Guide to wicca
Wicca has been confused with witchcraft but the truth is that magical rituals are an essential part of being a practising Wiccan. From the law of ‘an ye harm none do as ye will’ (which applies to not harming yourself as well as others) to the law of threefold return, find out more about wicca.
Wicca: The Old Religion
Wicca is one of the most increasingly popular religions in the world today. But what exactly is Wicca?
Wicca is the religion of witchcraft, using magic to weave its rites and honour its deities. Here we will take a look at Wicca, where it came from and what it means to be a follower of its ways.
What is Wicca?
Wicca is a nature religion, a mystery religion, a fertility religion and also a witchcraft tradition, all rolled together to make it unique.
As a nature religion, Wicca respects and reveres the natural world, taking inspiration from the seasons and nature’s intricate beauty. The movements of the natural world are seen as the interplay of the religion’s deities, the God and Goddess.
Wiccans vary in their beliefs to a degree but most of them would hold to these as a guideline:
- Magic is the craft and art of Wicca.
- Through their rituals, Wiccans learn to develop their gifts of magic.
- The Goddess and God are a focus of worship and reverence.
- Nature and the earth are sacred manifestations of the Goddess and God.
- Wiccans work in covens.
- A Wiccan coven is like a family that is linked by the oath of perfect love and perfect trust.
- Rituals and celebrations are linked to the seasons and moon phases, as representations of the God and Goddess.
- Meditation, visualization, invocation (calling on forces or gods/goddesses), chanting, burning candles and special rituals trigger a sense of the mystical.
As a mystery religion, Wicca is secret from those who don’t follow its ways. There is a tradition of initiation into covens to learn teachings of the Wiccan way. Luckily for us, Wiccans have allowed a glimpse into their world. Many Wiccans have published books on Wicca that help us to understand it. If you’ve done some home study on Wicca and want to get involved , you’ll need to find a Wiccan coven to teach you.
Wicca is also a fertility religion, placing emphasis on sex as a sacred practice. This is one reason why the vast majority of Wiccans aren’t brought into the religion until they are at least eighteen. However, there is nothing to stop younger people from exploring the religion until then and finding out if it really is for them.
But fertility also refers to the land’s fertility, not just people people, and acknowledges the richness of life’s process, whether it’s in plants, animals or ourselves.
As a witchcraft religion, Wicca utilises magic in its workings. Witchcraft is actually a part of Wicca’s most fundamental rituals and practices. Through magic, the Wiccan witches connect to other aspects of our reality and use the energies around us to work their ways.
The Wiccan Rede
At the centre of Wiccan practice lies an ethical statement known as the Wiccan Rede, a guideline for Wiccans in the way they live and use witchcraft.
The Wiccan Rede is just eight words. Sometimes people confuse all the poems it’s inspired as being the Rede itself, but actually the Rede is just this simple verse:
“An it harm none, do as thou will.”
“If it harms none, then do as you will.”
It’s a simple concept, but it does the job. The meaning of the Rede is that Wiccans should never try to commit harm. If no-one is harmed by what you are doing, then there is no reason you shouldn’t do it if you so choose.
However, the Rede is just a guideline, not a law. That is exactly what the word “Rede” means. If you think about it, that makes a lot more sense. It is impossible to not cause harm in life and in some circumstances, causing harm is essential. Wicca is a nature-based religion and it’s worthwhile to consider how harm and love both form an equal balance in maintaining the cycles of nature. Animals hunt, kill, fight and all for the greater benefit of their species, while at the same time they also mate, nurture their young and form supportive communities or packs.
So the Rede is interpretable and it is left up to the individual to decide. As well as helping a person decide what action to take, it helps them to understand when no actions should be taken at all. This is especially true in magic. Sometimes it is the bad things in life that teach us the greatest lessons and trying to avoid them could be depriving you of something hugely beneficial. This, in turn, can be its own kind of harm. When we consider doing “no harm” it is important to include ourselves in that, and make sure we aren’t harmed by our actions either.
The idea of Threefold Return is central to Wiccan philosophy. Threefold Return is the idea that anything you do, good or bad, will come back to you three times as powerfully.
Threefold Return follows the concept of “you reap what you sow”, basically telling us that we must be aware of the consequences of our actions.
But what exactly does the idea of “threefold” actually mean?
Well, in some regards it is a literal x3, saying that the energies and actions that we take will bring back to us a result that is three times as potent. So we get great rewards for positive actions, while negative actions bring to us even worse consequences. Doing good things for people will often earn you a good reputation and people will be much more inclined to think well of you in the future, even if they haven’t met you yet, while the reverse is true of a bad reputation. A bad reputation spreads quickly and it is taken on board by more people than just the person you may have injured.
Threefold Return is also symbolic, not just literal. Wicca is a religion of balance. Three is a number of completeness: three aspects of the Goddess (maiden, mother, crone), three incarnations of the God (Oak King, Corn King, Holly King), as well as more general concepts like past, present and future. Seeing “threefold” as completeness means our actions come back to us in totality and that in the long run there is no way to avoid them.
When the concept of the Threefold Return is combined with the Wiccan Rede, it helps to keep Wiccas ethically grounded, whether their actions are physical, verbal or magical.
Where did Wicca come from?
Wicca is sometimes affectionately known as “The Old Religion”, but it isn’t all that old. Wicca was created in the late 1930’s by a man named Gerald Gardner, but it didn’t enter into public knowledge until 1951, when the laws of the Witchcraft Act were repealed in Britain.
Gerald Gardner created Wicca using elements of other occult systems and the ideas of older Pagan religions, though he also claimed he himself was initiated into a coven of witches and that the beliefs of his Wicca were based on their teachings.
So why do people call it The Old Religion?
Well, athough Wicca isn’t old, it does try to recreate an ancient spirituality. Its beliefs and practices are pretty new but its spiritual core echoes the ways of our ancestors. Wicca also attempts to balance this ancient spiritual essence against the push of the modern world, finding a place where the old ways and the new can come together. Although things may change, there are certain things about nature and humanity that are as true today as they ever were.
Since Wicca emerged in the 1950s it’s caused quite a stir and many other witch traditions have emerged that base their views on it. There are effectively only a few kinds of Wicca that trace themselves back to Gardner. The two main ones are known as Gardnerian Wicca (named after Gerald Gardner) and Alexandrian Wicca (created by Alex Sanders, a Gardnerian Wiccan).
The God and Goddess
Wiccans worship two deities, whom are most often simply referred to as The God and The Goddess. They are seen to engage with each other on a yearly dance that takes them on a sacred journey of life and death, mirroring the changing seasons and the path that mankind walks as we are born, age, die and are reborn again.
The God, sometimes called “The Horned God” or “The Lord”, is a symbol of male power and virility.
The Horned God is a culmination of the masculine in nature that has been portrayed in many images (particularly those of horned deities) since Palaeolithic times. The manly imagery of the Wiccan God is the depiction of the ultimate masculine personality. He is young and playful, then virile and sexual, and finally wizened and reflective. This is the truth of the passage of the male life from youth to manhood and then death.
The story of the God’s life is told through the yearly cycle of the Sun, beginning at the Winter Solstice where the God is reborn as the Sun and then continues to grow in power until eventually declining again as he ages and the days start to become shorter once more.
Meanwhile, as his life is measured by the passage of the Sun, the person he becomes is revealed through the natural world. He begins his life as the Child of Light, full of promise for the coming year, for a time hidden in the cradled arms of the Goddess. As he grows he becomes a young child, shown to the world in the first emergence of greenery in the land. As the Spring settles in the God takes on the aspects of the wild, emergent world and he plays with the Goddess in high spirits, which is the first stirrings of their romance. At this point he is the young Oak King, ruler of the forest. As he grows further, he falls in love with the Goddess and they are joined in sacred marriage, and the fertile land reflects their sexual joys. Then, as the midsummer Solstice hangs high in the sky, the power of the Oak King reaches its height and the God is mature in life, but with the changing Sun, he is the Oak King no more and now takes on the mantel of the Holly King. The Holly King is wise and old, and he will eventually sacrifice his life for the good of the land, after which he will take his throne in the underworld, where he shall eventually be the protector of the Goddess when she too finally makes her passage through death.
The Goddess, like the God, is embodied through the movements of nature. In Wicca she is chiefly associated with the moon, whose monthly cycle is seen as a symbol of feminine power and a reflection of the Goddess in here three aspects. For the Goddess is a triune Goddess, meaning that she reveals herself to us in three forms all at once. These three personas are called The Maiden, The Mother and The Crone, and they are manifestations of the stages of a woman’s life as she moves from childhood to old age.
As the God is the Sun, she is the Moon and so they are united in their heavenly dance. With the change of the seasons, she joins the God in her various forms, attending him as his mother when he is born, then as his maiden lover when he is grown and eventually she bids farewell to him in her dark aspect as the seasons grow cold at the end of the year.
In her maiden aspect she is young and wide-eyed. At first a child and then a nubile and fertile adolescent, ready to explore the world, indulging in life and love, expressing her journey through the beauty of the natural world.
As the Mother she gives birth to everything in nature and then acts to nurture the world. She gives of herself, sustaining the world and helping it to grow through her careful attentions. When the Goddess becomes the Crone, she is old and wise. She has many lessons to teach about life and magic, guiding us and helping us to learn in the same way that she has done.
The Goddess is the Earth Mother, who has been known by many names and that today is connected to us through Wicca. As the Earth Mother she is the divine womb, from whom all life emerges in our world and indeed, the cosmos itself.
But she is not alone in this task. She exists in balance with her consort, the Horned God, and together their sacred love ensures the fertility of creation and its constant renewal from year to year.
Over the course of a year, Wiccans celebrate a series of seasonal festivals, known as Sabbaths. There are four Sabbaths in the Wiccan year, along with two solstices and two equinoxes, that are also celebrated by the majority of Wiccans. However, the Sabbaths are the major festivals of the religion.
The Wiccan New Year begins from the festival of Samhain (pronounced: sow-in) which takes place on October 31st. The day most often associated with Halloween.
This is a time of darkness, when the world is cold and dead. This festival reflects this deathly time, as the God is now in the underworld, where he sits as Lord. However, during this time the barriers between life and death are at their thinnest and so the spirits of the other side may travel freely between their world and ours, with the God holding the doorway open for them. So Wiccans celebrate the return of their dead loved ones and commonly enact a feast in which the spirits of the dead are there dining with them.
Meanwhile, the Goddess is also passing through the underworld and so the God stands as her protector in his realm. She will be reborn on the other side of death, but for now she is reunited with her love and will eventually go on the pave the way for his return to the world.
The Winter Solstice (Yule)
On or around December 22nd is the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year and the shortest day. At this point the Sun reaches the lowest point in its power, yet this is the time that the Goddess has prepared for.
As the shortest day it is also the turning towards the light half of the year, as from now on the days will become longer and the sun will grow in power. With this rebirth of the Sun, the God emerges from the Underworld, reborn of the Goddess, who now cradles him safely in her arms.
This is the second major Sabbath of the Wiccan year, occurring on February 1st. At this point the Goddess has truly asserted herself as the mother of the God and she presents him to the world. The fertility of the Goddess and the youth of the God can be seen in the first stirrings of the natural world, as for the first time we begin to notice the return of the green world, though it is not rich in life yet.
As the world prepares to renew itself, the Goddess also prepares to renew herself once more by becoming the youthful Maiden in the coming season. But for now, she oversees the emergence of the young Earth.
Spring Equinox (Eostara)
The Spring Equinox takes place on or around March 21st, marking the start of Spring. Having left the arms of his mother, the God ventures into the fields and woodlands of the rejuvenated world and is ready to take his place as Lord of the forest. Winter is truly over and the world has recreated itself in the image of life. Likewise, the Goddess recreates herself in her Maiden form and she explores the natural world that she has given birth to. She is young and full of wonder. She meets the God in the forests and they playfully begin their romance.
With the budding of plants, the land is filled with fertility and these two young Gods are gazing upon each other with love and the first stirrings of sexual attraction.
At the end of April comes the third major Sabbath. This time acknowledges the love of the God and Goddess in its glorious totality. They are filled with sexual desire and the entire natural world reflects this. Animals mate, flowers blossom and perhaps in the distant woodland one can hear the clash of dear antlers in their prowess as they seek to earn sexual dominance. This is the sacred marriage of the Goddess and the God. He has truly taken his place as the Oak King, ruler of the living forest, while she is his queen. They are lovers and the whole world is ripe with that love.
To celebrate these things, the Wicca engage in much gaiety and in the jumping of the broomstick in order to promote fertility. Some may even take part in the traditional European ritual of the weaving of the maypole, which in its phallic aspect, is very suitable for representing the sexual and marital union of the God to the Goddess.
This is a time for great celebrations.
Summer Solstice (Litha)
In mirror to the Winter Solstice, this is the longest day of the year (around June 21st), showing the height of the Gods power as his fiery orb holds its position in the sky. But with the longest day begins the turn of the year towards the darker days, as from now the daylight hours will begin to grow shorter. The Oak King, ruler of the forest, must prepare to surrender his throne when the cold moths set in.
He is aging and he knows that he will have to make a great sacrifice soon, yet he is stoic and prepared to meet his fate with dignity.
As Autumn takes hold of the land, it is time to bring in the crops. At this time, the Goddess must sacrifice her lover so that the community can survive. As he is the natural world, he must now be cut down in the fields, so that his power can be harvested and consumed. This is the responsibility of the Corn King. He becomes the vessel of humanity’s survival in the cold times ahead.
But he will not be gone completely. The presence of the God will remain in the sparse greenery of the woodland, which will be his crown in death as he adopts the mantel of the Holly King, leaving the evergreen plants as a legacy to his power.
Autumn Equinox (Mabon)
At the Autumn Equinox, around September 21st, the Sun’s power is balanced between light and dark. This is the time of the second harvest. The Oak King is now completely cut down and stands face to face with what he will become, the Holly King. Their power is equal in the sun, and yet the future is inevitable. So the God slips into death after today and assumes his new position, taking up his crown as the Holly King.
The Holly King opens his arms to the coming darkness and allows it to dominate the world, bringing it closer to his kingdom, so that when the wheel of the year returns us to Samhain his world and the mortal world shall touch and he will be reunited with the Goddess once more.
Esbats (monthly rituals)
As well as the Sabbaths, Equinoxes and Solstices, Wiccans also perform monthly rituals known as Esbats. These rituals normally occur on either the full moon or the new moon and seen as excellent times for spell casting.
Where the Sabbaths have a large amount of significance for the God, the Esbats are truly the time of the Goddess, as under her watchful moonlit vigil, she oversees the magics of the coven. The type of magic performed at an Esbat will usually be connected to which moon it is held under, as different moons are seen as being beneficial for different kinds of spell work. But an Esbat also helps bring the coven into further unity by allowing them to meet regularly and share their energies.
Wicca and Witchcraft
Wicca is the religion of Witchcraft and as such it forms a major part of what Wicca is. You can’t practice Wicca without also practicing witchcraft, as it makes up the very fabric of Wiccan Ritual itself.
Through the ages the term “witchcraft” has meant different things to different people and usually held negative connotations. However, through Wicca, the word “witch” has been reclaimed and essentially transformed, moving it from its ancient connections and bringing it to the head of a philosophy centred on spiritual development and modern ethics. Indeed, the ethics of modern witchcraft can be very broad and personal, reflecting opinions that are as different as people themselves. However, it can certainly be said that witchcraft, whether Wiccan or otherwise, is a practice that these days reflects the needs of modern humanity in its many forms.
Witchcraft covers a large variety of practices, mostly centred around traditional magic and folklore. It can include herbalism, creating charms, making and breaking curses, scrying, dealing with faeries and spirits, prophecy and even medical care.
Today, Wiccans speak of “raising power”, which is a colourful term that describes how they tend to work their magics. Raising power for the Wiccan witch is a matter of using rituals that seek to align the power of the coven, bring it to its peak and then direct it to a purpose. Though, there is nothing to stop a Wiccan from working their own magic without aid, if they should feel the need.
The magic of Wiccan witchcraft tends to exist in two forms: spells and rituals.
Spells are specific magics that are crafted for a prearranged purpose. It could be argued that all magical acts are spells in their own right, though spells tend to have a more disposable quality, being used and then possibly never needed again.
Rituals, however, are repeated and always maintain their structure each time they are done. The most obvious magical ritual in Wicca is known as “Circle Casting”. This involves creating an area of magical safety in which other rituals and spells can be worked, with the Magic Circle keeping the energy contained within until such a time as the witches decide that they wish to direct it outwards to its purpose.
These rituals make up the heart of Wiccan practice, which is why witchcraft is essential to Wicca and why it is referred to as a “witch-religion”, because that is exactly what it is: a religion of witches.
All in all, Wicca is a religion of personal responsibility and exploring the divine through nature. It uses witchcraft and ritual to explore the mysteries within initiation and form a close connection with others in the faith.
Useful Wiccan sources
For further information on Wicca and witchcraft, you may want to check out these useful sources:
A Witches Bible: The Complete Witches Handbook, by Janet & Stewart Farrar
Witchcraft for Tomorrow, by Doreen Valiente
Circle of Fire, by Sorita D’Esté
Wicca: A Comprehensive Guide to the Old Religion in the Modern World, by Vivianne Crowley