What is Wicca
First and foremost, Wicca is a religion. While it is a pagan witchcraft tradition, the terms are not interchangeable, as there are many witchcraft traditions that are not Wiccan. Most notably, Wiccan practices are not Satanist, and have little to nothing to do with modern Satanism.
Wicca appeared as a modern religion beginning in 1939, when Gerald Gardner, and English civil servant, claimed to have been initiated into a sect that practiced witchcraft called the New Forest coven. His books on the subject, Witchcraft Today, published 1954, and The Meaning of Witchcraft, published 1959, formed the basis of the modern Wiccan movement. Gardner claimed that the New Forest coven was an inheritor of an earlier tradition of a Witch-Cult that dated back centuries, however this claim is largely considered apocryphal by historians.
It is generally accepted that Wiccans ackowledge a God and a Goddess, often described as the Horned God or Cernunnos and the Triple Goddess, the Maiden, Mother and Crone. The emphasis placed on these figures varies significantly between groups, but they are both generally acknowledged as Wiccan Gods.
Wiccan practice is very decentralized, making it difficult to make assertions about what Wiccans as a whole believe, but a group called the “Council of American Witches,” led by Carl Llewellyn Weschcke, did document a set of 13 core beliefs that was widely accepted by Wiccans at the time in 1973. While the group has since disbanded, the 13 beliefs they laid out are generally accepted as core tenants of Wicca today. As laid out then, they are:
- We practice rites to attune ourselves with the natural rhythm of life forces marked by the phases of the Moon and the seasonal Quarters and Cross Quarters.
- We recognize that our intelligence gives us a unique responsibility toward our environment. We seek to live in harmony with nature in ecological balance offering fulfillment to life and consciousness within an evolutionary concept.
- We acknowledge a depth of power far greater than that apparent to the average person. Because it is far greater than ordinary it is sometimes called ‘supernatural’, but we see it as lying within that which is naturally potential to all.
- We conceive of the Creative Power in the universe as manifesting through polarity – as masculine and feminine – and that this same Creative Power lies in all people and functions through the interaction of the masculine and the feminine. We value neither above the other knowing each to be supportive of the other. We value sex as pleasure as the symbol and embodiment of life, and as one of the sources of energy used in magical practice and religious worship.
- We recognize both outer worlds and inner, or psychological worlds sometimes known as the Spiritual World, the Collective Unconsciousness, the Inner Planes etc – and we see in the interaction of these two dimensions the basis for paranormal phenomena and magical exercises. We neglect neither dimension for the other, seeing both as necessary for our fulfillment.
- We do not recognize any authoritarian hierarchy, but do honor those who teach, respect those who share their greater knowledge and wisdom, and acknowledge those who have courageously given of themselves in leadership.
- We see religion, magick and wisdom in living as being united in the way one views the world and lives within it – a world view and philosophy of life which we identify as Witchcraft – the Wiccan Way.
- Calling oneself ‘Witch’ does not make a Witch – but neither does heredity itself, nor the collecting of titles, degrees and initiations. A Witch seek to control the forces within her/himself that make life possible in order to live wisely and without harm to others and in harmony with nature.
- We believe in the affirmation and fulfillment of life in a continuation of evolution and development of consciousness giving meaning to the Universe we know and our personal role within it.
- Our only animosity towards Christianity, or towards any other religion or philosophy of life, is to the extent that its institutions have claimed to be ‘the only way’ and have sought to deny freedom to others and to suppress other ways of religious practice and belief.
- As American Witches, we are not threatened by debates on the history of the craft, the origins of various terms, the legitimacy of various aspects of different traditions. We are concerned with our present and our future.
- We do not accept the concept of absolute evil, nor do we worship any entity known as ‘Satan’ or ‘the Devil’ as defined by Christian tradition. We do not seek power through the suffering of others, nor accept that personal benefit can be derived only by denial to another.
- We believe that we should seek within Nature that which is contributory to our health and well-being.
Wiccans can practice singly, but often gather in groups, sometimes called covens, to do so. The traditional number for a coven is thirteen, but many are smaller than that. There are four seasonal holidays, at the solstices and equinoxes, as well as several others throughout the year, related to the traditional agricultural calendar. These are Imbolc on February 2, Beltane on May 1st, Lughnasadh on August 1 and Samhain on October 31.
Most Wiccan groups also meet monthly or bi-weekly, on a lunar calendar, generally for the full or new moons. These meetings are called esbat, or sabbats, are used for the performance of a ritual called Drawing down the Moon. As described by Margot Adler in Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today:
…in this ritual, one of the most serious and beautiful in the modern Craft, the priest invokes into the priestess (or, depending on your point of view, she evokes from within herself) the Goddess or Triple Goddess, symbolized by the phases of the moon. She is known by a thousand names, and among them were those I had used as a child. In some Craft rituals the priestess goes into a trance and speaks; in other traditions the ritual is a more formal dramatic dialogue, often of intense beauty, in which, again, the priestess speaks, taking the role of the Goddess. In both instances, the priestess functions as the Goddess incarnate, within the circle.
Wiccan rites are performed in ceremonially prepared spaces, which are prepared anew for the rites. Often this involves ritually sweeping the space to clean it both physically and spiritually, and blessing it with the four classical elements. The space is then sealed with either a wand or athame (a specially prepared knife). Ritual practice often involves invoking, honoring, or calling for the blessings of the four cardinal directions, and the God and Goddess. Cakes and wine are sometimes served.
Wiccan spiritual practices do include the use of spells, both for ceremonial and practical effect. Wiccans believe that spells intended to harm will rebound three fold upon the caster, a belief called the Threefold Law, so principally practice spells intended to heal and aid their subjects. The spells designed in the Wiccan paradigm do cover a wide variety of applications, from healing, to friendship, dreams and divinations, money and protection, and a great deal more. These are described in the Gardenarian Book of Shadows, but there are now many other books called the Book of Shadows, (Online book of shadows, etc.) which expand upon the few in the Gardenarian book, written by a great variety of authors.
Many spells take the form of ritualized gestures, visualizations, components such as tools, flowers, candles, and props, and short poetic verses, generally rhyming, that invoke the intentions of the caster, and call upon the desired results.
Are Spells Real?
Wiccan spells are a spiritual practice, performed in the context of religious observance, and therefore asking whether they are real is akin to asking whether the Catholic Transubstantiation is real, or whether there is a God, or whether there is such a thing as Grace, or kharma, or even life after death. Wiccans believe in their potency and efficacy as an article of faith.
For the more scientifically minded, a Harvard medical study published in 2006 found the following about intercessory prayer.
The investigators found that neither prayer nor MIT [music, imagery, and touch] therapy was beneficial in preventing subsequent heart problems. However, patients who received MIT therapy experienced a clear decrease in anxiety and distress before the catheterization–and were less likely to die during the subsequent six months. But it’s not clear whether it was the music, imagery, or touch that might have helped
A study by the National Institute of Health was equally mixed, finding both for and against efficacy.
…found that the women who had been prayed for had nearly twice as high a pregnancy rate as those who had not been prayed for (50 vs. 26%; P <0.005). Furthermore, the women who had been prayed for showed a higher implantation rate than those who had not been prayed for (16.3 vs. 8%; P <0.001). Finally, the benefits of prayer were independent of clinical or laboratory providers and clinical variables. Thus, this study showed that distant prayer facilitates implantation and pregnancy.
[S]tudy showed that… intercessory prayer did not influence the 26-week outcome after discharge from a coronary care unit.
Wicca has a number of symbols associated with its practice. The most common is the Pentacle, which symbolizes Wicca itself, and looks like a 5 pointed star in a circle. This symbol has been adopted by the U.S. Army as a grave marker, as USVA emblem 37.
The other two most common are the symbol of the Goddess, which takes the form of a circle with crescents pointing out left and right, symbolizing the three aspects of the Wiccan Goddess, and the symbol of the God, which appears as a circle with a crescent above, points upward.
There are symbols for the four classical elements, the ritual motions used in practice, protection, and many other purposes, the examination of which could constitute a study entire.
How to become a Wiccan
First, it should be pointed out that there are several traditions of Wicca, some of which allow for self initiation and individual practice, and some which initiate in the context of a coven, and follow a group practice. These groups can differ significantly in beliefs and practice, and it is generally advisable to research the specific group one is considering joining. Many groups consider initiation to be a serious and often lifelong commitment, so thorough research and determination are advisable.
Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner, by Scott Cunningham covers self dedication for individuals who are practicing alone, as well as other tools for the solitary practitioner.
Blue Moon Wicca recommends Witchvox.com as a way to find Wiccan groups locally, for those looking for a group initiation. Because the details of initiation vary from group to group, and because many groups explicitly do not share this information with the uninitiated, it may be necessary to discuss details of what will be involved with the individual Priests and Priestesses who will be involved.
Dianic Wicca was formed in 1971, by the introduction of strongly feminist thinking into the practice by Zsuzsanna Budapest. Most Dianic covens were restricted to women, and adopted practices that focused exclusively on the Goddess of their tradition. Practices in Dianic Wicca differ significantly from Gardenarian, and indeed from most other active Wiccan groups.