The words Wicca and Witchcraft are often used interchangeably but they are not the same thing. Witchcraft is the belief in and practice of magical skills that has been reported throughout recorded history in many different times and cultures. Wicca is a relatively new neopagan religion that many modern witches practice. A common saying among Wiccans is “all Wiccans are witches but not all witches are Wiccan.”
While many Wiccans look to the past for inspiration, Wicca itself was invented by a British civil servant named Gerald Gardner circa 1954. He claimed to have encountered a coven of pre-Christian witches around 1939 and supplemented their rituals with concepts borrowed from Freemasonry, ceremonial magic and the writings of Aleister Crowley.
The Witchcraft Act of 1735 made it a crime for anybody in Britain to claim they had magical powers or practiced witchcraft. Following the repeal of this law in 1951, Gardner released several books detailing the practices of his coven. These novels helped to spark interest in recreating the practice of witchcraft and provided a basis for a modern witchcraft-based religion.
Beliefs and Practices
Like many other neopagan traditions, Wiccan beliefs tend to vary quite a bit from person to person. Wicca itself has no central authority and so each Wiccan is free to choose their own beliefs and practices. This section will discuss beliefs and practices that are followed by most Wiccans.
Wiccans can view deities in many different ways:
- monotheistic: one spirit animates all gods and goddesses
- duotheistic: one god and one goddess, often Lord and Lady or Horned God and Mother (or Triple) Goddess
- polytheistic: many distinct gods and goddesses
- pantheistic: the totality of nature itself is god
- panentheistic: god can be found in all of nature but also exists outside of nature
- and any variation thereof.
Groups of Wiccans (sometimes called a coven) hold rituals or gatherings called esbats on the New and Full Moons. They also celebrate the standard eight neopagan solar calendar holidays that Wiccans call sabbats; these eight holidays combined are called the Wheel of the Year. During these rituals a magical Circle is cast and chanting, singing, dancing or energy work is done. This energy working is often called spells but spellcraft can also be done outside of a ritual gathering.
Many Wiccans keep their spells and other religious notes in a journal called a Book of Shadows. During the increased computerization of the 1990s this journal was sometimes jokingly called a Floppy Disk of Shadows and today some Wiccans talk about their Blog of Shadows. Humor is very prevalent among neopagans and Wiccans are no exception.
The majority of Wiccans follow the Wiccan Rede: “an it harm none, do what ye will”. Another common belief among Wiccans is called the Law of Threefold Return: whatever you do will return to you three times (or once at three times the strength).