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Wicca Early Pagan History, Origins of Witchcraft

Wicca Early Pagan History
Origins of Witchcraft

Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft Today

History of Wicca and the origins of witchcraft

Origins of Wicca: The origins of Wicca are much debated. Gerald Gardner brought the religion to public attention in the early 1950s. He claimed that, after returning to England on his retirement from a career spent in Asia, he encountered a coven of witches located in the New Forest in southern England, (the "New Forest coven") and was initiated into it. In line with the popular Witch-cult hypothesis, he claimed that the religion practised by the coven was a survival of a pagan religion of pre-historic Europe, known as Witchcraft to its adherents.

Subsequently fearing that the religion would die out, he published details of its beliefs and practices in a series of books: his novel High Magic's Aid (1949) and his non-fiction works Witchcraft Today (1954) and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959). These books helped to attract many new initiates to a coven that he formed, the London-based Bricket Wood coven.

Witchcraft Today

Witchcraft Today Gerald Gardner's book that originally brought the mystery religion to the mainstream:

Witchcraft Today, by Gerald Gardner

Gardner reported that the rites of the New Forest coven were fragmentary, and that he substantially rewrote them. Many of the rituals and precepts that he promoted can be shown to have come from the writings of earlier occultists (such as Aleister Crowley) and other writers (including Rudyard Kipling and Sir James Frazer). The remaining original material is not cohesive, and mostly takes the form of substitutions or expansions within unoriginal material. Roger Dearnaley describes Gardner's texts as a "patchwork".

Gardner's statements cannot be independently proven, however, and it is possible that Wiccan theology began to be compiled no earlier than the 1920s. Even the very existence of the New Forest coven has been called into question. It has been posited by authors such as Aidan Kelly and Francis X. King that Gardner invented the witch rituals in their entirety, incorporating elements from the writings of Dr. Margaret Murray, incantations from Aradia and practices deriving from ceremonial magic. Some of Gardner's historical claims are consistent with ideas that were current in the earlier part of the 20th century but are in conflict with later scholarship. The idea of a supreme Mother Goddess, for example, was common in Victorian and Edwardian literature: the concept of a Horned God especially related to the gods Pan or Faunus was less common, but still significant. Both of these ideas were widely accepted in academic literature and the popular press at the time.

The first edition cover of Witchcraft Today, which first brought Wicca to public attention Some writers, such as Isaac Bonewits, have been unwilling to believe either that Gardner fabricated his religion out of nothing or that it represented a genuine survival of a historical pagan cult. They have suggested instead that it was constructed at some point in the 20th century prior to Gardner's initiation, perhaps by the New Forest coveners. Bonewits writes:  Somewhere between 1920 and 1925 in England some folklorists appear to have gotten together with some Golden Dawn Rosicrucians and a few supposed Fam-Trads to produce the first modern covens in England; grabbing eclectically from any source they could find in order to try and reconstruct the shards of their pagan past. 

Although some have described Wicca as "the only religion that England has ever given the world," many Wiccans themselves disagree, claiming it stems from very ancient practices." Even the word "Wicca" seems to come from "the Indo-European (IE) root word weik, having to deal with magic and/or religion." This word evolved into the Germanic "wikk", meaning magic or sorcery.

Later developments

Gardnerian Wicca: Gardnerian Wicca was an initiatory mystery religion, admission to which was limited to those who were initiated into a pre-existing coven. Wicca was introduced to North America by Raymond Buckland, an expatriate Briton who visited Gardner's Isle of Man coven to gain initiation. Interest in the USA spread quickly, and while many were initiated, many more non-initiates compiled their own rituals based on published sources or their own fancy.

In the United Kingdom, initiates of Gardner had begun to perform their own initiations, and a number of lines of Gardnerian descent began to arise. From one of these (although it was originally claimed to derive from a traditional, non-Gardnerian source) came the line known as Alexandrian Wicca. Increasing popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, and in other countries, along with the increasing availability of published material, meant that many people started to practise a form of Wicca without being part of a coven or having participated in an initiation. In response to this, traditionally initiated Wiccans in North America began to describe their version as British Traditional Wicca.

Significant Developments: Another significant development was the creation by feminists in the late sixties and seventies of an eclectic movement known as Dianic Wicca, or feminist Dianic Witchcraft. Dianic Wicca has no connection of lineage to traditional Wicca, and creatively interprets published materials on Wicca as a basis for their ritual structure. This specifically feminist, Goddess-oriented faith had no interest in the Horned God, and discarded Gardnerian-style hierarchy and lineage as irrelevant. Rituals were created for self-initiation to allow people to identify with and join the religion without first contacting an existing coven. This contrasts with the Gardnerian belief that only a witch of opposite gender can initiate another witch.

Wicca Religion Demographics

Isaac Bonewits points out some of the practical problems in establishing the numbers of any neopagan group. Nevertheless some estimates have been attempted. The 2001 American Religious Identification Survey estimated that at least 134,000 adults identified themselves as Wiccans in the United States, compared to 8,000 in 1990. In the UK, census figures do not allow an accurate breakdown of traditions within the Pagan heading, as a campaign by the Pagan Federation before the 2001 Census encouraged Wiccans, Heathens, Druids and others all to use the same write-in term 'Pagan' in order to maximise the numbers reported. For the first time, respondents were able to write in an affiliation not covered by the checklist of common religions, and a total of 42,262 people from England, Scotland and Wales declared themselves to be Pagans by this method. These figures were not immediately analysed by the Office of National Statistics, but were released after an application by the Pagan Federation of Scotland. Adherents.com, an independent website which specialises in collecting estimates of world religions, cites over 30 sources with estimates of numbers of Wiccans (principally from the USA and UK.). Their median estimate for Wiccan numbers is 800,000 worldwide.

Wicca Etymology

The spelling Wicca first appears in the writings of Gerald Gardner (Witchcraft Today, 1954, and The Meaning of Witchcraft, 1959). He used the word as a mass noun referring to the adherents of his tradition of witchcraft ('the Wica'), rather than the religion itself. He referred to the religion as witchcraft, never Wica. The word seems to be based on the Old English word wicca IPA: [wjtQ]; similarly, wicca and its feminine form wice are the predecessors of the modern English witch.

Gardner himself claimed he learned the term from existing members of the group who initiated him into witchcraft in 1939: "I realised I had stumbled on something interesting; but I was half-initiated before the word Wica which they used hit me like a thunderbolt, and I knew where I was, and that the Old Religion still existed."

The spelling Wicca was not used by Gardner and the term Wiccan (both as an adjective and a noun) was not used until much later, but it is now the prevalent term to refer to followers of Wicca.


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