When I asked Colorado College students to describe Wicca, “something witchy” was the most common explanation after “I have no idea.” In CC’s classically innovative style, community members hard pressed for a definition came up with guesses ranging from “a fun search engine” to “an innovative way to clean ears” to “similar to a wiki link.”
So, what is Wicca? The oversimplified answer is modern-day witchcraft. However, Wicca is a complex and diverse religion that, despite its foundations in ancient and medieval times, has its roots in the 20th century. Wicca is the best-known form of Neo-Paganism, a term which encompasses a plethora of religious and spiritual values, but pays specific attention to honoring the Earth. Other commonalities among sects of Wicca are the practice of magic and worship of a female deity called “the Goddess.” Common uses of magic, sometimes spelled “magick” to distinguish from stage magicians, include incantations and symbolic ritual or ceremonial actions. Due to the lack of centralized authority and a focus on small covens, there is a great deal of variation in Wiccan practices. Because people are largely unfamiliar with Wicca, there exist a great number of misconceptions about it. One of the largest misunderstandings lumps the identity of the medieval witch together with the identity of modern witch. Despite this misconception, the origins and practices of each identity are vastly different.
Wicca took off in England in the 1950s after the repeal of archaic witchcraft laws. A retired British civil servant named Gerald Gardner published “Witchcraft Today” in 1954 and formed a coven of followers. Prior to publishing the book, Gardner had been involved in occult practices during his time traveling throughout Asia and had worked extensively with more obscure readings of Western witchcraft. While he wasn’t necessarily a religious pioneer, he familiarized people with Wiccan values, initiated them into small, organized covens, and made sure the culture was known and could survive worldwide. The movement spread rapidly in the United States during the late 1960s when many subcultures held a high regard for nature, unconventional lifestyles, and spirituality independent of traditional religion.
Covens are typically small, with around 10 to 15 members who enter through an initiation ritual. A member who becomes familiar with magic and ritual can undergo further levels of initiation, rising through ranks that ultimately end in the authority of priesthood in the witch realm. Rituals vary between sects, but magic may include old folk healer practices and spells passed down generation to generation, or new spells and approaches to magical manifestation; Wicca magic is not static. Features of Wicca magic often incorporate herbs, candles, tarot cards, magical oils, incense, or crystals. Members conduct important rituals surrounding new and full moons, equinoxes and solstices, Halloween, the beginning of February, Mayday, and the beginning of August. The eight solar holidays, or sabbats, are all very important, comparable in weight to the 26 lunar ones (about two per 28 days), depending on the individual group’s tradition. Meditation, the sharing of a ritual meal, and rites involving ceremonial magic to invoke help from the deities are also important components. Some versions of Wicca are polytheistic, with collections of deities from around the world, many belonging to the Roman and Greek pantheons, while other versions are strongly monotheistic, worshipping only the Goddess. Some are duotheistic, worshipping one goddess and one god. Wicca can also be pantheistic, meaning that there is no individual God; rather, the universe as a whole is God, as the combined substances, forces, and laws that are manifested in the existing universe. Many Wiccans abide by the ethical code called the Rede, which states, “If it harm none, do what you will.” Though medieval witchcraft was inextricably linked to Satan, the term “witch” in Wicca has different connotations.
While Gardner pulled heavily from the witch crazes and trials of medieval Europe, the modern witch or Wiccan presents much differently. In the past, witches were those who made a pact with the devil and practiced harmful magic on the world around them. When one thinks of a time period characterized by witchcraft, images of bubbling cauldrons and broomsticks may appear. The era is better characterized as one of rampant fear and hardship. The citizens of Europe were indeed terrorized, but not because of women’s supposed weak morals and subsequent susceptibility to the devil’s seduction. The severe weather patterns, droughts, blights, famines, and the spread of disease were caused by natural phenomena. People’s fear of the devil was very real, and witchcraft seemed like a logical way of explaining the cruel state of the world without the scientific information that exists today. Accused witches were women 80 percent of the time, and many were already alienated members of society who made easy scapegoats. The use of torture often brought about false confessions, and, in a cyclical way, these confessions provided more “evidence” that the devil was present.
Dr. Margaret Murray was a British folklorist commissioned to write the entry on witchcraft for the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1929. Instead of delving into the plethora of competing, though not necessarily comprehensive, accounts and works on the matter, she spun her own tale and presented it as if it were the leading mainstream theory. She accounted that “witches had been up to something of which society disapproved, but it was in no way supernatural; they were merely members of an underground movement secretly keeping pagan rites alive in Christian Europe.” Although her story wasn’t fantastical in its reductionist, rational approach, it forced the imagery of broomsticks, animal costumes, representations of the devil, and other coven gatherings into public consciousness. Once Murray’s work was reprinted and became influential to well-known authors of the time as well as filmmakers, journalists, novelists, and thriller writers, the individual reader or viewer’s imagination could run wild. And thus, with time, “Charmed,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” were born. Although Murray’s theories were later disproved, the modern witch became immortalized in popular culture. For whatever reason, we are pulled towards the supernatural and the unexplained. The disprovement of Murray’s theories left a vacuum in place of what was, for a short time, understood as an academic truth. And perhaps this excited people. Therefore, while Murray’s description of witchcraft lost credibility, the same witch now took on a host of potential identities and truths in the public realm of sensationalism.
Today, Wiccans exist in all shapes, sizes, and sects around the world. They have a large presence in the Western United States, and fortunately for those reading this, there is a large Wiccan presence right in our backyard in Manitou Springs. However, through the CC student poll, I found that only one person out of 75 identified as having ever practiced it, and said so hesitantly. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to collaborate with a self-described “Wiccan from the West Side.” While he is open about his practices, he wished to remain anonymous to be as candid as possible, so for the sake of this article we’ll refer to him by his chosen pen name, Witga. It’s important to remember that Wicca practices and devotion range largely between individuals and groups, and, like other religions, cannot be distilled into an all-encompassing experience. Nor should Wicca be trivialized to spells or sparkly Urban Outfitters crystals and other witchy aesthetics rampant in pop culture; even though some of these objects are used in ritual, the objects without the proper consideration of their role in the religion can be problematic. All that aside, Witga’s views open a window into an understanding of a spiritual section of the world that many are unfamiliar with.
“Am I a witch? I am witchy, doing witchy things, deliberately using magic daily in small ways and occasionally in large ways in my life … I don't generally say out loud that I'm a witch, because I don't feel the need to publicly claim the label, and I prefer to avoid the little battles I sometimes encounter when I name myself that way publicly.”
In an earlier discussion, Witga said that while he is open about these practices, he isn’t outwardly vocal about them out of the fear that the public judgement could impact his professional life. He discussed how his practice of his religion in the Southeastern part of the country was similar to his experience in Colorado Springs: “It’s relatively hard … and people have to be pretty dedicated to it for it to be worth the hassle, the social cost, and the potential economic cost.” By contrast, there is often a greater sense of acceptance on the West Coast. It’s not so much a question of whether you're a sorcerer, but rather “what kind of sorcerer, what flavor?”
“Am I a Wiccan, a more religious category than ‘witch?’ I have fully and happily participated for decades in Wiccan rituals and other events. I share the central tenet of the Covenant of the Goddess in my envisioning a world where all living beings are honored and cherished as manifestations of the Sacred.”
It’s important to note that although in the popular sense, witch or Wiccan seems to have a female connotation, gender identity is not a constraint. The fluidity in Wicca actually makes for a community of inclusion not reduced to a hierarchy of binaries. Because Wicca is so tied to the Earth, mother Earth, and is cognizant of the moon and of other seasonal cycles that often parallel cycles in the female body, it is easy to draw these conclusions. However, the celebration of such natural powers is not exclusionary—quite the opposite. Although Wicca does not have the same type of historical textual base as some other religions and, in some forms of practice, can consist of cherry picked, romanticized, and hyperbolized imagery of pre-Christian fertility cults, scholar Diane Purkiss argues that this unconventional fluidity doesn’t matter. That the development of Wicca was independent from classic academic approaches of “this is what happened” versus “this is what could have happened,” is actually liberating, as it exists separately from the patriarchy and from the traditional writing of history that is by men, for men. So in this deviation from traditional religion to one that values the Earth, feminism, and spirituality, anyone should be able to support Wiccan beliefs.
Witga explained his individual involvement with Wicca. Since moving to Colorado he has not joined a coven or other group. “Personal mystical experiences starting in my childhood let me know that magic is afoot in the world. Denying the evidence of my experience has always seemed illogical to me; I respect logic too much to not embrace magic in my life. I speak only of my own response to my own experience, and I have no desire to convince anyone else that there are such things as the mystical or magical, or to convert anyone to my ways of perceiving or naming.”
Much of his personal practice tends toward gratitude and deeper connections with the world around him. "I do magical things which may or may not have direct, physical effects on the world. Those magical things definitely do have effects on me personally, however, and the resultant changes within me cause me to feel, think, and act differently, thereby resulting in indirect but perceptible effects in my world. That is how my magic and logic combine in daily praxis.” It’s undeniable that our perceptions and attitude towards the world at a given moment play a large role in how we experience it.
Wicca is not confined to mysticism, but it can be an important aspect for those who practice. Witga offered an example of his practices:
“I happily lived in a house across the street from a college campus, but had to move to be closer to an aging family member years ago, and decided to rent my old house to college students. I loved my house for many reasons, one of the most magical being the boulders powerfully constituting much of its century-old foundation.”
He continued, “I was concerned about strangers occupying my former home, and I wanted to not worry about it all the time, so I performed magic, what I call witchcraft, on my house's space. This included putting a boulder at each of my yard's corners and other powerful places on the property.” As he placed the boulders, he said some words which “made a difference to my feelings about the safety of the house and the safety of the renters who would be occupying it.”
“The rituals I performed, along with the engaging effort of moving the boulders, valuably changed me. I felt calmer and surer about renting the house to strangers. I had a new body-memory of working to keep the house and its occupants secure. I was at once more relaxed about my new renting endeavor and also more aware and more vigilant about ways to keep it a safe place for all concerned.”
Magic was not the only way Witga had kept his house safe; he screened prospective tenants and checked references very carefully, in addition to adding new locks and an alarm system. “Over time, I added an inscription in new concrete at a doorway, welcoming specifically well-intentioned folks. This is at the core of my practice: magical work is not instead of mundane action, but in addition to and interwoven with it. They synergize with each other, with each affecting the other and their weaving creating something new that is not strictly of just one or the other.”
Witga finished the interview by explaining, “I have always lived in a timeless and temporal magical community of witches in a sense, even though I'm usually a solitary practitioner. My consciously experiencing and naming it that way is a function of my awareness of it and deliberate engagement with it.” With such dedication, it becomes evident that Wicca as a belief system can be integrated into one’s personal identity.
“I do magic because it makes me happier and more capable, just one more tool in my life along with psychology, physics, sociology, math, a car, a wrench, and electricity. I identify as a witch because it gives me a trans-generational sense of connection with other magic users and witches going forward as well as back in time,” Witga says. There has been a decline in the number of Americans practicing organized religion. Coupled with other factors, many theorize that this has led to a decline in community and a disconnect from “greater goods.” Using Wicca as a tool rather than a truth may be an appealing route for people looking for a larger connection outside more mainstream religion.
This piece can’t possibly serve a comprehensive explanation of the religion, nor is it meant to convince you to practice or not to practice Wicca. Rather, it seeks to shed light on a lesser-known religion and set of values and to give voice to at least one kind of identity within the Wiccan community. Wicca has a unique historical place at the crossroads of magic, other religions, and reckoning with history. No matter its origins or misconceptions, the foundational, universal aspects of Wicca lend to inclusivity and offer many opportunities for further exploration.
Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019