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The History of Wicca concerns the neopagan religion of Wicca, from its public emergence in the early 1950s in southern England to contemporary times as a worldwide faith. Indeed, Professor Ronald Hutton has described it as "the only religion that England has ever given to the world".
The origins of Wicca are surrounded by much debate and uncertainty. The religion first came to public notice in the United Kingdom in the early 1950s through press articles and a book titled Witchcraft Today (1954) by Gerald Gardner, a retired British colonial administrator. In his various writings and his authorised biography, Gardner reported that he had met a group of witches in Dorset, England immediately prior to the start of the Second World War in 1939. This group has become known as the New Forest Coven. From the 1950s onwards, Gardner was enthusiastic in initiating new candidates into the religion that he had brought to light, and Wicca soon spread dramatically both within Britain itself and in the United States.
Gardner claimed that Wicca was directly descended from pre-Christian British paganism and from the "witch cult" described in historical Christian writings. This view resembles the views of a number of other 19th- and 20th-century researches, including Margaret Murray, but it is not endorsed by present-day academic historians. It is still a matter of controversy within the Wiccan community as to whether Gardner discovered an authentic pre-Christian religion, encountered a modern revival of such a religion, or simply created the religion of Wicca himself.
Since the 1950s, Wicca has been popularised by Gardner and a number of other authors, such as Doreen Valiente, Alex Sanders, Fred Lamond and Philip Heselton. It has grown in popularity and spread throughout the English-speaking world and beyond.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, something known as the witch hunt took place across Europe and the American colonies, during which somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 people were killed. These people had been accused of being witches, who, according to their persecutors, worshipped the Devil, and committed acts of diabolism that included the cannibalism of children and desecration of the Eucharist. Most scholars since have agreed that these were the victims of isolated incidents of hysteria in remote, peasant communities, and that there was no religion being practiced by these witches.
However this was not the only view; one, which originated with Karl Ernst Jarcke in 1828, and which was expanded upon (most notably) by Jules Michelet in the 1860s and Margaret Murray in the early 20th century, known as the Witch-cult hypothesis, claimed that the witches had been members of a pan-European pagan religion which had pre-dated Christianity and had been persecuted by the Christian Church as a rival religion.
Many Wiccans, particularly those of the early decades, believed that their religion was a continuation of this pagan Witch-Cult. It was only in the 1980s and 1990s that some Wiccans began to see the idea of the Witch-Cult as a creation myth rather than as historical fact. For instance, the Wiccan Jenny Gibbons stated that:
|“||We Neopagans now face a crisis. As new data appeared, historians altered their theories to account for it. We have not. Therefore an enormous gap has opened between the academic and the "average" Pagan view of witchcraft. We continue to use of out-dated and poor writers, like Margaret Murray, Montague Summers, Gerald Gardner, and Jules Michelet. We avoid the somewhat dull academic texts that present solid research, preferring sensational writers who play to our emotions. For example, I have never seen a copy of Brian Levack's The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe in a Pagan bookstore. Yet half the stores I visit carry Anne Llewellyn Barstow's Witchcraze, a deeply flawed book which has been ignored or reviled by most scholarly historians.||”|
In 1954, Gerald Gardner, a retired English civil servant who had spent most of his life in the far east, published Witchcraft Today in which he made the claim to have encountered several members of the Witch-Cult. At the same time he propagated his religion to new adherents, largely through the Bricket Wood coven (which is described further below). Gardner claimed that he had been initiated into a practising coven of the cult in September 1939, a group that has become known as the New Forest coven.
Gardner claimed that this group had met in the New Forest in southern England, and that he had met some of their members initially through the occultic Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship. He mentioned two of their members, a local worthy called "Old Dorothy", in whose house he claimed to have been initiated, and "Dafo", who became a friend of his and would remain so for many years.
The idea of primitive matriarchal religions, which derived from the work of the Swiss lawyer Johann Jakob Bachofen, was popular in Gardner's day, both among academics (e.g., Erich Neumann, Margaret Murray) and amateurs (e.g. Robert Graves). Later scholars (e.g. Carl Jung and Marija Gimbutas) continued research in this area, and later still Joseph Campbell, Ashley Montagu and others became admirers of Gimbutas' theories of matriarchies in ancient Europe. Matriarchal interpretations of the archaeological record and the criticism of such work continue to be matters of academic debate. Some academics carry on research in this area (such as the 2003 World Congress on Matriarchal Studies). Critics argue that such matriarchal societies never actually existed and are an invention of researchers such as Margaret Murray. This is disputed by documentaries such as Blossoms of Fire (about contemporary Zapotec society).
The idea of a supreme Mother Goddess was common in Victorian and Edwardian literature: the concept of a Horned God — especially related to the gods Pan or Faunus — was less common, but still significant. Both of these ideas were widely accepted in academic literature and the popular press at the time.
Doreen Valiente undertook important research into the identity of "Old Dorothy", whose surname was Clutterbuck. She refuted the claims of those who had suggested that Dorothy had been the product of Gardner's imagination. More recently, it has been doubted (notably by Ronald Hutton) whether the historical Dorothy Clutterbuck, who was outwardly an observant Christian and a pillar of the local community, really was involved in occultic activities. In this view, Gardner used her name as a joke and/or as a subterfuge in order to conceal the identity of Dafo or some other individual. Such doubts have been vigorously contested by other researchers (notably Philip Heselton).
Valiente assumed that Clutterbuck was the same individual as Dafo. More recently, it has become clear that they were different people. Dafo seems to have been a teacher of music and elocution named Edith Woodford-Grimes, and there have been persistent suggestions that she and Gardner were lovers.
The work of Philip Heselton has gone a considerable way towards illuminating the composition and activities of the New Forest Coven, and several plausible candidates for its membership aside from Dorothy and Dafo emerge from his work.
The ritual format of Wicca shows the undeniable influence of late Victorian era occultism (even co-founder Doreen Valiente admitted seeing influence from Aleister Crowley), and there is very little in the ritual that cannot be shown to have come from earlier extant sources. The religion's spiritual content, however, is inspired by older Pagan faiths (for example, in the veneration of historical pagan deities), with Buddhist and Hindu influences (e.g. in the Wiccan doctrine of reincarnation).
It has been posited by authors such as Aidan Kelly and Francis X. King that Gardner himself created the religion that he claimed to have discovered, rewriting the rituals of an older witchcraft tradition according to his own whim, and incorporating elements from the thesis of Dr. Margaret Murray, sources such as Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches by Charles Godfrey Leland and the practices of ceremonial magic.
The original material in the rituals brought to light by Gardner is not cohesive, and mostly takes the form of substitutions or expansions within unoriginal material. Roger Dearnaley, in An Annotated Chronology and Bibliography of the Early Gardnerian Craft, describes it as a "patchwork". One element that is apparently distinctive is the use of ritual scourging and binding as a method of attaining an ecstatic trance for magical working. Hutton argues strongly that this practice in Wicca does not reflect sado-masochistic sexuality (he refers in this connection to Gardner's own collection of very mild, quasi-pornographic material, which showed no traces of such interests), but is simply a practical method of work alternative to drugs or other more strenuous methods.
Heselton, writing in Wiccan Roots and later in Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration, argues that Gardner was not the author of the Wiccan rituals but received them in good faith from an unknown source. (Doreen Valiente makes this claim regarding the "basic skeleton of the rituals," as Margot Adler puts it in Drawing Down the Moon.) He notes that all the Crowley material that is found in the Wiccan rituals can be found in a single book, The Equinox vol 3 no. 1 or Blue Equinox (1919). Gardner is not known to have owned or had access to a copy of this book, although he met with Crowley towards the end of the latter’s life. Gardner admitted that "the rituals he received from Old Dorothy's coven were very fragmentary, and in order to make them workable, he had to supplement them with other material."
Some, such as Isaac Bonewits, have argued that Valiente and Heselton's evidence points to an early 20th century revival predating Gardner (by the New Forest Coven, perhaps), rather than an intact old Pagan religion. The argument points to historical claims of Gardner's that agree with scholarship of a certain time period and contradict later scholarship. Bonewits writes, "Somewhere between 1920 and 1925 in England some folklorists appear to have gotten together with some Golden Dawn Rosicrucians and a few supposed Fam-Trads to produce the first modern covens in England; grabbing eclectically from any source they could find in order to try and reconstruct the shards of their Pagan past."
It has been proposed, originally in the Druidic journal Aisling  that Gardner's New Forest coven was the pagan section of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry; this order performed rituals in the New Forest in the early 1920s and its pagan section honoured a moon goddess and a horned god, and believed in ritual nakedness. One of Ronald Hutton's informants reports that Gardner was familiar with this order at least by the 1950s. A major difficulty with identifying this group with the New Forest coven is that it does not appear to have met in the New Forest between 1934 and 1945. Gardner records a working by the coven in the New Forest in 1940 against the projected Nazi invasion.
A theory advanced by Bill Liddell is that the New Forest coven derived from a set of covens created by the nineteenth century cunning man George Pickingill, who lived in the Essex village of Canewdon. This claim is not widely accepted, although it does focus attention on the well documented and widespread "cunning folk" and their contribution to the history of British witchcraft.
Gardner, claiming to be fearful that the Witch-Cult religion would die out, began to propagate it through forming the Bricket Wood coven in Hertfordshire in circa 1946. He acted as the High Priest for the coven, and Dafo, who had also been a member of the New Forest coven, acted as High Priestess. However she became concerned that Gardner's attempts to gain publicity would lead to a public backlash against her, and so she left his coven in 1952, albeit remaining his friend.
In 1953 Gardner initiated a young woman, Doreen Valiente, into the craft, and she soon went on to become the High Priestess of his Bricket Wood coven. Around the same time, Gardner invented the Book of Shadows, a workbook of rituals, although he claimed it was of ancient origins. Valiente helped Gardner rewrite the Book, cutting out what she saw as "Crowleyanity", and writing sections such as the Charge of the Goddess in poetic verse. Valiente and Gardner later fell out, however, when she got fed up with his constant attempts to gain publicity and when he tried to impose the Wiccan Laws upon the coven, something which he claimed were used by the Witch-Cult, but which Valiente believed he had simply made up. She, and several other members of the coven, left, and founded their own. However, the Bricket Wood coven continued, with members that included Jack Bracelin, Dayonis, Frederic Lamond and Lois Bourne.
Gardner also propagated his witchcraft tradition, which had begun to be referred to as "Gardnerian", outside of his Bricket Wood coven; he initiated Patricia Crowther and Monique Wilson, both of whom went on to propagate Gardnerian Witchcraft through their own covens. Various other initiates began to spread the craft around Britain, for instance Charles Clark took the religion to England's northern neighbour, Scotland.
Gardner referred to members of his craft as "the Wica", although he called the religion itself "Witchcraft", and never used the term "Wicca" in the sense as it is now known.
Meanwhile Gardner tried to get more publicity for his religion; he gave interviews to several newspapers, some of which were positive, although others turned very negative, one even declaring "Witches Devil-Worship in London!". He also published a second non-fiction book on the subject, The Meaning of Witchcraft, in 1959, as well as running the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft on the Isle of Man up until his death in 1964.
Gardner was not the only person claiming to be a member of a surviving remnant of the Witch-Cult, several others also emerged in the 1950s making this claim. They included Sybil Leek, Charles Cardell, Raymond Howard, Rolla Nordic and, most importantly, Robert Cochrane. They claimed to have been initiated into the cult by their ancestors, and described themselves as following "Hereditary" or "Traditional" forms of Witchcraft, whereas Gardner, some said, was propagating a modern, and invalid form. Their beliefs and practices however, were similar to those of Gardner, and some of their modern followers describe their faith as being a form of Wicca, whereas others insist it is different and call it "Traditional Witchcraft".
The terms "Wicca" and "Wiccen" were first used by Charles Cardell, not to refer purely to Gardnerians, but to refer to all followers of the Witch-Cult religion. In his notebooks he used the term "Wicca" to refer to the religion, and he called it the "Craft of the Wiccens" in a 1958 article in Light magazine.
Initially there was an attempt to reconcile and unite all of these traditions claiming to be Witch-Cult remnants, for instance the Witchcraft Research Association, which was founded in 1964 by Sybil Leek. After Leek emigrated to the United States, Doreen Valiente took over presidency, and began publication of a magazine, Pentagram. However both the magazine and the organisation collapsed amongst infighting by the various traditions, with Cochrane consistently insulting, and even calling for a "Night of the Long Knives", against Gardnerians.
Within a few years of Gardner's propagation of the craft, Wicca had spread from England into neighbouring Scotland and Ireland. However, in the 1960s, it also began to spread much further abroad, most notably in the English-speaking nations of Australia and the United States.
In Australia, Wicca "found a receptive social environment because of the long-standing presence and familiarity of Aboriginal culture with its 'pagan' (i.e. 'non-Christian') beliefs and practices".
Gardnerian Wicca came to the United States through an Englishman who had recently emigrated to the USA, named Raymond Buckland, and his wife, Rosemary. Raymond, working for British Airways, regularly returned to England, and he began to correspond with Gardner. In 1963, both Bucklands were initiated into the Gardnerian craft by Monique Wilson in a ceremony in Britain. The couple returned to America where they founded the Long Island coven in New York state, basing their practice upon the Gardnerian Book of Shadows. The coven was later taken over by a couple known only as Theos and Phoenix, who enlarged the Book of Shadows, adding further degrees of initiation which were required before members could found their own covens. Interest outstripped the ability of the mostly British-based covens to train and propagate members; the beliefs of the religion spread faster by the printed word or word of mouth than the initiatory system was prepared to handle.
Also in the 1960s, non-Gardnerian forms of Witchcraft (which are sometimes viewed as Wicca, or sometimes as "Traditional Witchcraft") made their way to the USA. The American Joseph Bearwalker Wilson corresponded with the English Robert Cochrane prior to Cochrane's ritual suicide in 1966, and from this he founded the 1734 Tradition. Sybil Leek too, an English witch from the New Forest, emigrated to California, where she continued to practice her craft, and teach others. In 1968 Gavin and Yvonne Frost established the Church and School of Wicca; which in 1972 became the first Federally recognised Wiccan church.
It would be in the 2000s that Wicca would begin to gain a foothold in other nations; for instance, Ipsita Roy Chakraverti began to publicise it in India, and it also has a number of adherents in South Africa.
In the 1960s, an Englishman called Alex Sanders emerged, appearing in various newspapers. He claimed to be a hereditary witch, having been initiated into the craft by his grandmother. Later researchers, such as Ronald Hutton, have shown that he actually had been initiated into a Gardnerian coven, although Hutton notes that Sanders' grandmother was in fact "skilled in cunning craft". Sanders had previously practised as a spiritualist healer.
His reputation in the tabloids increased when he married the much younger Maxine Sanders in a handfasting ceremony, and subsequently the duo began to refer to themselves as the "King and Queen of the Witches", at one point claiming to have the allegiance of 1,623 witches, and 127 northern covens. His tradition, which was later coined as "Alexandrian" by Stewart Farrar, an initiate of Sanders, incorporated aspects from ceremonial magic and the Qabalah, as well as Judeo-Christian iconography. Sanders justified this by claiming that his version of Wicca and Christianity were both forces for good, battling against the forces of darkness which were practiced by Satanists and black magicians.
Several Gardnerians, including Patricia Crowther and Ray Bone, tried to denounce Sanders as a charlatan, but he simply responded by accusing them of being the charlatans, and as being practitioners of black magic who abused their initiates.
In 1973, Alex and Maxine separated, but both continued to practice the craft. One of the key reasons for their separation was that neither would compromise on Alex's bisexuality. After the divorce, Alex focused on formulating Wicca so that it could be followed by homosexual men, who had been partially prevented from involvement previously because of the religions' focus on gender polarity. He also initiated a number of people from continental Europe, who then spread the faith there. In 1979, Sanders issued an apology for his "past hurts" and "many public stupidities" and tried to encorouge co-operation between Gardnerians and Alexandrians. He died in 1988.
In the United States, several forms of Wicca formed in the 1970s, based upon the Gardnerian and Alexandrian traditions, but with certain differences. These traditions were actually formed by those who had previously been initiated into Gardnerian or Alexandrian crafts, and so can still be traced to Gardner, and thereby are often considered to be forms of British Traditional Wicca.
The first of these was Algard Wicca, founded in 1972 by Mary Nesnick, who had been initiated into both of the aforementioned traditions. Algard attempted to fuse the two together, thereby trying to prevent the arguments that were going on between the two.
The following year, in 1973, Raymond Buckland, who had brought the Gardnerian craft to the USA originally, ceased to practice it, and formed a new tradition, known as Seax-Wica. Seax used the structure of traditional Gardnerian covens, but used the iconography of Anglo-Saxon paganism, so the God and the Goddess were represented not as the traditional Horned God and Mother Goddess, but as Woden and Freya. Seax was virtually unique amongst Wicca at the time as it did not work on an initiatory basis of covens; Buckland deliberately published all its rites and rituals in a book, The Tree, so that anyone could practice them.
In 1971, a Hungarian-American named Zsuzsanna Budapest, who had no connection to any Gardnerian or Alexandrian covens, mixed Wiccan practices with feminist politics, forming Dianic Witchcraft (although now it is better known as "Dianic Wicca"). She began this with a coven in Los Angeles, that she named the Susan B. Anthony Coven Number One.
Dianic Wicca focused almost exclusively upon the Goddess, and largely, and in some covens completely, ignoring the Horned God. Most covens were women-only, and some were designed specifically for lesbians. Like Seax-Wica, which developed around the same time, the rituals of Dianic Wicca were published by its creator so that any woman could practice it, without having the need of a specific initiation into a lineage. Indeed, Budapest believed that it was every woman's right to be able to practice the religion, and she referred to it as being "women's spirituality".
Dianic Wicca was criticised by many Gardnerians at the time for having an almost monotheistic view of theology, in contrast with Wicca's traditional duotheism. One Gardnerian even declared "spare us Jahweh in drag!" in response to the focus on the one Goddess.
One Gardnerian, who went under the craft name of Starhawk, started practising Dianic Wicca, and tried to reconcile the two, writing the 1979 book The Spiral Dance on the subject. The tradition she founded became known as Reclaiming, and mixed Wicca with other forms of Neopaganism such as Feri, along with strong principles of environmental protection.
In traditional Gardnerian and Alexandrian craft, initiates took an oath of secrecy never to reveal the rituals of it to outsiders. Despite this, both Gardner and Sanders sought publicity, and allowed reporters to witness their practices. Initiates such as Valiente and Buckland had been annoyed at this, the first commenting that "by speaking to the press, Gardner was compromising the security of the group and the sincerity of his own teachings". However, the key rituals of the Gardnerians (which were the basis for most of the Alexandrian ones) were made public in the 1960s when Charles Cardell, in an act of spite against the recently deceased Gardner, published the Gardnerian Book of Shadows.
In 1970, Paul Huson published Mastering Witchcraft a book purportedly based upon non-Wiccan traditional British witchcraft, and the first do-it-yourself manual for the would-be witch, which became one of the basic instruction books for a large number of covens. In 1971 "Lady Sheba" (Jessie Wicker Bell, self-styled "Queen of the American Witches") published what she claimed was her family's centuries-old grimoire, but was in fact substantially plagiarised from the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, and included poetry by Doreen Valiente that is still under copyright.
Following this, several prominent Wiccans decided that it would be better to simply reveal the Wiccan mysteries to the public in their true form. Most prominent among these were Stewart and Janet Farrar, two Alexandrian initiates. Stewart, prior to his marriage, had already published information on Wiccan rituals (with Sanders' blessing), in his 1971 book What Witches Do. Together they published further works on the subjects, such as 1981's Eight Sabbats for Witches and 1984's The Witches' Way. They were joined by their friend, Doreen Valiente, who also published information on the subject of pagan Witchcraft in general.
From these published writings, (some of which, such as Valiente's 1973 book An ABC of Witchcraft, contained a self-initiation ritual), many other practitioners began to follow the Witchcraft religion, working either as solitary Witches or in non-lineaged covens. Valiente herself considered all of these such people to be "Witches", as she reserved the term "Wiccan" to refer solely to Gardnerians, however most of these new followers used the term "Wiccan" to describe themselves. As such, in the United States, it became the norm to refer to any Neopagan witchcraft as "Wicca", and so Gardnerians, Alexandrians and Algards, wishing to emphasise their lineage that stretched back to Gardner, began referring to themselves as followers of "British Traditional Wicca".
In the 1990s and 2000s, Wicca began to become engrained in popular culture. Aspects of Wicca were incorporated into the New Age movement, and many Wiccans took on New Age beliefs and practices. Wicca was also taken up by popular entertainment; in 1996, the American film The Craft was released about four witches who are corrupted by their power. The same year the television series Sabrina the Teenage Witch appeared, which was followed the following year by Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and then, the year after that, the series Charmed and the film Practical Magic. Whilst these were heavily criticised by many Wiccans (Margot Adler called The Craft "the worst movie ever made!"), they did encourage many teenagers and young adults to investigate more about the religion. Most covens and Neopagan groups refused to allow under 18s into their ranks, and so many teenagers turned to books to find out more. In turn, several books were published to cater for them, including Silver Ravenwolf's Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation and Scott Cunningham's Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. This helped to bring about the Teen Wicca movement, and it has been suggested that the reason why so many young adults are attracted to the faith can "be attributed to the fact that it tackles issues that teenagers are interested in — in a way that other religions do not."  The popularity of Wicca amongst teens has also brought problems; in 2001, a 12 year old American schoolgirl named Tempest Smith committed suicide after being bullied for her faith.
However the rise of this teenage-focused, New Age, pop-culture Wicca has been highly criticised by traditionalists, many of whom refuse to accept it as Wicca, instead using terms like "wicca-lite". The historians Brooks Alexander and Jeffrey Russell commented that "pop-culture witchcraft is sufficiently vague in structure and content to qualify more as a 'lifestyle' than a 'religion'."
The rise of the internet also had an effect on Wicca. Previously, solitary Wiccans around the world had little way of communicating amongst one another, however, the internet allowed them to do so. Websites such as Witchvox.com were set up. Historian Brooks Alexander commented that this was a form of "minority empowerment".
For a long time, Wicca was seen as being simply a minor sect, or cult. However, with the rise of solitary practitioners describing themselves as Wiccans, the faith went from becoming simply a mystery cult to becoming a public religion.
Groups were formed to represent the Wiccan community, such as the Covenant of the Goddess, which was founded in 1975. Wiccans began to appear on various British television documentaries, including The Heaven & Earth Show and Desperately Seeking Something.
In the USA, the court case of Dettmer v. Landon in 1986 established that Wicca was a religion, and therefore should be treated as such under the eyes of the law.