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What is Wicca?

A woman holding a book about Wicca

May 16, 2022
Estimated Read Time: 11 minutes

Wicca is a contemporary, nature-based, pagan religion. It refers to the entire system of practices and beliefs that comprise the modern pagan witchcraft spectrum. Although people often think that the terms Witchcraft and Wicca mean the same thing, that is not the case. All Wiccans are witches, but not all witches are Wiccans.

Wicca was initially used to discern the initiatory form of witchcraft practiced as a religion. Still, American popular movies and TV shows used the term to cover what was previously known as white witchcraft or natural magick. When we call ourselves Wiccans, we often mean that we practice a sort of religious witchcraft.

Wiccans are frequently depicted in the media as adolescent girls. However, both men and women practice this religion, no matter their age.

What Is Wicca Really About?

A Samhain altar featuring a sage, lavender, crystals, and pentagram candle holder with purple candles

We generally think of Wicca as a modern interpretation of pre-Christian traditions, but some practitioners claim a direct link to ancient rites. We practice it individually or in groups (sometimes referred to as covens). Wicca has certain environmental elements of Druidism and is regarded as the spiritual inspiration for the goddess movement.

However, not all of us who follow Wicca do it the same way. Many of us are duotheistic, meaning we worship a female Goddess and a male God (otherwise known as a Mother Goddess and a Horned God). But generally speaking, Wicca’s beliefs are very flexible, and we can choose deities that we identify with to worship. We can opt for any pantheon: Greek, Roman, Celtic, Norse, etc.

Wiccan traditions can be polytheist, pantheist, atheist, or revere gods and goddesses as symbols instead of actual beings. Our rituals usually include holidays focused on lunar phases, solar equinoxes and solstices, elements such as air, earth, water, and fire, and initiation rites.

The Name

Witchcraft Today by Gerald Gardner

Gerald Gardner first mentioned the term Wicca in his 1954 book “Witchcraft Today.” He writes about “wica,” but the extra c was added in the 1960s. We pronounce it as wi-kuh. Gardner claims that the name came from Scots-English and signified “intelligent people.”

Gods

the triple moon goddess - the maiden, the mother, and the crone
The Triple Goddess
depiction of the Horned God
The Horned God

Wicca honors the Divine as the Horned God and the Triple Goddess (she takes on forms of Maiden, Mother, and Crone). Herne and Cernunnos are two of the most common names for God; both translate as “Horned One”. The stress put on God and Goddess varies by group, tradition, and location. Yet, we mostly think that the picture of the Divine has to be male and female to be whole.

Structure

A coven of different types of witches

In Wicca, we don’t have a central authority. Some witches practice on their own. On the other hand, some of us are members of different covens (groups of people who gather to perform magick and revere the Gods). Some covens stick to the initiatory traditions, which means that our more experienced members pass on their knowledge to newcomers. Other covens are founded by friends that wish to get together and learn.

The traditional coven size is thirteen people, but our covens can have anywhere between 10 and 15 people. Some are mixed-gender covens, while others are single-gender.

Holidays and Rites

The Wiccan Wheel of the Year

Our primary festivals are called Sabbats, and we celebrate them eight times a year to mark the changing of seasons. All of the holidays together are referred to as the Wheel of the Year. They include Yule or Winter Solstice (the shortest day, December 20/21), Midsummer or Summer Solstice (the longest day, June 21/22), and the Autumn and Spring Equinoxes (the hours of light and darkness are equal, September 20/21 and March 20/21). The other four major holidays are Imbolc (February 1/2), May Eve or Beltane (April 30/May 1), Lughnasadh, Loaf Mass or Lammas (August 1/2), and All Hallow’s Eve or Samhain (October 31/November 1).

We start observing Sabbats at sunset and finish at sunset the following day. In most cases, rites take place at night. If outside, we light lanterns and bonfires to shed some light and use candles for the same purpose indoors. Some of our practitioners have separate rooms inside their houses that serve as temples. Others make use of the everyday living space.

The Wiccan Wheel of the Year illustrated by Johanna Polle
Artist: Johanna Polle

We perform rites in a circle, which we consider a sacred place. For each ceremony, we create a new circle. Before drawing it, we clean the space with a besom or a broomstick and bless it with the elements (water, fire, earth, and air). Next, we seal the circle symbolically by drawing it in the air using an athame (a knife with a black handle) or a wooden wand.

After that, it is time to honor the four directions (north, west, south, and east) and invoke the God and Goddess within the sacred place. We often conclude the rituals by blessing the chalice of wine and cakes, which we then consume.

The Use of Magick and Ethics Rules

Yule altar with candles, a bell, a knife, red flowers, evergreen branches, and a black pentagram

Wicca, just like many other pagan religions, practices magick. That is because we believe that our minds can affect reality in ways that science has yet to discover. We conduct spells to help people deal with some common life difficulties. However, we practice magick under an ethical code, which states that we can only use magick to help someone if it doesn’t hurt others.

We think that the energy we create impacts what happens to us. For instance, negative magick bounces back on the perpetrator but is three times more intense. We sometimes refer to that as the “Threefold Law” or “The Rule of the Three”. Other key ethical principles claim we should always seek to harmonize with ourselves, other people, and the planet. For this reason, Wiccans are often concerned about the environment.

About Death

The Summerland, the Wiccan afterlife

Wiccans believe in reincarnation. The spirit is reincarnated after death and meets again the people it had intimate personal relationships with in earlier lifetimes. The goal is not to escape life on Earth — it is to enjoy life over and over until we learn everything there is to know. After that, our spirits enter a realm called the “Summerland” or “The Land of Youth”.


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The Origins of Wicca

We can trace Wicca’s roots back to pre-Christian religious traditions, ritual magick, and folklore. However, most Wiccans today get their inspiration from the “Gardnerian Book of Shadows,” a collection of rituals and spells created by one of the most prominent figures in Wicca, Gerald Brousseau Gardner (1884–1964). He was a retired British government official who spent many years in Asia for work. Gardner spent time there learning various magickal practices and occult beliefs.

Moreover, he read a lot of Western esoteric literature, especially the works of British occultist Aleister Crowley. Gardner returned to England before the beginning of World War II and got involved with the occult community in Highcliffe in 1939. He also formed a new movement centered on the regard for nature, practicing magick, and worshiping the Goddess and countless other deities (for instance, the Horned God). Gardner also drew heavily on Western witchcraft traditions.

Gerald Gardner
Gerald Gardner
Aleister Crowley
Aleister Crowley

Following the removal of England’s outdated Witchcraft Laws in 1951, Gardner published “Witchcraft Today” (1954). He also formed his first coven of followers and, thanks to their input, developed Wicca as we know it today. In the late 1960s, the idea quickly spread through the US. It gained many followers because an unorthodox lifestyle, emphasis on nature, and spirituality outside the traditional religions were particularly popular at the time.

Gardner created a system where the priestess has priority. So, Gardnerian leaders trace their authority to his coven through a lineage of priestesses.

Later Developments

Diana, Goddess of the Hunt
Diana, Goddess of the Hunt

By the 1980s, there were about 50,000 Wiccans in North America and Western Europe. Despite a slowing growth rate towards the end of the decade, society seemed to embrace Wicca and its practitioners. The movement expanded to include several variants of Gardner’s original teachings and rituals. Some of them include the Dianic Wiccans and the Neo-Pagan movement.

Alexander Sanders (1926–1988) founded the Dianic Wiccans, and their most prominent belief is that Wicca is a woman’s religion. The Neo-Pagan movement is a parallel group that worshiped the Goddess and performed witchcraft but avoided the label witch. In the 1960s and 1970s, a section of Wiccans disagreed with Gardner’s belief that garments hampered magickal workings and refused to adopt his practice of worshiping naked. Instead, they wore ritual robes and claimed they based their beliefs on pre-Gardnerian sources, calling themselves Traditionalists.

Margaret Murray
Margaret Murray

As the second generation of Wiccans and Neo-Paganists took over, they dismissed the idea that Gardner inherited the original set of witchcraft rites and practices from pre-Christian paganism. Earlier Wiccans used to cite Margaret Murray’s works such as “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe” (1921) and her article “Witchcraft,” published in the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1929), to strengthen their claim of the ancient origins. However, now we mostly recognize that Wicca started with Gardner.

In the 21st century, we can find Wiccans and Neo-Paganists across Northern and Western Europe and in English-speaking areas. There are no exact estimates on how many followers there are, but the number ranges from 100,000 to more than 1.5 million.

What Is the Difference Between Wicca and Witchcraft?

A witch reading a book

The first difference is that Wicca is a religion, and witchcraft is a practice. The two systems also have different purposes. Since Wicca is a religion, its purpose is to honor the God/Goddess and value personal spirituality. Contrastingly, witchcraft doesn’t have any deities — its focus lies only on magick and using spells to get desired results.

Furthermore, witchcraft guards its secrets carefully, so you won’t find all information about it in books. On the other hand, we barely have any secrets, with all the information written in the “Gardnerian Book of Shadows”. Also, every witch can have their own Book of Shadows, which they can show to others.

Just like Wiccans, those who practice witchcraft can join any religion. So, there can be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, etc. Wiccans and witches.

What Is the Difference Between Wicca and Paganism?

An illustration by Daren Bader of a group of pagans performing a ritual
Illustrated by Daren Bader

A pagan is a part of a cultural, spiritual, or religious community focused on nature and worship. So, paganism is a broad term that refers to or inspires many different styles of spirituality. Today, neopaganism centers around pre-Christian rites and customs and a great love for nature.

Wicca, by definition, falls within the umbrella of neopaganism. Both neopaganism and Wicca are centered on spirituality, fertility, and nature.

What Is the Difference Between Wicca and Druidry?   

Druids performing a ritual at stonehenge

While we commonly honor the Goddess and God, Druids are more polytheistic and animistic. In Wicca, we frequently acknowledge deity as most significant, along with anthropomorphized spirits or beings. Druidry, on the other hand, prioritizes the environment, spirits of place, and ancestors.

Where Wicca is generally an initiatory tradition with formal learning, Druidry is more experimental and personal. Druidry teachings are also available to everyone.

Wicca vs. Buddhism       

Buddhist monks holding a candle wrapped with flowers

The two religions believe that pain comes from ignorance of the fundamental nature of things (although we disagree on what that true nature is). Both Wicca and Buddhism teach about the cycle of death and rebirth and practice meditation. Kindness is also one of the central principles in Buddhism and is very important to us. However, where we work with deities, Buddhism ignores their existence.

Wicca vs. Celtic Paganism

An illustration by Angus McBride of Celtic Pagans going into battle
Illustrated by Angus McBride

While there are aspects of Celtic religious beliefs, mythology, and folk magick in Wicca, our essential doctrines and beliefs are vastly different from those of Celtic Pagans. For instance, the Celts believe that gods are their ancestors, which is not customary within our religion. Moreover, Celtic and Wiccan ethics are incompatible. Where we have a “harm none” rule, Celts believe in heroism, tribal honor, and duty to the tribe.

Wicca vs. New Age  

New Age Movement

As a part of modern paganism, Wicca takes its beliefs from past cultures and traditions. On the contrary, New Age movements believe in the coming of improved human consciousness. Furthermore, our theology is immanent and connects the natural world to the divine. New Age favors transcendence of the physical existence.

Wicca vs. Heathenry        

Heathen in the forest

Heathenry encompasses a variety of practices and beliefs, like Germanic Pagan Reconstructionism, Odinism, and Asatru. Unlike Wicca and certain kinds of paganism, Heathenry places little emphasis on magick and witchcraft. Gods and ancestors are central to this religion.

What Is Draconic Wicca?

Dragon of the Forest

Draconic Wicca is a branch of Wicca, practiced mostly in Asia. What makes this movement stand out is that instead of Goddess and God, the practitioners use the powers of dragons. There are different types of dragons with unique personalities. Usually, they have the combined powers of the Wiccan Goddess and God.

What is Pan Wicca?

The Greek god Pan

Pan is the God of nature, the wild, shepherds, flocks, mountain wilds, sexuality, and fertility. Margaret Murray wrote about Pan in her 1933 book “The God of the Witches”. There, she suggests that Pan was a version of the old Horned God worshiped by the Witch Cult throughout Europe. Her work had an impact on the Neo-pagan concept of the Horned God as an archetype of masculine vigor and sexuality, which is highly significant in Wicca.

What Is Shamanic Wicca?

A practitioner of Shamanic Wicca

Shamanic Wicca is a combination of core shamanic techniques and Wicca as we know it. Core shamanic practices include drumming, chanting, dancing, and spirit guides that are used to gain entrance into non-ordinary reality.

What Is Faery Wicca?

A woman praciticing Faery Wicca

Faery Wicca is a contemporary Wiccan tradition developed by Kisma Stepanich. It loosely relies on Irish mythology, at least as Stepanich interprets it. Faery Wicca also has elements of Celtic history, folklore, pseudohistory, imagination, and other non-Celtic sources.

What Is Correllian Wicca?

A group of Correllian Wiccans

Correllian Wicca argues there’s a single source from which all paths emerge and depart. This belief extends to the ability to select our own path as a witch. According to this movement, “the Gods” are the human means of knowing and dealing with Deity, which is transcendent in nature and beyond our ultimate ability to comprehend completely.

What Religion Is Most Related to Wicca?        

Hindu Ganesha Figurine in Indonesia

There are several religions that have some similarities to Wicca. For instance, Hindu and Wicca are both traditional, polytheistic folk religions that stress peace and not causing harm to others. On the other hand, just like Wicca, Buddhism is not based on rules and divine judgment but on understanding our connection to this world and responsibility towards it. Wicca is also compatible with several Afro-Caribbean religions.

Interested in Learning More About Wicca?

If you find the topic fascinating and would like to dip your toes into Wicca, you can join Wicca Academy. With our help, you can become the Witch you were always meant to be!

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