The phrase “I know it when I see it” might have been coined just for Wicca. I know Wicca when I see it or practice it, but it’s something I have trouble defining. Unlike the word Witchcraft, which can have multiple meanings and often depends on context, Wicca is generally thought of as a being more specific. For many people Wicca is a religion or spirituality, and that’s certainly the case for me, but it’s also not one of those things in the traditional sense.
Christianity is generally defined by a belief in Jesus as the son of (the Jewish) God, or perhaps an adherence to the teachings of the man Jesus. Those are very specific things, and require certain ways of thinking. Wicca by contrast doesn’t require a belief in the teachings of any one specific individual, or the adherence to any one particular deity. Going either further afield one can be an atheist Wicca, a Neo-Platonist Wiccan, and a polytheistic Wiccan. I’ve met all three in my life, along with virtually every layer in between.
Unlike other “faiths” Wicca is not really about theology, and there’s no litmus test for belief. What defines Wicca are its practices, it’s about how we do things not about how we believe. This is really different from other belief systems, and as a result the word Wicca is hard to precisely shoe-horn into a dictionary. Take this definition of Wicca from the Oxford English Dictionary:
“A form of modern paganism, especially a tradition founded in England in the mid 20th century and claiming its origins in pre-Christian religions.”
That definition is so lacking in any information that it could easily be linked to traditions like Spiritual Druidry, which is also a form of Modern Paganism founded in England in the mid 20th Century. Sadly the Oxford Dictionary feels like it hasn’t been updated in awhile, for while Wicca draws inspiration from pre-Christian religions, most practitioners have abandoned the “unbroken chain back to pagan antiquity” stuff that was common forty years ago.
The Merrian-Webster definition is a little more up to date, and a bit more specific, but not much:
“a religion influenced by pre-Christian beliefs and practices of western Europe that affirms the existence of supernatural power (as magic) and of both male and female deities who inhere in nature and that emphasizes ritual observance of seasonal and life cycles.”
Yes my practice was influenced by pre-Christian ideas and I certainly believe in magick along with gods and goddesses, and I also practice seasonal observances. But again, those things could apply to a whole host of Modern Pagan traditions that don’t think of themselves as Wiccan or even Witch-like. And then there are Wiccan covens who don’t worship or honor any male deities, along with practitioners who don’t believe in deities as generally defined. Wiccan practices and ideas have also arisen from a large variety of sources. In this day and age they are certainly not all from “western Europe” and I know lots of Wiccans who work with Egyptian and Middle Eastern deities, while believing things that come from Asia and the Americas.
I realize that dictionaries are designed to offer quick and easily digested definitions, but easy has never worked with Wicca. What truly makes my practice different from that of a lot of my Druid and Re-constructionist friends is just how I practice and use language during ritual. Wicca is a tradition best defined by its practices and use of language, not so much by the beliefs of its adherents.
So what makes a ritual Wiccan? I think it’s the following elements:
–Casting a circle that: signifies sacred space, protects the people within it, and stores energy until it’s ready to be released. The use of the circle in this way is rather unique to Wicca. While all sorts of magickal traditions have called for ritual circles over the centuries, I’m not familiar with any that use it as both a shield and as a battery to store energy. That last part is especially unique.
–Calling the four energies of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. There are no hard and fast rules as to what exactly those energies are (or will be) when called. Some people do it to acknowledge the four traditional cardinal points, others are calling directly to angelic beings, and others to elemental energies. What’s important here is that it’s generally done.
–The use of something approximating the language of polytheism. This is a tough one, as there are many Wiccans who believe that “all goddesses are one Goddess” or use language to that affect. But if I was a casual bystander and was simply listening to a Wiccan ritual with calls to “Goddess and God” and a recitation of The Charge of the Goddess (Listen to the words of the Great Mother who was of old called: Artemis; Astarte; Diana; Melusine; Aphrodite; Cerridwen; Dana; Arianrhod; Isis; Bride; and by many other names”) I’d probably think of those participating in that ritual as polytheists even if that’s not how they define themselves.
Celebration and ritual that honors and acknowledges the Earth and the turn of the seasons. We might not call of our sabbats by the same name (Lammas, Lughnassa, Lughnasadh), but nearly all Wiccans celebrate or acknowledge them. The sabbats that make up the Wheel of the Year aren’t unique to Wicca, but are an important part of it. Most Wiccan ritual also acknowledges the sacredness of the Earth, though not all Wiccans are environmentalists or even good stewards of the Earth.
The use of certain specific tools and ritual implements. One doesn’t need an athame to practice Wicca, but it’s a tool unique to the practice. The use of spell-books goes back hundreds if not thousands of years but the term Book of Shadows for such a book is rather modern. I’m not sure that tools are needed for effective ritual, but there are a set of tools associated with Wicca that are most certainly a part of the tradition.
Touching the divine. One of the things I’ve always most valued about my Wiccan experience is that there’s never been any barrier between myself and the divine. In my own practice the divine refers to “the gods,” and lots of them. In our house we worship Pan, Aphrodite, Cernunnos, Ariadne, Dionysus, Brigit, and Persephone and many more, but never every Wiccan’s spiritual experience is centered on deity . There are many who find the divine within nature, or in more abstract ways. Wicca offers a framework that allows us to tap into what we hold most sacred, and we all experience it a little bit differently, and that’s OK.
While Wicca is often thought of as a fertility religion due to its focus on the Wheel of the Year and the fertility of the Earth, I tend to think of it as the rebirth of magickal religion. There have been lots of magickal orders over the centuries (the most famous being the Order of the Golden Dawn) but Wicca took that magickal framework and added a healthy amount of spirituality. In the Golden Dawn one could be Jewish, Christian, or Pagan, because its religiosity was not very well defined. There are Wiccans who harbor positive feelings about Jesus, but I don’t know many Wiccans who are also practicing Methodists. Wicca also has holidays (the sabbats) and esbats (full moon celebrations) that are absent from most magickal orders.
What we today call Wicca was originally an initiation-only tradition, but over the years it has evolved to become more open and accessible. The definition of a word is more about a how it’s used in the here and now, and not about how it was used forty years ago, which is why I feel comfortable writing about “Wicca” in a way removed from it’s initiation-only roots. (It does go without saying that many specific traditions still require an initiation to be counted among their ranks.)
Wicca A Synonym For Witchcraft?
The first public person that we might today call a Wiccan was a retired English civil-servant named Gerald Gardner (1884-1964); and he identified as a witch. He practiced witchcraft and was a part of what he called the “witch-cult.” He did mention “the Wica” as a group of people within witchcraft, but it was not a term he used for the practice. In the years following his death the term “Wicca” began to be used to describe the spiritual system he first publicly articulated.
For many Wiccans the terms Witchcraft and Wicca are synonymous, but that does not mean that all witches are Wiccans. There are lots of people who identify as a witch whose practices are very different from those of Wicca. I like to describe myself as a Wiccan-Witch, which indicates that I practice a certain type of Witchcraft of the Wiccan variety.
What Wicca Is Not
Any “Wiccan” group that uses a ritual structure that doesn’t include the circle, quarters, calls to deity, and ignores the sabbats might be a Pagan group but it is most certainly not a Wiccan one. There’s no such thing as “congregationalist Wicca” and Wiccans don’t sit on pews with their collective attention focused only on one individual.
Wiccan ritual is almost always interactive. Wiccan circles and covens worship and celebrate together, and while there are often certain people “in charge” of a rite, ritual is never a passive activity. Wiccans do stuff, and they do it together.
Wicca is not a cult, there is no “King of the Witches” or any one particular person in charge. Covens are autonomous and operate independently of each other, even within the same tradition. And I’d be wary of anyone setting themselves up to be the grand poo-bah of several covens and/or circles. All within Wicca are Priests and Priestesses regardless of whether or not they lead rituals.
Wicca’s Ambiguity is Part of It’s Appeal
I have practiced Wicca with people who all held different ideas on the nature of deity. I have practiced it with folks who all honored different goddesses and gods in their personal practice. I have raised energy in Wiccan circles with people who don’t believe in magick, and raised energy in those same circles with some of the most talented magicians I’ve ever met. Not once did any of us ask the other to take some form of litmus test to determine who were “the real Wiccans.” It was enough to simply agree on how to proceed with a ritual.
Because of it’s openness Wicca has become a home for a variety of different cosmologies and beliefs. What most Wiccans share is a deep belief that their rituals “work.” Wicca provides me with a framework to participate in ecstatic and community building rituals, while strengthening my ties to the deities that I honor in my practice.