Focus On… Wicca
When paganism or witchcraft is mentioned, ordinarily one of two things are called to mind. The first is Macbeth's weird sisters: three witches hunched over a cauldron, cackling into the night; the second being the (often teenage) goth sporting a pentacle and waxing lyrical about a goddess and sabbats.
The latter is, of course, drawn from Wicca - a relatively new religion that forms the base for many modern practitioners of witchcraft, particularly in the Western world.
Wicca was formally established by Gerald Gardner in 1954 after development through the years prior, and is described by Scott Cunningham in his popular book 'Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner' as 'a joyous religion springing from our kinship with nature', 'a shamanic religion', and 'a religion that embraces magic'.
In its original basis, Wicca is a modern religion that uses aspects of ideas created by freemasons in the late 1800s alongside historical polytheism to create a ready-made occult practice focusing on heteronormative duotheistic deity worship alongside organised hierarchical sects.
Gardner took his learnings under Alestair Crowley as a member of The Order of the Golden Dawn and used them as his inspiration for Wicca alongside his experiences in the alleged New Forest coven he famously claimed to have been initiated into in 1939.
Wicca's duotheistic approach involves a goddess and a horned god. The goddess, the feminine, is represented by the moon; the god by the sun.
Many Wiccans take aspects from other religions and cultures and relate other deities into their God and Goddess. As believers in the Triple Goddess, they can apply Hecate from Greek religion, or the three aspects of The Morrigan, for example, to their own deity; some Wiccans will devote themselves to their chosen deities from a different pantheon. Common gods related to the Horned God include Herne the Hunter and Cernunnos.
Wiccans often follow the Wiccan Rede coined by Doreen Valiente in 1964. During a speech, Valiente said 'Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill, An it harm none do what ye will', which essentially means do whatever you want as long as you're not causing harm to others. Gardnerian Wiccans often instead promote the Charge of the Goddess, a piece of text often read before initiation and rituals.
Wiccans also believe in the Rule of Three, which is that any energy put out into the world will come back to the originator threefold. Similar to the modern use of the word karma, mentioning the rule of three is often used in informal settings to remind people not to cause harm to others.
POLYTHEISM AND OTHER SECTS
Some Wiccans' beliefs segue from the standard two polar deities into polytheistic worship and ideals - oftentimes picking out a different pantheon such as Norse or Hellenistic - which allows them to branch out their practice into deities they feel most connected to.
The main observed strains of Wicca are Gardnerian and Alexandrian. Gardnerian focuses on the teachings of Gerald Gardner, with covens of thirteen being a main theme and members being able to trace their initiations back to Gardner himself; Alexandrian coming from Alex Sanders, originally a Gardnerian Wiccan but branched off to set up his own coven in the 1960s, claiming to be eclectic in beliefs but still adhering to the gender polarity of Lord and Lady dynamic. Both different types have become somewhat muddled together in more recent times, with Wiccans who don't follow the strict coven hierarchy and initiation process taking aspects of both, or even being unaware of the differences.
COVENS AND INITIATION
Although many Wiccans are solitary practitioners, covens are popular with some, and joining a coven differs from place to place depending on the branch of Wicca the coven focuses on, and it's leaders.
Gardnerian covens require initiation by a High Priest or Priestess, or an existing member one step down from those roles. Covens initially required members to be able to trace their membership via initiation back to Gardner's original coven itself, however many Wiccans are now comfortable in setting up their own covens separate to this route.
Covens will meet for rituals, sabbats, new member initiation, and often socially. A coven may be incredibly secretive and as such it can be difficult to gain access unless you happen across an existing member.
SABBATS AND ESBATS
The sabbats are the main holidays Wiccans celebrate from the neopagan calendar, the Wheel of the Year. Esbats are lesser holidays between the major ones. Gardner blended his own festivals he had intended to be celebrated within Wicca with the existing Wheel. The holidays are as follows (Northern hemisphere):
1st February - Imbolc
Gaelic/Celtic holiday honouring St. Brigid.
Spring Equinox - Ostara
From the west Germanic goddess Eostre, who lends her name to Easter (potentially).
May Eve - Beltane
Gaelic/Celtic May Day fire festival marking the beginning of summer, rooted in moving cattle for pasture.
Summer Solstice - Litha
In neopaganism Litha was taken from what was thought to be the name given to the months of June & July by Saint Bede. The observation is a neopagan construct from what some believe to be historic Germanic practice.
1st August - Lammas/Lughnasadh
Lammas - agricultural/Christian harvest festival, name from 'loaf mass'. Lughnasadh - Gaelic/Celtic harvest festival, name taken from god Lugh. First of three Wiccan harvest festivals.
Autumn Equinox - Mabon
Second of three Wiccan harvest festivals. Name taken from Mabon ap Modron of Welsh mythology.
31st October - Samhain
Third of the harvest festivals, aligned with Hallowe'en. Time for communing with the dead, worshipping ancestors. Celtic agricultural festival.
Winter Solstice - Yule
Germanic/Nordic in origin, taking from the god Odin and giving rise to modern-day Christmas.
These holidays may be celebrated by solitary or coven meets and rituals, by feasting, gift giving, or simply lighting candles and observing the day.
Wiccans also associate the lifecycle of their deities with the Wheel, believing in the Goddess becoming pregnant in the spring, giving birth at the height of the summer, and growing old in the winter - fitting the maiden/mother/crone parts of their triple Goddess. They also discuss their God as the Oak and Holly King battling for supremacy in the winter and summer, with the Holly King ruling the former and the Oak the latter. Book Of shadows, Blessed be, Mote it be are also all Wiccan.
It's 2021 and in our modern world, Wicca has been acknowledged by some to be problematic. Its picking and choosing of different aspects of closed and open practices has been considered by many to be disrespectful to those beliefs and religions, particularly to people of colour and those who have been oppressed for their spirituality. This can be thought of as the case for many beliefs and practices that involve eclecticism and/or take from others, which gives rise to the question: do we need to be more aware and conscious of what we are taking part in? From tarot to chakras, smudging to kabbalah, are we stealing what doesn't belong to us?
Scott Cunningham - Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner (1988, ISBN 0875421180)
Raymond Buckland - The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism (2002, ISBN 1578591147)
Ronald Hutton - The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (1999, ISBN 9780198207443)
Gerald Gardner - Witchcraft Today (1954, ISBN 0806525932)