Wicca: what and why?

For many of us, the word "Wicca" accompanied our first realization that witchcraft might have some reality outside of fairytales. This strange new term came alongside the revelation that there were indeed serious practitioners of witchcraft, people who believed in magic and saw it as a wise and accomplished craft.

For me the word was a bolt out of the blue, a door opening into a secret and beautiful world. But since my initiation many years ago, Wicca has gone from being an obscure religion to virtually a household name, and the word is now often incorrectly used as an umbrella-term for any modern form of witchcraft. Wicca is only one very specific variety of witchcraft, and it is not even the most widespread variety, for all its fame.

Natural witches

Most witches in the world are 'naturals', those who have developed magical skill and a connection with the mythos without any training. Many of these had some degree of accomplishment in a previous life; others were led into witchery through the circumstances of their birth or childhood. Some were born into families that deliberately wove magic into their lives. A few acquire their abilities later in life and quite suddenly, perhaps during a period of great change, severe stress or life-threatening illness. Many 'naturals' are only partly aware of their own abilities (which can be dangerous, if they believe in their powers enough to exercise them, but not enough to take responsibility for them). In societies that disbelieve in magic, or worse, those that fear it, natural witches often fail to recognise their own abilities.

All people, of course, have the potential for magic and communion with the Gods; 'naturals' are those who have made steps towards realising that potential.

Initiatory witchcraft

Just as magical circumstances can surround one's birth, similar circumstances can be harnessed for a spiritual rebirth, in an initiation into witchcraft. Rebirth is the most appropriate word for this, since true initiation is a narrow gate that sharply divides one's life between all that went before and all that follows. Any person can be brought onto the path this way, if their intentions are true, for the changes that are made in the initiate's self run very deep, and these changes in turn cause a subtle restructuring of the entire personality that rests on these deep foundations.

Initiatory witchcraft also acts as a vessel for accumulated knowledge, wisdom and power: the 'egregore' or group mind of the tradition carries connection with all those who have gone before and blazed the path ahead of us. It is those who walk the initiatory path that we call "Craft", because they undertake their work in a methodical way, with expert skill and understanding. This may sound arrogant to outsiders such as "Eclectic Wiccans", and indeed some Eclectics have accomplished valid self-initiations, and are competent priests and magicians—but almost none carry the corporate vessel of teaching, practices and otherworld connections that we would call "Craft".

There can be a hazy line between natural witchcraft and initiatory traditions. Historically, some families have preserved elements of magic, ancestor worship, folklore and herblore as family traditions, and employed what could be called 'initiations' or coming-of-age ceremonies, although these would probably look nothing like the high ritual that the word 'initiation' normally conjures up.

Also, 'naturals' sometimes seek formal initiation, drawn by the desire to better understand and master their abilities: for even when magic is felt and known, it can seem that one stands at the edge of a cliff, unable to take the next step, a leap into the unknown. Initiation (if the chosen tradition carries wisdom) can provide a great deal of safety and guidance on the path forward. In foreign cultures that recognise magical priesthoods, these are the most obvious place to seek training. In the Western world though, popular depictions of witchcraft are so crass and lurid that many 'naturals' sadly avoid anything marketed as "witchcraft" like the plague, and seek instead other varieties of mysticism.

Of those British and European witchcraft traditions employing high initiation rituals, few remain, and they tend to stay quiet, distancing themselves from popular hype and the hideous, overgrown weed that is the Neopagan publishing industry. Until the 18th, 19th and even the early 20th centuries in Britain there were many family traditions, as well as cunning lodges and similar societies like the Miller's Word, the Horseman's Word and the Toadsmen. None of these preserved a pure tradition from the dawn of pre-Christian paganism; rather, they were constantly evolving systems. Witches are nothing if not resourceful, and these traditions adopted elements from Christian ritual, Solomonic and Near Eastern magic (via the grimoires that circulated Europe from the Middle Ages onwards), Freemasonry, and basically anything good they could get their hands on. Those traditions that survived long enough adopted elements from Theosophy, the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley's Thelemic 'magick'. This syncretism was far from a random process though, since at the heart of these eclectic systems remained the true and ancient philosophy of witchcraft, and all these later accretions were added in a way that only reinforced and added richness to that spiritual core.

Wicca

From the evidence we have, it seems that one of the traditions that survived until the early 20th century was that preserved by the Mason family near Christchurch. Like most such traditions it had few members, mostly family, but amongst these were some highly accomplished magicians. By the 1920s or 1930s, following the great occult revival, it had attracted a few more outsiders, and many of its members were also enthusiastic Rosicrucians and/or Co-Freemasons, though witchcraft seems to have been the most essential part of their spiritual identities, and they believed they had been witches in past lives. The group is now referred to as the 'New Forest coven', but if they gave themselves any name other than "the witches" or "the Craft", it was "the Wica". In 1939 they initiated Gerald Gardner, an enthusiastic folklorist and occultist who broke with tradition in his desire to publicise the existence of this hitherto highly secretive cult. Eventually they left him to start his own group, and it seems likely that the New Forest coven died out with the last of those elderly witches. Gardner founded several covens and brought significant changes to the tradition that thereafter came to be known as Wicca. By his own admission he rewrote many of the older group's fragmentary rituals (assuming they were ever written down in the first place), and probably he introduced some new themes gleaned in a lifetime of study of folklore and occultism. This formed the basis of the Book of Shadows, the core of the written tradition of Wicca. Gardner's groups were also bolstered by having traditional witches of other lines, such as Ray Bone, join under his banner.

It has been suggested that Wicca has departed more from the old traditions than most other varieties of witchcraft, which is perhaps unfair, since most groups of the time, if they even still survived, were themselves highly syncretic. Many of the so-called 'Traditional' witchcraft groups that Wicca is most critically compared to today are actually younger than Wicca, and several were (wink, wink) founded by Wiccan initiates who wanted to forge out in new directions. The term 'Traditional' as these people use it refers to their attempt to reverse what they see as a muddying of the original witchcraft tradition and to reconstruct, through the study of folklore, witch-trial records and so forth, a more 'pure' recension of traditional Craft. Some of these traditions contain great inspiration, insight and knowledge. Of the traditions that seem genuinely to contain material predating Gardner, those of Robert Cochrane (Roy Bowers) and Andrew Chumbley stand out as having richness and strength. But whether old or new, all these traditions, if they have any life and wisdom in them, are in a constant state of innovation and evolution, and all, like Wicca, contain the keys to the revelation of the old Craft Gods.

So why Wicca?

Wicca differs from other prominent forms of traditional witchcraft in its adoption of a moral code. Somewhere along the line it has received a strong influx of teaching relating to high spiritual (rather than simply magical) development, which sheds light on key problems surrounding adepthood: particularly, the alignment and merging of the higher and lower selves. Witchcraft is often considered to have its greatest domain in the astral realms, however Wicca extends the Craft to incorporate and harmonise with the higher, formless worlds of spirit. This teaching (possibly Rosicrucian or Neoplatonic in origin) puts a clear focus on spiritual development rather than temporary gain and ego gratification, while still affirming that spirit is as much manifest here in the mundane world as anywhere else, and that the purpose of spiritual growth is not to 'leave' this world and seek some other. Wicca teaches a wise perception of natural interrelationships and our place in the world, in a way that I feel is often passed over in other Craft traditions.

That Wicca contains such powerful spiritual teachings seems (to me) to make it more, not less, in line with how traditional Craft probably once was. We know from old witch-trial records that early witches saw themselves as forces for spiritual and societal good, and it was only as the persecutions intensified that these people gradually relinquished the idea of their own inherent goodness and value to society, and came to see themselves as entirely set apart, a law unto themselves with responsibility to nothing and no-one. The wisdom that Wicca carries is timeless and precious, and I believe only the most brutal repressions could induce any tradition to forget its value.

Wicca in the modern world

So, Wicca is just one variety of modern witchcraft. It was the first to be publicly revealed, and is the most famous. It has been an important force for change in the world, since most of modern Western paganism, and even important elements of the feminist movement, drew their inspiration from Wicca. Wicca has also inspired a huge number of imitators, either directly, or through the rather misleading reflections of the neopagan publishing industry or even more ridiculous film and TV representations. For some, "Wicca" has come to mean "church", with all the comfort that handing away responsibility for one's own spiritual well-being brings; for others "Wicca" is a fashion statement and a way to mystify one's friends and (more particularly) one's parents. It is because of such imitators that Wiccans are sometimes labelled as fuddy-duddy fluff-bunnies who know nothing of real witchcraft. When it comes to true, initiatory Wicca, this has not been my experience. Over the years, I have worked with a Vodou hounfor, a Co-Masonic lodge, two Qabalistic schools and two Ceremonial orders; I have rubbed shoulders with Rosicrucians, high-ranking OTO and A:.A:. officers and Golden Dawn magicians; and in my experience the most accomplished priests, priestesses and magicians I've met have all, bar a few, been Wiccan initiates. This is not to say that all initiates are worthy and wise, for in Wicca, as in all magical traditions, there are rotten lines of transmission, and people who have failed to put truth and wisdom before all else. But there are many more in our family who tread the true path, and Wicca has safely led me and numerous others through flood and briar to meet the old Craft Gods and perceive their mysteries. It is, to borrow a phrase from Ceremonial magic, truly a "contacted tradition".

Warning signs

We would like to keep the Craft reputable, at least in our corner of the world. Unfortunately there are individuals and groups that spring up occasionally, who claim to represent the Craft but do not. Some engage in practices that are highly dubious:

Wicca operates as a large family; we know each other and cooperate to preserve and teach the Craft. Please feel free to contact us for advice on any other group, or questions regarding their legitimacy. Above all, remember: if you get a bad feeling from someone, if they seem ego-driven or controlled by their own negative emotions, you can assume they are not the teachers for you.