Pagan Paths: Wicca (Paganism 101 Ch. 11)

the triple goddess as painted by Walter Crane, 1905-1909
Image from wiccanow.com

Wicca is the big granddaddy of neopagan religions. Most people who are familiar with modern paganism are specifically familiar with Wicca, and will probably assume that you are Wiccan if you tell them you identify as pagan. Thanks to pop culture and a handful of influential authors, Wicca has become the public face of modern paganism, for better or for worse.

Wicca is also one of the most accessible pagan religions, which is why I chose to begin our exploration of individual paths here. Known for its flexibility and openness, Wicca is about as beginner-friendly as it gets. While it definitely isn’t for everyone, it can be an excellent place to begin your pagan journey if you resonate with core Wiccan beliefs.

This post is not meant to be a complete introduction to Wicca. Instead, my goal here is to give you a taste of what Wiccans believe and do, so you can decide for yourself if further research would be worth your time. In that spirit, I provide book recommendations at the end of this post.

History and Background

Wicca was founded by Gerald Gardner, a British civil servant who developed an interest in the esoteric while living and working in Asia. Gardner claimed that, after returning to England, he was initiated into a coven of witches who taught him their craft. Eventually, he would leave this coven and start his own, at which point he began the work of bringing Wicca to the general public. In 1954, Garner published his book Witchcraft Today, which would have a great impact on the formation of Wicca, as would his 1959 book The Meaning of Witchcraft.

Gardner claimed that the rituals and teachings he received from his coven were incomplete — he attempted to fill in the gaps, which resulted in the creation of Wicca. Author Thea Sabin calls Wicca “a New Old Religion,” which is a good way to think about it. When Gardner wrote the first Wiccan Book of Shadows, he combined ancient and medieval folk practices from the British Isles with ceremonial magic dating back to the Renaissance and with Victorian occultism. These influences combined to create a thoroughly modern religion.

Wicca spread to the United States in the 1960s, at which time several new and completely American traditions were born. Some of these traditions are simply variations on Wicca, while others (like Feri and Reclaiming, which we’ll discuss in future posts) became unique, full-fledged spiritual systems in their own right. In America, Wicca collided with the counter-culture movement, and several activist groups began to combine the two. Wicca has continued to evolve through the decades, and is still changing and growing today.

There are two main “types” of Wicca which take very different approaches to the same deities and core concepts.

Traditional Wicca is Wicca that looks more or less like the practices of Gerald Gardner, Doreen Valiente, Alex Sanders, and other early Wiccan pioneers. Traditional Wiccans practice in ritual groups called covens. Rituals are typically highly formal and borrow heavily from ceremonial magic. Traditional Wicca is an initiatory tradition, which means that new members must be trained and formally inducted into the coven by existing members. This means that if you are interested in Traditional Wicca, you must find a coven or a mentor to train and initiate you. However, most covens do not place any limitations on who can join and be initiated, aside from being willing to learn.

Most Traditional Wiccan covens require initiates to swear an oath of secrecy, which keeps the coven’s central practices from being revealed to outsiders. However, there are traditional Wiccans who have gone public with their practice, such as the authors Janet and Stewart Farrar.

Eclectic Wicca is a solitary, non-initiatory form of Wicca, as made popular by author Scott Cunningham in his book Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Eclectic Wiccans are self-initiated and may practice alone or with a coven, though coven work will likely be less central in their practice. There are very few rules in Eclectic Wicca, and Wiccans who follow this path often incorporate elements from other spiritual traditions, such as historical pagan religions or modern energy healing. Because of this, there are a wide range of practices that fall under the “Eclectic Wicca” umbrella. Really, this label refers to anyone who considers themselves Wiccan, follows the Wiccan Rede (see below), and does not belong to a Traditional Wiccan coven. The majority of people who self-identify as Wiccan fall into this group.

Core Beliefs and Values

Thea Sabin says in her book Wicca For Beginners that Wicca is a religion with a lot of theology (study and discussion of the nature of the divine) and no dogma (rules imposed by religious structures). As a religion, it offers a lot of room for independence and exploration. This can be incredibly empowering to Wiccans, but it does mean that it’s kind of hard to make a list of things all Wiccans believe or do. However, we can look at some basic concepts that show up in some form in most Wiccan practices.

Virtually all Wiccans live by the Wiccan Rede. This moral statement, originally coined by Doreen Valiente, is often summarized with the phrase, “An’ it harm none, do what ye will.”

Different Wiccans interpret the Rede in slightly different ways. Most can agree on the “harm none” part. Wiccans strive not to cause unnecessary harm or discomfort to any living thing, including themselves. Some Wiccans also interpet the word “will” to be connected to our spiritual drive, the part of us that is constantly reaching for our higher purpose. When interpreted this way, the Rede not only encourages us not to cause harm, but also to live in alignment with our own divine Will.

Wiccans experience the divine as polarity. Wiccans believe that the all-encompassing divinity splits itself (or humans split it into) smaller aspects that we can relate to. The first division of deity is into complimentary opposites: positive and negative, light and dark, life and death, etc. These forces are not antagonistic, but are two halves of a harmonious whole. In Wicca, this polarity is usually embodied by the pairing of the God and Goddess (see below).

Wiccans experience the divine as immanent in daily life. In the words of author Deborah Lipp, “the sacredness of the human being is essential to Wicca.” Wiccans see the divine present in all people and all things. The idea that sacred energy infuses everything in existence is a fundamental part of the Wiccan worldview.

Wiccans believe nature is sacred. In the Wiccan worldview, the earth is a physical manifestation of the divine, particularly the Goddess. By attuning with nature and living in harmony with its cycles, Wiccans attune themselves with the divine. This means that taking care of nature is an important spiritual task for many Wiccans.

Wiccans accept that magic is real and can be used as a ritual tool. Not all Wiccans do magic, but all Wiccans accept that magic exists. For many covens and solitary practitioners, magic is an essential part of religious ritual. For others, magic is a practice that can be used not only to connect with the gods, but also to improve our lives and achieve our goals.

Many Wiccans believe in reincarnation, and some may incorporate past life recall into their spiritual practice. Some Wiccans believe that our souls are made of cosmic energy, which is recycled into a new soul after our deaths. Others believe that our soul survives intact from one lifetime to the next. Many famous Wiccan authors have written about their past lives and how reconnecting with those lives informed their practice.

Important Deities and Spirits

The central deities of Wicca are the Goddess and the God. They are two halves of a greater whole, and are only two of countless possible manifestations of the all-encompassing divine. The God and Goddess are lovers, and all things are born from their union.

Though some Wiccan traditions place a greater emphasis on the Goddess than on the God, the balance between these two expressions of the divine plays an important role in all Wiccan practices (remember, polarity is one of the core values of this religion).

The Goddess is the Divine Mother. She is the source of all life and fertility. She gives birth to all things, yet she is also the one who receives us when we die. Although she forms a duality in her relationship with the God, she also contains the duality of life and death within herself. While the God’s nature is ever-changing, the Goddess is constant and eternal.

The Goddess is strongly associated with both the moon and the earth. As the Earth Mother, she is especially associated with fertility, abundance, and nurturing. As the Moon Goddess, she is associated with wisdom, secret knowledge, and the cycle of life and death.

Some Wiccans see the goddess as having three main aspects: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. The Maiden is associated with youth, innocence, and new beginnings; she is the embodiment of both the springtime and the waxing moon. The Mother is associated with parenthood and birth (duh), abundance, and fertility; she is the embodiment of the summer (and sometimes fall) and of the full moon. The Crone is associated with death, endings, and wisdom; she is the embodiment of winter and of the waning moon. Some Wiccans believe this Triple Goddess model is an oversimplification, or complain that it is based on outdated views on womanhood, but for others it is the backbone of their practice.

Symbols that are traditionally used to represent the Goddess include a crescent moon or an image of the triple moon (a full moon situated between a waxing and a waning crescent), a cup or chalice, a cauldron, the color silver, and fresh flowers.

The God is the Goddess’s son, lover, and consort. He is equal parts wise and feral, gentle and fierce. He is associated with sex and by extension with potential (it could be said that while the Goddess rules birth, the God rules conception), as well as with the abundance of the harvest. He is the spark of life, which is shaped by the Goddess into all that is.

The God is strongly associated with animals, and he is often depicted with horns to show his association with all things wild. As the Horned God he is especially wild and fierce.

The God is also strongly associated with the sun. As a solar god he is associated with the agricultural year, from the planting and germination to the harvest. While the Goddess is constant, the God’s nature changes with the seasons.

In some Wiccan traditions, the God is associated with plant growth. He may be honored as the Green Man, a being which represents the growth of spring and summer. This vegetation deity walks the forests and fields, with vines and leaves sprouting from his body.

Symbols that are traditionally used to represent the God include phalluses and phallic objects, knives and swords, the color gold, horns and antlers, and ripened grain.

Many covens, both Traditional and Eclectic, have their own unique lore around the God and the Goddess. Usually, this lore is oathbound, meaning it cannot be shared with those outside the group.

Many Wiccans worship other deities besides the God and Goddess. These deities may come from historical pantheons, such as the Greek or Irish pantheon. A Wiccan may work with the God and Goddess with their coven or on special holy days (see below), but work with other deities that are more closely connected to their life and experiences on a daily basis. Wiccans view all deities from all religions and cultures as extensions of the same all-encompassing divine force.

Wiccan Practice

Most Wiccans use the circle as the basis for their rituals. This ritual structure forms a liminal space between the physical and spiritual worlds, and the Wiccan who created the circle can choose what beings or energies are allowed to enter it. The circle also serves the purpose of keeping the energy raised in ritual contained until the Wiccan is ready to release it. Casting a circle is fairly easy and can be done by anyone — simply walk in a clockwise circle around your ritual space, laying down an energetic barrier. Some Wiccans use the circle in every magical or spiritual working, while others only use it when honoring the gods or performing sacred rites.

While it is on one level a practical ritual tool, the circle is also a representation of the Wiccan worldview. Circles are typically cast by calling the four quarters (the four compass points of the cardinal directions), which are associated with the four classical elements: water, earth, fire, and air. Some (but not all) Wiccans also work with a fifth element, called spirit or aether. The combined presence of the elements makes the circle a microcosm of the universe.

Casting a circle requires the Wiccan to attune themselves to these elements and to honor them in a ritual setting. This is referred to as calling the quarters. When a Wiccan calls the quarters, they will move from one cardinal point to the next (usually starting with east or north), greet the spirits associated with that direction/element, and invite them to participate in the ritual. (If spirit/aether is being called, the direction it is associated with is directly up, towards the heavens.) This is done after casting the circle, but before beginning the ritual.

What happens within a Wiccan ritual varies a lot — it depends on the Wiccan, their preferences, and their goals for that ritual. However, nearly all Wiccan religious rites begin with the casting of the circle and calling of the quarters. (Some would argue that a ritual that doesn’t include these elements cannot be called Wiccan.)

When the ritual is completed, the quarters must be dismissed and the circle taken down. Wiccans typically dismiss the quarters by moving from one cardinal point to the next (often in the reverse of the order used to call the quarters), thanking the spirits of that quarter, and politely letting them know that the ritual is over. The circle is taken down (or “taken up,” as it is called in some traditions) in a similar way, with the person who cast the circle moving around it counterclockwise and removing the energetic barrier they created. This effectively ends the ritual.

There are eight main holy days in Wicca, called the sabbats. These celebrations, based on Germanic and Celtic pagan festivals, mark the turning points on the Wheel of the Year, i.e., the cycle of the seasons. By honoring the sabbats, Wiccans attune themselves with the natural rhythms of the earth and actively participate in the turning of the wheel.

The sabbats include:

  • Samhain (October 31): Considered by many to be the “witch’s new year,” this Celtic fire festival has historic ties to Halloween. Samhain is primarily dedicated to the dead. During this time of year, the otherworld is close at hand, and Wiccans can easily connect with their loved ones who have passed on. Wiccans might celebrate Samhain by building an ancestor altar or holding a feast with an extra plate for the dead. Samhain is the third of the three Wiccan harvest festivals, and it is a joyous occasion despite its association with death. (By the way, this sabbat’s name is pronounced “SOW-en,” not “Sam-HANE” as it appears in many movies and TV shows.)
  • Yule/Winter Solstice (December 21): Yule is a celebration of the return of light and life on the longest night of the year. Many Wiccans recognize Yule as the symbolic rebirth of the God, heralding the new plant and animal life soon to follow. Yule celebrations are based on Germanic traditions and have a lot in common with modern Christmas celebrations. Wiccans might celebrate Yule by decorating a Yule tree, lighting lots of candles or a Yule log, or exchanging gifts.
  • Imbolc (February 1): This sabbat, based on an Irish festival, is a celebration of the first stirrings of life beneath the blanket of winter. The spark of light that returned to the world at Yule is beginning to grow. Imcolc is a fire festival, and is often celebrated with the lighting of candles and lanterns. Wiccans may also perform ritual cleansings at this time of year, as purification is another theme of this festival.
  • Ostara/Spring Equinox (March 21): Ostara is a joyful celebration of the new life of spring, with ties to the Christian celebration of Easter. Plants are beginning to bloom, baby animals are being born, and the God is growing in power. Wiccans might celebrate Ostara by dying eggs or decorating their homes and altars with fresh flowers. In some covens, Ostara celebrations have a special focus on children, and so may be less solemn than other sabbats.
  • Beltane (May 1): Beltane is a fertility festival, pure and simple. Many Wiccans celebrate the sexual union of the God and Goddess, and the resulting abundance, at this sabbat. This is also one of the Celtic fire festivals, and is often celebrated with bonfires if the weather permits. The fae are said to be especially active at Beltane. Wiccans might celebrate Beltane by making and dancing around a Maypole, honoring the fae, or celebrating a night of R-rated fun with friends and lovers.
  • Litha/Midsummer/Summer Solstice (June 21): At the Summer Solstice, the God is at the height of his power and the Goddess is said to be pregnant with the harvest. Like Beltane, Midsummer is sometimes celebrated with bonfires and is said to be a time when the fae are especially active. Many Wiccans celebrate Litha as a solar festival, with a special focus on the God as the Sun.
  • Lughnasadh/Lammas (August 1): Lughnasadh (pronounced “loo-NAW-suh”) is an Irish harvest festival, named after the god Lugh. In Wicca, Lughnasadh/Lammas is a time to give thanks for the bounty of the earth. Lammas comes from “loaf mass,” and hints at this festival’s association with grain and bread. Wiccans might celebrate Lughnasadh by baking bread or by playing games or competitive sports (activities associated with Lugh).
  • Mabon/Fall Equinox (September 21): Mabon is the second Wiccan harvest festival, sometimes called “Wiccan Thanksgiving,” which should give you a good idea of what Mabon celebrations look like. This is a celebration of the abundance of the harvest, but tinged with the knowledge that winter is coming. Some Wiccans honor the symbolic death of the God at Mabon (others believe this takes place at Samhain or Lughnasadh). Wiccan Mabon celebrations often include a lot of food, and have a focus on giving thanks for the previous year.

Aside from the sabbats, some Wiccans also celebrate esbats, rituals honoring the full moons. Wiccan authors Janet and Stewart Farrar wrote that, while sabbats are public festivals to be celebrated with the coven, esbats are more private and personal. Because of this, esbat celebrations are typically solitary and vary a lot from one Wiccan to the next.

Further Reading

If you want to investigate Wicca further, there are a few books I recommend depending on which approach to Wicca you feel most drawn to. No matter which approach you are most attracted to, I recommend starting with Wicca For Beginners by Thea Sabin. This is an excellent introduction to Wiccan theology and practice, whether you want to practice alone or with a coven.

If you are interested in Traditional Wicca, I recommend checking out A Witches’ Bible by Janet and Stewart Farrar after you finish Sabin’s book. Full disclosure: I have a lot of issues with this book. Parts of it were written as far back as the 1970s, and it really hasn’t aged well in terms of politics or social issues. However, it is the most detailed guide to Traditional Wicca I have found, so I recommend it for that reason. Afterwards, I recommend reading Casting a Queer Circle by Thista Minai, which presents a system similar to Traditional Wicca with less emphasis on binary gender. After you learn the basics from the Farrars, Minai’s book can help you figure out how to adjust the Traditional Wiccan system to work for you.

If you are interested in Eclectic Wicca, I recommend Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner and Living Wicca by Scott Cunningham. Cunningham is the author who popularized Eclectic Wicca, and his work remains some of the best on the subject. Wicca is an introduction to solitary Eclectic Wicca, while Living Wicca is a guide for creating your own personalized Wiccan practice.

Resources:

  • Wicca For Beginners by Thea Sabin
  • Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham
  • Living Wicca by Scott Cunningham
  • A Witches’ Bible by Janet and Stewart Farrar
  • The Study of Witchcraft by Deborah Lipp

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