Wicca and modern witchcraft: a history
Wicca is a specific religious belief system that firmly has its roots in 1940s England. Claire Slack reveals how a new magical movement flourished in the 20th century
While it has often been used as an interchangeable term to describe any form of witchcraft in popular culture, Wicca is a specific religious belief system that firmly has its roots in 1940s England.
Wicca is known for its worship of both a god and a goddess and its eight ‘sabbats’ (annual festivals) that celebrate the changing seasons and connection to the Earth. Although Wicca has often received negative press for supposed links to dark demonic magic and Satanism, the reality is very different. Wiccans today use their take on magic to conduct religious rituals, drawing on pre-Christian traditions and cultures, but always aligned with a code of “harm none and do as you will”.
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The story of Wicca begins in the New Forest, southern England, with a man named Gerald Gardner. Around the turn of the 20th century there had been a revival of interest in folklore, mythology and magic. This revival saw people such as archaeologist and Egyptologist Margaret Murray attempt to prove that witch-cults formed the major, ancient religions of western Europe, and that these witch-cults were still practising in secret in 1920s England. While these theories were largely dismissed in academic circles, it was heartily adopted by Gardner, who was fascinated by this unbroken line of witches, whose traditions claimed ancient Pagan origin. Gardner had long explored spiritualism and the occult, but in 1939 he claimed to have been initiated into an actual ‘Coven of the Old Religion’ as he wandered through the New Forest.
Whether he was actually initiated into an ancient witchcraft coven or not (something that is still debated today), Gardner began to publicise his experience and eventually formed his own coven to ensure the survival of these rituals and traditions.
Out in the open
In 1951, two things happened that helped Gardner push his witchcraft into the public domain. Firstly, the 1736 Witchcraft Act was repealed, making the public aware, once again, of the idea of witchcraft in Britain. Secondly, a former filmmaker, Cecil Williamson, opened the Folklore Centre of Superstition and Witchcraft on the Isle of Man, where Gardner was designated ‘resident witch’. While public interest in witchcraft was increasing around this time, many were uneasy at the thought of magic being practised in what was still very much a Christian country. Williamson’s first attempt at launching a museum of witchcraft in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, was run out of town by locals unhappy at having occult ritual objects on their doorsteps. Gardner and Williamson eventually parted ways, supposedly disagreeing on how public the beliefs of witchcraft should be. In 1954 Gardner published Witchcraft Today, a book that shared the rituals and history of what we now call Wicca, and numerous Wiccan covens began to form across England. Big names in Wicca throughout the 1960s and 70s included Doreen Valiente, now known as the ‘Mother of Modern Witchcraft’, and Alex Sanders, who adapted Gardner’s traditions to create the more ceremonial Alexandrian Wicca.
Despite the best attempts of the press to link Wicca to devil worship, Wicca thrived and eventually found itself being practised on American shores with the formation of Raymond and Rosemary Buckland’s coven in 1962, and the opening of the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft and Magick on Long Island, New York, four years later. Wicca in the US thrived as its practices strongly connected with new counter-cultural movements of the time, such as feminism and environmentalism.
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Today, Wicca is practised by many thousands of people across the world.
Temples, traditions and TikTok
Today’s witches come in all shapes and sizes, with many sharing their beliefs onlineAlthough contemporary witches are connected by a belief in magic, what this magic looks like can vary hugely. While their craft typically draws upon folk traditions, mythology and pre-Christian beliefs from around the world, 21st-century witches span a variety of genders, cultures and religions. Some might adopt complex rules and rituals, while for others, simple acts of cooking and creating are powerful enough to be considered magic. Witches can be found in druid groves, heathen temples, Wiccan covens and even on TikTok, as young witches use modern technology to connect with other members of the global community.
Claire Slack is a folklorist who is currently studying for a doctorate in heritage with the University of Hertfordshire. Her research focuses on contemporary Pagan ritual at sacred historic sites across Britain
This article was first published in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed