Wicca is a modern neo-pagan religion that is based upon an ancient pagan religion that was common among the Celts of northern Europe, and in Britannia (so named by Julius Caesar who conquered and made it part of the Roman Empire) where the mystic cult of Druidism originated based upon the “Mother” fertility goddess whose consort was a horned god. It is a mystery religion that has different theological concepts or denominations, some monotheist, original goddess worship, such as the Dianic Wicca, Cochrane's Craft, and polytheism. Denominations are considered traditions within the Wiccans: Gardnerian and Alexandrian Wicca follow the concepts of Gerald Gardner.
According to Janet Farrar and Stewart Farrar, authors of the 1987 book The Witches' Goddess: The Feminine Principle of Divinity (pp. 2-3):
Wiccans regard the whole cosmos as alive, both as a whole and in all of its parts. ...such an organic view of the cosmos cannot be fully expressed, and lived, without the concept of God and Goddess. There is no manifestation without polarization; so at the highest creative level, that of Divinity, the polarization must be the clearest and most powerful of all, reflecting and spreading itself through all the microcosmic levels as well.
While traditionally pagan, there are some who are atheists.
While Wiccans are modern versions of witches practicing forms of witchcraft, it has existed in some form of fashion dating back to prehistory. Prehistoric art depicts magical rites to ensure a successful hunt and tribes passed down any knowledge of the mystical rites and knowledge of the use of herbs. Shamans can be considered the earliest and oldest practitioners of religious rituals through dreams, meditative trances and the use of herbs and concoctions from nature found in the oldest religions.
Witches are mentioned in ancient texts of Sumeria and Babylonia as well as in the Holy Bible of Christianity. Sumerians and Babylonians invented a religion called Demonology. This brought about the division between a “good” witch and a “bad” witch – White Witch and Black Witch, the latter practicing in the dark arts that stained the reputation of the religion as well as producing more evidence for the Christian Church to condemn them. Originally, however, Demonology was based upon the belief that the world contained spirits, and most of the spirits were hostile (demons). Each person had a spirit and that spirit was expected to protect them from demons and enemies of goodness, which could only be diminished or fought by the use of magic. These magical ceremonies and rituals demanded the use of specific tools like amulets, blessed daggers, chalices and so on; as well as the use of incantations and exorcisms. The modern version is a combination of ancient knowledge and practices of Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans. Witches in ancient Egypt were valuable due to their wisdom and knowledge of the use of amulets and spells. The ancient Greek religion that used magic spells was known as Theurgy, which unite oneself with the divine. Another form was known as mageia, which was primarily sorcery, but this was primarily used to harm enemies of their clients.
The Celtic people were a diverse group of the Iron Age in human history that flourished between 700 BC and 100 AD in northern Europe and the British Isles, and whose lineage can be traced to Indo-Europeans where their witchcraft knowledge most likely came from. While the Romans conquered the Celts, both in northern Europe and Britannia, they also feared them as fierce warriors as well as the mystics of the Celtic people.
Celts were deeply spiritual people who practiced dual divinity – a god and goddess; the goddess becoming the primary divinity venerated which is considered the oldest form of religious worship in human history.
They believed in reincarnation and life after death in a place called Summerland, where one awaited rebirth. Sometime around 350 BC, a priest class emerged known as the Druids, who developed the old religion into a hierarchy of priesthood of the Celtic religion who were men and women of wisdom among the tribes who served the community not just as religious leadership but as teachers, judges, astrologers, healers, midwives, and even bards. They loved the land and nature, and venerated the oak tree as a divine element in nature. They also attributed magic within nature, like in the mistletoe plant.
It was the Indo-European heritage that the practice of concocting potions and ointments, casting spells, and performing feats of magic that was derived and by the time Christianity had spread and wiped out the Celtic religion, it became known as witchcraft – a forbidden practice and those practicing it were accused of consorting with the Devil (Satan, Lucifer). This period of human history is known as medieval. In the ancient period of witchcraft, when Christianity was new, folk magic and the use of herbs, potions, et cetera; did not involve demons or Satan. In fact, spells were devised to keep evil spirits away. Anglo-Saxon Christians used spells sometimes that were mixed with Christian religious elements, like reciting the Lord's Prayer while brewing a healing potion. What had happened was that pagan practices had become part of the Christian religion in another form, something not uncommon in the history of world religions.
In the 5th century, the Christian theologian, Saint Augustine of Hippo, claimed that all pagan magic and religious practices were invented by Satan in order to lure humans away from Christian doctrine. However, he also stated that witches or those who followed the practices of Satanism were delusional to think that any power was greater than God and that magic was either a trick or just an error of the pagans. Thus, if witches had no true power, the Church should not concern itself with spells or other forms of witchcraft. This view was accepted for several centuries after the establishment of the Christian Church and its canon of doctrine and texts.
In 820, the Bishop of Lyon and others who believed that witches could do harm like create bad weather, destroy crops, shapeshift, and so on was not true. St. Boniface declared in the 8th century that believing in witches was un-Christian. Charlemagne and the 8th and 9th century kings of the Franks decreed that burning witches was a pagan custom that should be punishable by death. However, various churches chose another path between the 7th and 9th centuries influencing civil law to create anti-witchcraft legislation that made it criminal to be a witch and/or perform witchcraft.
The word maleficium (see sorcery) was used to describe this practice and it would become a book of “knowledge” about the dark side of witchcraft and the intent to use magic and certain mystical rituals to do harm – all in association with Satan. Witchcraft and magic became a crime in civil law as well as heresy to the Church, and a crime against God. The Council of Leptinnes of 744 drafted a List of Superstitions which prohibited sacrifices to saints and other practices resembling witchcraft; as well as requirement to renounce the works of demons, like the old Norse gods Thor and Odin.
Before the 13th century, witchcraft has been a collection of beliefs and practices that promoted healing through spells and herbs, ointments, and concoctions; forecasting the future through divination and clairvoyance.
The leading theologian of the 13th century was St. Thomas Aquinas, whose work was adopted as the orthodoxy of the Church, argued that the world was full of evil and dangerous demons that lead people into temptation, and this doctrine led to the Christian association of sex and witchcraft.
The Inquisition was formed to address these issues and put on trial those accused of heresy. It was a segment of the Catholic Church and Pope Gregory IX was assigned the duty of carrying out inquisitions as well as to train individuals within the Dominican Order of monks acting in the name of the Pope with his full authority, using established inquisitional procedures. It was Pope Innocent IV (ironic name) that authorized the use of torture in 1252. Eventually, secular civil courts became involved in the persecution of witches in a time when the church was not separated from state judiciary. The Inquisition culminated into four phases: the Papal Inquisition beginning in the 1230s, the Spanish Inquisition (considered the most ruthless) from 1478 to 1834, the Portuguese Inquisition from 1536 to 1821, and the Roman Inquisition from 1542 to 1860.
While the Inquisition began in the late Medieval Period, the period of witch hunting was not earnestly advocated until the early colonial period in Europe around the 15th century. In England, the first Act of Parliament was directed against witchcraft that was passed under the influence of Archbishop Thomas Arundel in 1401. The act, called De haeretico comburendo, named witchcraft or sorcery as a part of heresy and that unless the accused witches denounced those beliefs, they were to be burned at the stake. It was thought that a witch could not be resurrected if burned.
Queen Elizabeth I passed broader law in Witchcraft Acts in 1563 and King James I in 1604 that made witchcraft a felony, which allowed accused witches to be tried in courts of common law. The Inquisition was not located in England, but the Witchcraft Act compared to it. (Also see: Witchcraft Act of 1736)
By the middle of the 15th century, in central Europe, torture was commonly inflicted upon heretics who were suspected of magical pacts with Satan or misconduct (like sexual) that was caused by demons that increased the number of confessions, which in turn further alarmed the public that witchcraft was everywhere and anyone could become possessed or coerced by evil demons. Under the pain of torture, and in order for the victims to be relieved of such infliction, they confessed to all sorts of ridiculous actions; like attending ceremonies held by Satan who appeared as a goat, confessing that they kissed Satan's anus as a display of loyalty, admitted to casting spells on neighbors, having sex with animals in a Satanic ritual, or causing crops to die or storms.
Johannes Nider wrote Formicarius between 1435 and 1437, during the Council of Basel; however it was not published for the public until 1475. It is, specifically the fifth section, it dealt with witchcraft and affirmed that torture was being used regularly. Unlike his predecessors, he was skeptical of the claims that witches fly by night and other things people confessed during duress of torture, saying anything in order to stop the pain.
Pope Innocent VIII, in his papal bull of 1484, claimed that Satanists in Germany were meeting with demons, casting spells that destroyed crops and aborted infants, and he complained that the clergy were not taking the threat of witchcraft seriously enough. He asked two inquisitors of the Catholic Church, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, to publish a full report on the suspected witchcraft, and in 1486 the friars published Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches) which reputed the old orthodoxy that witches were powerless in the face of God, and established new policies pertaining to witches, sorcery, and pacts with the devil through demons. It held that Christians were obligated to hunt down witches and kill them. The Malleus was printed 13 times in forty years, despite being banned by the Church in 1490. It was a reference book on witchcraft for witch hunters and prosecutors, with entries like the suggestion of stripping the suspect naked and look for a mole that was a sign of consort with either familiars or demons. It devised methods of witch hunting such as swimming and pricking and barbaric methods of torture beyond a normal person's imagination. Execution was recommended, according to the findings, by burning, hanging, pressing, or drowning. It became popular to associate the practices of the witches' Sabbaths (Sabbats) with the desecration of the Eucharist and crucifix, and involved orgies and sacrifice of infants. Most suspected of witchcraft were women who were regarded as most susceptible to the Devil's temptations.
In the 16th century, outbreaks of witchcraft hysteria and mass executions began to appear more frequently. In 1515, the authorities in Geneva, Switzerland, burned 500 accused witches at the stake; in 1526, in Como, Italy, there were as many as 1,000 executions; and in France, witch hysteria in 1571 claimed that over 100,000 witches were allegedly roaming around the countryside causing havoc.
Jean Bodin wrote a book in 1580 entitled On the Demon-Marnia of Sorcerers initiated the practice of using testimony of children against parents via entrapment and instruments of torture.
James VI of Scotland took witchcraft seriously in 1591 and authorized the use of torture of suspected witches. Dozens of condemned witches in the North Berwick area were burned at the stake, which makes it the largest witch-hunt in British history. While England executed less than 1,000 witches and in Ireland only 4, Scotland during King James reign executed an estimate of 4,400. It got so bad in Scotland that it was not considered necessary to obtain a confession before conviction and execution, just a general reputation as a witch was enough for indictment and conviction.
Some brave souls disagreed. In 1584, Reginald Scot published The Discoveries of Witchcraft in which he tried to prove that witches did not exist by examining the impossible magical feats they were supposed to have committed. Scot believed that the prosecution of those accused of witchcraft were irrational and not becoming of Christians; and he held the Roman Catholic Church responsible for its inception. All known copies of the book was burned when James I became king in 1603; but a few remaining copies, very rare and valuable, still exist.
The witch hunt reached its peak in Europe during the early 17th century. The witch-hunt went across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. The Connecticut Witch Trials started in 1647 and continued for another fifty years; but the most infamous of the New World witchcraft incident was the Salem Witch Trials.
|Gerald Gardner, Wicca Founder|
The last execution for witchcraft in Europe took place in Poland in 1793, by then the true practitioners of witchcraft had slipped into the shadows of society and kept their faith a secret until the resurgence of neo-paganism and what would be called the Wicca religious movement. As mentioned previously, this was begun by Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft Today written in 1954. Others followed in his footsteps, like Raymond Buckland in 1973 and Alex Sanders who founded the Alexandrian Wicca.
Wicca has been recognized as an official religion by the US Internal Revenue Service in 1986, and in 1997, after nearly ten years of petition, Wiccan religious symbols were added to the list of emblems allowed in national cemeteries and on government-issued headstones of fallen soldiers. Romania, as of 2011, recognizes witchcraft as a profession for income tax purposes. Despite continued discrimination, Wiccans and witches have gained legal, constitutional, and social rights.
Joanna Hautin-Mayer wrote:
We know tragically little about the actual religious expressions of the ancient Celts. We have a few myths and legends, but very little archeological evidence to support our theories. We have no written records of their actual forms of worship, and the accounts of their culture and beliefs written by their contemporaries are often highly biased and of questionable historical worth.
Silver Ravenwolf wrote in 1998:
Wicca, as you practice the religion today, is a new religion, barely fifty years old. The techniques you use at present are not entirely what your elders practiced even thirty years ago. Of course, threads of 'what was' weave through the tapestry of 'what is now.' ...in no way can we replicate to perfection the precise circumstances of environment, society, culture, religion and magick a hundred years ago, or a thousand. Why would we want to ? The idea is to go forward with the knowledge of the past, tempered by the tools of our own age.