The History of Wicca is part of an Introductory Course in Wicca for incarcerated Wiccans, their families and friends, and prison Chaplains. It has been written to provide a greater understanding of Wicca as a spiritual practice and religion for those who seek to understand it, either as an incarcerated Wiccan or as someone who cares about incarcerated Wiccans.
Wicca is often presented as an ancient religion, one with a history that goes back to the beginning of civilization. This claim is typical of many religions, as often the ancient is though of as having more merit than the recent.
Wicca is actually a Neo-pagan religion with certain aspects that have a heritage in Celtic traditions and other aspects that are similar to those Neolithic shamans and hunter gatherers. But where did Wicca itself come from, and when did it begin to be practiced?
In the 1940s, anthropologist Margaret Murray published a book called A Modern Witch Cult in Europe, which was about a practice of witchcraft that had survived the Inquisition and continued to be practiced in Europe (in actuality, the majority of the book came from the testimony given under duress during the witch trials, and thus is suspect to begin with).
In 1947, Gerald Gardner, an English occultist, published a “novel” called High Magic’s Aid, which described the workings of a modern Witch’s coven. At the time, witchcraft was still illegal. Around 1952, the laws regarding witchcraft were repealed in England, and in response, Gardner published two non-fiction books, Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft.
The two books on Witchcraft pieced together Gardner’s version of the Craft from various sources, including Margaret Murray’s book, another book written in 1899 by Charles Leland, called Aradia: Gospel of the Witches, along with elements of ceremonial magic written by fellow English occultist Aleister Crowley.
Aspects taken from Murray’s book include:
- the terms “Old Religion,” “Sabbat” and “Esbat”
- the organization of covens into groups of 13
- the concept that Witchcraft was a religion primarily concerned with fertility
Aspects taken from Leland’s books (Arcadia) which was allegedly a description of traditional Tuscan (Italian) witchcraft as described to Leland by a witch named Maddalena, in which she said was her “gospel” and was called “Vangelo,” including the use of the name “Aradia” as a goddess (which itself was taken from the works on an earlier author named Michelet, whose book La Sorcery, the English translation of which is called Satanism and Witchcraft, supposedly refers to a goddess named Herodius, which translates into Italian as “Aradia.” Leland claims his “gospel” comes from the 14th century, but it is distinctly a 19th century work.
Other aspects taken from Leland include:
- the idea that witchcraft had survived in secret
- the original Charge of the Goddess, which was later mixed with bits from Crowley’s Liber Legis
- the concept of ritual nudity (which likely came from wood-cuttings, art depicting witches in the medieval period)
Additionally, Gardner used bits of ceremonial magic from grimoires (old spell books) including The Greater Key of Solomon, such as:
- the symbolic scourging
- the use of pentagrams and triangles as symbols
- the calls to the guardians of the four cardinal directions of the circle while casting the circle
- the methods for making and consecrating the ritual tools
- details concerning the preparation for ritual
- details concerning the drawing of a magical circle
- the use and names of a sword and two knives, one with a black handle and one with a white handle
He also borrowed from the freemasons, specifically part of the initiation in which the initiate is blindfolded and bound and challenged with a knife. One of his famous Wiccan chants came straight from a 13th century story:
The third line mentions Aradia from Leland’s book, and the fourth line mentions Kernunos, a Celtic god of nature, but all but the first four lines come directly from the books Lamiracle de Theeophile by a 13th century trouvere named Ruteboeuf. It was an incantation that a sorcerer named Salatinin used to supposedly conjure the devil. Gardner’s 3rd degree Great Rite ritual is derived from the Gnostic Mass published by Aleister Crowley’s Argentirum Astrum in the book Liber XV: Ecclesiae Gnosticae Canon Missae, which was part of Crowley’s famous Blue Equinox.
Other aspects of Wicca that Gardner borrowed from Crowley include:
- the Wiccan Rede: Crowley’s “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” became “an it harm none, do as ye will”
- the ritual of the pentagram
- a passage on “the bloody sacrifice”
The spirits and deities named in Gardner’s “book of shadows” are a mixture that includes:
- the names of demons from medieval grimoires translated by S. MacGregor Mathers
- Egyptian deities, likely from the influence of the occult group the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
- Aradia, a fictionalized goddess from Leland’s book
- Roman gods and goddesses, such as Diana
- deities from Celtic mythology, such as Herne and Cernunnos
Some aspects of Gardnerian Wicca that can be traced back to the old pagan religions and customs include:
- the celebration of the four Celtic cross-quarter days as festivals (Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughhasad)
- the celebration of the equinoxes and solstices as “lesser Sabbats” following ancient Saxon customs
- handfasting, the Wiccan wedding ceremony
- certain rites, such as leaping over fires
- the practice of dividing the Wiccan ritual circle into quarters aligned to the cardinal directions
- the concept of a triple aspect of deity, such as the triple aspects of the Celtic goddess Morrigan, the three faces of Hecate, and the triple Norns (the Norse equivalent of the three Greek “fates”)
- the concept of Summerland, the place the deceased come to rest prior to reincarnation
Essentially, the new religion of Wicca was cobbled together with some medieval ceremonial practices, some fictional deity names and invocations, and some ancient Celtic traditions and practices. As a religion, it is nearly 100 years old, and has greatly evolved since its creation to take many different forms called “traditions” as that is what they have become: Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Fae, Fairy, Dianic, Eclectic, Luciferian, Church of All Worlds, and many more. Many are descendants of the Wicca that Gardner founded, established by those who learned from him: Raymond Buckland, Doreen Valiente, Sybil Leek, Alex Sanders, and Patrician Crowther. Although each tradition has many differences from the original Gardnerian tradition and with each other, typically they also share many similarities, including:
- recognition of the divine feminine, the Goddess
- celebration of the equinoxes and solstices
- ritual initiation
- the ritual of the Great Rite
- the use of the ritual knife called the Athame
- the raising of power or energy through ritual
- celebration of our unique individual self
- a connection and veneration of nature
- the use of stones, herbs and plants for magical, ritual and healing purposes
- the use of ritual invocations of deity
The religion of Wicca is still evolving, and will likely continue to evolve in response to social and political climates, social consciousness and scientific knowledge. New rituals will be created, new methodologies considered, and new traditions will be founded, each equally valid as any that have come before it. That, too, is part of the tradition known as Wicca.