Wicca and the Fork in the Road

It sometimes feels as if every word used to describe someone of the Pagan Persuasion is problematic. The word Pagan is so full of problems that people have been running from it the last few years. Witch isn’t much better, having several different definitions depending on the circumstance. (I’m not implying that all Witches are Pagans or vice versa, simply that both words have several meanings.) The word Wicca has become just as problematic as Pagan and Witch, something that a recent post on Sermons From the Mound brought home with vivid clarity.

Weirdly, Yvonne’s post had nothing to do with the definitions of words and wasn’t meant to be a critique of how the word Wicca is used, but that’s what I got out of it. Several times in the piece Yvonne makes references to “watered down Wicca,” “bastardization,” and the “misinterpretation of real Wicca.” I don’t think Yvonne is purposefully trying to be offensive, and as an initiated Witch, I’m completely sympathetic to what she’s articulating, I just don’t agree with it.

Wicca was originally meant to be a term that applied only to people who were initiated into a specific tradition of Witchcraft. There was no way to become a “Wiccan” (or become one of “the Wicca”) without an initiation. This was the system of Gerald Gardner (or perhaps his initiators), his initiates, and later his imitators and admirers. Almost every “Wiccan Tradition” owes a tip of the hat to Gardner, his system became the dominant one (even in traditions that might have predated Gardner, this is called the “Gardnerian Magnet” by scholars), and most groups that use the word “Wicca” can trace their origins to Gardner, one of his followers, or his Book of Shadows.

In certain situations the idea that the word Wiccan can only refer to an initiate is perfectly acceptable. If I’m on an “Alexandrians Only” Facebook group and their definition of the word Wicca only includes lineaged* initiates than I have to run with that definition. It’s the original definition of the word, and it’s what I agreed to when I signed up for. I may not completely agree with it, but in that certain situation I have to accept it. The problem occurs when someone tries to police the word Wicca outside of that specific context. What might be “watered down Wicca” to some might also be an extremely important and valid form of religious expression to someone else.

There are a few definite “fork in the road” moments when it comes to the use of the word Wicca. The first one occurred in the early 1970′s when the first “how to” books began to appear. Now nearly anyone could get their hands on a version of Gardner’s system, which was especially appealing in the United States, a country far too big to make an “initiation only” Witchcraft viable. (We are certainly not “Gardnerians All,” but the influence of Gardner’s system is impossible to ignore.) By 1975 there were complete collections of Witch Rituals available, most notably Raymond Buckland’s The Tree (which uses the term Seax-Wica in the title), Ed Fitch’s Magical Rites From the Crystal Well, and Lady Sheba’s Grimoire. It became completely possible to create your own Wiccan Tradition in the privacy of your living room, as long as you were willing to change the definition of the word Wicca.

And that’s exactly what happened, during the late 1980′s, the definition of Wicca essentially changed (especially in the United States, less so in Great Britain). A lot of that change can probably be attributed to Llewellyn Publications which released Wicca: A Guide For the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham in 1988. (Cunningham’s book was not the first to feature the word Wicca in the title, but it’s been the most enduring and influential. The first book to use Wicca in the title appeared in 1981 and was entitled Wicca: The Ancient Way.) After that, the flood gates opened up and now there are probably hundreds of books with the word Wicca in them, all of them basically articulating the idea that Wicca is a spiritual practice that doesn’t require an initiation.

To put it bluntly, it’s impossible to control the definition of a word. Once the black cat got out of the box there was no getting it back in there. What we have now are essentially two different definitions of the word Wicca, both equally valid depending on the context. Wicca is both an initiatory tradition and a form of spirituality which can be practiced by almost anyone. If someone has thirty books with the word “Wicca” on the spine of them you certainly can’t blame them for thinking they are justified in their use of the word. The only way to put the cat back in the box would be to essentially burn every book with the word Wicca in the title, and shut down all the webpages too. That’s obviously not going to happen, and it’s probably just best to accept that things have changed and move on.

Eclectic Wicca isn’t watered down or bastardized, it’s just different from the traditional version. To the people who practice the non-initiatory forms of Wicca their rituals and rites are just as vital and real as anyone else’s. Besides, I don’t think everyone is meant to walk down the path of the initiate anyways, what everyone should do is find the system that works best for them and then use it. If someone’s version of Wicca feels a little less “serious” than my own, who cares? I don’t have to practice it that way. If there was only one proper way to practice Wicca there wouldn’t be dozens of initiatory traditions, Eclectic Wicca is simply another step along that journey. No one is suggesting that anyone can be an Alexandrian or Gardnerian**, and I believe that initiatory traditions have a long and bright future ahead of them, but it’s hard for me to see Wicca as existing only in that context. I sympathize with my cohorts who prefer the original definition of the word, change is hard, but it’s also inevitable and impossible to escape from.

Given that some of Wicca’s ritual structure (and terminology) owe a great deal to Freemasonry it’s not surprising that initiation plays an important part in many Wiccan traditions. Initiation is in the very DNA of Modern Witchcraft, but it’s also possible that Wicca has grown in ways that have taken it further and further from its origins. It’s hard to picture Gerald Gardner imagining just how many Wiccan traditions have evolved (and prospered) since the 1950′s. Wicca launched a full-scale Pagan Revival that shows no signs of stopping, we’ve come an incredibly long way in just 70 years.

We’ve reached another fork in the road and with it new questions. Is Wicca a spirituality ready to take its seat at the table with the other great religions of the world? Or is it a secret society with a complex set of rituals? If it’s a faith then it’s subject to all the watering downs and bastardizations that have befallen (and often benefitted) all of the world’s other religious paths. I understand The Wicca who walk the path of the initiate and bemoan the changes that have taken place in the last couple of decades, but I also see the hearts who have benefitted from that change. Who am I to tell them they don’t have a seat at the table?

*lineaged is not a real word, but it sounds like it should be so I’m running with it.

**I’ve seen Gardnerian spelled with both an “a” and an “e,” my first draft used the “a” spelling, but after some constructive criticism (and checking a few email lists) I’ve reverted to the e spelling.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • kenofken

    I think you nailed it perfectly. There is room for initiatory and eclectic Wicca, and the debate over who is “real” is absolutely unproductive. Pagan paths in general are not in the market for popes and bishops and competing claims to apostolic authority or any of that nonsense. I’ve spent time in both modes – initiatory trad and solitary and partway back, to a trad which arose from a core partnership of some of us who share common values and practice. I found value in all of these paths, and the only initiation which meant anything to me was the one which took place before the gods themselves.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “Or is it a secret society with a complex set of rituals?”

    Considering how many lineaged, prominent, capital-T traditional, Wiccans are involved in heavy interfaith work, I think the synthesis of those two paths have already happened. Most Trad Wiccans I meet hold both definitions in their heads at the same time. Wicca is a valid public faith deserving a spot at the interfaith table *and* a mystery tradition in which only the initiates know certain things.

    What I think is interesting is how many eclectic groups have become recognized and respected traditions over the past few decades. COG is full of them. So there is, to a certain extent, a dialog, a path, connecting eclectic Wicca and those “of the” Wicca.

  • sacredblasphemies

    Just as a brief corrective note, you spelled “Gardnerian” wrong…

    • JasonMankey

      Actually, I’ve seen it spelled both ways on numerous occasions. I would agree that the spelling with the “e” makes the most sense, and I think I used to spell it that way, until someone told me I was spelling it wrong.

      • sacredblasphemies

        That person was wrong. His name was spelled “Gardner” not “Gardnar”. When turning a name into an adjective (or a noun), you don’t change the spelling of the original name.

        Just so you know, I liked your piece. It was insightful. Please don’t take my minor spelling personally.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    “Eclectic Wicca isn’t watered down or bastardized, it’s just different from the traditional version.”
    Surely, if you remove any personal stigma from the word ‘bastardised’, Eclectic Wicca *is* a bastardised form of (Gardnerian) Wicca?

    I have to wonder when something stops becoming something. When is Wicca no longer Wicca? There has to be some kind of central core beyond a liking of the term itself, surely?

    To compare to that easily definable religion, Christianity. Someone ceases to be Christian when they cease to follow the teachings of the Christ, as laid out in scripture. Where does Wicca (as initially created by Gerald Gardner) cease to be Wicca?

    • JasonMankey

      There’s a whole world of shared language between traditional (and several traditions use their own terminology too) and eclectic Wicca, and a lot of similar ritual practices.

      When does Wicca cease to be Wicca? Probably when you stop casting circles, calling quarters, and deity. Between eclectic and initiatory there’s a great deal of shared languages, holidays, ritual practices, etc.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        The obvious reason for the shared language is because eclectic Wicca is derived, in part, from traditional Wicca.

        Casting circles, calling quarters and deity all seem to be frequently present in eclectic forms of Paganism. I am not saying any definition or defining factor is wrong, merely observing that the line between Eclectic Wicca and Eclectic Paganism is an extremely fuzzy one.

        • JasonMankey

          For all intents and purposes “Eclectic Paganism” is “Eclectic Wicca.” There’s an obvious reason for this, the first published Pagan rituals were Eclectic Wiccan ones.

          But traditional Wicca has also been influenced by eclectic paths. If that were not the case there would only be one type of traditional Wicca.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Once again, it seems to be a case of ambiguous labels.

          • http://www.facebook.com/henry.buchy Henry Buchy

            by my lights there is only one type of traditional wicca, those who trace lineage back to Gardner, though different orders of it.

          • JasonMankey

            Then do Alexandrians not count as traditional?

          • http://www.facebook.com/henry.buchy Henry Buchy

            they trace their line back to Gardner. Alex Sanders was initiated by Gardner so they are another order of traditional wicca.

          • JasonMankey

            Alex Sanders was not initiated by Gardner. Sanders always claimed to have been initiated by his grandmother, with another story claiming he was initiated by one of Patricia Crowther’s initiates.

          • http://www.facebook.com/henry.buchy Henry Buchy

            sorry my bad, still he’s downline from Gardner via Patricia Crowther, via one of her downline, so he’s part of that lineage.

        • http://www.facebook.com/ZeroNightskye Kelsey Scott

          I would say it’s when you stop believing in the dualism and complementary forces of the universe.
          For context, I do not fully consider Dianics as Wiccans. Dianic Witchcraft is perhaps a better word. In my opinion, you can’t just focus on one force (Female over male, light over dark, etc). You need to also believe in it’s opposing and complementary force. Even hard polytheistic Wiccans like myself still, more often than not, honour both a patron God AND Goddess.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            It isn’t just Wicca, to be fair.

            Many religious systems categorised as ‘Pagan’ seem to have fuzzy borders.

            Dualism may be a central part of Wicca, but it doesn’t automatically follow that being a dualist makes one Wicca, does it? It is like saying that Heathens honour Tyr, but honouring Tyr does not necessarily make one Heathen.

            The lack of clarity is something that has always confused me about Paganism (in the big umbrella sense).

          • http://www.facebook.com/henry.buchy Henry Buchy

            “The lack of clarity is something that has always confused me about Paganism (in the big umbrella sense).”

            keeping it fuzzy and unclear allows for more inclusiveness, and so allows for growing a movement.

            So yep, there is a dilution due to that, and as our host here points out ” A lot of that change can probably be attributed to Llewellyn Publications ….”

            when I was made a witch around 1975, it wasn’t introduced to me as a ‘religion’. There was no set theology except a simple principle that everything is alive and has being with varied degrees of consciousness and intelligence.
            It was up to the witch to apply/supply their own theology. I didn’t even hear of wicca until the late ’80′s.
            Gardner established wicca, or so the scholars like to remind us. If that is the case, then Gardnerian wicca would be the measure of what is traditional.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I don’t see any need for inclusion in a religious system, unless you are chasing numbers.

            I see Gardnerian Wicca as the source of Wicca, but not the only source of Paganism. (Hardly surprising when I am not Wiccan, myself.)

            My only real issue with the fuzzy inclusivity of the terms used in the Pagan umbrella is that it becomes very ‘insider’.

            Tell someone you are Christian, they will have an idea what your beliefs are, but may ask about denomination. To tell someone you are Pagan, you pretty much have to give a full dissertation on what that could potentially mean and what it means to you, as an individual.

            Labels are supposed to be useful ways of describing something quickly and easily. Paganism has lost that (if it ever, indeed, had it.)

          • http://www.facebook.com/henry.buchy Henry Buchy

            that’s part of it. modern paganism isn’t a religious system as much as a social/political one. It’s a movement supposedly comprised of adherents to various religious systems, the predominant one being various forms of wicca. It may not be the source of paganism but it is the source of modern paganism. So the scholars tell us.
            It is ‘chasing numbers’ in a sense, why else would there be the plethora of ‘how to” and DIY books published over the last 30 years or so? How to and DIY books are for folks who haven’t done those things before.
            As far as terms being fuzzy, like I mentioned in my previous, I was a witch for almost 15 years before I encountered the word ‘wicca’, another 5 or so years before I encountered the term pagan as the name of a movement. The terms were less fuzzy. A ‘pagan’ in that context was anyone following a belief system that had preceded christianization. Another was anyone not an adherent of christian, judaic, or islamic faith.
            Wicca was not synonomous with witchcraft but a subset of it. The old soundbite “wiccans are witches but not all witches are wiccan”. The advent of Llewellyn’s stable of wiccan writers popularized the term wicca as synonomous with witch.
            wicca’s inclusion at that time rested on the idea based on Murray et al. When modern scholarship presented the idea that wicca as developed by Gardner was not a pre christianization system, the old definition of modern paganism lost its relative clarity.
            Now, for all practical purposes the terms are fuzzy because the labels are self applied with no criteria. To be pagan/wiccan/witch all that one has to do is say they are.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            “It may not be the source of paganism but it is the source of modern paganism.”
            I would disagree with that. Druidry, for example, evolved alongside, not from Wicca. Then there are the various reconstructionist paths.

            I would say that Eclectic Paganism owes more to the Golden Dawn and similar occult systems than it does to Wicca.

            “modern paganism isn’t a religious system as much as a social/political one.”
            I would have to agree with this, but I find it very disheartening. That is just a case of co-opting symbology for the purpose of advancing a set of political ideals. At the risk of invoking Godwin, I can think of another case where that happened.

            “When modern scholarship presented the idea that wicca as developed by Gardner was not a pre christianization system, the old definition of modern paganism lost its relative clarity.”

            I think this is what I do not understand. I see no reason why the age of Wicca should have any bearing on the clarity of terminology. Yes Gardner crafting a magical system (which shifted to a more religious model, with the interference of Doreen Valiente), but there is no reason why that could not be seen as distinct an entity within Paganism as Ásatrú is.

            In fact, Describing either Wicca or Ásatrú as Paganism doesn’t seem any more useful, to me, than describing Hinduism as Paganism.

          • http://www.facebook.com/henry.buchy Henry Buchy

            “It may not be the source of paganism but it is the source of modern paganism.”
            I would disagree with that. Druidry, for example, evolved alongside, not from Wicca. Then there are the various reconstructionist paths.

            I agree. you didn’t add the next sentence, “so the scholars tell us. what I wrote above IS the party line. I’m just relaying how I saw things unfold over the last 30-40 years from my own experiences in the so called pagan community. Here, check this out if you wish to-

            to give you an idea. note: my final reply to Maeve Kelly was blocked- I still have it if you’re interested.
            if you ask me, recons are the modern pagans, and I’m not a recon.

            “I think this is what I do not understand. I see no reason why the age of Wicca should have any bearing on the clarity of terminology.”

            it did due to wicca no longer being seen as the continuation of a pre christian religion. It no longer fit into the definition of pagan held at that time.

            You can also see how the terms become muddied in the exchange with Dr. Kelly linked above. where he begins speaking of Gardnerian craft, the uses the term “The craft” as synonomous with that, and then synonomous with pagan religion.

            “In fact, Describing either Wicca or Ásatrú as Paganism doesn’t seem any more useful, to me, than describing Hinduism as Paganism.”

            It’s only useful as I mentioned before, to be more inclusive so as to grow a movement.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I think that, now, what we need is some exclusivity.

            At the moment, all Pagan faiths are seen as much the same thing, by those outside of the Pagan bubble. Much like all forms of Christianity are seen as much the same thing, or all forms of Islam.

            Really, though, Paganism is better compared with Abrahamism than of any constituent cults of it. (Even then the comparison is heavily flawed.)

            It might seem odd, but divided we actually have more strength, at least when it comes to interfaith.

            At the moment, all of Pagandom is represented by a very small number of individuals (often from somewhere on the Wiccan spectrum). If there was greater separation (but still the same solidarity), then there would be more voices at the interfaith table from what is currently called ‘Paganism’.

            Just to put into terms so simple even I understand what I am saying, at the moment, when there is interfaith work going on, there will be Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Pagans present. With the degree of separation I suggest, that would change, so that there would be Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Wiccans, Heathens, Hellenics, Pagans, and more besides.

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