History of Wicca
When studying Wicca, there are two versions of its history often taught.
One version is now understood to be more mythological than fact. Because Wicca draws on practices and traditions traced far back into ancient history, Wicca was once believed to be an ancient--the first--religion.
In researching the history of Wicca, we generally begin with a look into this mythological history. We, then, explore the reality of this religion's early days and the complexities that took off from there.
The Mythological History
The following is the history of Witchcraft (or, more specifically, Wicca) as it was presented in Wicca's early days. Since then, the theories surrounding this story have been disproved.
This story, in all its variations, is merely mythological. It's not a true history of anything.
I include it here only for its mythological value (and to help you identify when other sources you come across are presenting you with the myth version). Most Wiccans no longer follow this story, but as it was believed in the early part of the real Wiccan history and continues to be spread both on the internet and freshly published books, it deserves a space here.
Witchcraft [Wicca] began more than 35 thousand yeas ago, when the people believed in the Mother Goddess and Horned God. Hunters performed sympathetic magic to enhance the success of the hunt by dressing in animal skins and horns.
As isolated settlements came together to form villages, they grew together as communities. They shared knowledge and used their inner power to work together.
These were the first covens.
These covens were deeply attuned to plant and animal life. They bred animals and planted seeds.
The God was less associated with the hunter and instead associated with the grain that is sacrificed only to be later reborn. The Goddess was seen as less wild and associated with the fertility of the land to reflect the settled nature of the civilizations.
As villages grew into cities, shrines depicted the Goddess and her connection with the God as consort and son.
Trade from Africa and West Asia brought new mysteries. They learned of ley lines (power of the earth) and how they could be enhanced through the placement of stones. The Witches used these stones to develop methods of marking the seasons and their cycle.
This lead to the creation of the Wheel of the Year, the Sabbats. These holy days were celebrated with feasting and bonfires.
Resulting from the settlement of the people, many advancements were made. From studying the land, the sky, the turning of the Wheel, they increased their knowledge in the areas of mathematics, astronomy, poetry, music, medicine, and psychology.
The deeper mysteries, then, provided keys to understanding the Universe.
However, in other parts of the world, cultures devoted themselves to the arts of war.
They would come across the people of the Old Religion and attack them. From the time of the Bronze Age, Indo-European invasions swept through, driving out the Goddess peoples.
They settled into the hills and mountains, where they were forced to change from the matriarchal, Goddess-centered culture they developed into the conquering patriarchal cultures. The Goddess was "married" into the existing pantheons of the times.
Some aspects of the Old Religion were incorporated into the mysteries of victorious warrior cultures. The Celts adopted some beliefs into the Druidic mysteries.
Meanwhile, the followers of the Old Religion preserved their beliefs through mock plays of the old rites, celebrating the holy days with old and new traditions, and mingling with and marrying the invading people to combine beliefs.
When Christianity was born, it brought little change in its infancy. The story of Christ was viewed as a new version of ancient tales of the Mother Goddess and her Divine Child who would be sacrificed and reborn in the cycle of the seasons.
The Wicca and Wicce (members of the surviving covens) were the magicians, healers, teachers, poets, midwives, and central figures in their communities.
Persecution was slowly implemented and the beliefs of the Old Religion were sent underground.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Old Religion resurfaced through poetry. The figure of Mary was honored and revered in much the same way the Mother Goddess had been in previous centuries. She became the new face of the old deity.
In an effort to stop the revival of the old ways, witchcraft was declared heresy by the church. Wars, Crusades, plagues, and peasant revolts occurred throughout the centuries, threatening the stability of the medieval church and feudal system of the time. Churches of Christianity lost tolerance toward its rivals as the messianic movements and religious revolts took place.
In 1484, the Inquisition began. Only two years later, Kramer and Spriger published the Malleus Maleficarum that brought a reign of terror to Europe.
Up until the 17th century, persecutions led to the execution of hundreds of thousands of witches. 80% of those executed were women and children. This was a time of terror, fear, violence, intolerance, greed, and hysteria.
Some of the followers of the Old Religion managed to escape and fled to faraway lands outside the reach of the Inquisition. They maintained a strict adherence to rules of secrecy to protect one another and their traditions.
After the 18th century, the Craft faded from the memory of civilization as the horror and atrocities of the Inquisition were left behind. However, many of the stereotypes created during that time period remained, even into modern day.
The Old Religion remained underground until the 20th century. When the final Anti-Witchcraft laws in England were repealed, those of the ancient ways came out of the "broom" closet.
Source: The Spiral Dance 20th Anniversary Edition by Starhawk
The Real History
Normally, I suggest only scholarly sources for history. However, the history of religions are usually controversial at best. Scholarly sources on Wicca--depending on when they were written--may not be useful in providing evidence for or against unknown factors.
For more detailed views on the history of Wicca, I suggest a simple search online to get you started. Read through several sources on multiple sides of the arguments. In doing so, you will see much of what you find here as well as a deeper and more detailed understanding of the arguments as I've described them.
I also encourage you to continue looking into the history of Wicca through books, reference materials, and dialogue with Elders in Wicca and Witchcraft--particularly those with any level of experience when Wicca first hit the public scene. (If you enjoy audio, I highly recommend Millennial Pagan Podcast's Witchy History Dissertation episode.)
The history of Wicca has been a subject of much debate ever since its introduction into the public eye. Even ignoring the disproved mythological history that was originally thought to be true (see above), there are still arguments over the beginnings of Wicca.
This is merely a quick look into the history of Wicca starting with Gerald Gardner. To understand Gardner, we need to look at his life.
Briefly, he was born in 1884 in the UK and spent most of his adult life in Malaya. In 1936 at 52 years of age, he retired and returned to England.
He joined the Folklore Society and the Rosicrucian Theatre at Christchurch. It's said that he met Old Dorothy Clutterbuck at the latter. Throughout his life, he had a large interest in magic, folklore, and mythology.
In 1939, at the age of 55, Gardner was initiated by Old Dorothy into a coven of the Old Religion that met in the New Forest area of Britain, as he claims. Many people have been suspicious of this claim and have accused Gardner of making it all up.
Doreen Valiente, original HPS of Gardner's coven, set out to prove this claim--despite being at odds with him at the time--by finding Old Dorothy. She did manage to prove Dorothy Clutterbuck was a real person through Birth and Death Records, but this fact alone in no way proved Gardner's claims.
In May of 1947, Gardner met Aleister Crowley and became a member of the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis). Although Crowley and Gardner's association shortly ended with Crowley's death in December of 1947, it was reported that they enjoyed their time together.
This would later be seen by the O.T.O and Crowley influences found within Wiccan practice. (It's said that elements of Gardner's practice that were specifically tied to Crowley led to many of the prominent members of his coven breaking away to form their own groups.)
In 1949, Gardner published "High Magic's Aid." It was a fictional story about witchcraft. Gardner wrote it with the intent to reveal some rites without revealing the truth (as bound by oath). Some elements in this book (such as the concept of the Three-Fold Law) were later misinterpreted and debate continues about if they were parts of the truth Gardner was setting out to reveal or served only to tie together a work of fiction.
In 1954, "Witchcraft Today" was written to announce this religion to the world, and in 1959 published "The Meaning of Witchcraft" to further present the religion of "Wica."
Gardner presented Wicca as the religion of Witchcraft. He claimed that Wicca--or Wica as he spelled it then--was an ancient religion; the Old Religion.
It's obvious from his writings that he drew influence from various sources such as Masonry, Aleister Crowley, Margaret Murray, Robert Graves, various cultures and magic-based faiths-- both ancient and modern--among other sources.
While some of these sources, such as Murray, had many theories and ideas that have since been disproved or discredited, such information was still taken seriously at the time of Gardner's writings. Through Gardner, Wicca grew and spread.
Initially, all Witchcraft traditions and practices were inclined to take on the name of Wicca--some were excited to have found a term for what they did when they had none before. However, Wicca and Witchcraft today are two separate things.
As Wicca continued to mold and take form, it became obvious that it's a religion. Sure, all Wiccans are Witches, but the style and practice of Witchcraft as well as some level of theology and ritual elements were very specific to Wiccans.
Other Witchcraft traditions aren't necessarily religious in any way and quickly moved away from the term Wicca. And other paths, such as Stregheria - another influence for early Wicca - weren't pleased with all aspects of Wicca and having their long-held beliefs and practices lumped under the same term.
With the evolution of Wicca in its first few decades, the term Wicca no longer applied to all practitioners of Witchcraft and magick. Instead, Wicca grew into a specific religion with a clear set of beliefs that differentiates it from other paths.
Thanks to the vast availability of information on Wicca today, it has become one of the fastest growing religions in some parts of the world.
Having gone through this history, we now look at the arguments.
Occasionally people who still believe that Wicca is the "Old" Religion dating back to prehistoric times can be found. This is often a result of ignorance regarding historical facts or bigotry and believing instead that historical records are meddled with.
The latter see known history as being a "history conspiracy cover-up" of sorts. Although we can certainly see how recorded history can become tainted by societal, cultural, or political agendas and influences, this argument is an insult to credible historians, archaeologists, and other dedicated professionals past and present who painstakingly devote their lives to uncovering and revealing the knowable facts of history.
The arguments with historical facts and reason in mind usually boil down to just how much Gardner told the truth and how much he made up.
One argument is that Gardner is a fraud, plain and simple. His initiation claims into a coven in 1939 are false. There was no such coven. He simply made up everything and added in bits and pieces of information from different cultures, time periods, and modern sources.
With this argument--from a Wiccan perspective--often comes the reminder that all religions had their beginnings somewhere, and just because it was "made up" by one man doesn't mean it isn't a valid belief system. This "the man was a fraud" argument is commonly used against newer religions, but generally has no effect on the validity of a religion.
Another argument extends from the previous one. Gardner made up Wicca, but Witchcraft as a religion existed without his knowledge of it.
This argument often explains hereditary claims that date back long before Gardner. Even assuming such claims are false, what's considered as Witchcraft practices today were sometimes passed down in families and small groups for generations.
When Gardner came out with Wicca, the Witches and Witch-groups came out either in support of Gardner--for bringing such beliefs to the public--or against--for claiming Wicca was the religion of the Witches. This also explains why Wicca is now viewed as its own separate religion while Witchcraft is viewed as being a practice that comes in many forms and paths.
The next argument is that Gardner was in fact initiated into a coven as he claimed. From this, a number of other arguments can be found.
Did he find in that coven what he presented to the world? Or did he take bits of what he found and add to it his own bits and pieces--drawing from various sources--to create the religion as we know it today? This last bit goes along with the previous argument and further explains why Wicca and Witchcraft are not one and the same today.
My Thoughts on the History of Wicca
My personal view is somewhat of the latter argument.
I don't believe that Wicca today would be what Gardner found through the coven he was initiated into. I support the idea that if he was in fact a member of said coven, he added to what he found there. He shaped it further with the aid of Doreen Valiente among others.
If no coven existed--there is no evidence of it, after all--I do think Gardner was influenced by Old Dorothy.
Old Dorothy may have simply been a woman with some stories about folklore and mythology with a few of her own ideas. Then again, perhaps she had come from a family of hereditary Witches.
Just because Gardner claimed to have been initiated into a coven of Witches that didn't exist doesn't mean he completely lied. People are known to spice up the truth when it suits what they have to say.
No matter which argument Wiccans believe, it's agreed by most that the history isn't important to the practice of Wicca. Yes, knowing its roots helps us to understand our religion, but the exact details of Wicca's origin point aren't necessary to have faith on this path.
We can understand all we need to about our history simply through what we know to be fact. What still remains a mystery doesn't make Wicca any less valid.
© 2005-2020 by Evylyn Rose