Wicca. The Craft. Witchcraft. The Wise Ones. Streghe. Brujeria. The Old Religion. Root workers. Aje. Lohsingpue. Adishgash. Chovihani. Toanee. Mecasphim. Malefici.
We have been called all these names, and more. But what is Wicca, the Craft of the Wise? What do Witches do, and who do they worship? What are the beliefs of a typical Wiccan? Are all Witches Wiccan? Are all Wiccans Witches? Are Witches pagans? In this course, we will cover all those questions, and try to provide answers to questions you may have.
Are All Witches Wiccan?
All Wiccans are Witches, but not all Witches are Wiccan. That is, some who identify as Witches may practice the art of witchcraft–they use herbs, practice divination, worship the Goddess, but they have never read a book on Wicca, have never been a part of a coven, and may not celebrate the traditional Wiccan holy days. All Wiccans, on the other hand, practice the art of witchcraft–they also celebrate the religion of Wicca, in one form or another. A few Witches are hereditary, meaning that they were raised in a family that traditionally practiced Witchcraft, either as an art, or a religion, or both–but they do not consider themselves to be Wiccan. At this point, after almost 75 years of Wiccan tradition, there are some hereditary Witches who are Wiccan, having followed a Gardnerian tradition of offshoot for several generations now–but they are still fairly rare.
What Do Wiccans Believe?
It seems like an easy question: what do Wiccans believe? It can be answered in a very general way, similarly to how the question “What do Christians believe” can be answered, since just as there are many denominations of Christianity. there are many variants of Wiccan belief. Wiccans are a very mixed bag, with diverse beliefs and personalities. We have no Bible to go by, no Ten Commandments, and no Central Church to dispense Wiccan theology. This online course will discuss the beliefs, rituals, history, tools and some of the practices of a “typical” Wiccan, including divination and herbalism, but it comes from this author’s perspective, and comes along with my own biases and perceptions, and may not be representative of other Wiccans–but I will try to keep it general, to provide a good guideline for those interested in learning more about the Wiccan way of life.
My Spiritual Path, and My Wiccan Beliefs
The following comes from an essay I wrote that defines my core beliefs. I liked it so much that I included it within my own Book of Shadows, as Wiccans call their personal holy book, and I include it here to set the stage for the rest of the course. I am less theological, and more philosophical, less ritual-focused, and more Pantheistic than most Wiccans. That said, I am very happy expressing my spirituality through Wicca, and I hope that the following allows you to understand where I am coming from.
My religious preference is Wicca, a Neo-pagan agricultural fertility religion with its roots in Celtic Europe. With that mouthful of jargon stated, Wicca is more easily understood as a belief in the divinity of all life. This belief also has a reverence for the Earth, a connection to the cycles of the Earth, Sun and Moon, and an interconnection with all the plants and animals of Earth, with an expression of divinity in male and female, known to us as God and Goddess.
When I speak of the divinity of all life, I am referring to the divine energy that is the sum of all of us, along with all the plants and animals, all the stars and planets in the sky, the totality of the entire universe. The divine includes the birth of distant stars, and the procreation taking place with the tiniest bacteria. It is life and death, sickness and health, darkness and light, right this second, and in all the seconds before, and all those that come after this moment.
The divine is infinite, and infinity is a hard concept to grasp. If I asked you to consider every grain of sand on every desert and on every beach in the world, even that totality would not be infinite. Although the number of stars in the sky at any given moment is vast–far more vast than anything the human mind can conceive, they too are not really infinite. As such, a personal relationship with the divine is only possible when we think of the divine in a form that we can engage. For me, as a Wiccan, that form is that of a God and Goddess, an anthropomorphized (i.e. humanized) face of the divine that I can relate to.
Whereas others tend to believe that it is their divine right to exploit nature, to enslave and use it as they will, it is my belief that I have both a feeling of belonging to and a connection with the Earth, that I am bound to and dependent on the living systems of the earth, that nature itself is sacred, and that living in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way is an obligation and responsibility, that nature is due reverent care and love, that all species are valuable, apart from their usefulness to mankind, and that nature provides us with models of natural law that we must follow, laws that every single other species on earth follows, and that man is not exempt from these laws. As a Wiccan, I understand that I too belong to nature, I am not separate from it, that I am mutually dependent on Her, and that defending and protecting nature and all Her plant and animals is critically important to human well-being and longevity.
As a Wiccan, I realize that I am a part of the Circle of Life, the same cycle that enclosed us all. Since the beginning, all living things, man and beast, lichens, fungi, even inanimate things such as stones and mountains, live within the sacred circle of life. Eventually death and time transformed us all, and continues to reshape and redefine our purpose within the circle. As humans, when we die, all of the atoms that made us up will go into the air, and the wind, and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They will never vanish. They are just a part of everything. We will drift apart, but we will be out in the open, part of everything, alive again. We will be alive again in a thousand blades of grass and in a million leaves, we’ll be falling in the raindrops, and blowing in the fresh breeze, we will be glittering in the dew under the starts and the moon. We will never cease to be. Because of this, just by breathing, we are linked to all the other beings that live, and have ever lived, on the plant. We are still, for example, breathing in millions of atomic nuclei from the fire that burned Joan of Arc in 1431, and some of the molecules from Aristotle’s last breath. Our bodies contain about a billion atoms that once belonged to the tree that Buddha sat under when he attained enlightenment. Every atom that is part of me is the same as the atoms that make up the universe. I am part of the deer deep in the woods. I am part of the woods itself, and I am part of the stars in the farthest galaxy in the solar system. We are all made of star dust, and we are all interconnected.
Our recognition of the cycle of life and death allowed us to recognize our connection to the cycles of nature. That is, we say that plants grew and matured during the light half of the year, and that they died during the cold, dark half of the year, i.e. Summer and Winter respectively. We also noted that after the darkest day of the year, but before the first day of Summer, the first sprouts began to appear. We called that the first Cross Quarter, because it crossed the quarters set by the division of the year into Summer and Winter. From those observations, we divided the year into a solar year. It includes the longest night of the year, the longest day of the year; Winter–the dark half of the year, Summer–the light half of the year, and the first, second, third and fourth cross-quarter days, giving us the eight spokes of the solar Wheel of the Year.
Thus, we celebrate the Winter Solstice–called Yule, the Cross Quarter day of Imbolc, the Spring Equinox–called Eostre, the Cross Quarter day of Beltaine, the Summer Solstice–called Litha, the Cross Quarter day of Lammas, the Fall Equinox–called Mabon, and the Cross Quarter day of Samhain—commonly called Halloween.
Wiccans also recognized that much like the tides of the ocean, which rise and fall with the cycles of the moon, the womb of humanity also follows the cycles of the moon. The Goddess is thought of in Her roles of Maiden, the young woman, Mother, the nurturing adult woman, and Crone, the all-wise older woman, just as we see the moon in its phases of New to Waxing, Waxing to Full, and Full to New–the cycle of life.
Just as primitive man realized that it was the female of all species that gave birth to new life, Wicca recognizes the Great Mother, Gaia, the Earth, and more specifically the Ocean, as the Womb of Life, the place where all life began. This, my belief is that divinity is both male and female, that the recognition of Goddess is as important as that of God, that just as we all have both estrogen and testosterone in our bodies, we all have aspects of both God and Goddess within us. As a zygote within the womb, we all begin life as a female, and then the traits of masculinity or femininity take over and we become one or the other. In life, neither is more important, but the female is always the giver of Life, and in Wicca, the Goddess is celebrated and venerated in all Her guises. God and Goddess, Lord and Lady, Hunter and Huntress, they are seen as aspects of myself, as well as qualities that I would emulate. As one of the old evocative poems of our heritage proclaims, “if that which you seek, you find not within yourself, you will never find it without.”
To be clear, as a religion, Wicca is a modern practice based loosely on the traditions of Celtic pagans, combined with the ceremonial magickal traditions of the early 20th century, combined with ecologically sustainable consciousness. It is based on the tradition began by an Englishman named Gerald Gardner, who in the 19490s wrote two books, The Meaning of Witchcraft and Witchcraft Today, and Margaret Murrey, who wrote the book A Modern Witch Cult in Europe. Along with help from Gardner’s friend, the English occultist Aleister Crowley, who was a member of the magical society known as the Golden Dawn, he created a new, and to him, improved, version of the Celtic traditions of Europe. Through Gardner and his followers, Wicca as a religion has diversified, evolved, and changed into an eclectic combination of beliefs, and amalgamation of bits and pieces of a wide variety of ideas and practices drown from diverse cultural systems and religious traditions. The rituals and celebrations I practice affirm an interconnectedness between the human and non-human worlds, and my love and respect for Mother Earth, Gaia, the energetic, interdependent organism that I strive to understand and venerate.
As a Wiccan, I have only one “commandment” and that is “An it harm none, do as ye will,” which came from Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, love under will,” I believe in a form of what Wiccans call the Threefold Law, that is, what you put out comes back to you three times, very similar to the Eastern belief in Karma.
The manifestations of the divine are many–male and female, plants and animals, light and dark, birth and death, inside me and outside me. I recognize the right of every creature–human or otherwise–to be itself and live as it is supposed to live. I strive to love every person, as I know that divinity lives in each of us. I see my role as one representative of one species out of billions of species that are all interconnected, all a part of the unified, living organism that I call Mother Earth of Gaia. I try not to practice Wicca as much as live it, every day and always, to make myself a better person, doing my small part to make the world a better place for ourselves, our offspring, and all the creatures that will ever be a part of life.
Next: The History of Wicca