Wicca is often described as a religion, but it is much more than that. It is also:
- a system of magic
- a mystery tradition
- a form of witchcraft
- a secret society
- and a system of personal development.
It is indeed a 'Craft' for it is a skill requiring some mastery, and a skill of creating: by our Craft we gracefully interact with and shape the world, creating it as the reality we wish to live in. Like all the old important crafts, it is taught by master to student, under oaths of secrecy.
Wicca is a religion of life. Life is present all around us in a great variety of forms, some more obvious than others, but it may be found in both the lush and the barren, in both the internal and external worlds. Even death is a part of life. All living forms undergo a process of constant change, involving creation and destruction, but always yearning towards greater diversity and beauty. We of the Wicca consciously participate in this ongoing creation and embellishment of the world.
A system of magic
A mystery tradition
Wicca is a mystery tradition, meaning that its most important knowledge is transcendent and cannot be communicated in plain words — by certain techniques the student may be made more receptive, but true knowledge can only be gained through their own efforts. Because of this, Wicca tends not to be rigidly dogmatic, since to prescribe a certain world-view from the outset will do little to enlighten the student, and may even lessen the effect of personal revelation when it occurs. There is also a certain delight in seeing the parts of a puzzle coming together as symbols become illuminated from the inside. The secrets of Wicca are not subjective; they are objective truths that can only be realised by subjective means. The mysteries are ancient and archetypal, and once revealed, they can be confirmed with one's peers in the Craft. The mysteries are revealed through initiations, ritual work, personal observances and the tuition of a High Priestess and Priest.
Many systems of magical study require a strong discipline on the part of the student. These systems often don't work because they don't teach how this kind of discipline can be sustained. Ideally, changes are brought about in the psyche of the student that turn the discipline into a joy, and make it a chore to do anything less. We accomplish this by a two-pronged attack: certain points of attention are established that compel the student towards their goal, and the student is instilled with certain impulses that impel him or her forward. Thus two poles are formed, one drawing and the other pushing, making the student naturally align along the axis.
A form of witchcraft
The exact meaning of "witchcraft" is hard to put your finger on. It is close to "magic", and perhaps it is a particular shape of magic, or else a particular shape of being and doing that is governed by magic. It has its own gods and its own rules, which have been shared by witches throughout the ages; modern Wicca is no exception.
Wicca is only one of many varieties of witchcraft. There is also modern neopagan witchcraft; there are the witchcraft traditions of Robert Cochrane, Paul Huson and Andrew Chumbley, and many other small family traditions. And there are those individuals who have discovered, all on their own, that particular mythic way of being, who are the natural witches. Wicca has its own peculiarities of structure and ritual, and its own initiatory energies. It works well for us, but it isn't necessarily better than any other witchcraft. Any path that brings one to communion with life and with the Gods is doing all that can be asked of it.
A secret society
Wicca, like many of the old crafts, and like many esoteric orders, has closely guarded secrets, and has been much criticised for this fact. In truth secrecy has its dangers as well as its benefits, the main danger being the addictiveness of power: a second-rate teacher can retain their authority and their inflated ego for a long time simply by keeping their students ignorant and doling out information as slowly as possible. Apparently this became a particular problem in the Golden Dawn lineage as its Adepts dwindled in numbers, and Israel Regardie finally published the bulk of their secret materials partly in order to break this power dynamic.
In Wicca, this power dynamic is not so much of a danger, since a) there is often a choice of teachers, and b) Wicca is not the only available type of witchcraft to choose from. Wicca does not have a monopoly on magic or on the gods, and information is freely available on many other forms of witchcraft and magic. A diligent seeker could gain as much or more from studying these as they could from reading about Wicca. Wicca does have a well-established, consistent system of rituals, but if these aren't taught and weilded by a competent priesthood empowered and versed in the tradition, there's little to recommend them over anything else.
Arguably, there are good reasons in favour of secrecy. The secrets that can be spoken or written down are not the true secrets, but rather keys to the attainment of the true secrets. Learning these keys outside of the proper ritual context is a little like skipping to the last page of a book; the keys may seem meaningless, or obvious, and little is gained; and if the proper ritual is later performed its power to transmit the "true" secrets may be rather reduced.
There are magical reasons for secrecy as well, to do with the accumulation and shaping of energy within a tradition. Although the magical maxim "keep silent" is one of the most difficult to achieve, it is vital to any accomplished working.
We prefer not to give the impression that all our secrets have been published, partly because this is far from true, and partly because this misunderstanding has given some people the idea that it's just as easy to do it all on their own, without initiation or training. A diligent seeker can of course achieve great things, but without a tradition or a teacher they must make unnecessary mistakes and expose themselves to unnecessary dangers, and they lack the empowerment that an initiator can give to speed the process. It is hard, slow work learning alone.
A system of personal development
Obviously, initiation into Wicca isn't undertaken lightly. While a high degree of trust is required in one's High Priest and High Priestess (and in everyone that you work with), those wishing to surrender responsibility to an authority figure are neither sought nor welcomed. The Craft is looking for people who will bring their whole selves to the religion, with all their critical and creative faculties. The practical purpose of the religion is in fact to become as complete a person as you can, to tap abilities and develop skills that are as yet only half-dreamed. The Craft has great gifts to give, but only if you give of yourself in return.