"Religion. A daughter of hope and /ear, explaining to ignorance the nature of the unknowable//
—Ambrose Bierce o thousands of practitioners, Witchcraft is more ^^^^ than just a religion; it is a way of life, involving a complex mixture of magic, ritual custom, and reverence for deity. In its principal modern form, Wicca traces its origins back to the early 1940s and a British occultist named
Gerald Gardner. It was Gardner's frustration with both Christianity and Ceremonial Magic (which uses psychic skills through rituals, traditions, and the laws of nature), the only "occult" alternative, that prompted him to create something different.
Gerald Gardner's religion was based on pre-existing spiritual concepts, which he combined in a new way to form a new system. His mixing of ceremonial magic with hereditary Witchcraft and Masonic ritual was nothing less than genius. And, with the help of people like Doreen Valiente, Dion Fortune, Ross Nichols, and other notable scholars, he was able to create a new and dynamic religion.
Witchcraft, or Wicca, as we know it today, is not the sole survivor of antiquity, nor is it an entirely modern creation. Rather, it is a blend of many different spiritual persuasions. Despite the fact that Pagan rites, Shamanic customs, and Goddess worship predate Christianity, there is still no reliable evidence of an established Wiccan religion before 1951.
After the final repeal of the English Witchcraft Act in 1951, Gerald Gardner broke the vow of secrecy he held with the New Forest Coven. He published several books and soon the whole world knew that Witchcraft was alive and well and being openly practiced.
From the early 1960s and on, people involved with Witchcraft, magick, and related Pagan ideals began to speak out. More books appeared on the market, covens were started, and Wicca was on its way to becoming a recognizable religion. Today, there are hundreds of Wiccan organizations in the United States and Europe that support Gerald Gardner's ideas.
One reason that Witchcraft has become so popular is that it tends to focus on the individual. Wiccans are taught to think for themselves, take responsibility for their lives, and live by the Wiccan Rede, a sort of a witches' golden rule, which says, "An ye harm none, do what ye will."
Most Wiccans are attracted to the Craft because it helps them regain their personal power and rekindles their spiritual desire. In some cases, the lure is the Goddess herself. The idea of balance between sexes, rather than male superiority, and the feminine leadership in the Wiccan priesthood are very attractive to many Wiccans.
Modern Witchcraft has two branches, Devotional and Functional. Devotional Witchcraft deals primarily with the worship of the God and Goddess, whereas Functional Witchcraft employs the use of magic in its rites. Both classes work with the phases of the moon and the changing of the seasons to enhance mystical rites.
Within the Wiccan movement, there are various subgroups, known as Traditions. Traditions are Wiccan spiritual systems built from an individual or group's emotional and learned experiences that are repeated and shared over a number of years, eventually creating an organized belief and ritual practice. Most of the well-known Traditions that have managed to survive are descendants of original or hereditary sources. Others are the modern creations of scholars and notable authors.
Gerald Gardner set the precedent for the modern Wiccan movement. Sometime during the late 1930s, Gardner was introduced to a hereditary Witch named Old Dorothy Cluterbuck, who initiated him into a group called the New Forest Coven. Prior to this, Gardner had been involved with the Masons, Oriental mysticism, and the Golden Dawn system of ceremonial magic. Gardner's new religion did not blossom overnight. It took years to perfect, with the input of other Witches and occultists. Gardner's publication of three books, High Magick's Aid (1949), Witchcraft Today (1954), and The Meaning of Witchcraft (1959), brought the Wiccan ideal out into the open.
The religion that Gardner created, Gardnerian Wicca, stresses the worship of the Goddess and the Horned God. Covens are always headed by a High Priestess, and they have three degrees of initiation, paralleling those of the Masons. Religious celebrations occur at the eight seasonal shifts, and full moons are considered to be a time of great power and potential.
Most Gardnerian groups work skyclad (naked), and polarity (the balance between the masculine and feminine) is emphasized. Covens tend to have equal numbers of male and female initiates, and couples are encouraged to join. During ritual, power is raised through chanting, meditation, and symbolic sexual union, as enacted during the Great Rite. Symbolic tools include the four weapons of ceremonial magic (wand, athame, chalice, and pentacle), in addition to the scourge and cord.
Alexandrian Wicca, an offshoot of Gardnerian Wicca, was founded in the early 1960s by Alex Sanders and his wife, Maxine. Alex Sanders proclaimed himself "King of the Witches"; he claimed to have been initiated at age 7 by his grandmother. This was later found to be untrue, as it was revealed he had been initiated into a regular Gardnerian coven.
Alexandrian Wicca tends to focus on training, and it places much more emphasis on ceremonial magic, than most Gardnerian groups do. Alexandrian Wiccans make use of Kabbalah, the magical system of the ancient Hebrews, and Enochian, the magical language of angels, which has its own alphabet and grammar. Covens usually meet once a week for training, and at full moons and seasonal shifts for worship. Most Alexandrian Witches work skyclad, use the same symbolic tools as Gardnerians, and stress initiation as the formal means of entrance into the group.
There are two distinct branches of Dianic Wicca. The first is Old Dianic, formed in the early 1960s by Morgan McFarland and Mark Roberts. This original branch of Dianic Wicca places primary importance upon the Goddess, but still recognizes and honors the Horned God as her consort. Emphasis is on reclaiming female power and the goddess within. Rituals are eclectic. Tools and times of celebration are the same as Gardnerian Wicca.
The second branch of Dianic Witchcraft is feminist in orientation. Only women are allowed, and only the Goddess is worshiped. Often covens have lesbian participants only. Most groups are loosely structured, rituals are often experimental and spontaneous, and symbolism will vary from one group to another. The focus is always on the female aspect, and there is usually a political agenda attached to the group.
This branch of Wicca covers groups and individuals who do not follow any one tradition, but who rather incorporate the elements of several different traditions into their practices. They work with different deities from different pantheons, rather than concentrating on one specific god and goddess. Eclectic Wiccans mix and match symbols, myths, and ceremonies according to preference and experience.
Witchcraft practiced within a family unit that lays claim to a lineage predating the Gardnerian revival is considered Hereditary or Traditional. In the early days of Wicca (1960s and 70s) this was the bandwagon to be on. Many, many people claimed a Wiccan heritage that extended from the dawn of time and was passed down to them by their grandmothers. It seems that in the 1960s and 70s grandmothers were a busy lot, baking, sewing, and initiating the wee ones into Witchcraft!
Generally, the Hereditary Witch comes from a family that practiced folk magic and herbal medicine. In the case of a true Hereditary Witch, there will be cogent evidence of the direct line of descent from ancestors who were initiated Witches. The largest factions of Hereditary/Traditional Witches are found in Europe, where the roots of the Wiccan tree are firmly planted. These Witches pass down their Craft within the family circle. Very rarely will they allow an outsider in and they usually only initiate within the bloodline.
Hereditary/Traditional Witches have a slightly different method of doing things than the post-Gardnerian Wiccans do. Generally, most do not use the standard set of magical tools, but rely on everyday items to serve as symbols of their craft. Importance is placed on nature deities, fertility, charms, amulets, and herbal potions. Full moons are generally used for divination and the working of magic, and seasonal celebrations focus on the prosperity and protection of the family unit.
Italian Witchcraft, called Stregheria or Strega, dates back to the 14th Century and is steeped in ancient folklore. It is believed that Strega descends from an ancient tribe that worshiped the moon and used nature and spirits to work its magic. The religion acknowledges the polarity of gender and personifies this in the form of God and Goddess. Their year is divided into the God months (October through February) and the Goddess months (March through September).
In keeping with tradition, the eight seasonal shifts are acknowledged and celebrated within a ritual context. The four tools of magic (wand, athame, chalice, and pentagram) are accepted as symbols of power and potential. Magic is considered to be an integral part of the religion, as are spells, omens, and charms. Talismans are used to manifest desire.
Strega recognizes a spiritual teacher in the form of Aridia, who is sent to earth to form a covenant with her followers. All those who follow Aridia and her Old Religion are blessed with insight and personal power. A great deal of importance is placed on lunar rites, star magic, and mythical prophecy.
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