Wicca Series: Is Wicca a “new religion”?

Every Monday and Friday in January we will be asking people questions about Wicca. Want to weigh in? Find the next question at the bottom of this post!

Should Wicca be classified as a new religion?

Johnny Rapture responds:

Yes, because of the simple reality that it is, in fact, new. Gerald Gardner created Wicca in the middle of the 20th century out of a heavy dose of esoteric Christian Neoplatonism and a smidge of British folk traditions. Of course Wicca incorporates ideas and imagery that have ancient roots, but Wicca combines these older elements in a way that is a break with the past, a fresh start. To those who still cling to Margaret Murray’s debunked theories and the myth of Wicca being a revival of ancient rural European religion, I would point out to them that Wicca (whether “Traditional” or “Eclectic”) has so very little in common with what we understand to have been those ancient rural practices, theologically or in terms of practice. On the other hand, Wicca has so much to do with the Romantic occult revival in the 1800s, Theosophy, Crowley, Mesmerism, and so on, all of which are movements and events that took place well within the time-frame generally used to describe new religious movements. (Wicca actually has a lot in common with Mormonism, another (though slightly older) new religious movement—check that out some time!)

We need to ask ourselves why some Wiccans (though I admit, a slowly shrinking minority) continue to assert the myth that Wicca is the child of pre-Christian rural Europe. I think this comes from a feeling (probably inherited straight from Gardner) that what is older, is better. Wiccans’ identity is so wrapped up in the religion’s pre-Christian self-perception that to question or reject that self-perception and classify Wicca as a new religion is upsetting—the subject is thus verboten. So, perhaps, before some Wiccans will be comfortable with Wicca being classified as a new religious movement, we must all strive to move away from the older equals better mindset. Not to do so not only ignores facts, but it is also potentially belittling to other new religious movements and would cut Wiccans off from a large pool of potentially insightful contemporaries.

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Ken Goze of the Order of Chalice and Dagger responds:

Both within and without our community, we often confront the question “Are we an old religion OR a new religion?” My answer is “yes.”
To my mind, the best answer I have seen to this question is summed up by a chant I often hear at Circle Sanctuary, a chant written at the very first Pagan Spirit Gathering in 1981:
“We are an old people. We are a new people. We are the same people, wiser than before”

If we examine “Wicca” as a religion and movement derived from what Gerald Gardner introduced to the world in 1954, there can be no doubt we are a new religion. The debates over Wicca’s exact provenance remain unsettled, but very few of us buy into the assertion that Wicca is the faithful transmission of some ancient pagan practice which survived unscathed, in secret over 15 centuries of Christian domination of the West and the massive social, military and economic upheavals over that period. The language and the ritual forms outlined in these early “books of shadows” are quite clearly derivative of literature from the Romantic Period, Freemasonry, the esoteric/ceremonial magickal societies of the early 20th Century etc. At most, elements and symbolism of some of it can be traced to perhaps the late middle ages. Most of it tracks to the late 18th through late 19th Centuries. Gardner and others welded these many fragment into a cogent religion, filling in vast gaps with well-intentioned imagination. Much of what is actually practiced on the ground as Wicca these days is even younger, arising in the 1970s, 80s and more recently. In that sense, Wicca is a thoroughly modern religion.

And yet, it is equally ancient. When we celebrate a full moon or a harvest or fertility festival, we are tapping into the same powers and honoring the same cycles as the earliest hunter gatherers. We do so in ways that are, in some sense unbroken since the pagans of old held their rituals. With no written languages and centuries of Christian missionaries, we lost the precise rituals and the trained priesthoods of old, yes. But the heartbeat and spirit of the old ways never left us. Christians held the power, and the will in the early centuries to truly wipe the plate clean of pagan influences. Why then did they cling to so many pagan artifacts and artwork? Why did they observe the same seasonal rituals as pagans, to the day, with only a thin veneer of new mythological overlay? Whose religion assimilated who? This is a powerful truth, and one that has gotten me kicked off of more than one Christian forum for raising it.

The old ways and the gods never left us. When humanity’s problems blinded us to them, they wore new masks and spoke to us in whispers until we were ready to reengage properly with them. The pagan revival did not begin with Gardner. It began in the paganism’s darkest years, when Irish monks lovingly preserved every ancient tale of Celtic mythology they could lay hands on, preserving a heritage they supposedly held in contempt as a conquering religion. It began when medieval and Renaissance scholars began to realize that the ancients of the pagan world were not ignorant savages, but people whose learning and culture often surpassed their own. Gardner didn’t invent anything: he did us the great service of tearing down the last bricks in our prison and letting us out into the light of day again. Wicca is nothing more, and nothing less, than a new set of controls to a very ancient machine. We’re finding our way back and walking forward at the same time, but our rituals are as real and beautiful as any solstice ever celebrated at Newgrange or Stonehenge.

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Lady Moonshadow Xian of House of RavenStone responds:

First I would like to establish who I am and what my background is. I am Lady Moonshadow Xian currently an active member of RavenStone Church and Seminary. I began my study of Traditional Witchcraft in 1992 at Ravenwood Church and Seminary of the Old Religion. I was initiated by Lady Sintana with Lord Starhawk as High Priest to the First Degree at Ravenwood, to the Second Degree by Lady Deveyana Augusta Acting High Priestess with Lord Michiel as Priest of the Ravenwood Council of Elders and to the Third Degree by Lady Larina and Lord Gaelin High Priestess and High Priest of Ravenwood 2000 to 2009 with the assistance of Lady Sintana and Lord Merlin as Elder High Priestess and High Priest.

.The opinions I express here are my own and are not given to be representative of any group I have previously or am currently a member of.

Should Wicca be classified as a new religion?

That depends on what you consider “New”. Is it decades, centuries or millennia?

Wicca as it is practiced today is reconstructed from what has been passed down through families and traditions. It is what is left after millennia of active persecution, subversion and diversion by the “book” religions.

I personally do not believe that anyone can prove an unbroken line of knowledge or initiation back to pre-Christian times.

On the other hand the old ways persist in everyday culture. No matter how hard they tried the traditions still stand even if no one remembers why. Everyone wants to be a June bride. Why because it is rude to be wed in the month of May, the honey moon of the Goddess and God. The Easter Bunny brings colored eggs each spring. People gather around bon fires/bale fires to celebrate in the fall while they share the harvest feasts. Gourds are carved and lit from within to be placed by the door to let wandering spirits know the house is protected and a place was set for the dead. Evergreens are brought into the homes at the winter solstice and decorated to bring light and bounty for the next growing season. Large rodents are watched as a sign of Spring to come. Even after the reason for the action has long been forgotten or overlaid with the lore of the newer religion the old ways continue.

The knowledge of herbal medicine, the times for harvest or planting, time to go hunting or fishing, how to predict the weather and much more continue to be passed from generation to generation, teacher to student, father to son, mother to daughter in the best of oral tradition. Much is lost due to the lack of formal structure and the loss of people before they have passed the knowledge on.

We take the scattered pieces of the Old Religion, gathering as much as we can and assemble them in a way that makes sense in our modern world. We honor the Elder Gods and live by that which endures.

Wicca as it is practiced today is “new” but it is built upon the foundations of the “old”.

Next question:

Many traditions of Wicca began as “cults of personality”. How should traditions prepare to survive beyond the loss of their founders?

If you’d like to weigh in just e-mail me your short response (250-500 words) before Jan 10th. It’s sfoster at patheos.com.

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius Platonicus

    Ken Goze: “The old ways and the gods never left us.”

    The rest is but sounding brass.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius Platonicus

    Ken Goze: “The old ways and the gods never left us.”

    The rest is but sounding brass.

  • http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/ P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    In regards to Ken’s following statement, “It began in the paganism’s darkest years, when Irish monks lovingly preserved every ancient tale of Celtic mythology they could lay hands on, preserving a heritage they supposedly held in contempt as a conquering religion,” I could not disagree more.

    The Irish Christians were fervently proud and connected to their pre-Christian Irish heritage (to what extent various parts of it are “Celtic” other than in a linguistic sense is very debatable in individual cases–both mythic and linguistic elements in any Celtic-derived culture are not necessarily automatically “Celtic” in a universal sense). The general view of the Irish Christians, if we go by what they’ve actually written, is that their pre-Christian ancestors were perfect in every way, save that they did not have the Gospel, which is a bold statement indeed.

    Further, the Irish writers were not passive recorders of material, they were active composers of it–some tales are probably wholly invented, while most others are at least adapted versions of tales with some traditional motifs, often altered in interesting ways (sometimes to accord more with Christianity, sometimes to be at greater odds with it). Theirs was not a mere antiquarian interest in preserving something that had passed away, it was the continuation of the poetic tradition that had been going for centuries, re-shaping material in new ways for the new (and often exciting, to the Irish) world which had Christian and classical mythology in it to draw upon for material as well.

    While “continuation” of the tradition is still the net result, it is far from accurate to say that the products of that continuation are in any sense unaltered “old religion” matters–and, in any case, the actual content of modern Wicca that legitimately derives from this “preserved” tradition is very slight indeed, and most (but not all) Wiccans wouldn’t be able to say anything accurate about Irish mythology if pressed. When most Wiccans can’t name a “Celtic god” other than “the Green Man” or “the Horned One,” there is a problem, when over 250 deity-names have survived from Gaul alone, and there are at least scores of them from Ireland.

  • http://aediculaantinoi.wordpress.com/ P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    In regards to Ken’s following statement, “It began in the paganism’s darkest years, when Irish monks lovingly preserved every ancient tale of Celtic mythology they could lay hands on, preserving a heritage they supposedly held in contempt as a conquering religion,” I could not disagree more.

    The Irish Christians were fervently proud and connected to their pre-Christian Irish heritage (to what extent various parts of it are “Celtic” other than in a linguistic sense is very debatable in individual cases–both mythic and linguistic elements in any Celtic-derived culture are not necessarily automatically “Celtic” in a universal sense). The general view of the Irish Christians, if we go by what they’ve actually written, is that their pre-Christian ancestors were perfect in every way, save that they did not have the Gospel, which is a bold statement indeed.

    Further, the Irish writers were not passive recorders of material, they were active composers of it–some tales are probably wholly invented, while most others are at least adapted versions of tales with some traditional motifs, often altered in interesting ways (sometimes to accord more with Christianity, sometimes to be at greater odds with it). Theirs was not a mere antiquarian interest in preserving something that had passed away, it was the continuation of the poetic tradition that had been going for centuries, re-shaping material in new ways for the new (and often exciting, to the Irish) world which had Christian and classical mythology in it to draw upon for material as well.

    While “continuation” of the tradition is still the net result, it is far from accurate to say that the products of that continuation are in any sense unaltered “old religion” matters–and, in any case, the actual content of modern Wicca that legitimately derives from this “preserved” tradition is very slight indeed, and most (but not all) Wiccans wouldn’t be able to say anything accurate about Irish mythology if pressed. When most Wiccans can’t name a “Celtic god” other than “the Green Man” or “the Horned One,” there is a problem, when over 250 deity-names have survived from Gaul alone, and there are at least scores of them from Ireland.

  • Mormons Are Christian

    I fail to see any similarity between Wicca and Mormonism.

    Mormons’ theology is based on First Century Christianity, not Fourth Century Creeds. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) views on Baptism, Lay Ministry, the Trinity, Theosis, Grace vs. Works, the Divinity of Jesus Christ comport more closely with Early Christianity than any other denomination. And Mormons’ teenagers have been judged to “top the charts” in Christian Characteristics by a UNC-Chapel Hill study. Read about it here:

    http://MormonsAreChristian.blogspot.com

    Those who would denigrate the Mormon religion, usually are mis-informed.

    Mormons have a better understanding of Christianity than any other denomination, according to a 2010 Pew Forum poll:

    http://www.pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx

    11 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were non-Trinitarian Christians. Those who insist on a narrow definition of Christianity are doing our Republic an injustice.

    • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

      So, is this a serious comment on the actual content on this page or do you just troll around looking for anywhere the word ‘mormon’ appears so you can play apologist?

    • http://pagancollegestudent.blogspot.com/ WarriorPrincessDanu

      You claim Mormonism is nothing like Wicca, so to prove this you compare Mormonism to the rest of Christianity? So… apples are different from oranges because apples a different from bananas?

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      Most reform movements that emerge from other religions think of themselves as being “more to the original ideas” than anyone else. (Whether they “really” are is another matter entirely…They always are in their own definitions, however.) You’ve just proven that to be true!

  • Mormons Are Christian

    I fail to see any similarity between Wicca and Mormonism.

    Mormons’ theology is based on First Century Christianity, not Fourth Century Creeds. For example, the Church of Jesus Christ (LDS) views on Baptism, Lay Ministry, the Trinity, Theosis, Grace vs. Works, the Divinity of Jesus Christ comport more closely with Early Christianity than any other denomination. And Mormons’ teenagers have been judged to “top the charts” in Christian Characteristics by a UNC-Chapel Hill study. Read about it here:

    http://MormonsAreChristian.blogspot.com

    Those who would denigrate the Mormon religion, usually are mis-informed.

    Mormons have a better understanding of Christianity than any other denomination, according to a 2010 Pew Forum poll:

    http://www.pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx

    11 of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were non-Trinitarian Christians. Those who insist on a narrow definition of Christianity are doing our Republic an injustice.

    • Anonymous

      So, is this a serious comment on the actual content on this page or do you just troll around looking for anywhere the word ‘mormon’ appears so you can play apologist?

    • WarriorPrincessDanu

      You claim Mormonism is nothing like Wicca, so to prove this you compare Mormonism to the rest of Christianity? So… apples are different from oranges because apples a different from bananas?

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      Most reform movements that emerge from other religions think of themselves as being “more to the original ideas” than anyone else. (Whether they “really” are is another matter entirely…They always are in their own definitions, however.) You’ve just proven that to be true!

  • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

    I meant to write my reply in the body of this post but I lacked time so I’m putting my two cents worth in the comments. Once again, I feel I should remind folks that I am an odd Wiccan, so of course my opinions aren’t at all representative of any group or movement.

    I’m not delusional about the researched history of Wicca and religious Witchcraft. I don’t think older is better. I’ll take an aspirin over a leech any day. Yet I feel this dissonance when I hear Wicca and religious Witchcraft referred to an a “new religion”.

    I think this dissonance comes from my feeling that this modern movement and interpretation does have deep continual roots. Roots that perhaps have evolved over time. Roots that were given room to bloom 60-odd years ago. By saying we are new we not only divorce ourselves from an origin mythology, but we deny any ties or responsibilities to those who may have come before.

    I have always been concerned with my ancestors, both biological and spiritual. I’m not the only Witch to feel that way. Morpheus Ravenna in the American Mystic documentary talked about the Witches from ages past accepting her as one of them. I have ancestors I work with who practiced different forms of native magical spirituality: hoodoo, Cherokee, Appalachian granny magic and on through the ages. Some of these women I have a close biological connection to and have actually met while living, others have come to me through ancestor work and dreams.

    While I can’t control what others classify my religion as, nor do I have any beef with historians who have certain criteria of provability, I personally cannot call my religion new. I will call it modern, because it most certainly is a modern interpretation, but to call it new jars the feeling of continuity I have with those who came before. Particularly those whose closets were so deep that they would laugh at our concerns for secrecy.

  • http://www.patheos.com Star Foster

    I meant to write my reply in the body of this post but I lacked time so I’m putting my two cents worth in the comments. Once again, I feel I should remind folks that I am an odd Wiccan, so of course my opinions aren’t at all representative of any group or movement.

    I’m not delusional about the researched history of Wicca and religious Witchcraft. I don’t think older is better. I’ll take an aspirin over a leech any day. Yet I feel this dissonance when I hear Wicca and religious Witchcraft referred to an a “new religion”.

    I think this dissonance comes from my feeling that this modern movement and interpretation does have deep continual roots. Roots that perhaps have evolved over time. Roots that were given room to bloom 60-odd years ago. By saying we are new we not only divorce ourselves from an origin mythology, but we deny any ties or responsibilities to those who may have come before.

    I have always been concerned with my ancestors, both biological and spiritual. I’m not the only Witch to feel that way. Morpheus Ravenna in the American Mystic documentary talked about the Witches from ages past accepting her as one of them. I have ancestors I work with who practiced different forms of native magical spirituality: hoodoo, Cherokee, Appalachian granny magic and on through the ages. Some of these women I have a close biological connection to and have actually met while living, others have come to me through ancestor work and dreams.

    While I can’t control what others classify my religion as, nor do I have any beef with historians who have certain criteria of provability, I personally cannot call my religion new. I will call it modern, because it most certainly is a modern interpretation, but to call it new jars the feeling of continuity I have with those who came before. Particularly those whose closets were so deep that they would laugh at our concerns for secrecy.

  • Wefneck

    “Gardner didn’t invent anything: he did us the great service of tearing down the last bricks in our prison and letting us out into the light of day again.”

    This bit made me a little teary, well put my friend :)

  • Wefneck

    “Gardner didn’t invent anything: he did us the great service of tearing down the last bricks in our prison and letting us out into the light of day again.”

    This bit made me a little teary, well put my friend :)

  • Fasfsa
  • Fasfsa

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