The History of Wicca
Wiccan history is intensely complex. By learning it first you will understand the various versions of Wicca, which will help you immensely as you go through the rest of the course. Two things to keep in mind when reading the course. The term Wicca is defined herein as a form of Neo-Pagan Witchcraft based on the creative efforts of Gerald Gardner in the 1940s. The term Witchcraft, is a much broader term referring to practices ranging from ancient to modern.
The Roman Occupation:
Europe had religions before the invasion of the Roman Empire. The specifics are beyond the scope of this course. A History of Pagan Europe by Prudence Jones & Nigel Pennick covers a broad range of the old European religions, not just Celtic.Published Routledge; (March 1997)
The Roman Empire gradually invaded and occupied Europe around 100 CE. At this time, the official religion of the Empire was still based on the Roman Pantheon. (Greco-Roman Gods) European religions didn’t exactly get displaced; many of the old religions were merged with Greco-Roman practices, but some survived at least semi-intact. Around 250 CE Christians were starting to get into positions of power in the Roman Empire. Although there were attempts to stop it, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire around 390 CE.
With the Roman Empire in power in Europe, Christianity spread through the nobility and upper class. In the peasant class and in the rural areas the old religions survived, although perhaps in a form mutated by the Greco-Roman Pantheon. The peasant and rural practice of the old religions continued like this for hundreds of years. This appears to have been accepted by the Christians because it wasn’t proving to be a problem. However, by the 10th century it had become enough of a problem to get recognition. In 906 the official church policy (as stated in Canon Episcopi) was that these people were confused and “perverted by Satan” and that no one should follow them.
This was the birth of the fictitious concept of “diabolical witchcraft”, namely witches worshipping Satan. Keep in mind a commonly accepted theory is that it was not Satan who was being worshiped, but rather the gods of the old religions. To the Christian Church the old Pagan gods and Satan were one and the same.
The Dark Ages:
By the 15th century things had changed for the worse. Pope Innocent VIII issued a formal declaration that anyone accused of consorting with demons (practicing anything other than Christianity) was to be arrested and tried (tortured convicted and executed). That began what many call “the Burning Times”. The torture at the hands of the Christians was unspeakable. It is not clear how many of those executed for “consorting” were actually practicing anything close to the old religions. It is very likely that some if not most of those found to be “consorting” were either unpopular people or those accused so they could be eliminated and their wealth and property seized. The spread of the Burning Times into the United States is clearly evident in the Salem trials of 1692. It is very unlikely that any of those accused, convicted and executed for the crime of diabolical witchcraft were practicing anything of the sort. Even if the servant woman Tituba did continue practice of her native Haitian religion, considering her in league with the Christian devil is merely a symptom of the Christian paranoia at the time.
The 19th Century brings us to the early stirrings of Wicca. In the 19th and early 20th century historians and scholars, and I use the terms loosely, started researching and speculating about the practices of Witchcraft and the Witch trials of the earlier centuries. Some authors expressed that a form of ancient Goddess worship had been flourishing and was being systematically stamped out by Christianity which feared being overthrown. In almost all cases the academic quality of the research was… and I’m being nice here… substandard.
Gerald Gardner, Grandfather of Wicca:
Gerald Gardner was an Englishman, a civil servant and amateur archaeologist. Gardner had an interest in religion, the occult and magick. Gardner studied anything he could get his hands on regarding witchcraft and magick including much of the “research” mentioned above. Sometime after his retirement in 1936 (according to his account) Gardner was initiated into the New Forest coven of “Old Dorothy”. It is assumed that Gardner remained active in Old Dorothy’s coven for several years.
The exact nature of the New Forest coven is uncertain. Some believe it to have been an Ancestral Witchcraft coven seeded by George Pickingill. Some believe it to have been a group of Rosicrucian’s experimenting with and/or reconstructing the religion of Witchcraft as described by Margaret A. Murray. Some claim the New Forest coven never even existed.
In 1947, Gerald Gardner was introduced to Aleister Crowley and the two had several meetings that spring. Gardner had an interest in Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) which is, to my understanding, a fraternal organization with emphasis on ceremonial magick.
In this year, Gardner received a charter from Crowley to start an O.T.O. lodge with the intent of reviving interest in the organization. It appears that Gardner had little luck in gaining an O.T.O. following or perhaps had a change of heart regarding promoting O.T.O. Shortly after his return from a trip to the United States to meet with O.T.O. organizers, Gardner’s emphasis shifted back to his earlier interest of Witchcraft.
In 1948, Gardner released High Magic’s Aid as a fictitious novel based on the ritual as performed by New Forest Coven. Somewhere in this period, most likely 1947-48, Gardner created a manuscript known as Ye Bok of Ye Art Magical based on the operational grimoire from New Forest Coven. In today’s’ terms Ye Bok was the very first Book of Shadows, and its creation marks the beginning of Orthodox Traditional Wicca. In 1948, Gardner left New Forest Coven and started his own. That new coven was the first Wiccan coven.
Keep in mind at the time of the creation of the first ‘Wiccan’ coven, the religion was NOT called Wicca. It was called either ‘Witchcraft’ or ‘The Old Religion’. In 1951 after the repeal of the last of the witchcraft laws in England, Gardner went public as a witch and started giving interviews as the ‘resident witch’ at a Museum of Witchcraft.
In 1953 Gardner bought the Museum and shortly after met Doreen Valiente. Doreen was initiated into his coven and became High Priestess. Doreen opposed how much of Gardner’s Book of Shadows was “borrowed” from Aleister Crowley. Doreen (and Gerald?) rewrote sections of it developing the 1953 Book of Shadows to be used for years to come. Wiccan ritual (circa 1953) actually bore little resemblance to Ancestral Witchcraft because so much of the practice was ‘borrowed’ from other sources. Few Wiccans even today realize just how much of Wicca is not from Witchcraft.
Here is an incomplete list of aspects of Wicca which are known or believed to have been derived from sources other than Witchcraft:
a.. the degree system to reach Priest/Priestess status
b.. the term ‘The Craft’
c.. the term ‘Book of Shadows’
d.. the pentagram symbol
e.. the tool ‘athame’
f.. ritual in a cast circle
g.. altar at the centre of the circle
h.. use of incense in a circle
i.. entering a circle from the northeast
j.. calling the quarters
k.. the elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water at the quarters
l.. most of the unnamed Goddess/God theology
m.. several of the rituals
As you can see, this list represents a significant portion of Wiccan practice. In 1954, Gardner published a book named Witchcraft Today which became quite popular and resulted in Gardnerian Covens being seeded all over England. Gardnerian Witchcraft continued to develop this way through the 1960s.
Alex ‘King of the Witches’ Sanders:
Alexandrian Tradition was the first to break away from Gardnerian. Alex Sanders formed the tradition in the early 1960s. Sanders claim to the title ‘King of the Witches’ in 1965 was based on him having 100 covens and over 1600 Witches in his following. Alex gained much publicity through flamboyant media exposure in the late 1960s, and through this, brought thousands into Alexandrian Tradition.
In the late 1960s early 1970s Wicca started appearing in the United States. Wicca caught on quite quickly because the rebellious earth centric basis of Wicca fit right in with the 60s. In 1971, the unspeakable happened. Jessie Wicker Bell a.k.a. Lady Sheba sold out to a book publisher who then published her full Book of Shadows. Jessie then declared herself “America’s Witch Queen” but was never accepted as such. Many of the great secrets of Wicca were no longer secret. The laws and rituals, even those never to be divulged except to upper degree initiates, could now be purchased in book form for the amount of $2.95.
Also in early 1970s, Wicca came to the attention of the academic community and the history of Wicca came under scrutiny. The result caused quite a shock. It was revealed that major aspects of Wicca were either recently written or borrowed from Freemasonry, Ceremonial Magick and the books of Margaret Murray, Charles Leland, Israel Regardie and Aleister Crowley among others. At that time people practicing Wicca were being told that Wicca was authentic Ancestral Witchcraft and thousands of years old. You can imagine their shock when they found that this was not the case. At first there was a lot of academic bashing denying what was being said, then many felt betrayed and lied to by the Wiccan community.
Reformed Traditional Wicca is born:
It was in the mid-1970s that Reformed Traditional Wicca as we now know it today was being born. The father was none other than Raymond Buckland. The book, The Tree: Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft (Weiser, 1974) Raymond Buckland, introduced revolutionary concepts into Wicca. In fact the book was so revolutionary that many consider it to be the birth of modern Wicca. This book was the introduction of the modern tradition, Seax-Wica. The creation of Seax-Wica marked the turning point away from coven practice, ritual nudity, coven initiation and emphasis on ritual magick toward the Wicca we know today with solitary practice, self-dedication and emphasis on the spiritual aspects of the religion.
By the late 1970s Reformed Traditional Wicca was in full swing. Several traditions followed Buckland’s lead in breaking away and established themselves as alternative forms of Wiccan practice. If Wicca’s father was indeed Raymond Buckland, then its Aunt and Uncle were none other than Janet and Stewart Farrar. Their books from the 1970s and beyond were a rich source of inspiration and information in this, the middle era of Wicca. Another Aunt of modern Wicca from this period was Starhawk. Her book Spiral Dance from 1979 has been required reading for thousands of Wiccan students for over 20 years.
Feminist Wicca is born:
It was also in this time period (late 1970s) when the feminist movement latched onto the Goddess aspect of Wicca as a female oriented alternative to male dominated Christianity. Several feminist traditions started and with a bit of creative writing shifted their flavours of Wicca away from balance toward female deity domination.
Eclectic Wicca is born:
With the 1980s came an opportunity to make huge piles of money selling books teaching Wicca. With the new crop of authors came a new crop of confusion. If Wiccans are no longer going to practice in covens, why did they even need a tradition? Many of the 1980s books failed to mention that there was even such a thing as traditions in Wicca. The prevailing attitude became “Who needs a tradition? Let’s do whatever we want and call it Wicca!” By the 1990s the book publishers were treating Wicca as a “New Age” religion and other practices having nothing to do with Wicca started getting mixed in. Soon there was pentacle wearing Wiccans with Native American spirit guides, studying Yoga chakras, and practicing Reiki (an eastern healing technique).
Fluffy Wicca is born:
The 1990s was also the start of a dark time for Wicca. While it was a boom to the number of people claiming to be Wiccan, it was also the birth of the “Fluffy Bunny”. Many Wiccans of this decade’s generation were the most poorly educated and least dedicated of any group of Wiccans to date. To them Wicca is a religion of sweetness and light requiring no effort or study and definitely not any form of self-improvement or responsibility.
As you can see Wicca has gotten off to quite a bumpy start in its first 50 years. It has mutated from a secretive mystical coven practiced tradition to a modern alternative religion with solitary practice and self-dedication.
For more detail on the history of Witchcraft, may I suggest ‘Witchcraft: A Concise Guide’ by Isaac Bonewits. Isaac has the unusual habit of speaking honestly in his writing and has earned the respect of many in doing so.