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History of Wicca

Partly real; partly imaginary

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How much of Wicca can be traced to the Celts?

Wicca is a religion based, in part, on ancient, northern European Pagan beliefs in a fertility Goddess and her consort, a horned God. Although the religion is a modern creation, some of its sources pre-date the Christian era by many centuries. Most Wiccans do not believe that their religion is a direct, continuous descendent of this earlier religion. They see it as a modern reconstruction. 

Joanna Hautin-Mayer has written:

"We know tragically little about the actual religious expressions of the ancient Celts. We have a few myths and legends, but very little archeological evidence to support our theories. We have no written records of their actual forms of worship, and the accounts of their culture and beliefs written by their contemporaries are often highly biased and of questionable historical worth." 1

Ms. Hautin-Mayer is particularly critical of recent Neopagan books which she demonstrates to be largely fictional accounts of the history of Witta 3 (presented as an Irish Pagan tradition),  Faery Wicca  4 (presented as an ancient tradition), and 21 Lessons of Merlyn 5 (a somewhat racist and sexist account of Druidism).

Silver RavenWolf wrote in 1998:

"Wicca, as you practice the religion today, is a new religion, barely fifty years old. The techniques you use at present are not entirely what your elders practiced even thirty years ago. Of course, threads of 'what was' weave through the tapestry of 'what is now.' ...in no way can we replicate to perfection the precise circumstances of environment, society, culture, religion and magick a hundred years ago, or a thousand.   Why would we want to ? The idea is to go forward with the knowledge of the past, tempered by the tools of our own age." 2 

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Writings that formed the basis of Wicca:

Much of modern-day Wicca can be directly traced back to the writings of:

bulletCharles Leland (1824-1903) published a book in 1899: Aradia: Gospel of the Witches. 8 Leland was the founder of the Gypsy Lore Society, editor of the Philadelphia Bulletin, and a prolific author and folklorist. Aradia deals mainly with the Goddess Diana. It is presented as an ancient document which recorded the doctrines of La Vecchia Religione (The Old Religion) -- Italian witchcraft. Leland claims to have received the information from an Italian strega (sorceress) named Maddalena. How much of this is a valid account of La Vecchia Religione is anyone's guess. However, the book played a significant role in the later development of modern-day Neopaganism.

bulletMargaret Murray (1863 - 1963) authored The Witch Cult in Western Europe and The God of the Witches. 6 These books promoted the concept that some of the Witches who were exterminated by Roman Catholics and Protestants during the "Burning Times" (circa 1450-1792) were remnants of an earlier, organized, and dominant pre-Christian religion in Europe. Her writings have not been well received by anthropologists. However, they were very influential in providing background material for the Neopagan traditions.

bulletGerald Gardner (1884 - 1964), a British civil servant, who:
bullethas written that he joined an existing Wiccan Coven in 1939, taking the (then) usual vows of secrecy

bulletpersuaded the coven to let him write a book in 1949 about Wicca in the form of a novel, High Magic's Aid. He carefully revealed a few of the Old Religion's beliefs and the historical persecutions that they endured.

bulletadded many rituals, symbols, concepts and elements from ceremonial magick, Freemasonry and other sources to "flesh out" the coven's beliefs and practices, most of which had been long forgotten.

bulletwrote Witchcraft Today in 1954 in which he described additional details about the faith. 7

bulletwrote The Meaning of Witchcraft which described in detail the history of Wicca in Northern Europe. 7

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Theories about the origins of Wicca:

There are many beliefs concerning the origins of Wicca:

bulletAccording to Gardner, Wicca:
bulletbegan in prehistory, as ritual associated with fire, the hunt, animal fertility, plant propagation, tribal fertility and the curing of disease.

bulletdeveloped into a religion which recognized a Supreme Deity, but realized that at their state of evolution, they "were incapable of understanding It" . Instead, they worshipped what might be termed "under-Gods": the Goddess of fertility and her horned consort, the God of the hunt.

bulletcontinued their predominately Moon based worship, even as a mainly Sun-based faith of priests, the Druids, developed and evolved into the dominant religion of the Celts. By this time, Celtic society had gradually spread across Northern Europe into what is now England, France, Germany, Ireland, Netherlands, Scotland etc. They never formed a single political entity, but remained as many tribes who shared a common culture and religions.

bulletsurvived the Roman, Saxon, and Norman invasions by going underground

bulletsuffered major loss in numbers during the active Christian genocides, which continued into the 18th Century

bulletreached a low ebb by the middle of the 20th century. Much of the theology and ritual had been lost; Wiccan covens had become so isolated that they had lost contact with each other.

bulletwas revived in the UK by himself, his High Priestess Doreen Valiente, (1922 - 1999) and others, who took the surviving beliefs and practices, and fleshed them out with material from other religious, spiritual and ceremonial magick sources.

Gardner has claimed that after he wrote his books, he received many letters from members of isolated covens who had believed that their groups had been in continuous existence for generations or centuries.

bulletOther individuals discount this belief system and maintain that there was no continuous Wiccan presence from Celtic times to the 20th century. They maintain that present-day Wicca was created by merging a few ancient Celtic beliefs, deity structure, and seasonal days of celebration with modern material from ceremonial magick, the Masonic Order, etc.
bulletStill others trace Wicca back to a little known faith group in New England in the early 20th century.

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Recent Wiccan history:

There is general agreement that Wicca first became a mass movement in recent times in England during the 1950's with the publishing of books by Gerald Gardner. It has expanded at a furious rate in North America and Europe. 

Wicca is one of the largest of the minority religions in the United States. There are no reliable estimates of the number of Wiccans in this country. Our best  estimate is on the order of 750,000. That would make Wicca about the 5th largest organized religion in the United States, behind Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. However it is virtually unknown by the general public. This is because almost all Wiccans hide their religious beliefs and practices. Those who allow their faith to be known publicly are very heavily persecuted in North America; on a per-capita basis, they are believed to be victimized more often than members of any other religious group. Many assaults, arson, economic attacks are reported yearly. There have even been shootings, one public mass stoning and one lynching in recent years! Reports circulate frequently of misinformed child protection officers seizing children from the homes of Wiccans because they feared that they would be killed or abused in some Satanic ritual. The perpetrators of this religious hatred are usually very devout, very concerned but terribly misinformed people. They believe the misinformation that has been spread about Witches continuously since the Middle Ages. It is only in Eastern Massachusetts, Southern California and in a few cities elsewhere in North America that most Wiccans feel secure enough to  come out of the (broom) closet in large numbers. In other areas, they tend to avoid persecution by keeping their religious faith secret. Unfortunately, this policy can have negative results; some people speculate that because Wiccans remain underground, they must have something to hide. This is a "no-win" situation with no obvious solution.

The above paragraph was written in the mid 1990s. Since then, the situation has improved greatly. Many Wiccans have come out of the closet and revealed their faith openly. The public has become much more aware of Wicca and other Neopagan religions. The frequency of violence has decreased greatly, although there are still occasional accounts of vandalism and economic attacks.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Joanna Hautin-Mayer, "When is a Celt not a Celt? An irreverent peek into Neopagan views of history," at: http://www.cyberwitch.com/wychwood/Library/ 
  2. Silver Ravenwolf, Llewellyn's 1999 Magickal Almanac, Llewellyn Publications, (1998)
  3. Edain McCoy, "Witta: An Irish Pagan Tradition," Llewellyn, (1993) Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  4. Kisma Stepanich, "Faery Wicca," Llewellyn, (2 volumes; 1994-95; Out of print).
  5. Douglas Monroe, "The 21 Lessons of Merlyn: A Study in Druid Magic and Lore," Llewellyn, (1993) Read reviews/order this book
  6. Margaret Murray, "God of the Witches," Oxford University Press, (Reprinted, 1992) Read reviews/order this book
  7. Gerald Gardner, "Gardner Witchcraft Series," Mercury Publ. (Reprint; 1999). Includes his two books Witchcraft Today & The Meaning of Witchcraft, with a CD containing some historical recordings. Read reviews/order this set.
  8. Charles Leland & Mario Pazzaglini, "Aradia: Gospel of the Witches," Phoenix Publ., (Expanded edition, 1999). The book corrects many of the original translation errors of Leyland's original. Read reviews/order this book

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Copyright 1995 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance 
Latest update: 2014-JAN-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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