The religion of Witchcraft is known by many names, Wicca, Paganism, Neo-paganism, the Old Religion and the Craft. Some practitioners insist that there are distinct differences between Wiccans, Pagans and Neo-pagans. However, there is little agreement on exactly what these differences are and almost all authors admit that there is a great deal of similarity and overlap. Therefore, for the purposes of this chapter, these terms will be used interchangeably with the primary term Wicca being used to indicate adherents to any and all of these groups.
There are definite strains within the Wiccan community. Essentially, Wicca has its own denominations such as Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Deboran, Thessalonican etc. These groups differ with regard to the rites they perform and the pantheon of deities through which they worship the Goddess but the overall worldview remains the same.
While many Wiccan writers like to tout the ancient character of Wicca, stating that it predates Christianity (which Wiccans universally see as their chief rival), Wicca, as we shall see, is actually a relatively new religion that has repackaged some elements of older belief systems.
The actual history of Wicca as a religion is the subject of much debate. Many Wiccan writers accept an evolutionary view of religion believing that animistic or totemistic religions arose first with polytheistic and monotheistic religions coming much later. These same writers then routinely accept any evidence of animistic or totemistic practices as evidence of an ancient strand of their religion. While there are certainly similarities between the Wiccan beliefs practiced today and the folk magic of tribal religions, there are striking differences such as Wicca’s belief in reincarnation and rejection of an ultimate personal God that make any direct connection extremely unlikely.
British anthropologist, archaelogist and Egyptologist Margaret Murray was the first scholar to attempt to draw an unbroken line between modern witchcraft and tribal religions. Her two most significant works in this area were “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe” published in 1921 and “The God of the Witches” from 1933. In these works she argued that the Witchcraft of her day was the remnant of a pre-Christian religion that she called the Dianic cult.
Despite the fact that nearly all scholarship since Murray has demonstrated the weakness in her method and has refuted her results, many Wiccan authors still draw heavily from her work.
A refreshing exception is Isaac Bonewits who writes this concerning Murray, “Almost everything she had to say about the supposed survivals of Paleopagan cults into the Middle Ages (when their supposed members were persecuted as witches) has been thoroughly disproven by modern scholarship.” (1) (Bonewits also gives a much more reasonable picture of the Inquisition than most Wiccans stating that the death toll was no higher than 250,000. While this is still a horrifying number, other Wiccan authors claim as many as 9 million!)
In reality, nearly all modern lines of Wicca are dependent on a retired British Civil Servant named Gerald Gardner. Though not without precursors, Gardner wrote two groundbreaking books that were released once laws against witchcraft were repealed in England. The first was “Witchcraft Today” published in 1954 and “The Meaning of Witchcraft” in 1959. In these books Gardner claimed to be a Witch who had been initiated into an existing Celtic Coven by Dorothy Clutterbuck in 1939. We will discuss Gardner in detail momentarily but suffice it to say that he had an extensive background in esoteric and occultic organizations. When he wrote his own Book of Shadows with the help of Doreen Valiente who he initiated into the coven in 1953 (credited with writing The Charge of the Goddess), he drew upon many of these other traditions. What passes as Wicca today is truly an eclectic religion from many sources.
Gardner had several notable students in the early days of the movement who also helped to shape the face of modern Wicca. In the early 1960’s Alex and Maxine Sanders became members of his coven. They would later break away and form their own variety of Wicca known as Alexandrian Wicca (Sanders would later declare himself “King of the Witches).
In the mid 1960’s, Raymond and Rosemary Buckland traveled to England for initiation into Gardner’s coven. Upon completion of their initiation and education they bring Gardnerian Wicca to the U.S. This couple is credited most with the spread of Wicca in the United States. Raymond Buckland in particular has been a prolific writer. He has also started his own denomination within Wicca know as Seaux-Wica.
Sybil Leek was also deeply influenced by Gardner though she modified his rituals. Leek came to the United States in the late 1960’s. Her book, “Diary of a Witch” was extremely popular. Leek continued to publish and her somewhat outlandish character drew a great deal of attention.
And the rest as they say, is history. Today there are literally hundreds of authors and bookstores and the internet abound with occult material.
Gerald Brousseau Gardner (1884-1964) is undeniably the founder of modern Witchcraft as an organized religion. Some traditional and hereditary witches object to this assessment stating that their practices predate Gardner but there was no organized religion before Gardner.
Gardner was born into a well-to-do family in England. He was raised largely by his governess Josephine McCombie. He suffered from asthma as a boy and McCombie convinced his parents to let her take him traveling during the winter months to ease his condition. Under her care he saw most of Europe and eventually went to Ceylon when she married a man living there. He later moved to Borneo and Malaysia. (2) He worked for the British government in the Far East from 1923-1936.
Christian occult expert Craig Hawkins describes Gardner in the following manner. “A British civil servant, Gardner spent much time in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) and worked and traveled throughout India and Southeast Asia, as well as visiting the Middle East. While in Ceylon he was initiated into Freemasonry and became a nudist. An accomplished amateur anthropologist and archaeologist, Gardner’s interests gravitated toward the religions and religious paraphernalia of native societies. He even wrote a book on Malaysian ceremonial weaponry, and participated in an archaeological excavation in Palestine of a center of worship of the goddess Astaroth.” (3)
Some time after his return to England, and after being convinced that he had experienced past lives, Gardner became involved in the mystical Corona Fellowship of Rosicrucians headed by Mabel Besant-Scott the daughter of Theosophist Annie Besant.
In approximately 1947 he was introduced to the infamous Aleister Crowley who inducted him into the Ordo Templi Orientis. In this setting he was introduced to the practice of sex magick and ritual.
Whether he was truly introduced to Wicca in 1939 or not is a matter of dispute. Some, even among the Wiccan community, believe that he made up the entire story. What seems evident is that the Wicca he introduced in the 1950’s was a mixture of his religious experiences up to that point.
Today most Wiccans have little interest in the factuality of these historical accounts or whether or not their religion is truly ancient or if that is another myth. What matters to Wiccans is that the religion works for them and seems true to them.
Wicca has no officially recognized scripture. Each coven or solitary practitioner will have a Book of Shadows. In most covens today, there is one official copy of the Book of Shadows that is kept by the High Priestess or High Priest. Each initiate then copies that book by hand in order to have their own copy.
Wiccans rarely mention Jesus. A very small minority within the community have attempted to synthesize Christianity with Wicca by making Mary the Goddess symbol and Jesus the consort. However, honest Wiccans will admit that there is no such thing as a Christian Witch. For the most part, Jesus would be seen as no different and no more divine than any other person.
V. Supreme Being
In Wicca, God is conceived of in impersonal terms. This impersonal force is often referred to as the Absolute or Spirit. Raymond Buckland’s comments are typical. He writes, “This higher power—the ‘Ultimate Deity’—is some genderless force that is so far beyond our comprehension that we can have only the vaguest understanding of its being.” (4) This impersonal force, however, is expressed in male and female polarities often referred to as the Lord and the Lady. The goddesses and gods are all manifestations of the Lord and the Lady. All of these goddesses and gods therefore are merely different ways of viewing the One Absolute. (It should be noted that some Wiccans believe that each deity has different properties so they call on specific deities for specific needs.) Thus pagans believe that all spiritual paths are equally valid. Within most Wiccan groups, Goddess (often referred to as the triple goddess because of the three phases of femininity: maiden, mother and crone) is the primary focus of worship with her male consort being of secondary importance or absent completely.
The Wiccan view of deity incorporates other concepts as well. These include:
Pantheism. This is the view that all is God and God is all. Everything that exists is seen as either a manifestation of God or as containing God. This belief can be seen clearly in the “Charge of the Goddess” written by Doreen Valiente, which has been described by some as the closest thing that Wicca has to scripture. One pertinent section states:
“Arise and come unto me, for I am the souls of Nature who gives life to the universe. From me all things proceed, and unto me all things must return. And before my face, beloved of Gods and men, thine inmost divine self shall be enfolded in the rapture of the infinite.” (5)
Panentheism. Though God is all, God is still transcendent beyond creation. The relationship between God and creation can be conceived of in a variety of ways. Sometimes it is pictured like a drop of water from the ocean. The drop has the same elements in it as the ocean but it is not the entire ocean. Other writers use the illustration of the soul and the body. The soul rests within the body but transcends beyond it.
Polytheism. Wicca recognizes many gods and goddesses. Each follower is encouraged to choose the deity and the path he/she wishes to follow. Covens may be classified by the pantheon of deities they recognize or the traditions they follow. Yet each of these deities is seen as a mere manifestation of the one Absolute. Therefore, every path to god is equally valid. Wiccans are the ultimate relativists in this regard. (Interestingly, while Wiccans believe that all paths are equally valid, some segments of Wicca are not so open about who can claim to be a Wiccan or Witch. Some traditionalist groups believe that only those worshipping the deities of the Anglo-European Celtic clans indigenous to the British Isles can truly be called Witches or Wiccans. Most practitioners are not so precise however.)
Christian occult expert Craig Hawkins notes another distinguishing characteristic of Wiccan polytheism. He writes that for witches polytheism also means, “…there are an infinite (or at least incomprehensible) number of levels of meaning and reality…This belief allows not only for a multitude of gods, goddesses and religions but also for views of reality that would appear to be mutually exclusive. All are true as far as they go.” (6) So one “truth” may be true on a particular level and a contradictory “truth” can be true at an entirely different level of reality.
Wiccans also disagree in their understanding of the reality of the deities. For some Wiccans, the gods and goddesses are merely symbols of universal forces while for others they are real manifestations of the impersonal Absolute. The latter view seems to be the most common.
In order to more fully grasp the Wiccan understanding of God, one must understand the Wiccan view of the world. Wicca is a nature-venerating religion. Most Wiccans do not worship nature, though some do, but rather view it with great reverence as a manifestation of the Goddess. There are some key concepts that will help in understanding Wicca.
Animism. In Wicca, animism is fundamentally the belief that everything is imbued with life force or energy, whether the entity is animate or inanimate. Rocks, tree, streams literally everything that is all share this life energy. As Hawkins writes, “[T]he entire earth is a living organism.” (7)
Monism. Monism implies that all that is can be reduced to one essential source. This mystical force connects all things. It is this belief that allows magick to operate.
Magick. Magick is essentially the idea that forces or Spirit can be manipulated to accomplish personal objectives. Buckland uses Aleister Crowley’s definition, “the art or science of causing change to occur in conformity with Will.” (8)
Ritual. Ritual is extremely important in Wiccan practice. Rituals exist for everything including the preparation of the worship area, encountering the goddess, personal growth and magick. Wicca is an experience-oriented religion. Some witches believe that Wicca cannot even be explained but must be experienced in order to be understood. Ritual is therefore more important than specific doctrinal beliefs.
IV. The Human Predicament
The Wiccan view of the human condition could not be further from that of Christianity. As we have already seen, Wiccans believe that all that exists is a manifestation of the Divine. This would include human beings. Human beings, therefore, are Divine at their core. Wiccans reject the concept of the sinfulness of man and Christian doctrines such as original sin and the Fall.
The closest thing to a human predicament that Wiccans will acknowledge is ignorance. Their pursuit of the Craft is an attempt to rid themselves and those around them of this ignorance.
Since mankind is not sinful, there is no need of a savior. Valerie Voight’s words are particularly blunt at this point. She states, “We are aware of our own goodness and strength, and we are not afraid to admit it. We are not sinners and we know it. We don’t have a Devil to blame our mistakes on and we need no Savior to save us from a non-existent Hell.” (9)
One should also note in Ms. Voight’s comments that Wiccans deny the reality of Satan and the concept of eternal punishment. Silver Ravenwolf writes, “We do not worship the Devil nor do we believe in the Christian concept of Satan. We believe that to give evil a name is to give evil power.” (10)
Some Wiccans go so far as to deny that real evil exists at all. Instead, whatever happens to each individual is necessary for the soul’s development. Buckland is indicative of this position when he writes that, “for its own evolution, it is necessary that the soul experience all things in life. It seems the most sensible, most logical explanation of much that is found in life. Why should one person be born into a rich family and another into poverty? Why should one be born crippled, and another fit and strong…if not because we must all eventually experience all things.” (11)
Buckland does not carry this to its ultimate conclusion but this would of course, include such things as rape, murder and a host of other horrors if the soul is to truly experience “all things”.
Marion Weinstein is even more direct stating, “Human perception may have decreed that the Universe is a battle ground of good versus evil, but this is perception only. As we readjust our perception back to the holistic pagan view, we can see that THERE IS NO EVIL POWER TO COMBAT. There is simply neutral energy, once colored negative, now to be redefined.” (12) One cannot help but wonder if Ms. Weinstein would be so nonchalant after the theft of her car or the murder of a close friend. People tend to reveal a heartfelt belief in evil when it happens to them.
Just because Wiccans are relativists and tend to believe that evil is non-existent, one should not assume that Wicca has no ethic. Such an assumption would be incorrect. In fact, despite the claim that all paths are equally valid, there are definite absolutes within Wicca just as there are within every worldview.
The most succinct statement of the Wiccan ethic is what is known as the Wiccan Rede. Aleister Crowley is normally credited for the first version of the Rede. It may still be seen in Crowley’s Order Templi Orientis, of which Gardner was a member, “Do what Thou will shall be the whole law.” The Wiccan Rede is a kindler, gentler version and is generally stated, “An it harm none, do what ye will”. This statement can be found in almost all Wiccan literature and on the vast majority of Wiccan websites. There seems to be no attempt at relativism when it comes to this principle.
In addition to the Wiccan Rede, most pagans hold to the law of retribution or the “Rule of Three”. This is the Wiccan view of karma. Plainly stated, it is the belief that everything one does in this life, whether in the material world or the magickal world, will come back threefold, whether good or bad. Ravenwolf states the principle thusly, “Ever mind the rule of three, what you give out comes back to thee.” (13) It is for this reason that witches claim never to perform black magick.
Another aspect of Wiccan ethics is the Wiccan Code of Chivalry. This code, is loosely based on the medieval knight’s code of conduct. It is frequently included in the initiation rites for new members. According to Gary Cantrell it carries a promise to “defend the Lord and the Lady and all those who love Them, in this life and all those sure to follow.” Cantrell continues, “Implicit in the Code is also the promise to protect and assist those who may not be able to defend or care for themselves.” (14)
VIII. Last Things and Life After Death
Instead of a belief in an eternal afterlife in heaven or hell, Wiccans hold to the concept of reincarnation and karma. Interestingly, this is one of the areas of divergence between Wicca and other animistic and tribal religions. This is one of the areas where Gardner’s eclectic bent may be seen most clearly.
In between incarnations, the soul is believed to go to Summerland. In Summerland the soul continues its education and spiritual path. It is refreshed and prepared for the next incarnation. Ravenwolf describes Summerland in almost poetic terms when she writes, “From the Spirit that moves and flows through the Lord and Lady, we continue to learn the mysticism of the universe so that we may return, life after life, to serve our brothers and sisters.” (15) Cantrell writes similarly, “What really is Summerland? Many define it as the place of ultimate peace and contentment, the place of eternal springs and summers, of soft green grasses and gentle warm breezes, and of clear, cool waters. It is the ultimate paradise, a place not of death but of life.” (16) It is simply unimaginable what would make a person choose to leave a place like that in order to come back here.
Absent from most Wiccan writer’s statements about reincarnation is any kind of end or goal. Cantrell opts for a more Hindu understanding of completely joining with the Absolute but most Wiccans seem stuck on the wheel in an infinite number of cycles for no apparent reason. Some even postulate that the soul must be reincarnated on other planets within the Universe after it graduates from this planetary existence. The highest goal for most Wiccans appears to be being reborn among their own kind, meaning other Wiccans as well as loved ones for the continuation of their spiritual progress.
IX. Integration and Conversion
Wicca is not an evangelistic religion in the sense of Christianity, Islam, or many of the cults. Many Wiccans are still hesitant to discuss their religion for fear of shunning or persecution. However, Wicca is steadily growing and the times are definitely changing with more and more Wiccans openly declaring their religious orientation.
Contact with a coven may occur in multiple ways. Interest in Wicca may be aroused by any of a number of television shows or movies that promote it. Or it may come through the purchase of one of the multitude of books available at any local bookstore. Internet sites abound that also seek to reach out to those seeking to explore the world of Wicca. Some Wiccan groups also hold activities that are open to the public.
A seeker may choose to remain solitary and practice on their own. If they join a with a group, they will need to determine the path of Wicca that they will choose to follow. It would be impossible to discuss the initiation process of all the various denominations within the Wiccan community. Therefore we will limit ourselves to a discussion of the process within the Alexandrian and Gardnerian traditions as they are the two largest and because most Wiccan groups lean heavily on Gardner.
Normally a candidate is not initiated into the coven until after an apprenticeship period of a year and a day. Women must be initiated by a High Priest, men by a High Priestess. The initiation is a ceremony that occurs within a magic circle.
It seems unnecessary to go into the exact details of these ceremonies. Suffice it to say that during the initiation ceremony, the new member is declared to be a Witch and is given some of the elementary tools of the Craft. The new initiate would also choose a Craft name. In the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions this would bring the new member into the first of three degrees within the Coven. Progression is similar to Masonry and other esoteric traditions with secrets being revealed progressively. Initiation into the second degree follows a similar procedure with the person selecting a new Craft name. At this point they are also willed the power of the initiator. Third degree initiation in the Gardnerian and Alexandrian tradition involves a Great Rite which includes a performance of a sexual ritual either actually or symbolically depending on the coven.
Rosemary Guiley’s comments are helpful at this point. “Not all Witches follow these same procedures. Many Witches practice as solitaries and do not feel they have to join covens in order to be Witches. They initiate themselves in self-designed rituals. Rites may include ritual baths (a form of baptism), anointing and pledges to serve the GODDESS and use the powers of Witchcraft for the good of others. Other Witches, as well as Pagans, have a vigil initiation. Such a vigil might involve fasting and an all-night experience outdoors, during which the initiate comes into direct contact with the gods, discovers hi or her own power and connects with tutelary, totemic or guardian spirits. Still other Witches and Pagans undertake a shamanic initiation, an ecstatic journey to other realms of consciousness.” (17)
X. Witnessing Tips
There is no silver bullet method of sharing Christ with a Pagan. However there are some suggestions that may help open the door to a presentation of the Gospel. Additionally there are several places within the Wiccan worldview that present opportunities for the thoughtful Christian to ask probing questions that may assist the Wiccan to see the inconsistencies in this worldview.
- Make sure that the Wiccan understands what true Christianity really teaches. Many people are not rejecting Christianity per se but rather a negative experience within the church. Additionally, there is a great deal of misinformation within Wiccan literature concerning Christianity. Because many Wiccan books attack the integrity and preservation of the Scriptures, a basic apologetic for the Bible is very helpful.
- Use your personal testimony. Because Wicca is an experiential religion, one’s personal testimony is particularly meaningful to those in the Craft.
- Deal with the concept that there are no absolutes. Relativism is a position that is simply impossible to hold consistently. After all, is the Wiccan Rede absolute or is it just their truth? What if my truth is to burn witches? Am I wrong absolutely or is that just the Wiccan’s truth? What about the rule of three and the laws of karma? Are these absolute? The fact is that everyone is an absolutist in their heart of hearts. Witches know that some things, such as the Inquisition, are wrong absolutely.
- Discuss the cruelty of the Wiccan view of evil and karma. If the particular Wiccan to whom you are speaking denies the existence of anything actually evil (and they should in order to be consistent with the worldview), ask them why Wiccans universally condemn the Inquisition (frequently Wiccans refer to this as the “burning times”.). After all, according to Buckland it was necessary that those souls gain that experience. In fact, carried to its logical conclusion, there is absolutely no reason (other than a selfish one) to help another person who is the victim of misfortune, crime or injustice. One might actually find oneself interfering with the erasure of the individual’s karmic debt or the evolution of his/her soul. Additionally, consider that this view mandates that everything that happens to each individual is the individual’s own fault. In some way, the person either deserved the action or needed it for the soul’s progress. Apply this to an infant who is abused or molested and the ghastliness of this belief becomes apparent.
- Demonstrate the fallen nature of man. G.K. Chesterton said that the doctrine of sin is the one religious doctrine that can be seen every day. Why is it that children do not have to be taught to disobey?
- Deal with personal sin. The Wiccan Rede is perhaps one of the most pliable ethics in the entire religious world. Yet despite its relatively low standard, no one is able to keep the Rede perfectly. We all harm others. We all say things and do things that cause pain in other people. How does the Wiccan deal with personal sin? Reincarnation and karma only increase the individual’s sin debt with each passing lifetime. The burden becomes heavy indeed.
- Bonewits, Isaac, “Bonewits’s Essential Guide to Witchcraft and Wicca” (New York, NY: Citadel Press Books) page 162
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen “The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, Second Edition”, (New York, NY: Checkmark Books) page 133
- Hawkins, Craig “The Modern World of Witchcraft”. Internet article available at https://www.apologeticsindex.org/w04.html
- Buckland, Raymond “Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft” (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2005) page 19
- Valiente, Doreen, “The Charge of the Goddess” found at https://paganwiccan.about.com/library/texts/blgoddesscharge.htm
- Hawkins, Craig “Witchcraft: Exploring the World of Wicca” (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), page 35
- Ibid, page 33
- Buckland, “Complete Book of Witchcraft”, page 222-223
- Voight, Valerie “Being a Pagan in a 9-5 World” in “Witchcraft Today, Book One: The Modern Craft Movement”, ed. Charles S. Clifton (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1992) page 173.
- Ravenwolf, Silver, “Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation” (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2003) page 8
- Buckland, “Complete Book of Witchcraft”, 25-26
- Wienstein, Marion, as quoted in Hawkins, “Witchcraft”, page 167 (Caps and emphasis in the original.)
- Ravenwolf, “Teen Witch”, page 13.
- Cantrell, Gary “Wiccan Beliefs and Practices”, (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications 2003) page 48.
- Ravenwolf, “Teen Witch” page 25
- Cantrell, “Wiccan Beliefs and Practices”, page 27-28
- Guiley, Rosemary Ellen “The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, Second Edition”, (New York, NY: Checkmark Books) page 170