People sometimes find the origin of Wicca both fascinating and complicated. This page begins with some historical context, and then goes into looking at some common ideas and practices.
In the beginning – this is in the 1930s, this known beginning – a British civil servant named Gerald Gardner retired to the New Forest area of England after a long career in southeast Asia (mostly Malayasia).
During his retirement, he became involved with a Rosicrucian theatre group (a philosophical and esoteric order). According to his account, he was initiated by some of the members into a witchcraft religion which he then went on to describe as ‘being one of the Wica’.
This was an initiatory tradition in the same family as the Eleusinian Mysteries (you have a specific ritual experience that makes you a member) and worked with specific defined deities. Information about the group, practices, etc. was kept oathbound – in other words, initiates agreed to keep all information confidential, including the names or more than very vague specifics about the deities (usually referred to as the Lord and the Lady.)
According to him, the material he got from the group (many of whom were very elderly) was fragmentary: rather than complete rituals, there were bits and pieces. The bits and pieces worked, but needed connecting material to make them functional or attractive to new blood. He did keep some things in place: Wicca was designed to be a small, esoteric, tightly focused path, not necessarily something to appeal to (or fit into) everyone’s lives.
Various people argue with this: some claim he cobbled things together from other sources, some that he invented lots of it from whole cloth. Books talking about specifics are in the resources list. Me, personally, I’m inclined to believe the “Got fragmentary bits, added lots” version. However, the answer to this question doesn’t actually hugely matter to me (except in a geeky intellectual way) because for me, and for others, the material works.
At the time, it was against the law to be a witch (or claim to be a witch) in England, so there were no published materials. Gardner did publish a novel which used the material from what he’d learned as a framework.
After the Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1951, Gardner started publishing non-fiction books (though he talks more about general traditions rather than his exact practices), started getting newspaper coverage, and a lot more attention. He trained people, they formed groups, and somewhere in here two things happened. (We all notice the handwaving I’m doing so that this is 4 pages and not 40+, right? You can find more information on the history in the suggested reading section.)
The first is that what Gardner was doing started getting called Gardnerian Wicca. And the second is that people started splitting off and doing other related things that were clearly related, but where the exact sources, specifics, and tracings are tricky to untangle because they involve oathbound material, individual group details and personal relationships (both good and feuding).
The other major split that’s widely known is Alexandrian, but there are others you probably won’t run across as often. If you think of it like the Protestant Reformation schisms in fast motion due to far better communication, publication, and other such things, you might get the idea.
Then, in the 60s, Wicca came to America. By the 70s, it had started regularly bumping into the feminist spirituality movement, and there were additional offshoots and growths and recombinations of things that started then (and continue to happen now, and I expect will continue to do so for a long time to come.) Basically, it’s what happens if you take a path intended for small groups of people with a high commitment level and formal structure, and mesh it with American ideals about free access, along with some of the feminist movement rhetoric around issues of power and control. Again with the handwaving over complexities, but you get the idea.
I really like the Wiccan Church of Canada’s outline of common practices (section one is the relevant bit)– enough that I’d encourage you to go look at it rather than duplicate it right here. In brief, though, the core Wiccan practices that descend from the New Forest area include the following (among other things)
Specific shared ritual experiences that are part of full participation in the tradition, as well as being designed to create or encourage specific changes in the individual. (You can read more about ritual, including a general outline, on my What is Ritual page.)
Initiation is a tricky word, because it has multiple meanings. In traditions with a lineage, there is a group energy (often called an egregore) that is a core part of the tradition. Part of initiation is connecting in particular ways with that group energy. You might think of this like getting the keys to a shared family vacation home: it’s not just yours to do with as you like, but you have some access and connections that aren’t open to everyone.
In practices without a lineage, it often means something more like ‘a deeply meaningful personal experience with deity that creates or encourages certain changes’ but that isn’t connected to a persistent energy/line/practice in the same way. Yes, this gets confusing. Welcome to one of the ever-present conversations on many Pagan forums.
Polytheistic, honoring multiple deities. Discussed further in the page on deity.
A focus on specific religious mysteries. Religious mysteries are things that you can understand, but not explain in words. Sex is a common example: you can read all the information about sex you want, but you won’t know how *you* respond until you do it yourself.
In Wicca, these include the cycle of birth, life, death, and birth again, various polarities (most referenced is male/female, but the four Platonic elements also play a part), the descent of the Goddess and the sacrifice of the God, and a number of others. One central ritual piece of Wiccan ritual, the Great Rite, is a direct exercise in polarity.
There are many many many religious mysteries, and no human is ever going to experience all of them. Think of it this way: there are mysteries about love and sex that depend on our orientation and preferences and what we do in relationships. There are mysteries about creative process that depend on our preferred artistic forms: some things are different for a writer than a musician than for a potter. Religion’s just the same way.
Ritual is done in ritual space created for that ritual (rather than permanent temples that are always consecrated). Outdoors is often preferable when possible, but indoors works too. “Casting a circle” is the common phrase for the process of creating the working temple/ritual space. Casting a circle is in itself an act of magic (by that ‘creating change in accordance with will’ definition I gave earlier), but other folk magic practice is common as part of ritual.
Rituals celebrate multiple interlocking cycles primarily solar/agricultural and lunar (full and sometimes new moons) as well as personal life changes and other events.
An ethical basis in self-responsibility and interconnection with the immanent and divine world, as suggested by various common texts (the Wiccan Rede, the Charge of the Goddess, and other common philosophies.)
A priesthood tradition: there is no lay community, and each initiate (full member) is considered able to manage their own personal ritual and religious work most of the time. However, gathering together in small intimate groups (covens, usually under 10-1 3 people) allows for particular magical and ritual techniques that can be extremely meaningful or effective.
Part of the ritual work involves being able to work with (and ideally sense) energy in ritual spaces. We can all do this. (Ever walked into a room just after two people finished arguing? You do it too), but part of Wiccan (and religious witchcraft tradition in general) practice and training is learning to do it more deliberately, and learning to help create energetic patterns that fit your desired goal. (Which all leads into magic, again.)
[last edited October 28, 2011]