Wicca is a new religious movement of the mid-20th century and subset of modern witchcraft that bases itself upon historical pagan religions emphasizing the use of magic and rituals. The online website Wicca Living identifies Wicca as
“a modern, Earth-centered religion with roots in the ancient practices of our shamanic ancestors. Its practitioners, who call themselves Wiccans, honor the life-giving and life-sustaining powers of Nature through ritual worship and a commitment to living in balance with the Earth. Wicca is technically classified as a Pagan religion, though not all Wiccans would identify as Pagans—and plenty who identify as Pagans are not Wiccans” (1).
The Wicca religion originated with the “father of modern witchcraft” Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964) who published two books during the 1950s, Witchcraft Today (1955) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959) (2). In these works Gardner claimed to discover centuries-old covens still practicing in Britain and to reveal their secrets to the modern world. Gardner later founded the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Isle of Man, which, along with his written works, propelled forth the international growth of Wicca. Although new traditions and splinter groups emerged as the movement evolved, Gardner was the first to write of the Goddess and her consort, the Horned God, and explain the rituals of their worship. Media coverage of Gardner and his movement during the 1950s resulted in many new requests from people wishing to be initiated into Wiccan covens.
Wiccan Sacred Texts and God Concept
Wicca does not have a sacred text or an accepted holy book (3). This is partly motivated by the religion’s ideology that no single way of understanding the divine is considered to be more correct than another. As such, the movement does not view itself as an organized religion.
Wicca’s God theology is also diverse although there are patterns and areas of commonality. For example, much of the Wiccan tradition includes duotheistic belief in a female Mother Goddess and a male Horned God, and it is believed that this divine pair represents the masculine and feminine energies inherent throughout creation (4). However, in recent times the religion has become orientated more towards Goddess worship conceived as a being associated with both the Earth and the Moon. Goddess belief and worship are now more central, particularly because the worship of a supreme female deity appeals to many of Wicca’s female devotees. Many Wiccans are pantheistic meaning that they do not view God and Goddess and nature as separate but rather as a united essence. This conviction underpins Wiccan respect and reverence for the natural environment as such environments evoke within them the presence of the divine.
There are also many lesser deities in Wicca. Some Wiccans select gods they wish to worship, which can include gods drawn from the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman traditions and pantheons and more.
Wiccan religious practice has not always been easiest for scholars to investigate because of “the self-styled mystery religion of Wicca… is not easy to investigate from the position of an “outsider”” (5). However, serious academic study of witchcraft and paganism has become more popular and through attracting increasing public attention witchcraft has become for many westerners a relatively acceptable spiritual alternative within the plurality of modern religiosity (6).
Wicca proponents often refer to themselves as witches and define magic (or ‘magick’) as “directing the forces of nature to the benefit of people” (7). Magic is perhaps the most common feature of the Wiccan faith but is not considered to be a supernatural phenomenon as opposed to the manipulation of nature’s divine energy through rituals including the drawing of circles, tying magical knots, casting spells, and the use of runes, incense, herbs, stones, and other objects. Magic is only used for positive outcomes (as opposed to causing harm) and there are items or daggers called “athames” used for channeling the energies of nature (8). God, Goddess, and lesser deities are called upon during these rituals, many of which are performed on important occasions such as on Sabbats, Esbats, and at the New Moon.
Regarding important days, Wiccans hold to the Wheel of the Year, which forms the basis of the Wiccan calendar. There are eight Sabbats (holidays) in the Wiccan year on which devotees and practitioners come together in celebration and in honour of God. How this manifests depends on the devotee as he or she can celebrate as a solitary practitioner, in a coven, or in an informal Wiccan circle. Some Wiccans might even perform their rituals in public view so that interested members of the community might observe and learn about their tradition.
Esbats are celebrations that occur every four weeks in honour of the Goddess. The Moon is the focus of this holiday as covens come together to perform rituals and magic.
Wicca possesses a decentralized community of groups and individuals who frequently gather in groups called covens (9). However, many also practice their religion privately. Covens are usually small, seldom reaching the ideal number of 13 and on certain occasions, such as on Sabbats and Esbats, come together to form large ritual groups numbering into the hundreds. Covens also function as spaces where members can become familiar with Wiccan rituals and the practice of magic. Although the rituals and teachings began with Gardner, covens grew and the religion’s practices diversified. Some groups such as the Dianic Wiccans engage in similar rituals but avoided the designation “witch” to refer to themselves. Others disagreed that worshiping naked was required and settled on wearing ritual robes. There is also initiation within the covens symbolizing the initiate’s dedication to the Wicca faith and its gods.
The foundational ethical rule in Wicca is to “harm no one” and this is guided by their respect for the Earth, the natural environment, and all living things in the world (10).
Wiccan Identity and Demographic
Many, although not all, Wiccans refer to themselves as witches. Witch is a gender-neutral term and can designate both males and females. It has also led to Wiccans being perceived by outsiders as Satanists; according to one Wiccan devotee,
“Perhaps the most basic reason for the association between Wicca and Satanism is the prejudice on the part of evangelical Christians (and others) against any religion that isn’t centered on the Judeo-Christian concept of “God.” Since the days of the witch hunts, there have always been people who fear what they don’t understand, and feel compelled to label it negatively. Anyone who isn’t aligned with their particular religious view of the world must be “in league with the devil.” Sadly, this notion persists today when it comes to Wicca and other Pagan religions, although much progress has certainly been made.” (11).
Thus much effort on behalf of adherents within the movement has been put into denying links to devil worship and Satanism. The religion has, unlike other major religions, no figure like Satan and Wiccans do not worship him.
Regarding the religion’s composition, academic research suggests that most practitioners are female; according to Linda Jencson,
“There is a definite feminist thrust to belief and practice, a high number of prominent Wiccans being female. My own fieldwork indicates that while Neopagans in general are 50% of each sex, Wiccans are about 65% female. The women’s movement of the 1960s, 70s and 80s has been a major impetus to the growth in the ranks of Wiccans, as women search for powerful feminine symbols and empowering psychological images” (12).
In the 21st century, Wiccans and Neo-Pagans can be found throughout the English-speaking world and across northern and western Europe. This also includes several federations such as the Pagan Federation and the Universal Federation of Pagans serving the wider Wiccan/Neo-Pagan community, with particular focus on freedom of expression and belief. Wiccan groups claim that on certain days “millions” of Wiccans around the world gather to celebrate Wiccan ideology, however, the actual number within the religion is uncertain.
1. Wicca Living. What is Wicca? A Beginner’s Guide to the Wiccan Religion. Available.
2. Luhrmann, Tanya. 1989. Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; Hutton, Ronald. 1999. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3. Wicca Living. What is Wicca? A Beginner’s Guide to the Wiccan Religion. Available.
4. Wicca Living. The Wiccan Goddess and God. Available.
5. Pearson, Jo. 2001. ““Going Native in Reverse”: The Insider as Researcher in British Wicca.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 5(1):52-63. p. 57.
6. Jencson, Linda. 1989. “Neopaganism and the Great Mother Goddess: Anthropology as Midwife to a New Religion.” Anthropology Today 5(2):2-4.
7. Minerva 2001. Bezems en pentagrammen: Handboek voor de jonge heks. Amsterdam: Schors. p. 32.
8. Ramstedt, Martin. 2004. “Who is a Witch? Contesting Notions of Authenticity among Contemporary Dutch Witches.” Etnofoor 17(1/2):178-198.
9. Jencson, Linda. 1989. Ibid. p. 3.
10. Wicca Living. Wiccan and Satanism. Available.
11. Wicca Living. Wiccan and Satanism. Available.
12. Jencson, Linda. 1989. Ibid. p. 3.
In Leaving the Fold:Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists there is the testimony of an ex-Pentecostal seminarian who became a Wiccan. I have run into a few others over the years as well.
Pretty good summary of Wicca. However you missed out that many Wiccans are polytheists. And in my experience, initiatory Wicca is pretty evenly balanced between men and women.
Glad it was insightful. Regarding polytheism, I implied it in stating that Wiccans “select gods they wish to worship, which can include gods drawn from the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman traditions and pantheons and more”. Basically these were all polytheistic traditions, I suppose I just didn’t use the term itself in the article. Thank you for the feedback.
I see what you mean but the distinction between polytheism and duotheism is pretty important and many people assume that all Wiccans are duotheists or even monists or pantheists, so I like to make it explicit.
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