Wicca, which is an Old English word meaning 'wise,' is a positive, Earth-oriented, nature religion with ancient roots that are pre-Christian. It gloriously celebrates the life force, encourages spiritual growth, and includes seasonal rites to attune oneself to the beauty, magick, and love of Mother Nature and Goddess Earth.
Wicca is not a passing fad. It is a strong religion of light and love, both ancient and contemporary, that is here to stay.
- The Wicca Source Book, Revised Second Edition by Gerina Dunwich
The Legacy of Persecution
The origins of the religion of witchcraft date back about 25,000 years, to the Paleolithic Age. Unfortunately, there is little information about these times, as the Old Ways were not exactly headline material. However, a time came when masculine ideals and male gods began to rise and challenge the Mother Goddess. Families began to be traced through the male lineage, rather than through the mother, and men took over the chief places of the priesthood. The old ways of the common people came into conflict with a new religion that was popularised by rulers and upper classes - Christianity.
Pope Gregory the Great made the first attempt at mass conversion. He thought that the only way to get people to go to Christian churches was to build them on sites of the Old Religion's meeting places. In an effort to establish this new religion, many Old Ways were adapted. For example, the Egyptian Trinity of Isis, Osiris and Horus became God (the father), Jesus (the son), and the Holy Spirit1. Although biblical evidence shows that Jesus was born in late summer or autumn, the Church of Rome, in the fourth century, declared 25 December as the date of Jesus' birth. This date falls very close to the Old Religion's celebration of the winter solstice - Yule - the birth of the Sun. The spring equinox, which Pagans celebrate as the return of the Sun, using fertility symbols such as eggs and the hare, became the Christian's Easter celebration and the day of the Son's resurrection. Autumn equinox celebrations were incorporated as Michaelmas, the feast of the archangel who supposedly conquered the Christian's all-evil presence, Satan.
When the Christians began to believe that their new ways weren't catching on fast enough, life became a lot rougher for those who were still practicing the Old Religion. Christian leaders began to tell everyone that witches were devil worshippers and savages. Women, who menstruate and give birth, were identified with sexuality and therefore with evil. In December 1484, the Bull of Pope Innocent VII was published. It declared Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger as inquisitors. These two men in turn created the Malleus Maleficarum, which details the tortures that could be used to obtain confessions to witchcraft. This sinister work sparked a hysteria which spread rapidly across Europe.
It is impossible to know exactly how many people were burned during the Burning Times, although scholars have estimated the numbers to be between 40,000 and 100,000. The ironic thing is that the vast majority of the people who were burned were not even witches. Most of them are believed to have been devout Christians who were wrongly accused. Victims were often elderly, senile, homosexual or freethinkers. During this time, people began to blame their problems on witches and witchcraft. Witches soon were blamed for every misfortune - they were thought to have the power to raise the dead, turn water into wine, control the weather and foresee the future2.
Once denounced, a suspected witch was arrested and hideously tortured into a confession. Suspects were usually subjected to thumbscrews, the rack or boots that broke the bones of the legs. They were deprived of sleep, starved and beaten. At times, hundreds of suspected witches were killed in a day. Those who did not die during torture were taken to be burned at the stake or hanged. Since many of the burnings or hangings took place in public, the victims were prevented from talking to the crowds through the use of wooden gags or having their tongues cut out.
Those who persisted in following the Old Ways were eventually forced to move underground in order to survive. Even though the persecutions ended in the 18th Century, the stereotype of witches as devil worshippers and the prejudices against them remained. There are many, many Christians and followers of other religions who today are accepting of faiths other than their own, including witchcraft - but much of the ignorance remains. However, in this century, the US Supreme Court has recognised witchcraft as a valid religion. Wiccan churches are gaining tax-exempt status just like the Christian churches and witches are finally moving to the point where they can once again practise without fear.
Wicca is a do-it-yourself religion. Wiccans have no clergy who claim to speak for the Gods. It is not unheard of for a witch3 to go his or her entire life without ever meeting another. Most witches teach themselves to work magick. Such witches are called natural witches as opposed to hereditary witches who are raised as such (ie they have parents/relatives who are witches, and are taught as a child). Therefore the 'Craft' is different for everyone. Some witches practise alone, while some seek out a coven to practise with others. A coven is group of witches who practise together, traditionally a group of seven or 13, but these days it is sometimes hard to find even seven in some places.
Wiccans worship many deities at once, but the one deity that all Wiccans recognise is the Goddess. There is no exact origin of her existence. She is usually believed to be the Mother Earth, although she could be compared to the Christian Saint Mary.
Wiccans practise magick4. Yes, magick is very real - not just to witches. It affects the universe. It is serious business, not something to be taken lightly or fooled around with. Magick is about empowerment; it is a tool for self-improvement and self-determination. Wiccans recognise magick as a gift from the Goddess, and witches do not perform magick for monetary reward. Wiccans do not need to prove that they have true powers.
There is one rule by which every Wiccan is bound: 'An it harm none, do as ye will'. This means that Wiccans do not intentionally harm or infringe upon anyone's freedom of choice with their spells. Wiccans do not harm others unless in self-defence.
Wiccans are polytheistic (believers in many gods) and many Wiccans worship the deities of the ancient Greek or Roman cultures, some worship those of the Celts and Egyptians. A few worship some of each.
Wiccans believe strongly in the Threefold Law; everything that you do is returned to you threefold. Many also believe in karma, so they usually try to do as much good as possible. Wiccans also believe in reincarnation.
Wicca accepts members from both sexes, every race and every sexual preference.
Wiccans do not evangelise. They feel no need to convert new members, and they will not corrupt your children. They believe strongly in the fact that people should be allowed to worship as they please. Sadly, they are not always afforded the same courtesy.
A sabbat is a Wiccan holy day, such as Christmas and Easter to Christians.
Yule is the time of greatest darkness and the longest night of the year. The winter solstice had been associated with the birth of a 'Divine King' long before the rise of Christianity. Since the Sun is considered to represent the Male Divinity in many pagan traditions, this time is celebrated as the 'return of the Sun God' where He is reborn of the Goddess. Basically, this means that Yule is the time when the days begin to get longer and warmer. The sun returns and the dark time of winter is ending.
Imbolc represents the return of light into the world. The earliest whisperings of Springtide are heard now as the Goddess nurtures those born in the spring. As a time of the year associated with beginning growth, Imbolc is an initiatory period for many. This is celebrated on 2 February.
Ostara is the first true day of Springtide. The days and nights are now equal in length as the young continue to mature and grow. Shoots of new growth and swelling buds are seen on the trees. Energy is building as the days become warmer with promise. This occurs on the spring equinox.
Beltaine (aka May Day) is when the Land, represented by the Goddess, is ripe and fertile. This is a time of joyous revelling as the first flowers of Summer are gathered in Her honour. This occurs on 1 May.
Litha, or Midsummer, occurs on the summer solstice, the days of the first harvesting of herbs as the Earth now begins to share her bounty. This time of the longest days is celebrated as a fire festival. The season between the planting and the harvest (June) is also the 'traditional' month for handfastings which are Wiccan wedding ceremonies where both individuals pledge their lives to each other.
Lammas (aka the First Harvest) is when plants are setting their seed for the next year as the cycle of Nature continues. The Sun is still burning brightly, but the passing of the days reminds us of the coming of Autumn. The young animals are now almost full grown and our plans begin to be realised. Lammas is celebrated on 1 August.
Mabon (aka the Second or Continuing Harvest) is, as at Ostara, when the days and nights are of equal length once again. Our gardens are in full bloom. There is a slight nip in the air already and preparations begin for the long cold months that are to come. Mabon occurs on the autumn equinox.
Samhain (aka the Last Harvest on Halloween) falls on 31 October and is the Wiccan New Year. This is a time of reflection, the time to honour the Ancients who have gone before us, and a prime time for divination. It is a time for recognizing one's part in the eternal cycle of life.
Common Misconceptions about Witches and/or Wiccans
Witches are ugly women with black cats and warts on their noses
This is a terrible misconception. Witches can be blonde, blue-eyed and beautiful. Witches are normal people like you. Not all witches like cats, for that matter.
Witches sacrifice children to their gods
Witches do not make human or animal sacrifices. Ever. Period. End of story.
Witches seduce your husbands and put curses on you
Witches do not have supernatural powers of seduction, if your husband runs off with one, chances are it's of his own free will. A Wiccan will never curse you. They will not, for it will return upon them threefold.
Witches are female, warlocks are male
Witches are both male and female. Witches do not call their male practitioners 'warlocks' because that is a word that means 'traitor'.
Wicca is just another teenage fad
Wicca is a religion, not a boy band. The Old Ways have existed since the dawn of time. It's not about to disappear along with Christina Aguilera and the Backstreet Boys.
Mary Magdelene. Contrary to popular belief, she was not the town harlot that she was portrayed as in the Bible. She was actually a High Priestess and a follower of the Old Ways. This, actually, is the reason she was represented so poorly in the Bible.