Paganism for Beginners: Wicca

Wicca is both a religion and a magical practice. Wiccans interact with the world on many levels – physical, spiritual, magical and emotional. Witchcraft is the craft of magic.

Wicca and Witchcraft overlap – all Wiccans are also witches, but not all witches are Wiccans. But the practice of witchcraft (in the sense of doing spells and so on) is only part of the practice of Wicca.

Initiatory Wicca (known in the USA as “British Traditional Wicca”) is essentially an esoteric mystery religion in which every practitioner is a priestess or priest.

A mystery religion is one in which the dramas of the psyche are enacted by and for the benefit of its initiates, but because these mysteries often involve non-verbal concepts, they cannot be communicated. Also, some material is oathbound (initiates are forbidden to disclose it to non-initiates). This is not because we want to keep these mysteries to ourselves, but because you need the ceremony of initiation to prepare you to encounter the mysteries.

"Wiccan altar (0)" by RaeVynn Sands, Flickr user cronewynd - originally uploaded to Flickr by RaeVynn Sands as Beltane Altar. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wiccan_altar_(0).png#/media/File:Wiccan_altar_(0).png

Wiccan altar (0)” by RaeVynn Sands, Flickr user cronewynd – originally uploaded to Flickr by RaeVynn Sands as Beltane Altar. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Initiation

There are three degrees of initiation in Wicca. After the first degree initiation, the initiate is responsible for their own spiritual development; in some groups, the period between first and second is where the new initiate is helped to develop their spirituality by their Coven and High Priestess and High Priest; after the second, they may take on responsibility for assisting others’ development; after the third, their psyche is fully integrated with itself. (The third degree is generally regarded as a personal step in British Gardnerian Wicca, not something that is required in order to be able to run a coven.)

Initiatory Wicca has many variants (Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and offshoots of these) but all share an adherence to a similar ritual structure and the practice of initiation.

Sources

Early modern Wicca was inspired by the general interest in the early 20th century in ancient paganisms, esoteric orders of the 19th century, and a strong interest in nature and magical realms. It appears that the basic structure of modern Wicca was devised by two women in the Bournemouth area in the mid-1920s. They passed this on to Gerald Gardner via Dafo. Gardner genuinely believed that he had found an ancient practice which could be traced back centuries, possibly even millennia.  There were, however, other covens practising in other parts of Britain, but little is known about these other than that they existed, and most claims that traditional and hereditary Craft existed before Gardner have not been proven – but nor have they been disproved.

Gardner eventually published a novel, High Magic’s Aid (a fictional account of medieval witchcraft) and Witchcraft Today, an account of the witches that he had encountered.

Many people joined Gardner’s early covens, including Doreen Valiente, who added quite a lot of new material into Gardner’s Book of Shadows. Each new person added more  material.

The modern Craft both draws upon its roots in the Western Mystery Tradition, and looks to traditional forms of folk magic, folklore, and the pagan traditions of the British Isles for inspiration. The structure of rituals remains reasonably constant, but the content varies quite a lot according to the inclinations and tastes of individual covens. Only initiations remain fairly standard, in order to ensure that they will be recognised across the whole Craft.

Gods and other beings

Wicca encompasses a variety of beliefs:

  • A belief in many gods and goddesses, spirits of place, nature and elemental spirits (polytheism)
  • A belief that “all the gods are one God and all the Goddesses are one Goddess” (duotheism)
  • A belief that there is no duality of good versus evil (monism)
  • Devotion to a specific deity (henotheism)
  • Belief that there is only one deity, usually the Goddess or the Great Spirit (monotheism)
  • A belief that everything has a soul, including trees, rocks, animals, birds, places (animism)
  • A belief that the divine is immanent or manifest in the physical world (pantheism)
  • A combination of one or more of the above

Fortunately it is possible to accommodate all these different views within Wicca because of the autonomy of covens and the diversity in unity of Wiccan practice.

Structure

Most Wiccans gather in covens. Most covens have a High Priestess and High Priest, but the extent to which these are leaders in the generally-accepted sense of the word varies from one coven to another. Their role is more like that of a facilitator or mentor; their aim is to empower their coveners to develop as priestesses and priests in their own right, passing on their experience and knowledge to their coveners, and usually learning from them in the process. Covens are autonomous, but as their founders will have been trained in another coven, they usually maintain contact with their previous High Priestess and sometimes seek guidance from her. The maximum size of a coven is usually limited by the size of the room where they meet.

Most coven members will also practice on their own (either a full ritual or meditation and visualisation), and sometimes will become solitary for a time if they move to another part of the country and cannot find a compatible coven or simply because that is what they wish to do at the time.

Solitary Wicca is also practised by non-initiates, either because they do not want to join a coven or cannot find a compatible one. Solitaries sometimes perform a self-dedication or self-initiation ritual.

The structure of a ritual

The basic structure of a ritual is similar to that of a story. It has a beginning (the opening of the circle), a middle (the purpose for which the ritual is being conducted be it celebratory or magical) and an end (the closing of the circle).

Wicca is practised in a sacred circle, and most rituals have a structure broadly based upon the Western Mystery Tradition. This involves consecrating the space, orienting it to sacred geometry, raising some power, performing the ritual, sharing consecrated food and drink, and then closing the circle and bidding farewell to the beings and powers that have been called upon. Coveners usually bring a contribution to the feast.

Festivals

Wiccans celebrate eight festivals and the thirteen Full Moons of the year. They will sometimes meet on other festivals and other phases of the Moon.

The eight festivals are Samhain or Hallowe’en (31st October); Yule (21st December); Imbolc (2nd February); Spring Equinox (21st March); Beltane (1st May); Midsummer or Litha (21st June); Lammas or Lughnasadh (1st August); and Autumn Equinox (21st September). The dates, practice and meaning of these vary according to where the coven is located, when particular plants actually come out, and the local traditions where the coven members live. Some covens celebrate on the nearest weekend to the actual festival. Some writers have tried to fit the festivals to the story of the interaction between “The God” and “The Goddess”.

It is now generally recognised that the eight festivals were not all celebrated by the same culture (in spite of wild claims made on some web sites), and some of them are retro-engineered Christian festivals, but this is in keeping with the nature of Wiccan practice. Whatever the origins of the festivals, they have now taken on a life of their own, and could be considered a valid development of pagan tradition, provided that we do not make spurious claims for their antiquity.

While the Solstices and Equinoxes are fixed points governed by the movements of specific movements of the Sun and Moon, the other four, Imbolc, Beltane, Lammas and Samhain are moveable and relate to the passing of the seasons as they display themselves wherever the practitioner happens to be geographically.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the equinoxes and solstices are reversed, so the winter solstice is in June, and so on.

Magic

Most Wiccans practice magic for healing and other ethical results. The intention behind the working of magic is not to impose our will on the universe, but to bend the currents of possibility somewhat to bring about a desired outcome. Magic is generally practised at Full Moons rather than major festivals.

Ethics

The Wiccan attitude to ethics is mainly based on the Wiccan Rede, “An it harm none, do what thou wilt”. However, it is significant that this injunction occurs as part of the first degree initiation, and was probably originally meant to show the new initiate that it is impossible to do anything without causing some harm, so it is necessary to consider carefully the consequences of one’s actions. The other famous (and often misquoted) injunction occurs at the second degree, and is generally known as the Law of Threefold Return. The actual text enjoins the initiate to return good threefold wherever s/he receives it. To my mind, the most important aspect of Wiccan ethics is the list of the eight virtues which occurs in The Charge of the Goddess. These are beauty and strength, power and compassion, mirth and reverence, honour and humility. Each of these pairs of virtues points to the need for balance.

Further reading

This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’  link at the foot of the blogpost. 

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