:
This is usually interpreted as a declaration of the freedom to act, along with the necessity of taking responsibility for what follows from one's actions and minimising harm to oneself and others. Another common element of Wiccan morality is the Law of Threefold Return which holds that whatever benevolent or malevolent actions a person performs will return to that person with triple force, similar to the eastern idea of karma.
Many Wiccans also seek to cultivate a set of eight virtues mentioned in Doreen Valiente's Charge of the Goddess, these being mirth, reverence, honour, humility, strength, beauty, power and compassion. In Valiente's poem, they are ordered in pairs of complementary opposites, reflecting a dualism that is common throughout Wiccan philosophy. Some lineaged Wiccans also observe a set of 161 Wiccan Laws, commonly called the Craft Laws or Ardanes. Valiente, one of Gardner's original high priestesses, argued that these rules were most likely invented by Gerald Gardner himself in mock-archaic language as the by-product of inner conflict within his Bricket Wood coven.
Although Gerald Gardner initially demonstrated an aversion to homosexuality, claiming that it brought down "the curse of the goddess", it is now accepted in many traditions of Wicca.
The five elements are symbolised by the five points of the pentagram.
Many Wiccans use a special set of magical tools in their rituals. These can include a broom (besom), cauldron, chalice, wand, Book of Shadows, altar cloth, athame, boline, candles, crystals, pentacle and/or incense. An altar is usually present in the circle, on which ritual tools are placed and representations of the God/Goddess may be displayed. Before entering the circle, some traditions fast for the day, and/or ritually bathe. After a ritual has finished, the God, Goddess and Guardians are thanked and the circle is closed.
A sensationalised aspect of Wicca, particularly in Gardnerian Wicca, is the traditional practice of working in the nude, also known as skyclad. This practice seemingly derives from a line in Aradia, Charles Leland's supposed record of Italian witchcraft. Skyclad working is mostly the province of Initiatory Wiccans, who are outnumbered by the less strictly observant Eclectics. When they work clothed, Wiccans may wear robes with cords tied around the waist, "Renaissance-faire"-type clothing or normal street clothes.
The lack of consensus in establishing definitive categories in Wiccan communities has often resulted in confusion between Lineaged Wicca and the emergence of Eclectic traditions. This can be seen in the common description of many Eclectic traditions as traditional/initiatory/lineaged as well. In the United States, where the confusion usually arises, Wiccans in the various lineages extending from Gardner may describe themselves as British Traditional Wiccans.
A commonly quoted Wiccan tradition holds that the ideal number of members for a coven is thirteen, though this is not held as a hard-and-fast rule. Indeed, many U.S. covens are far smaller, though the membership may be augmented by unaffiliated Wiccans at "open" rituals. When covens grow beyond their ideal number of members, they often split (or "hive") into multiple covens, yet remain connected as a group. A grouping of multiple covens is known as a grove in many traditions.
Initiation into a coven is traditionally preceded by a waiting period of at least a year and a day. A course of study may be set during this period. In some covens a "dedication" ceremony may be performed during this period, some time before the initiation proper, allowing the person to attend certain rituals on a probationary basis. Some solitary Wiccans also choose to study for a year and a day before their self-dedication to the religion.
In contrast, Eclectic Wiccans are more often than not solitary practitioners. Some of these "solitaries" do, however, attend gatherings and other community events, but reserve their spiritual practices (Sabbats, Esbats, spell-casting, worship, magical work, etc.) for when they are alone. Eclectic Wiccans now significantly outnumber lineaged Wiccans, and their beliefs and practices tend to be much more varied.
The origins of Wicca are much debated. Gerald Gardner brought the religion to public attention in the early 1950s. He claimed that, after returning to England on his retirement from a career spent in Asia, he encountered a coven of witches located in Dorset, England (the "New Forest coven") and was initiated into it. He claimed that the religion practised by the coven was a survival of the matriarchal pagan religions of pre-historic Europe. Subsequently fearing that the religion would die out, he published details of its beliefs and practices in a series of books: his novel High Magic's Aid (1949) and his non-fiction works Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959). These books helped to attract many new initiates.
Gardner reported that the rites of the New Forest coven were fragmentary, and that he substantially rewrote them. Many of the rituals and precepts that he promoted can be shown to have come from the writings of earlier occultists (such as Aleister Crowley) and other writers (including Rudyard Kipling and Sir James Frazer). The remaining original material is uncohesive, and mostly takes the form of substitutions or expansions within unoriginal material. Roger Dearnaley describes Garnder's texts as a "patchwork".
Most if not all of the elements of Gardner's version of events have subsequently been questioned, including the very existence of the New Forest coven. It has been posited by authors such as Aidan Kelly and Francis X. King that Gardner invented the witch rituals in their entirety, incorporating elements from the writings of Dr. Margaret Murray, incantations from Aradia and practices deriving from ceremonial magic. Some of Gardner's historical claims are consistent with ideas that were current in the earlier part of the 20th century but are in conflict with later scholarship. The idea of a supreme Mother Goddess, for example, was common in Victorian and Edwardian literature: the concept of a Horned God — especially related to the gods Pan or Faunus — was less common, but still significant. Both of these ideas were widely accepted in academic literature and the popular press at the time.
Some writers, such as Isaac Bonewits, have been unwilling to believe either that Gardner fabricated his religion out of nothing or that it represented a genuine survival of a historical pagan cult. They have suggested instead that it was constructed at some point in the 20th century prior to Gardner's initiation, perhaps by the New Forest coveners. Bonewits writes:
In the United Kingdom, initiates of Gardner had begun to perform their own initiations, and a number of lines of Gardnerian descent began to arise. From one of these (although it was originally claimed to derive from a traditional, non-Gardnerian source) came the line known as Alexandrian Wicca. Increasing popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, and in other countries, along with the increasing availability of published material, meant that many people started to practise a form of Wicca without being part of a coven or having participated in an initiation. In response to this, traditionally initiated Wiccans in North America began to describe their version as British Traditional Wicca.
Another significant development was the creation by feminists in the late sixties and seventies of an eclectic movement known as Dianic Wicca, or feminist Dianic Witchcraft. Dianic Wicca has no connection of lineage to traditional Wicca, and creatively interprets published materials on Wicca as a basis for their ritual structure. This specifically feminist, Goddess-oriented faith had no interest in the Horned God, and discarded Gardnerian-style hierarchy and lineage as irrelevant. Rituals were created for self-initiation to allow people to identify with and join the religion without first contacting an existing coven. This contrasts with the Gardnerian belief that only a witch of opposite gender can initiate another witch.
Gardner himself claimed he learned the term from existing members of the group who initiated him into witchcraft in 1939: "I realised I had stumbled on something interesting; but I was half-initiated before the word Wica which they used hit me like a thunderbolt, and I knew where I was, and that the Old Religion still existed."
The spelling Wicca was not used by Gardner and the term Wiccan (both as an adjective and a noun) was not used until much later, but it is now the prevalent term to refer to followers of Wicca.
Most Wiccans call themselves Pagans, though the umbrella term Paganism encompasses many faiths that have nothing to do with Wicca or witchcraft. Wicca is commonly described as a Neopagan faith though Isaac Bonewits, the influential Neo-druid has claimed that early Wicca (at a time when it was still called "Witchcraft") was in fact a Mesopagan path. Since there is no centralised organisation in Wicca, and no single orthodoxy, the beliefs and practices of Wiccans can vary substantially, both among individuals and among traditions. Typically, the main religious principles, ethics, and ritual structures are shared, since they are key elements of traditional teachings and published works on the subject.
As practised by initiates in the lineage of Gerald Gardner, Wicca is a variety of witchcraft founded on religious and magical concepts. As such it is distinguished not only by its beliefs, but by its practice of magic, its ethical philosophy, initiatory system, organisational structure and secrecy. Some of these beliefs and practices have also been adopted by others outside of this lineage, often termed Eclectic Wiccans, who generally discard the institutions of initiation, secrecy and hierarchy, and have more widely varying beliefs. Some Eclectic Wiccans neither perform magic nor identify as witches. Within traditional forms of Wicca there are three degrees of initiation. First degree is required to gain membership of a coven; those who aspire to teach may eventually undergo second and third degree initiations, conferring the title of "High Priest" or "High Priestess" and allowing them to establish new covens. At initiation, some Wiccans adopt a craft name to symbolise their spiritual "rebirth", to act as a magical alter-ego, or simply to provide anonymity when appearing as a witch in public (see Acceptance of Wiccans below).
According to the traditional history of Wicca as given by Gerald Gardner, Wicca is a survival of the European witch-cult that was persecuted during the witch trials (sometimes called the Burning Times). Since then theories of an organised pan-European witch-cult have been largely discredited, but it is still common for Wiccans to feel solidarity with the victims of the witch trials.
There have been assertions made that Wicca is a form of Satanism, despite important differences between these religions, such as the lack of a Satan-like figure in Wiccan theology. Due to negative connotations associated with witchcraft, many Wiccans continue the traditional practice of secrecy, concealing their faith for fear of persecution. Revealing oneself as Wiccan to family, friends or colleagues is often termed "coming out of the broom-closet".