People use the term Wicca in a wide variety of ways.
On one hand, it makes some things easier (you can share a general idea of the broad foundation of what you do fast.) On the other hand, it makes a lot of things much harder – because people use the term Wicca to cover everything from an initiatory priesthood tradition focusing on specific religious mysteries to “Well, I work only by myself, like celebrating Samhain and Beltane, but I don’t really believe in the Gods and I rarely do magic”.
It’s not that one of these is categorically better than the other – one may be great for a specific person. But rather, when we use the same word to refer to a wide range of things, it can get hard to figure out how to find people who share what we do – or who can help answer our specific questions.
Five clusters of definition
In my experience talking to a wide range of people, there seem to be five broad way people use the word “Wicca”. There is some variation in how terms are used (see cluster 1 for an example) that’s regional/national, too – the ones I’m talking about here are US/Canada dominant ones because Wicca’s grown in the US in slightly different pathways.
1) Initiatory oathbound mystery priesthood tradition with specific roots
This is the most specific, traditional, and focused definition of Wicca. It’s sometimes referred to as British Traditional Wicca in the United States, to separate it from other forms of Traditional Witchcraft. (This usage is more common in the US than the UK, and UK folks are sometimes confused by it.)
In this definition, Wicca is
- initiatory (passed from one person to the next by shared experience in specific rituals and practices.)
- oathbound (specific material is private within the tradition.)
- mystery (focuses on specific religious mysteries: God/Goddess polarity, the Descent of the Goddess and sacrifice of the God, etc.)
- priesthood (every initiate is a priest or priestess dedicated to specific Gods.)
- tradition (shared practice)
- which directly descends from the New Forest area
- through a line of direct initiatory lineage. (i.e. each initiation connects one to a direct chain that reaches back to Gardner or someone else in the New Forest coven.)
There are initiatory traditions that come from other places (other places in England, other places in the British Isles, other places in Europe or in the world) – but by this definition, those are not Wicca.
Likewise, traditions which do not include the above core practices (in specific ways) along with direct lineage aren’t Wicca either, but another kind of religious witchcraft.
2) Initiatory religious witchcraft tradition
In this use, Wicca is a religious witchcraft path which shares a majority of common traits including an initiatory practice into the group with specific standards and practices, but does not share a direct lineage of practice or energy to the New Forest area or the traditions which come from there.
(In other words, the same things as the above definition, except that it does not trace back directly to the New Forest area).
3) Religious witchcraft tradition with shared practices and roots
In this use, Wicca is used for a wide range of religious witchcraft traditions which have a majority of common traits including with people drawing lines at slightly different places about what that means. However, it may not involve an initiatory practice, and people may work entirely solitary. This version has a certain amount of traction in the larger community.
The difficulties lie in where you draw the majority line, and which practices people think are core. (The question of ‘self-initiation’ is widespread in the community at large, but not something I’m going to get into in this essay, or we’ll be here for weeks.)
4) Religious witchcraft tradition with some basic concepts
This is the version that a vast majority of generally accessible books and sites about Wicca talk about. Some people have started referring to this as Neo-Wicca or NeoWicca. Others have started using the term Dedicatory Religious Witchcraft. (To parallel the Initiatory Religious Witchcraft term)
In this use, the term “Wicca” indicates that someone shares some really basic concepts from the above (the ritual cycles, doing ritual in a cast circle, honoring multiple deities).
However, it often leaves some other stuff out. Most commonly, these are the male/female polarity (including the Great Rite), some of the mysteries (especially the more challenging parts like the Descent myth or the sacrifice of the God).
It generally does not include an initiatory practice. If it does, is doing so in the sense of ‘meaningful personal experience’, not ‘connecting individual to group energy’).
5) “Wicca is anything I like”
Some people who’ve said this will say things like “Well, I’m Wiccan, but I don’t celebrate the Sabbats, and I never cast circle, and I don’t really believe in or interact with any deities, and I don’t even do magic, but I do like to meditate, and I like some of the symbols.”
All those things might be fine – but it’s pretty clear that we’re now miles and miles away from what the practice of the folks in definition 1 looks like – and using the same word for both is going to get confusing.
What I do
I personally use “Wicca” for things that fit into definition 1 and 2 and some of 3 when speaking generally (unless it’s already being used in the conversation or conversation space in a different way.)
As I mentioned above, I don’t think what I do precisely fits this meaning, so I use initiatory religious witchcraft to describe my own practice.
Some other practical notes
There are some practices commonly seen in groups using definition 1 and 2 that often aren’t seen elsewhere. These include:
- Drawing down
- Specific group ritual roles with esoteric and exoteric duties.
- Specific practices around training and sharing information.
Drawing Down the Moon, a particular form of religious reverence and understanding in which a Goddess speaks through the body of the priestess. (There’s a similar practice called Drawing Down the Sun for the God.)
This is both an impractical and potentially risky practice for people working on their own, or without a solid background and training from someone with experience. (Think of it like learning to drive: why not do what you can to reduce the risk of a crash?)
Solitary vs. group
As you might have guessed from my commentary already, some people practice with groups, others by themselves.
Traditional Wicca is learned in a coven setting or at least from a teacher with occasional other contacts. You can’t connect yourself to an egregore you don’t have access to, or learn oathbound practices that are only shared through direct teaching otherwise.
Many people using definitions 3, 4, and 5 work solitary: they learn from various sources and combine it in a personal practice (them, or maybe them plus immediate family, like a spouse or children) without a formal group structure.
It’s worth noting that many coven members feel it’s necessary to have a strong personal practice as well as coven work. That’s definitely my feeling too.
There are also a number of groups that are designed to be Wiccan-based, but to create a lay community (people who want to attend Wiccan-based rituals using the mythology, ritual year cycle, etc.) but without making the commitment to the priesthood themselves.
Because of the changes in structure and focus that need to happen to make this work (it’s a whole different barrel of ritual techniques, among other things), they’re this odd sort of middle ground.
Many of them are fairly good at explaining what stuff they include, what stuff they don’t, and so on. Often, the clergy of that kind of group fit into definitions 1-3, but the participations may fit into definitions 4 or 5.
Revised July 19, 2020