(Adapted from Pagan Federation UK website & Pagan Federation Witchcraft Info pack)
'Wicca is both a religion and a Craft. ... As a religion - like any other religion - its purpose is to put the individual and the group in harmony with the divine creative principal of the Cosmos, and its manifestation at all levels. As a Craft, its purpose is to achieve practical ends by psychic means, for good, useful and healing purposes. In both aspects, the distinguishing characteristics of Wicca are its Nature- based attitude, its small group autonomy with no gulf between priesthood and 'congregation', and its philosophy of creative polarity at all levels, from Goddess and God to Priestess and Priest.'
Janet and Stewart Farrar, Eight Sabbats for Witches, Robert Hale, London, 1981.
Wicca is one of the most influential traditions of modern Paganism. Also known by the name Witchcraft, it began to emerge publicly in its modern form in the late 1940's. It is an initiatory path, a mystery tradition that guides its initiates to a deep communion with the powers of Nature, the Old Gods, and of the human psyche, leading to a spiritual transformation of the self. In Britain and other countries such as New Zealand there are a number of Wiccan initiates and groups including Gardnerian and Alexandrian, and other forms of Witchcraft including English Traditional, Dianic and Eclectic.
The 'Old Gods' are the pre-Christian deities of Europe. Witches worship principally the Goddess of the Earth and Triple Moon and her consort, the Horned God; but all Gods and Goddesses, including those of other faiths, are honoured as different aspects of the one Divine power.
Witches have strong ecological awareness and sense of guardianship of the Earth. Since the Gods dwell within Nature, Witches believe that our plantet is sacred and must be protected from the ravages of humankind. Witches also revere the wisdom of the past, believing there is much to learn from the myths and lore of our ancestors and that we can access these through ritual drama, poetry and song, and through living in harmony with the Earth and our fellow creatures.
Those wishing to be initiated must be at least 18 years of age. Wicca does not seek converts and initiation is never offered. Initiation must be asked for and is only given to those who have proved themselves suitable. It is traditional to wait a year and a day before being accepted into the Craft, although in practice this varies.
Rites & Rituals
By celebrating the forces of Nature, in ourselves and in the world around us, we catch a glimpse of the origin of Nature, contained within the world yet at the same time more than the world, expressed through time yet equally timeless. Craft ritual is a means of contacting the Divine beyond our individual lives, but also a way of understanding our inner psyche and contacting the Divine within.
Where possible, rites are conducted outside in natural settings. By firelight and to the sound of drumming and chanting, Witches enact simple rites to celebrate the seasons and the gift of life. If season, climate and location dictate the use of indoor ritual, often these are in peoples homes.
Rituals are performed in a consecrated ritual space marked out as a circle. Within the sacred circle three main activities occur - the worship of the Gods, the practice of magic, and celebration and feasting. At the major seasonal holidays, the sabbats, the myths of creation, birth, death, and renewal are enacted. These are solemn mysteries, but in Craft there is always a balance between 'mirth and reverence'.
Dancing, singing and revelry are an important part of the festivities. Like our ancestors, we believe we share ritual feasts, with our Gods. Thus, a portion of food and wine or ale is always offered as a libation. Once the feasting is finished, the circle is broken and the sacred circle becomes an ordinary space once more.
The importance of the rites lies not only in their outward form, but in their inner symbolism and meaning.
As well as worshipping the Gods, Witches also practice magic. Spell casting is usually carried out at the esbats, the lunar festivals. Witches believe that the moon influences our psyche and that we are magically more powerful at the full moon. The types of magic performed include spells for healing and helping people with their everyday life problems and work towards the individual coven members' spiritual development. Whatever their purpose, all spells involve the channeling of energy to achieve positive results. As such an essential part of Wiccan training is teaching students the way to apply magic in an ethical way for the benefit of all concerned.
Witchcraft as a Spiritual Path
The Craft fosters the spiritual development of those who follow its paths through the practice of meditative techniques and through invocation, the inviting of the presence of the deity to manifest in the rites and possibly in a particular priest or priestess. Through invocation, we can achieve a deep state of consciousness in which we experience oneness with the Divine. Each Witch is a priestess or a priest and is encouraged to develop within him or herself the intuitive wisdom and skill needed to channel the universal forces into a form suitable for communion with the ordinary human mind.
Ritual implements or 'magical tools' are used in the rites to facilitate a mood, attitude or atmosphere, helping to achieve the psychic state necessary for the consecration of a circle or the working of magic.
Important symbols are the altar items, which represent the elements: earth, air, fire, and water. A Pentacle (a disc, usually of metal, stone or wood) is often used to symbolize earth and its properties: stability, material wealth and practical affairs. A small dish of salt or earth can also be used. A thurible of incense, a bell or a sword can be used to represent air and its properties: communication, perspicacity and understanding. A candle or wand may be used to symbolize the qualities of fire: vitality, transmutation and energy. A chalice of water symbolizes that element and its properties: cleansing, regeneration and love.
There are other tools which are important in some traditions. These include the ritual knife, often called an athame, which is used to direct power (Witches often also have a second knife for cutting herbs or inscribing magical symbols in candles, etc); the cauldron, a symbol of the Goddess and of creation; the besom or broomstick, which is used to cleanse the sacred space; and the stang - a forked staff used to represent the Horned God.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. Is Witchcraft a religion?"
"Yes. Witches reverence the 'Old Gods', the pre-Christian deities of Europe."
Q."Is Witchcraft a 'cult'?"
"No. A 'cult' is generally taken as a gathering of people who owe blind allegiance to one charismatic leader who ostensibly represents 'truth'. This is the antithesis of the Witchcraft experience. Most Witches come to the Craft through reading or through communing with Nature, later finding a like-minded group."
Q. "What form does the practice of Witchcraft take?"
"Practices run the gamut from elaborate ceremony through spontaneous ritual to simple meditation and vary from group to group. Dancing and ritual drama are often involved."
Q. "Do all Witches practice their religion in the same way?"
"Yes and no. Witchcraft is a highly individualistic religion which contains a minimum of dogma and a maximum of choice. The only rule (though a stringent one, when you think about it) is: 'If it harms none, do as you will'. Most traditions, however, share many similarities such as a reverence for Nature and the working of magic."
Q. "Are only women Witches?"
"No. There are roughly equal numbers of women and men in the Craft, as the polarized working of Goddess and God is usually stressed in the rituals. Some traditions, such as the Dianic, admit only women, and there are some male-only covens."
Q. "Do Witches have a Bible?"
No. A Bible is a book containing the sacred writings of a religion. The Craft is derived from Pagan folk-religion, and as a Mystery path, it stresses individual experience under the guidance of the Gods.
A Witch may keep a 'Book of Shadows', which contains rituals, discoveries, spells, poetry, herbal lore, etc., of interest to that person. Covens may keep a similar group book, and some traditions have basic information which is passed on to new members by copying from the group's book; but there is no one document taken by Witches as authoritative, as in Judaism, Christianity or Islam.
Q. "Do Witches cast spells?"
"Yes, but since Witches believe that what is sent out returns to the sender, perhaps magnified threefold, they tend to be very careful with spells. A spell is a formula or series of steps to direct the will to a specific end. It is believed that with the proper training and intent, human minds and hearts are fully capable of performing all the magic and miracles they are ever likely to need, through the use of natural psychic power."
Q. "Do Witches worship naked?"
"Some do, while others wear robes or everyday clothes. Nakedness is typical of Mystery religions. Naked initiates are shown in Roman murals from the early centuries of our era, long after people generally wore clothes at all times. Nakedness symbolizes the true self laid bare before the Gods, and it is believed by Witches to facilitate the transfer of vital power.
Like Western naturists and Native peoples worldwide, Witches do not find nakedness - 'being skyclad' - shameful; nor do they assume it is automatically to do with sex. The prurient would be disappointed to find that coven meetings, while very cheerful occasions, are scarcely 'sexy'.
Q. "What place does sex have in your rituals?"
"Sex is seen in a positive rather than a negative light, an expression of the great creative polarity of Goddess and God, the equal and opposite forces of Nature. It should take place only between consenting adults and takes place in private. Rape, child abuse, ritual mutilation and other forms of sexual coercion - of which Witches are often accused by the media and those with over-active imaginations - violate the Witches' ethic of 'an it harm none, do as you will', and form no part of the Craft."
Q. "'Witch' and 'Witchcraft' are negative terms. Why continue to use those names?"
"Virtually every religion can look back into the dark (and recent) corners of history and find a period when it was held in disrepute. The verb 'to jew' was taken out of the Oxford English Dictionary only after the Second World War. Catholics suffered discrimination in mainland Britain up until the last century. Just because a group was persecuted and maligned at some point is no reason for it to change its name."
Q. "Do Witches worship the Devil?"
"Absolutely not. The concept of the Devil, the personification of a supreme spirit of evil, is a creation of Jewish and Christian theology. Wicca or the Craft is derived not from Christianity but from the Pagan religions of Europe. It has nothing to do with Christianity, its Gods or demons. Witches do not believe in the Christian Devil, and certainly do not offer homage to it.
Historically, the Gods of an older religion are always branded as the devils of a newer one. When Christians started to persecute the followers of Horned Gods such as Faunus, Pan and Cernunnos, Satan began to be depicted with horns and hooves.
Inevitably, the campaign against 'devil worship' has encouraged that very practice People concluded Satan must be worth worshipping, if the penalties were so severe. But, to worship Satan, one must first believe in his existence - and Witches don't.
Q. "Do Witches take part in Satanism or Black Magic?"
"No. Satan is a Christian concept and no part of Witchcraft. As for black magic Witches believe that evil rebounds threefold upon the evil doer. There is no incentive to perform evil.