Wicca is both an ancient feminine earthly religion and also a newly-minted 20th century faith. Wicca is a neo-pagan religion which was reconstructed from beliefs, deities, symbols, practices and other elements of an ancient religion. Unlike Christianity it is not based on the value of the human word, but on the impact of the elements.
This is demonstrated by the words of a native American Indian Wiccan: "If you take the Christian Bible and put it out in the wind and the rain, soon the paper on which the words are printed will disintegrate and the words will be gone. Our bible IS the wind and the rain."
Wiccans believe in a dual deity structure: a Goddess and a God. Furthermore, the Goddess has three aspects of different ages: the Maiden for sexuality, the Mother for fertility and the Crone for wisdom. The Wiccan golden rule is the Rede, which states “Harm None, do what thou wilt”.
There are many who dispute this type of worship is a religion. Many people are frightened by the idea of Wicca and its more pejorative incarnation “witchcraft.” They judge it on moral grounds as an evil force. Why would a religion that on face value that is so respectful of the world be the object of great fear and dislike? The answer goes back many centuries.
Britain had anti-witchcraft acts on its books dating back to 1401. The Church was suspicious of supernatural and magical events that it did not control. Henry VIII, as part of his appropriation of the powers of the English Catholic Church, instituted the death penalty for witchcraft. Elizabeth I took matters further making it an offence against common law not ecclesiastical law. This gave officials a financial incentive to prosecute them. Witches would forfeit their lands to the Crown if they were convicted. The end result was an open season for witchhunts. The pursuit of witchcraft was exported to America with the Mayfair. The Pilgrim Fathers were also keen to keep their communities free from those found guilty of “invoking or conjuring an evil spirit."
Back in England witchhunting became associated with the Puritans and they were out of favour after the restoration of the throne under Charles II in 1660. The Puritans were out of power, but their laws remained quietly on the books. Witchcraft was still an offence at the end of World War Two. In 1941, Scottish psychic Helen Duncan was arrested after she passed on classified defence knowledge in a séance. Duncan told her audience that the British ship HMS Barham had been sunk by the Germans. That was true but the British had concealed this fact at the time to hoodwink the Germans. The Germans eventually found out and the British announced the loss in 1942. Two years later, the paranoid planners of D-Day used the Witchcraft Act to arrest Duncan out of fear she might reveal the landing plans. She was found guilty and imprisoned for nine months. She was the last person to be tried and convicted under the law. The act was repealed in 1951.
An eccentric British civil servant named Gerald Gardner was the first person to take advantage of the relaxed law. Gardner was also an amateur anthropologist, author and a student of the occult. In 1954 he published a tract called ‘Witchcraft Today’ where he produced the definitive texts for those who practiced ‘Wica’ or ‘the Craft'. Gardner documented the religious aspects of what was to become known as Wicca.
This book was based on the writings of Aleister Crowley, Doreen Valiente and others. Crowley was infamous in his own lifetime despite a stellar Renaissance Man career. He was a author, occultist, mountaineer, chess master, painter and critic. Crowley fused his studies of mysticism and Eastern religion into a system he called "Thelema". Doreen Valiente was a self-proclaimed witch who provided the feminist influence on Gardner’s philosophy. These two influenced the Wiccan Rede in Gardner’s book which said “do no harm to others and do what thou wilt”. The Rede is now the prayer that sums up Wiccan ethics.
Gardner had two other key influences from history. The first was the American folklorist Charles Leland. Leland travelled vastly in Europe and made a detailed study on gypsy lifestyle. He wrote a book in 1899 called “Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches”. Its first five chapters were about a mythical document called the Vangelo (which may or may not been a figment of Leland’s fiction.) The Vangelo, the origins of which Leland never revealed, outlined the practices of witchcraft.
The second influence was the British anthropologist and Egyptologist Margaret Murray. She was a fervent women’s rights campaigner and a veteran of many archaeological expeditions to Egypt. She took a break from this work to write “Witch cult in Western Europe” in 1921. In this she exaggerated the scale of the underground pagan resistance to Christianity that existed across the centuries. But she did alert the world to its existence.
Gardner’s tract is credited with the re-introduction of the word Wicca into English. The word itself is a multi-purpose Old English word which could mean wizard, soothsayer, sorcerer or magician. This old meaning of the word has affected public acceptance and the word Wicca retains a strong pejorative meaning. The pentacle is still not recognised by the US Department of Veterans Affairs as a religious symbol in military cemeteries. However Wiccans won a major victory in Virginia in 1985 with the ruling that it is a legal recognised religion and therefore afforded all the benefits accorded to religion by law.
Conservative Christian groups in the US, led by politicians such as Jesse Helms and Bob Barr are fighting to overrule this decision and see Wicca as analogous to Satanism. Wiccans reject this comparison as they also reject allegations of black magic. To them, Wicca is the opposite of everything its opponents fear. They say that Wicca is a very peaceful, harmonious and balanced way of thinking and life which promotes oneness with the divine and all which exists.
It has interesting parallels and overlaps with the Green movement. “As ye harm none, do what you wilt” could be a credo of either movement. As could the Gaia hypothesis. But it is not all sweetness and light in the garden of Wicca. There are arguments as to whether ‘hereditary witches’ are better than ‘book witches’. The question is how will the political glare and the environmental overlaps mutate the public face of Wicca in the coming years?