What Wicca Is, and A Brief History

Lady Bridget 1998

Wicca, (also referred to as the "Craft", "Witchcraft", and "Wicca Craft") is the recent revival of what are believed to be ancient practices and rites. It's aim is threefold: to be one with all life, to worship diety within all life, and to further the soul's spiritual journey towards perfection and union with the divine. I must add here that this is my personal definition of Wicca, and some may disagree with parts of it. Within Wicca there are many different paths, known as "Traditions", and some of these claim to be passed down within families and can trace their "lineage" for many, many generations. I still feel that the above definition fits even those family traditions, as we are now revising and revisioning our practice of these ancient rites and beliefs. We have to, for a religion that does not live and breathe and grow with the changing lives of the people who practice it, becomes stale, outdated, and unsatisfactory; it's demise is inevitable.

Wicca IS a religion, first and foremost. And it is a religion that uses magick. It serves a need in the Human Spirit to be at one with the divine, and to thereby be at one with all life. We recognize within ourselves that we are divinity incarnate, and deep inside us all, we long for that blessed union - that which we remember in some deep place within our subconciousness. We know that our souls have chosen to incarnate into physical bodies here in this plane of existence, to learn lessons that can be learned here, which will further our own spiritual development. However, unlike the Eastern philosophies which ignore the physical body and teach that all on earth is illusion and must be overcome, we rejoice in the physical body, and we rejoice in our life here. We are seeking to find the joy in life, the bliss of doing something well, the happiness of helping each other, and the warmth of friendships. That is the community we are striving to build, where our children can be nurtured and safe, and where we ourselves can feel freedom of expression, with harm to none, and for our highest good.

So where did all this come from? As stated, we are revising and revisioning the beliefs and practices of our ancient ancestors. These beliefs and practices are as old as humankind itself. From the earliest periods of archeological diggings, there have been found cave paintings and small statues that were first labeled as a "fertility cult" by archeologists. Some now believe, as we do, that these are the first symbols of humans attempting to be one with the divine, and to control their environment through sympathetic magick.

image of the painting at the Cave du Trois Freres

Cave paintings have been found in Cave du Trois Freres in France, which have been dated, I believe, back to the paleolithic period. This is the time that archeologists theorize that humans first appeared on earth, as humans. This painting, called "The Sorcerer" or "The Shaman", is depicting the "shaman" of the tribe, who is wearing horns and an animal mask. He is dancing the "hunt dance" to insure a good hunt for the tribe. This consisted of donning the image of the animal, and having the hunters demonstrate how they would stalk this animal to obtain the necessary food for the tribe's survival. It served not only as a teaching tool for the younger hunters, but also as a way of showing the Gods what they wanted as the end result of their efforts. This is a form of sympathetic magick.

Now, before you pass judgement on this primitive, simplistic cave person, think about the powers of creative visualization that are now being "discovered" by psychologists. Athletes before a meet are now told to practice not only physically, but also mentally; to envision exactly what they want to have happen and to reinforce that positive mental pattern in their mind. Doesn't this bear a strong resemblance to the shaman's hunting dance?

This technique has also been found to be very effective in treating diseases, where the patient learns to visualize the bodies' defenses fighting off the disease. Compare that to the doctors of primitive societies you have seen on National Geographic, for example, and how they would chant for their patient to visualize the same thing! Remember also, that the formulas of today's medicines evolved from the herbal knowledge of the village wisewoman and the tribal shamans, as well as the experiments of the alchemists of the middle ages and the renaissance.

venus of willendorf image

But in getting back to my earlier subject of worshipping deity, there have also been found many statues of female figures, mostly very small, to be held in the hand, or placed somewhere in the "home". This particular representation has been called the "Venus of Willendorf." These statuettes are not portraits of people, because they haven't any facial features; they are simply "female" with abundant breasts, and large hips, and some with large vulvas. They represent the feminine power of creating life, and were worshipped and venerated as the creative power in nature, without which life would cease to exist. God was originally female, Goddess. Joseph Campbell theorized that since so many of these small statues were found in shrines that they either were the first signs of the worship of the Mother Goddess, or the first representation of women as the givers of life.

At this time humankind was mostly nomadic, following the herds of animals and hunting them for food. Women played a very large part of the food gathering as they journeyed from place to place. Hunting can be successful or unsuccessful, but the children still have to eat. Roots, leaves, berries, and fruits can usually be found by a knowledgable person. Since many hunting tools have been found in the graves of men, and many gathering tools (whatever has survived crumbling and disintigration over time) have been found in the graves of women, it has been speculated that men did most of the hunting and women did most of the agricultural gathering. Thus it was probably women who first learned how to cultivate seed and grow food for themselves, which changed the nomads into farmers where the climate and land were suitable for that change.

No wonder women were venerated! In addition to that remarkable accomplishment, women also demonstrated a sacred mystery: when a man bleeds, he dies; when a woman bleeds she lives. When a woman doesn't bleed, she brings forth new life! Early humans knew that when an animal or person bled, they died. So blood was powerful, blood was life. And women had the power to bleed and not die, or to not bleed and to bring forth life.

So what happened? How did women end up in the second class position? How did we end up as property, and treated worse than animals in many cultures? That is indeed something we must strive to discover the truth about, as we would not like to see that continue in third world countries where our sisters are still treated as slaves and sold for their "dowry" like property.

Apparently, the nomadic tribes of the north, came further and further south as climate changes brought ice down from the north and drove the herds they depended upon to live further south also. When they encountered peaceful tribes of people living in agricultural villages, these people were slaughtered as they had few weapons, if any, mostly just tools that could be used as weapons, and had no real battle experience. Thus, instead of knowledge being powerful, sheer strength became more powerful. As men have more upper body strenth than women, they became more able to wield weapons. Also from this time period came the myths of Goddesses who were evil being vanquished or destroyed, and those Goddesses that survived were now relegated to a lesser role.

An example of this is the myth of Tiamat, the Dragon Goddess. In the original Babylonian verson, She was the Mother of the Universe, who had made Heaven and Earth with her own body. She nurtured and protected her children. After Babylon was conquored, however the myth was changed to say that She was an evil dragon who devoured her own children, and who was slain by the Prince Marduk. He then created Heaven and Earth from the two halves of the body of the slain dragon. Hmmm. Take a moment to reflect that history is always written by those in power, and therefore will always be slanted to tell one side of the story.

As civilizations grew and expanded, so did religion. Gods and Goddesses abounded from different cultures, and many were very similar in their attributes and abilities, they just had different names. Thus is is that the Greek Gods, and the Roman Gods are very similar, as are those of the Celts and the Norse. Creation myths told the story of how each culture believed humans had come to exist, and many had morals to impart also. In our society the word "myth" has come to mean story, or something that is not entirely true. The ancients used these stories as teaching tools.

The mainstream religions of today have taken much of their traditions and holidays from the earlier ones of other cultures which had already existed for centuries and had long been celebrated. These holidays were originally agricultural or having to do with the hunt, and came about at the quarters and the cross-quarters of the year, in the changing of the seasons. They were natural divisions and were celebrated to insure the survival of the people.

Origianlly, the word "pagan" simply meant "country dweller", and "heathen" meant "one who lives on the heath". People in the villages, away from cities, continued to celebrate in the old ways, and to worship their own Gods as they chose. In the cities, others who had been Christianized, looked with disdain on their country neighbors. The terms "pagan" and "heathen" became derogatory, and came to mean uneducated and stupid.

Up until the collapse of the Roman Empire, being called a witch meant nothing more than that you practiced sorcery - which was a common practice. Witches were considered wise, had herbal knowledge which could heal, and brewed potions for healing, to protect against injury and sickness, and to promote love. Every village or town had at least one, and they were revered and also a little feared, for their knowledge. It is normal for us to fear what we do not understand. However, the Priests of the new religion, felt they were in competition with the old one, and they feared the power that the witches had over the common people. For example, if a person went to the priest to be healed of a stomach ache, the priest would pray, maybe the stomach ache would go away, maybe it wouldn't. After a while, the person would probably have gone to the witch to see what she could do. The witch would also pray, and she would give the person a tea to drink as well. The stomach ache would most likely disappear. When the priest is questioned as to why, if his God is all powerful, the witch made the stomach ache go away and he didn't, his reply is likely to be that since she is in league with the devil, then she caused the stomach ache in the first place, so of course she could take it away more easily! And again, he might tell the person that their faith in Christ isn't strong enough, because if it was, then they wouldn't have been tempted by Satan to go to the Witch to get healed! (This is speculation on my part, but it is based on reading and on my own experiences.)

Unfortunately, the history of Witchcraft must also include some of the history of the Catholic Church, which was responsible for much of the persecution of Witches. They are also responsible for the negative connotations that the word "witch" has even today. For it was the Catholic Church that instigated the most brutal and inhuman slaughter that has ever been documented: the Inquisition. The Pope himself has come out against the actions of Adolf Hitler, condeming him for killing millions of Jews, and the Pope has actually apologized for the actions of the church's killing of millions of people,(though he did not mention Pagan's specifically) all in the name of their Christ. I don't believe that Jesus, who taught "love thy enemy" and "whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do also unto me" would have approved of this slaughter.

Prior to the Inquisition, in many countries, a person who accused another of being a witch ran the risk of being tried themselves if the accusation was proven to be false. Wrongly accusing another was tantamount to lying, and that was a punishable offense. However, the Inquisition allowed for the accuser to be virtually untouchable, no matter the outcome. And to top it off, the Church confiscated the property of the person who was condemned and killed as a Witch. They conveniently tried entire families, since it was well known that this practice was handed down in families, and therefore they were able to amass large fortunes and huge properties for building more churches. Add to that the unbelievable tortures that were used to obtain "confessions" at the person's own expense! There are published tables of prices for the different kinds of tortures, that were to be paid to the torturer out of the person's estate! (See "Witches and Witchcraft" in the Bibliography at the end of this article.)

The Inquisition began as a way to wipe out all "heresy", that is, anyone who believed in worshipping the Christian God in a different way than the way in which the Catholic Church condoned. Thus, Gnostics, Protestants, Lutherans, and many other different types of Christian religious people were targets of the Inquisition, as well as Muslims, Jews, and people who were believed to be practicing Witchcraft. Anyone who did not worship the same way as the Catholic way was said to be a heretic, and to be against them. Many fundamentalists today will still use that same line, "If you are not with me, then you are against me" to denounce persons of another faith. They persist in teaching that there is only one "truth", when in fact, we believe there are many "truths", just as there are many people.

Wiccans believe that God/Goddess is so all encompassing and so unknowable, that there could never be only "one true way" to connect with this Power of Spririt. We believe that each way a person percieves God/Goddess is valid and true, for that person. We do not condemn others for the way they view diety, and we expect the same respect given to our faiths.

By taking only one view of God, and by denouncing all other views of God as being Satanic, the Catholic Church took the Gods of the Old Religion, with their horns to represent the animals of the hunt, and turned them into the red-suited Satan of the Bible. Originally the word "satan" meant "adversary", not devil. The name "Lucifer" meant "light-bringer", and was not associated with the devil at all.

In ancient Greece, their Gods were both "good" and "evil". In many cultures, Gods and Goddesses embodied both the creative forces and the destructive forces, as in nature. A rainstorm can nurture plants with much needed rain, or can destroy them with a lightening strike, just to give an example. But, in making their God totally good, the Christians created a dilemma: How to explain all the "bad" things that happen in the world and the misfortunes that people encounter in their lives? If God is all good, how can He allow this to happen? There must be another "God" that is all evil, and this "God" cannot be as powerful as the good "God" since good must truimph over evil. So the concept of the "adversary" to "God" was created to fulfill that role.

If you think this is mere speculation on my part, or on the part of others, do your own research into the writing of the Christian Bible, how it was written, who decided what books to include into it, and how the translations into English affected the actual meanings of many of the words. Also research into the history of the Catholic Church, which was a major moving force during the middle ages, and whose rules and tenets many countries have based their own laws upon.

So, have I been taken entirely off track of where Wicca comes from? Not really. Wiccans do not believe in Satan, we certainly don't worship him, he's a Christian concept, invented by them, and they can keep him! Wicca comes from a blend of the Old Religion, and our new lifestyles. We know that God or Goddess is so immense a concept that we can only grasp a small piece of this. We feel that Diety manifests itself in all life, including ourselves, and we worship this part of Diety as what we percieve it to be. All Gods are really one, and all Goddesses are really one, and the two - male and female - are really one, as all of life is one. This is a hard concept to fully grasp, and so it is easier to deal with God/Goddess in smaller ways, to look at one Goddess perhaps, who has attributes we admire and wish to emulate and bring into our lives. We can worship Her and in doing so worship ourselves as She manifests in us. We can use the focus of the particular Diety to bring out the best in ourselves and to strive to be more like God/Goddess in our daily lives; to learn the lessons of this world, to learn love and compassion, to learn sacrifice, and to learn balance in all things.

The word "Wicca" itself is unclear as to it's origins. Some say it comes from the Old English "Wicce" meaning to "bend and shape", and that is as good an interpretation as any others I've read. To those of us who practice Wicca, it means the freedom to worship according to the ancient ways and beliefs as well as incorporating into our worship the new technologies of today. Wiccans don't ignore science, we incorporate it. As with the example of the shaman's visualization above, there are many cases where "modern" science has "discovered" something to be true that witches were taught centuries ago as part of their "magick". Remember, today's science is yesterday's "magick".

Blessed Be!

Bibliography and for further reading: