AMONG THE WORLD'S MANY SECRET SOCIETIES, most chose their covert nature as a means of avoiding harassment from groups and individuals who felt threatened by the society's existence. Perhaps no faction in history was more severely persecuted, in Europe and elsewhere, than witches. From the early medieval period through the Renaissance, untold thousands died, often under horrific circumstances, on the basis of nothing more than mere suspicion or empty accusation. With few exceptions, the victims were women; and in many instances, their persecutors were male members of the Christian Church.
While we think of the medieval and Reformation periods in Europe as the era of persecution against witches, the practice of witchcraft predates Christianity. Originally, the term referred to anyone who practiced magic, and both the pre-Christian Greeks and Romans made a distinction between “white” and “black” witchcraft. White magic was positive, and included the ability to bring good fortune or cure illnesses, while black witchcraft was any mystical action that caused harm against others. The Romans declared that any witch or magician who caused the death of another through spells or potions was subject to the same capital punishment as someone who committed murder with a sword or poison, a reasonable rule at the time.
In reality, witchcraft was usually little more than an extension of pagan religions that believed their gods were embodiments of natural powers, similar to the Druids. Some of these belief cultures assigned powers not to plant life such as the oak and mistletoe, revered by Druids, but to animals—goats, cattle and, especially in Europe, cats. A good deal of witchcraft in this period was as harmless as any personal spiritual practice. A few practitioners, however, recognized the power that accrued to anyone who could make a plausible claim to casting spells and mixing potions, activities that generated fear and income among credible neighbors. In this environment, witchcraft was viewed as simply another trade, like the practice of medicine, likely with an equal measure of success and failure.
The advent of Christianity changed everything. Clear distinctions were made between mystical practices in praise of the Christian God and similar activities not sanctioned by the Church. In an ecclesiastical version of the “You're either with us or against us” doctrine, unsanctioned mystical activities were associated with Satan and condemned accordingly.
Of all the sins defined by Christianity, the ones most often linked with satanic practices involved sex, and since power within the Church resided exclusively with men, who frequently found themselves tempted by the sight or the passive activities of women, females became the target of persecution against witches. What better method, after all, did Satan have for tempting a God-fearing man towards sin than through the wiles of a nubile female?
Women were perceived as tools of the devil in his crusade to garner the souls of Christian men and, as much as any other factor, this contributed to hundreds of years of persecution. The hanging, drowning, burning, imprisonment and mutilation of untold thousands of women over the past two millennia had nothing to do with subversive ideology, religious deviation or racial discrimination. It had everything to do with gender, and with the centuries-old dominance of men over women, a dominance that extends beyond sexuality and economic influence to include spiritual authority.
And while we may be more tolerant, and even amused, by claims of witchcraft and its practitioners, Christian fundamentalists need look no further than the Bible for justification to abuse anyone suspected of being a witch. “For rebellion is the sin of witchcraft,” they'll read in I Sam. 15:23, proof that the major failing of witches is a refusal to follow orders. In search of more direct instruction, Christians might examine Exod. 22: 18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Modern theologians may argue about the true interpretation of these admonitions, but as recently as the nineteenth century European and American civilizations accepted them as explicit authority to burn, hang and drown women on the basis of their witch-like behavior. The leading oppressors of uncounted thousands of women who suffered this fate through the centuries were always men, and the root of their charges against the victim was still associated with one sin above all: sex.
The most devastating charge that could be brought against witches in Christian mythology was that they engaged in sexual acts with the devil. Perhaps as a means of rewarding those who gave in to his lust, Satan was believed to grant his partners occult powers such as controlling the minds of others, casting evil spells, and having the ability to move solid items with a mere thought or gesture.
Through history, the Roman Catholic Church assumed a leading role in demonizing witches, especially in 1450 when it recycled many of its old charges against pagans. Making no distinction between those who chose to identify themselves as witches performing magical acts and earth-based religions that were usually forms of Druidism, the Church's only goal was to convert the “pagans” to Catholicism. As was often the case, its motives and methods were both heavy-handed and reckless with facts. Claiming that pagans “worshipped the devil,” for example, conveniently ignored the fact that the devil is a Judeo-Christian creation. How could pagans “worship” a being whose existence was unknown to them?
Such realities failed to deter Church officials. Witches, they decreed, kidnapped babies, killed and ate their victims, raised hailstorms and tempests, caused horses to go mad beneath their riders, sold their soul to Satan (or at least their bodies, apparently) and, in a remarkable charge coming from men sworn to a life of celibacy, not only caused male impotence and fertility but could make male genitals vanish, the ultimate act of castration.
The fabled broomstick-riding habits of witches evolved from stimulating either crops or orgasms.
Even the clichéd image of a broom-riding witch was linked with sex. Witches might fly, their accusers charged, but riding a broom had more to do with the broom handle's function, in the minds of puritanical Christians, as a dildo to stimulate orgasm rather than an implement for flight. The actual origins may be less sexual; in some medieval cultures, women ran across fields while astride their broom in an effort to coax the grain to grow, or jumped over the broom handle while imploring the grain to grow as high as they could leap.
Protestants were no more enlightened about witches than Catholics. Luther, in his Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, wrote: “I should have no compassion on these witches; I would burn all of them.” (He also wrote: “If a woman grows weary and at last dies from childbearing, it matters not. Let her die from bearing; she is there to do it.”) And Calvin preached: “The Bible teaches us that there are witches and they must be slain….This law of God is a universal law.” John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, lectured that anyone who denied the reality of witchcraft opposed not only the Bible but the collected wisdom of “the wisest and best of men in all ages and nations.”
Theologians and psychologists both speculate that the true motive behind the persecution of women suspected to be witches was to assist skeptics in resolving their own doubts about Christian doctrine and strengthen their faith in God. The existence of women receiving evil powers from Satan would be proof of a spiritual world which, extending the idea further, provided proof of the existence of God. Satan could not exist without the presence of God, ergo God exists. One qualified observer of this theory says, “Without witches, some late medieval theologians were left facing their questions as to why bad things happen. In their pre-scientific biblically-based world view, the logical alternative to witches and demons as an explanation of misfortune was a God [either] not powerful enough to stop bad things from happening, or not good enough to try.”
Organized religions have long assigned women the role of ideal scapegoats for events or aspects of life that Church leaders could not explain. Witches were not the only victims of this problem of theodicy, nor were Catholics and Protestants the only groups wrestling with the dilemma of an all-good and all-powerful God coexisting with evil in our world. But throughout Western Europe and America between ad 1000 and 1800, both factions absorbed the Bible's directive regarding witches with totally literal meaning, and while their means of eradicating the world of witchcraft-derived evil differed—in Catholic countries, execution was conducted by burning at the stake; in Protestant countries, the preferred method was hanging—the results were the same.
Evidence was needed to prove that accused women were indeed witches, and their persecutors discovered a remarkable number of ways to obtain it—remarkable because the verdict was almost always Guilty. Consider the means used:
Trial by boiling water consisted of heating a deep container of water until it boiled, and instructing the accused person to remove a stone or ring from the bottom. The scalded hand was bandaged, and the bandages sealed. If a blister half as large as a walnut appeared when the bandages were removed, the verdict was guilt, leading to a sentence of death. The accused were advised to pray and fast the day before the trial was conducted. Most apparently did. Few apparently benefited.
Trial by fire was a simple variation, requiring the accused to walk barefooted across a row of metal ploughshares heated to a red-hot glow. An absence of burns on the soles of her feet indicated innocence.
Trial by drowning represented a historical apex in no-win situations. After throwing the accused into the river, the judges watched to see if she surfaced. If the victim sank to the bottom and drowned, she was declared innocent; if she managed to stay afloat, she was pronounced guilty and immediately hanged or burned at the stake, unless she was tortured first in the usually fruitful expectation that she would implicate others.
The ordeal of the cross placed the accused and her accuser in a church, usually during a regular service. Both were ordered to stand with arms outstretched, simulating Christ on the cross. The person whose arms dropped first was considered wrong.
Oppression against accused witches rose and fell in waves, linked to various influences ranging from natural disasters to religious in-fighting. The hundred years from 1550 to 1650, when relations between Catholics and Protestants were particularly virulent, saw so many trials and executions of accused witches in France, Germany and Switzerland that the period became known as the Burning Times. During the seventeenth century, attitudes towards accused witches began to soften. In 1610, the Netherlands banned the execution of witches, and 1684 marked the last execution of a witch in England. By the time of the Salem witch trials in New England, when dozens of women and a handful of men were executed or died in prison on charges of witchcraft, the wave had crested in Europe.
The lasting effect of the Catholic and Protestant attacks on people who chose to explore their earth-based spirituality, thus associating them with Satan, was to drive the movement underground, and much of the knowledge and tradition acquired over the centuries before bishops rode in search of devil-worshippers has been lost forever. Practices that were once considered open and free, such as paying homage to nature, could be sustained only at the risk of torture and agonizing death. Many found solace in these actions in spite of the risk; others suffered horribly when they had never considered performing such acts, simply on the accusations of neighbors.
The core beliefs of witchcraft survived because those who observed the rituals and clung to the creed remained secretive. Their spiritual descendants emerged in the mid-twentieth century as members of Wicca, a term used by modern-day practitioners to separate themselves from their persecuted forebears.
The appearance of Wicca as a somewhat cohesive system of principle grew equally from both ancient and recent origins. They include a revulsion against many corporate practices in North America and Europe deemed injurious to the environment, the destruction of rain forests and wilderness, the eradication of native species and the avaricious consumption of limited resources. Bearing many labels, these scattered movements eventually began making their voices heard and attracting various adherents, especially among young people. From an appreciation of the need for conservation and environmental responsibility, it was a short step for these devotees to explore and assume many beliefs of Wicca.
The other driving force behind the re-emergence of Wicca was a revived reverence for shamanism, which was actually the origin of pre-Christian witchcraft. “Shaman” is believed derived from a Siberian native word meaning he ( or she) who knows, although the concept of a tribal or village member possessing knowledge to cure ailments and provide spiritual guidance predates every organized religion. Performing as a shaman was one method for a woman in male-dominated tribal societies to achieve power and status, an attribute that continues to influence Wicca, which boasts substantially more female than male followers. Ancient Greek literature identifies shamanistic rites and practices during the early Hellenic period, many of them later adopted by Roman spiritual leaders. Tibetan Buddhism has remained strongly associated with shamanistic principles for millennia, and every American native band from Arctic Inuit to Patagonian tribes practiced their variations of the same beliefs.
The determination of Christian campaigners to spread their creed universally had the same devastating impact on shamanism in the Americas as elsewhere, propelled first by Spanish colonialists. Catholic missionaries and priests denounced shamans and their followers as devil-worshippers, executing them by the thousands. Although the bulk of this devastation occurred from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, as recently as the 1970s missionaries in the Amazon region routinely defaced ancient petroglyphs representing shamanistic beliefs or legends.
Things were no better in the north, where Native American shamans were tagged with labels such as witch doctor, and claims of healing ailments with naturally occurring ingredients were broadly derided. Later, scientists noted that many universal treatments, such as chewing the bark of willow trees to cure headache and fever, had a basis in fact, because the willow is a natural source of salicylic acid, the primary ingredient in Aspirin. Only after a positive reassessment of shamanistic practices became widespread did shamans receive respect from other cultures. When many of their teachings were assimilated into the growing concern about the environment, Wicca revived those tenets that managed to survive a thousand years of attempts to eradicate it.
Still, old habits are not easily abandoned. Much of the civilized world remains hostile to the Wicca movement on the basis of religious/moral grounds, fear that it represents a seditious philosophy, and its record of secretive behavior, or simply because its adherents refuse to conform. As a result, Wicca in the twenty-first century remains unknown and often feared, viewed as a secret society by those mired among images of cackling witches and evil spells.
“Wicca” is derived from the medieval wicce, meaning “to bend,” although most dictionaries make no distinction between Wicca and witch. This etymology suggests that the practice may be bent or shaped to meet the needs of the practitioner, an interesting contrast with the inflexible dogma of most organized religions. In fact, the core ethical doctrine of Wicca, known as the Wiccan Rede, is An ye harm none, do what ye will, which echoes to some degree the Golden Rule so warmly embraced by Judeo-Christian teachings. This moral flexibility disturbs conventional religions because it appears to promote situational ethics, anathema to those who preach fixed codes of ethical guidelines from sources such as the Ten Commandments and the Koran. How can such flexibility and adaptability provide firm moral direction? In response, Wicca believers submit the Law of Three.
Along with the Wiccan Rede, the Law of Three serves as a moral direction for members of Wicca. According to this law, all energy dispensed by individuals returns to them threefold in a mystical interpretation of Newton's law regarding action and reaction. In this instance, positive healing energy—love, support, prayers for good health and success—return to the sender with three times the power. Similarly, harmful energy will return to the sender, in one form or another, with three times the effect its sender originally wished to have on the target.
Is Wicca a religion? Perhaps. Its followers identify it as a “paganist religion,” which sounds too much like an oxymoron for some to accept. Other members of Wicca prefer to identify it as a “personal, positive celebration of life,” something many people would like to see reflected in the goals and activities of conventional religions.
All religions worship some entity or another, and Wicca qualifies to at least this extent, worshipping not one god but two. The most significant deity is known simply as the Great Goddess, although she has several parallel or secondary identities, including the Earth Mother, the Lady of the Moon and the Star Goddess. She may also be called Queen of the Underworld and the Triple Goddess. In this latter role, she represents three personas: the Virgin, the Bride and the Hag; or, if you prefer, the Maiden or the Mother, and the Crone.
In her role as the Virgin she is the Creatrix, the Giver of Inspiration, and the eternal virgin for the goat-god Pan, which suggests some serious questions about their relationship. She is, in Wiccan lore, the lover of all, yet she is wed to none, and her sacred color is white. She is identified with the waxing moon and with Venus as the morning and evening star. Echoes of the Virgin Mary resonate in this description although Wicca followers claim that this persona predates Christianity. Of course, if the later religion has borrowed from the earlier one, this would not be an unusual event.
Next, the Bride identity of the Great Goddess springs from her function as Preserver. She is the Goddess of flocks and herds, the Lady of Love and Fruitfulness and Fertility, represented by the full moon and by fields of sheep and lush plants. The Bride's sacred color is red.
In her third and final role, the Great Goddess becomes Hag the Destroyer, Goddess of the Night and the Underworld, the realm of the cave and the tomb. This is where the warm-and-fuzzy soul of Wicca grows dark and ominous. Hag the Destroyer is the sow who eats her young, a participant in the circle of death and decay that ultimately yields new life. For Hag the Destroyer, Wicca believers look to the waning moon, a crossroads at midnight and silence in shadows. Her sacred color, of course, is black.
Partner to the Great Goddess is the Horned God, and his title generates negative reaction among fundamentalist religions, which interpret the description as either Satan or Satyr. The Horned God clearly is associated with excessive and extramarital sexual activity, although Wicca teachings identify him in this role through various secondary titles: the Ancient God of Fertility, the Lord of Life, the Giver of Life, and especially the Horned Consort to the Great Goddess. Beyond these titles, definitions grow more complex and confusing. The Horned God is both the hunter and the hunted; he is Lord of Light and Lord of Darkness, the sun by day and the sun at midnight.
Here, the pagan traditions underlying Wicca grow more apparent. The Horned God's destiny is to die with the harvest, be buried as seed, and be resurrected in spring out of the womb of the Earth Mother. Like gods in pre-Christian religions and traditions, he is often depicted wearing the horns of a bull, goat, ram or stag, an appearance that persuaded critics of Wicca that his actual identity is Satan, regardless of the Wiccan statement that the devil plays no role in its dogma.
This supposed satanic connection, along with some practices inherited from shamanism, echoes centuries of persecution and prejudice from well before “the burning times” down to our present day. Like the shamans, practitioners of Wicca seek to transcend the physical world and enter a parallel psychic world by utilizing tools and methods unavailable to ordinary people. The transition, Wiccans believe, is achieved via alternative states of consciousness, and the tools to enter these states are familiar. They include fasting, thirst, concentration, hallucinogenics and the infliction of pain. To heighten the psychedelic effect, these are often accompanied by drumbeats, rattles, music, chants and dancing, usually performed in darkness with the added effects of flickering firelight.
These devices are recognizable as ceremonial elements of native cultures throughout the world, which persuades many skeptics that Wicca is nothing more than a wasp-adapted version of rituals performed in old movies of Native American war dances, or racial clichés of lost African native tribes. This ignores the reality that all organized religions, functioning on a supposedly higher intellectual and spiritual plane, have employed their own mystical rituals throughout history. The Catholic Church, for example, “magically” converts wafers to flesh and wine to blood with the assistance of burning incense, stirring music and repeated phrases spoken in unison (and, for hundreds of years, Gregorian chants) to achieve similar objectives. The practice of Communion is an analogy; the objective, however, is similar.
Wiccans no longer use pain as a means of crossing from the physical to the psychic world and most modern practitioners reject the use of hallucinogenics. Yet Wicca remains stigmatized by people who equate its activities with orgiastic rituals, devil-worship, and the use of drugs and narcotics. For this reason many Wiccans, male and female alike, choose to conceal their involvement, fearing ridicule, loss of employment, violence and, among women separated from their partners, the loss of custodial rights to their children. The only defense against this kind of prejudice is secrecy. (With sardonic humor, some Wiccans describe the public admission of their beliefs as “coming out of the broom closet.”) As we have seen in other instances, secrecy deepens suspicion, leading to greater motivation for concealment.
Even though Wicca may be considered the most liberal and least regulated of secret societies, an initiation of sorts has evolved over the centuries. The rites are often performed in the presence of a coven although Wiccans may, if they choose, initiate themselves through a process called self-dedication. In the parlance of modern psychology, this becomes a form of “contract with oneself,” a ceremony in which the individual considers the path he or she wishes to follow and, once committed to the journey, affirms themselves as a child of the Wicca faith, pledging to abide by the Wicca Rede and to grow spiritually.
Membership in an established Wicca coven may involve a more elaborate ritual and perhaps a waiting period, often “a year and a day,” before full membership is granted. Covens may also recognize various levels of status within the group, requiring some evidence of heightened skills or experience, marked by degrees of initiation, before full acceptance is granted. Attaining these degrees could involve sacramental rituals, with specified duties and expectations.
The concept of covens still creates, in the minds of people unfamiliar with and concerned about Wicca, images of black-capped women stirring pots of bubbling brew beneath a full moon, à la Macbeth. Or, in a more contemporary setting, dancing naked in the woods. The Macbeth scene is entirely fictional, but the visions of nudity among modern-day Wicca may well be authentic.
Some members of Wicca prefer to enact their rituals “sky-clad,” shedding their garments as an expression of pride in the bodies they inherited from their gods. They may practice this alone or in the presence of a coven but, like almost everything else associated with Wicca, the decision is left up to the individual. A number of Wiccans, for example, choose to wear ritual garments, especially for festivals and formal sacraments. And, as we shall see, “skyclad” may owe more to the carnal curiosity of a twentieth-century male than to pagan traditions.
One of the more common group activities among Wiccans involves casting “The Magickal Circle,” which is actually conceived as a sphere separating Wiccans from the rest of the world and its negativity, and extending above and below the ground or floor.11This presents problems for modern apartment-dwelling Wiccans, since a circle of sufficient diameter could extend into other dwellings directly above and below the Wiccan's residence. As a result, high-rise adherents are advised to cast their circles late at night, when adjacent residents are sleeping and thus unlikely to pass through the “magick space.”
A Magickal Circle holds four Watch Towers, one at each quadrant of the compass, and each Watch Tower represents one of the four elements of Wicca: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. North is the location of Earth, and Earth represents the body of Life. As the darkest and heaviest of the four elements, Earth is Mother, the source of our lives, and our final destination. From Earth, Wiccans draw stability, abundance, growth and patience. Air, representing the breath of life and the fresh breezes of change, resides at the eastern point of the Circle, where the sun rises. Air is considered a masculine quality, providing clarity of thought, truth and the conscious expression of the Will.
At the south point of the circle, Fire represents the energy of life, the location of the sun in midsummer. Another masculine quality, Fire provides the Earth Mother with energy, encouraging a bountiful harvest, and provides the Wiccan with courage, conviction and passion. It also threatens anger and hostility if shown inadequate respect.
11 The “magick” spelling in this context was introduced by Aleister Crowley.
The womb of Mother Earth is Water, guardian of the western quadrant of the Magickal Circle. This is where the sun sets, and where souls pass into the invisible world. Water also corresponds with the moon, acknowledging the satellite's effect on the tides. It is also an intuitive element, capable of perplexing the logical rationale of Air, and Wiccans look to Water for cleansing, sensitivity, compassion and love.
A typical Magickal Circle, visualized as a three-dimensional sphere.
The technique used to create Magickal Circles suggests a naive Harry Potter–like approach. Everything occurs within the imaginative mind of the Wiccan who, if creating a circle for her individual use, need make it only as large as her own body. The process appears to have as many variations as sources, but among the most common directions are these:
1. The space within which the circle is formed may be a highrise urban apartment or a lush clearing in a forest or jungle. Location is irrelevant.
2. The first step requires cleansing the space, either blessing the area by sweeping the floor or ground, or making a great deal of noise to drive away evil influences (not recommended for apartment dwellers in the dead of night).
3. Solitary Wiccans stand at the circle's center; when three or more are creating the circle they position themselves around its circumference. Relaxing until they feel the energy of the Earth, they turn to face one of the four Watch Towers, gathering its special energy in one hand while pulling energy from the sky with the other hand.
4. Using both hands, they apply the energy to the imaginary spherical shape enclosing them, repeating the process with each of the four Watch Tower locations. Each application builds the sphere's walls, making them thicker and more protective.
5. When the Wiccans sense the invisible sphere is stable, they cease building its walls. The Sphere now may be perceived in various ways—as a color, a thickening of the air, a wall of electrical power, or simply the source of a low hum.
6. If it is necessary for anyone to leave the circle before the ritual is complete, they must cut a “door” in the “walls” with their hand, holding the fingers straight and describing a rectangular space that they step through, “closing” the door behind them. When returning, they “open” the “door,” close it gently, and “smooth” the outline with their hand.
7. Within the Circle, Wiccans may note a marked increase in temperature; opening a “door” creates a rush of cold air, the mark of negativism.
The Circle provides a safe, comforting and effective location for Wiccans to initiate change by focusing their natural powers—change in themselves, in their loved ones and in the world at large. The change, however, must be positive; Wicca prohibits the use of magickal power to harm others.
Derived from the naturalistic roots of Shamanism, Wicca bases much of its beliefs and customs on cycles of life, the moon, and especially the seasons, marking them with eight holiday “sabbats” during the “wheel of the year.” Primary sabbats fall on or near traditional equinoxes of the sun; other sabbats occur on “cross-quarter” days, which occur on or near the first day of February, May, August and November. The sabbats include these:
Imbolg (im-molg), also known as Candlemas, celebrated on February 2 to mark the first stirrings of spring and the return of light to the world.
Ostara (oh-star-ah), the day of the vernal equinox March 21 or 22, when light and dark are in perfect balance, with light mastering dark.
Beltane (bell-tane), the first day of May, the Celts’ beginning of summer (Beltane is a derivation of the Gaelic “Bel-fire”). On Beltane, fires were lit to commemorate the return of life and fertility, a day adopted by other cultures for similar celebrations. The fertility connection is associated with couples falling in love on this date.
Litha (lee-tha), the summer solstice; it acknowledges the sun's gift of light, warmth and life.
Lammas, or Lughnasadh (loon-na-sah), August 1, a prompt for everyone to begin harvesting and make preparations for winter. Lughnasadh is named for the Celtic warrior Lugh, who spared the life of his enemy in return for learning the secrets of agricultural prosperity. This day marks the first of three sabbats dedicated to harvesting.
Mabon (may-ben), the autumnal equinox on September 21 or 22, a joyous day marked again by equal lengths of day and night, with dark now mastering light. This marks the time of the second harvest.
Samhain (sow-in), October 31, a day of much importance because, among other things, it signifies the beginning of the Wiccan year. The word, derived from the Gaelics amhuinn, means “summer's end.” With the rise of Christianity, Samhain was changed to Hallowmas, or All Saints’ Day, to commemorate the souls of the blessed dead canonized that year, and the night before Hallowmas became Halloween, All Hallows Eve, or Hollantide. On Samhain, the major sabbat in Wicca, the veil between the material world and the spiritual world is considered at its thinnest, a time when the spirits of departed loved ones may congregate around Samhain fires to grow warm and express their love for surviving kin.
Yule (yool), the winter solstice, December 21 or 22, marking the longest night of the year and reminding us that the gods must be reborn in order to bring light and warmth back to our earth.
Most benefits of Wicca appear to dwell in the minds of its practitioners, who could rightly claim that this does not invalidate its power. But, as we saw with Rosicrucianism, modern Kabbalah, and the Priory of Sion, the movement's actual history and many of its “ancient” myths are linked to characters of questionable veracity. In this case, at least one of the characters manages to taint the modern Wicca movement with deep skepticism.
Remember the horrific trials of witches during the burning years, especially those conducted at the height of the Inquisition's most appalling activities? The Catholic Church is noted for its methodical recording of events, including Inquisition torture sessions conducted on suspected witches. Detailed accounts of every statement and even every cry of agony were assiduously written and reviewed. In fear and anguish, accused witches would admit or volunteer a host of activities while being tortured. Their confessions frequently included having sexual intercourse with Satan, casting spells upon innocent people, influencing the weather to bring storms and drought upon the land, changing themselves into cats and other animals, and any other iniquity that sprang to the minds of the inquisitors and were demanded of the accused.
Yet nowhere among thousands of accounts do the “witches” identify their Great Goddess or Horned God. No depiction of magic circles exists in any of the transcripts, nor is any information proffered of sabbats and their celebration. Is it possible that, among the thousands of accused witches submitted to questioning under torture, none was either familiar enough with these rituals to describe them, or weak enough to reveal them? Is it likely that no practicing witches were ever submitted to the Inquisition, and thus the torturers had no opportunity to question the only real sources of all the wickedness they were seeking to eradicate?
Or is it plausible that these specific “ancient” rights and tenets are not ancient at all, but modern inventions that sprang from the minds of people who sought glory, wealth and perhaps carnal reward from claiming access to supposedly ancient occult knowledge? If so, at least two individuals, both men of questionable honor, are prime suspects.
One is the familiar Aleister Crowley, who employed the occult as a means of breaking virtually every moral law and precept encountered during his decadent lifetime. Near the end of his life, when he was near-penniless and living in Hastings, Crowley was visited by Gerald Brosseau Gardner. Intrigued by Crowley's claim of access to occult secrets, Gardner was immediately initiated into Crowley's Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Masonic Ordo Templi Orientis (oto). As an honored member of these organizations, he met with Crowley several times before Crowley's death in December 1947. Soon after, Gardner declared that he had been appointed Grand Master of the oto, destined to fill Crowley's position as the unquestioned leader of occult movements through the English-speaking world.
Gerald Brosseau Gardner. The godfather of modern Wicca or just another dirty old man?
In many ways, Gardner appeared well qualified for the position. Born into an upper-class British family in 1884, he spent much of his youth touring the Mediterranean and Middle East regions, and as a young man lived in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Borneo, Singapore and Malaya, acquiring an interest in occult practices encountered along the way. He joined various organizations, including an order of the Rosicrucians, and an English group calling itself The Rite of Egyptian Mysteries.
By the 1930s, Gardner was married and living in England, cultivating an interest in nudism that he nurtured the rest of his life. He also began to write, publishing a couple of so-so novels and, in 1954, Witchcraft Today, his magnum opus and the first modern book on the subject of Wicca. The book's timing is interesting, coming barely three years after Britain repealed laws banning the practice of witchcraft, and its content is revealing. Building on the writings of Margaret Murray, an earlier occultist whose 1933 book The God of the Witches identified witchcraft as a pagan religion predating Christianity, Gardner's book introduced the concept of the Great Goddess and the Horned God. It was also the first book to introduce the term Wicca (spelled by Gardner as “Wica”) to describe the movement.
The book proved a great success and elevated Gardner, who cultivated a pseudo-Satanic appearance with pointed goatee and upswept hair, to celebrity status. He followed The God of Witches with The Meaning of Witchcraft in 1959, and soon began claiming that a “Cone of Power” created by resident witches in Britain had saved the country from a Nazi invasion during World War ii. When pressed for details, he was more than vague. “That was done which may not be done except in great emergency,” he explained. “Mighty forces were used of which I may not speak. Now, to do this means using one's life-force.”
Or perhaps not. Gardner himself noted that “witches are consummate leg-pullers; they are taught it as part of their stock-in-trade.” He was either pulling legs or creating a fraud when he claimed to hold a Ph.D. from the University of Singapore, acquiring it in 1934 which, an investigation into his past discovered, was several years prior to the university's existence. His claimed doctorate in literature from the University of Toulouse set heads scratching; no one at Toulouse had any knowledge or record of his attendance.
Other red flags appeared. Along with an interest in the occult, Gardner maintained a similarly powerful interest and pursuit of something his followers excused as “fleshly fulfillment,” a means perhaps of attaining spiritual development through physical excesses. One of Gardner's guidelines to female adherents of Wicca included performing rituals sky-clad, especially within his sight and, perhaps, more for his carnal enjoyment than for the witches’ spiritual communication. He also advocated The Great Rite, which involved Gardener having sexual intercourse on a metal-clad table with the Great Priestess selected from among female members of the coven. When no volunteers were available, Gardner employed the practical solution of hiring a prostitute to play the role.
Gardner died in 1964. Within a few years his movement, which may have been conceived by its founder more as a libertine sex cult than a means of spiritual fulfillment, arrived in North America, where it rode to great heights on rising tides of psychedelia and hippiedom. Later enthusiasts, in the cooler light of a 1970s dawn, transformed Wicca into a staid neo-Puritanism, expressing its gentle near-narcissistic character in visions of angelic nymphs dancing in diaphanous gowns beneath the moon and along the shores of star-dappled waters.
Wicca remains a secretive tradition by adherents who fear being ridiculed and ostracized by conformist society, making it impossible to accurately judge the number of followers who create magickal circles and join covens. Their actions may satisfy spiritual longing and bring inner peace to many people unable to tap these resources elsewhere. But their claim that Wicca represents a fount of ancient wisdom and mysteries remains doubtful.