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Wiccan Religion: Definition & History

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will provide a definition of Wicca and detail its basic components. Wicca will be placed in the larger context of European polytheism, and the neo-pagan movements of the 20th century.

Wicca: Definitions and Context

Wicca is a European neo-pagan religion that focuses on reverence for nature and the worship of Gods and Goddess. For most Wiccans, reverence for what is often referred to simply as the Goddess is of particular importance, as Wicca has consistently stressed the importance of feminism and gender equality. Magic, ritual, and divination are frequently important aspects of Wiccan practice, collectively defined under the term witchcraft.

Pre-Christian European Religions: History and Background

A Swedish tapestry depicting three Norse Gods. From left to right: Odin, Thor, and Freyr~
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Polytheistic religions existed throughout Europe for thousands of years prior to the spread of Christianity. Most of these European polytheistic religions have been lost to history. The Greco-Roman polytheistic traditions were well recorded, and the Nordic polytheistic religion was partially recorded by Icelandic historians in the first centuries after Iceland's conversion to Christianity. Regarding the pre-Christian traditions of the British Isles, very little is known. The Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf offers a few significant glimpses of polytheistic practices and the Táin Bó Cúailnge provides insight into the pre-Christian religion of Ireland. However, both of these texts were written versions of much older oral epics recorded long after polytheism ceased to be practiced in the British Isles. Because the pre-Christian cultures of Western Europe were either illiterate or only partially literate, the majority of what we know about the pre-Christian religions of Western Europe comes from archaeology.

Throughout the Medieval period and into the Modern Period, many European folk traditions existed outside the scope of orthodox Christianity. Many of these folk traditions involved healing and medicine, as medical science had yet to be developed. A local folk practitioner might prescribe certain herbs or protective amulets to address certain illness, or other problems. At different times, these folk practitioners were accused of being witches, and frequently executed. Although it is impossible to know for sure, most historians agree that these kinds of folk traditions and remedies probably had nothing to do with older pre-Christian polytheism. They were contemporary folk traditions.

With all of this in mind, by the early 20th Century some unconventional religious seekers sought to revitalize the pre-Christian polytheistic traditions of the British Isles and other parts of Western Europe. These various attempts came to be known as neo-paganism. Some of these neo-pagan practitioners argued that the pre-Christian European religions had never really died out, but had persisted in secret for more than 1,500 years.

Gerald B. Gardner

Gerald B. Gardner was born in England in 1884. Spending much of his childhood in warmer climates outside of England in deference to his asthma, Gardner returned to England as an adult. In the years after World War I, Gardner became involved with various occult societies and alternative lifestyles. According to Gardner's own account, he was contacted during this period by group of witches led by a woman known as Old Dorothy. These witches explained to Gardner that they were the keepers of an ancient polytheistic religion known as the Carft or Wicca. The word wicca is an Old English word for witch. Gardner recounts that he was initiated into this religious group in 1939.

At this time in England, old laws were still on the books that made it illegal to publish books about witchcraft, but these laws were repealed in 1951 due to lobbying efforts by several occult groups. Under the pen name Scire, Gardner first published a fictionalized novel called High Magic's Aid that dealt with witchcraft in England. This work of fiction was followed by two non-fiction works directly addressing witchcraft and what would become known as Wicca, Witchcraft Today (1954) and the Meaning of Witchcraft (1959).

Wiccan symbol representing the Goddess and the Horned God.~
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