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Wicca and Neopaganism, a Short History

By Aaron Leitch (Khephera)

What is Wicca? When I wrote this article, some years back, that was an extremely popular question. I wrote this essay specifically to aid both occult seekers and the merely curious who wished for a simple explanation of Wiccan (and Neopagan) history. If you have asked this question (and I assume you have), you might possibly have received answers revolving around "what Wicca means to me" rather than gaining solid facts by which to form further questions. Outside of British Traditional Wicca, the independent sects of Neopaganism tend to be very ill-defined on a large scale. In fact, solitary practice was far more popular than any other form of observance in America through the 90s. And yet, the Wiccan movement does possess a very real and fascinating history.

Wicca is said to be the fastest growing religion in America, if not the world. This may or may not be true, though Neopaganism (which includes Wicca) does seem to fit that description. There does seem to be a stirring within the collective human consciousness of Neoplatonic and Animistic ideas. That is to say, the strict adherence to materialism that has predominated our culture seems to be loosening, and folks are beginning to consider a mythological view of the universe as well.

Due to the rapid growth and downright trendy popularity of Wicca, the first problem the information seeker will encounter is a lack of reliable information. Much is published about the faith of Wicca, yet very few of the sources agree with one another, or with historical consideration. It is my hope to bust some of the common myths surrounding the birth and development of the Wiccan religion, and offer a general outline of the story from a historical perspective.

Authors such as Starhawk choose to call the practice of Wicca by the name "Witchcraft." Raymond Buckland also does this, and freely intermixes the history of Wicca with that of ancient European Paganism. Some authors even go so far as to claim that Wiccans today follow the exact same practices as the ancients. You might be told that Wicca is older than Christianity, or even that it finds its roots as far back as 25,000 BCE. In the long run, none of these are exactly correct, or are at least only part of the truth.

Such claims that Wicca is so all-encompassing has both helped and harmed the movement. On the one hand, it gave the trailblazers of Wicca a ground to stand upon. It would be folly to think that Gerald Gardner (the creator of Wicca) could ever have popularized his system if he had claimed its authorship himself. The fact is, almost every piece of influential spiritual/magickal literature in times past has taken its place in history via false claims: The Keys of Solomon, the Zohar, the Five Books of Moses (the Torah), the New Testament, the Koran, etc, etc. Some of these examples claim Divine Inspiration or Authorship, which has more of a spiritual validity than do those which claim authorship by famous figures (such as the Keys) or claim antiquity that they do not possess (such as Gardner's Book of Shadows, the "textbook" of the Wiccan religion). Often, people are interested in ancient words of wisdom and power, but will ignore contemporary material of equal beauty and insight.

However, these claims have also harmed the movement to some extent (specifically in a scholarly sense). If the early practitioners of Wicca had not made grand claims of antiquity, then students today would realize that Gardner's was the first, and thus anything claiming to be Wicca would have to compare in some way to his original creation. Instead, the claims to antiquity have allowed folk to find parallels between Wicca and every ancient culture- and this opens the door for everything from Sumerian Wicca to Atlantean-Bhuddist Wicca. It just seems to lead to confusion when several people attempt to communicate while using the same word for entirely different practices.

I feel this to be unnecessary. As I myself came to know and accept the true history of Wicca, I also learned to appreciate the beauty to be found there. Wicca simply has no need to stand upon the shoulders of the ancients. Therefore, allow me to share with you this mere overview of the history of Wicca- from its mythological origins to the facts of its development in our times of pagan revivalism.

The Wicce of Britain

There were, indeed, a people in ancient Britain known as "Wicce" (pronounced Wee-cha). You may have seen them mentioned before, as their existence has suggested to some a pre-Christian origin for Wicca. However, once the facts are brought to light, we will see how this evidence does not necessarily prove the existence of the modern religion of Wicca in ancient times.

From the earliest stone ages, the tribes of Britain practiced the same kinds of paganism and shamanism as most of the rest of the world; and, like so many others, that paganism was nearly destroyed forever by the crushing blow of the medieval Church. The practices of the older faiths were forced to recede from the populated cities into the countryside- the mysteries guarded by the older people and passed down in fragmented bits and pieces to the younger. The Pagan Priesthoods were gone, a great number of the Celtic Gods found shelter in the new Christian religion as Saints, but some of the practical knowledge gained over thousands of years held fast. These country people were midwives, healers, seers, soothsayers, diviners, etc.

It must be stressed here that these people did not call themselves "Wicce". It has been claimed that the ancient Celtic Priesthood itself was known by that name; though I have yet to see any evidence to support the theory. Instead, it was the Christian city-folk who applied the name to the wise-men and -women who were popular for giving fortunes and administered folk medicines. The word "Wicce" itself translates as "wise one". Once the Inquisitions began, a slang form of the word was created: "Witch." Of course, the Inquisitions of medieval and renaissance Europe were aimed principally at "heretic" Christians, but as the Inquisition expanded, the healers and midwives of the rural areas became targets as well.

You may recognize the term "wise one" in other languages as "wizard" or "magus." Wizardry is not generally considered a faith at all, but a practice. It is quite unlikely, then, to assume that "Wicce" was a faith- structured and organized in its own right. If it were so, it would not likely have been labeled a "Craft." (One never hears of "Christcraft" or "Buddhacraft." On the other hand, Masonry, which is a practice rather than a religion, is referred to as "the Craft.") It would appear, then, that what we know as "Witchcraft" is a practice of folk magick- derived from ancient shamanic practices, but not synonymous with any single pagan religion.

Margaret Murray and the "Old Religion"

The true roots of Wicca are to be found as recently as the early 1920's, with an archeologist by the name of Margaret Murray and her book entitled The Witch Cult in Western Europe. Ms. Murray believed that society was once matriarchal (ruled by women), and that the continent of Europe once possessed a primordial- yet organized- faith that she termed the "Old Religion". The main focus of her work was to prove that the Church had driven the practitioners of this Old Religion into hiding, and "covens" were thus formed so the ancient Rites could be practiced in hidden places.

Ms. Murray's main sources of information in this regard were the documents obtained by convicted "witches" by the Church itself. These were the signed confessions written by the Inquisitors and that convicted heretics were forced to sign under pain of torture. Historians generally dismiss these documents as untrustworthy. They do reflect the agendas and psychoses of the Inquisitors who wrote them, but they do not reflect actual events.

Regardless of this, Murray felt that an idea of how real covens had operated could be gleaned from these reports if the "bias" of the Church was ignored. In her defense, there were other aspects of Ms. Murray's work that were on the right track. However, today those who continued her work have refuted most of her facts. To this date, I have yet to see any convincing evidence that covens existed in the times of the medieval Inquisitions. (It is not, however, improbable that there were secret meetings of folks attempting to observe the ways of their fathers. I merely contend that they were not universally organized, and did not descend from a single European Religion.)

Despite this, Murray's work (she also wrote a second title: God of the Witches) left behind quite a legacy. Between the 1920s and 40s, groups began to "surface" all over Europe- fully functioning covens of witches claiming to practice Murray's Old Religion, having descended through unbroken lines of initiation from the alleged "original covens" of the medieval era. Of course, none of them ever proved such claims, and it is uncommon to find anyone today who insists upon the myth at all. If Murray was incorrect in her theories, then the modern covens that operated upon the model she described could have hardly been authentic themselves.

However, arise these covens did- continuing to refer to themselves simply as the Old Religion; the name Wicca was not used at all. Despite any false claims, they were in many cases populated with very serious occultists and witches, and the new faith eventually developed into something of its own. These witches were very secretive about themselves, based upon coven laws that were allegedly created for reasons of safety during the Inquisitions. The Neopagan movement was unofficially underway, even if it did remain somewhat underground.

The New Forest covens

Now it is time to focus upon one of these covens specifically; or, as it was, a small group of inter-related covens known as the New Forest. They were structured according to Murray's ideas, and were following a pseudo-reconstruction of ancient Celtic shamanic religion, with European-style witchcraft as a part of daily life and practice. Obviously, they too claimed a direct connection to the Wicce of ancient Britain.

Beyond this, the different groups had their own particular focuses. For example, one of them delved into a practice that had arisen in the early 1900s known as "Lonecraft"- a philosophy of natural living based largely upon American Indian concepts. You are probably more familiar with Lonecraft than you first think- because Lonecraft (also referred to as "Scouting") is the father of the modern Boy Scouts!

Another New Forest group- the High Priestess of which was the famous Dorothy Clutterbuck- focused somewhat more upon the practices of Hermetic Magick- adapting a version of the Qabalah as set forth by Israel Regardie in his book The Golden Dawn. According to Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler, this book was owned by nearly every serious occultist of the time; a claim which can often be made for today!

Gerald Gardner

Here enters the man known as Gerald Gardner, who became an initiate of Dorothy Clutterbuck's New Forest coven. Mr. Gardner was certainly no stranger to the occult; he was a Masonic Lodge member, and an honorary member of the O.T.O. (an organization run by Aleister Crowley); not to mention the various other systems he was possibly familiar with (such as many Eastern, African, Middle Eastern, and even Judeo-Christian Traditions). Overall, he was an amateur anthropologist who enjoyed putting his studies to practical use.

Today, we are not exactly sure what it was that Gardner set out to do. He began by combining the many systems he was familiar with into a coherent whole: basically taking the models of Hermetic Ceremonial Magick, assigning to them correspondences from Celtic Paganism, and using them within the Murray/New Forest Religious structure. Just like the rest of his peers, he claimed that his creation was the very same "organized religion" described by Murray, finally come out of hiding. He decided to call it "Wicca" (Wik-ah, a mispronunciation of Wicce) after the Celtic healers and midwives described previously, and as a way of linking his creation with ancient sources. Gardner went public in 1953 with his book Witchcraft Today; much to the horror of the many existing covens attempting to guard their privacy. However, his ideas eventually took hold on the public, and the Neopagan movement was officially underway.

The Neopagan Movement

In the above information are found the major differences between a Wiccan, a witch, and other pagans. Wiccans are certainly pagan, and they do indeed practice witchcraft. However not all witches are Wiccans (i.e.- followers of the religion created by Gardner) by any stretch of the imagination. Likewise, all pagan religions are hardly the same as Wicca either. It is a grave form of disrespect for Wiccans to assume that every pagan, or witch, in the world is automatically Wiccan.

At any rate, through the 1970s to 90s, Wicca was unable to supply itself to the demand of the public. Dissatisfied Christians, some family-traditional witches (who found Wiccan philosophies very similar to their own), and many other seekers joined into the Neopagan movement and Wicca. There are, today, Neopagan groups representing just about every ancient culture and practice that one can imagine- not just European and Celtic. Some of them are reconstructions of lost paganisms, some of them bear little resemblance to the historical originals, and some are a little of both.

As I stated before, the most popular practice in the Neopagan movement in America has been solitary practice (for those who work alone without joining a coven). In many cases, this is because there are no covens around to join, or none accepting. In other cases, the Wiccan simply chooses to work alone. The Traditionalists (such as Gardnerian Wiccans) do retain their secrecy and strict initiatory practices, making it quite impossible for one to simply "become" a Gardnerian (or Alexandrian, etc) Wiccan alone. Mr. Gardner created Wicca to be an initiatory mystery tradition. Therefore, those who descend from Gardner through initiation feel that this restriction must still be followed.

However, what information has become publicly available (known as "outer court" material) has been published and multiplied to such a degree, that anyone can obtain enough information to begin a Wiccan practice. I call this "Mainstream Wicca"- the main source for most solitary Wiccans. The development of this situation is very similar to the history of Christianity- as it finally broke loose from its mystery tradition origins and divided into numerous popular sects. The attempt- during the 1990s- to co-opt the movement by corporate America even resembles the same attempt made upon Christianity by the Roman government.

Once again I wish to stress that Witchcraft does not equal Wicca. Most Wiccans are witches, but there are many witches who have never been part of the Wiccan religion. Remember that Wicca is only as old as the late 1940's, while witchcraft- used as a generic term for shamanic-style magick- is probably the oldest practice known to mankind.

And with that, in the name of brevity, I will bring this discussion to an end. I hope that I have answered many of your questions. Of course, the interested student will likely have many more. Therefore, I have included a short bibliography for further study. Good luck, and Blessed Be.

Bibliography for Wiccan Study

-A Witches' Bible: The Complete Witches' Handbook, Janet and Stewart Farrar ISBN 0-919345-92-1

This book must be first on your study list. It is a combination of two earlier books by the Farrars- Eight Sabbats for Witches and The Witches' Way. It contains the main body of Wiccan Religious and Magickal Ceremony, the most complete explanations of the Sabbats in print, a good dose of Wiccan history, modern Wiccan lifestyle, and a large percentage of the text from the Gardnerian Book of Shadows itself.

-The Witch Cult in Western Europe, Margaret Murray
-God of the Witches, Margaret Murray ISBN 0195012704

Though much of Margaret Murray's assumptions about history have been largely discredited, the vital importance of these works in the early formation of Wicca and the Neopagan Movement cannot be overstated. Thus, these books cannot be overly recommended.

-High Magick's Aid, Gerald B. Gardner ISBN 1872189962
-Witchcraft Today, Gerald B. Gardner ISBN 0806500026

The first book listed above is a work of fiction, in which Gardner described several Wiccan concepts and techniques, before the world knew that such a faith existed. Later, he penned Witchcraft Today, a non-fiction work intended to reveal the existence of Wicca to the public. The historical accuracy of Mr. Gardner's ideas cannot be trusted- as he was working within the framework set by Margaret Murray. However, these are the first books in existence about Wicca, written by the creator of the faith.

-Aradia: Gospel of the Witches - Expanded Edition, Charles Leland (and Mario Pazzaglini) ISBN: 0919345344

This book (minus the expansion by Pazzaglini) is one of Gardner's sourcebooks for Wiccan imagery, and thus must not be overlooked by the student. It is often mistaken as being *about* Wicca, but it actually predates Wicca. Instead, it speaks of a religion (seemingly very Judeo-Christian in nature, only matriarchal rather than patriarchal) and its use of witchcraft. This latter is portrayed in a light that is touchy for some, as it speaks of a witch poisoning her enemies in the name of the Goddess Diana. This is not historically inaccurate. In the past, witches would protect their families and neighbors just as anyone else would have, with whatever means they had on hand. And, as I said above, witches were herbologists. However, remember that witches then (nor Wiccans or witches today) did not go around poisoning entire towns or their crops out of spite.

-Lonecraft: The Handbook for Lone Scouts, John Hargrave (White Fox)
-The Great War Brings it Home: The Natural Reconstruction of an Unnatural Existence, John Hargrave (White Fox)

This is the system of which the New Forest made use- making it an important ancestor of the Wiccan Faith. Likewise, Lonecraft is also the direct ancestor of the modern Boy Scouts! It's easy to see how Scouting and Wicca can go hand in hand. Unfortunately, a web-search has brought no results in finding ISBN numbers, and I myself own nothing more than photocopies of portions of each book. However, I doubt the texts are completely lost, and that an inter-library loan request would produce both of them in time.

-The Golden Dawn, Israel Regardie ISBN 0-87542-663-8

This is the book that was to be found upon the shelves of such persons as Dorothy Clutterbuck and Gerald Gardner. It is, of course, not about Wicca. However, this was a major sourcebook for the original groups (such as the New Forest) who wished to re-construct a Mystical and Ceremonial Tradition. Many Wiccans today will stress a separation between Wicca and Qabalistic/Hermetic Magick; however, this is simply not the case. As Wiccans, we cast circles, invoke Deities, charge talismans, and perform all sorts of other ceremonial operations. Most of these concepts came from this very book.

-Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, Scott Cunningham ISBN 0-87542-118-0

This is a very simple and straightforward book on how to live and act as a modern, solitary, mainstream Wiccan. I give this book strictly as a starting point, as I feel that all of Mr. Cunningham's books should be studied. And there are quite a few of them, at that.

-Drawing down the Moon, Margot Adler ISBN 0-8070-3253-0

In the article above, I mentioned the many and varied Neopagan traditions in existence. This book is a good study of many of them. This book is written from an observational rather than historical standpoint; Adler "infiltrates" the ranks of the Neopagan traditions and tells us what she sees. It is very informative, if a rather slow read.

-Between the Worlds, Stuart Myers ISBN 1-5618-480-4

Mr. Myers' book is unique in that is discusses a new system called the "Wiccan Qabalah". However, its main feature for our purposes here is that it also reveals several points about the Gardnerian Tradition that which I have never seen in print elsewhere.

Copyright 2002 C. "Aaron Jason" Leitch

Aaron Leitch (a.k.a. "Khephera") has been a practicing magickian and scholar for over a decade. He has focused his writing career largely toward the magickal and spiritual communities of the Internet. He has written a number of essays (both in print and on the web) on subjects such as Middle Eastern Religion and Mythology, Shamanism, Occult History, Renaissance Magick, Traditional Wicca, and several student resources.

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