Wicca is always stuck in the middle. For the White Witches, we are too dark. For the Traditional Witches, we are not dark enough. None of them seems to consider that this is by design.
Last week, I saw the following image on my Instagram feed.
￼The Instagram user who posted it, deathsdarkveil (account now defunct), is someone I follow because he posts beautiful and interesting images. I don’t know him personally and I know almost nothing about him. He practices Cornish/English Witchcraft and people sometimes assume he’s Wiccan. It’s a common assumption and no doubt gets annoying. Hence this image. Fair enough.
I noticed that the image had a few comments so I clicked on it to read them. When the young man admitted that he doesn’t actually know all that much about Wicca, another Instragam user explained:
Wicca is kind of like witchcraft lite. It encompasses a lot of beliefs that center around goddess worship, but it takes goddesses from different cultures like Egyptian, Roman, Celtic etc and crams them all together not realizing of course that these religions would never have combined to form one faith. The basic tenants of Wicca are fairly reasonable – and the ideas it has are also acceptable, but truthfully as far as a religious faith goes it’s not really built on much and it ignores a lot of the fact that traditional witchcraft was based on a system of Folk beliefs that involved ‘white’ and ‘dark’ magick. Wicca attempts to practice without the left hand path and unfortunately, both paths are needed. Ever seen a person try to paddle a canoe using one side? I think Wicca helps people get interested into the practice of witchery and in that way it’s not awful, but again this was a religion completely fabricated in the 1950s by Gerald Gardner.
These are typical misconceptions about Wicca. Let’s break this down and address them.
“Wicca is kind of like witchcraft lite.”
To Gerald Gardner and his fellow practitioners, there was no difference between Wicca and witchcraft. Gardner claimed to have discovered a survival of ancient religion, a witch-cult, and what came to be known as Wicca was a priesthood.
The lines between Wicca and Traditional Witchcraft are blurry and there’s no single accepted definition of these. While a Witch is not necessarily a Wiccan, Wiccans are Witches, and there isn’t any practice or experience in Traditional Witchcraft that can’t be found in Wicca.
I see this trend among Traditional Witches who seem to think that Wiccans don’t engage in work involving bones, blood, sex, spirits, possession, trance, ecstasy, mysticism, and so forth. It is simply not true.
“It encompasses a lot of beliefs that center around goddess worship, but it takes goddesses from different cultures like Egyptian, Roman, Celtic etc and crams them all together not realizing of course that these religions would never have combined to form one faith.”
This statement is interesting and asserts a few different ideas.
One idea behind it is that Traditional Witchcraft is rooted in the beliefs and practices of Europe and perhaps the early American colonies. In contrast, Wicca draws from various cultures. That may be true today, for some, but it wasn’t for Gardner.
As I mentioned previously, Gardner claimed he had discovered the remnants of an ancient European witch-cult. His ideas around this were based on those articulated by Margaret Murray, an archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, and folklorist. She proposed that the witches persecuted in European history were actually followers of “a definite religion with beliefs, ritual, and organization as highly developed as that of any cult in the end”. Murray’s witch-cult theory never received support from experts in the Early Modern witch trials.
Following Murray’s theory, Gardner’s Wicca was not centred around goddess-worship. It was duotheistic, worshipping a Goddess and a God, tribal gods whose identities are an oath-bound secret. Over the years, some Wiccans have expanded on this and become polytheistic to different degrees. Some Wiccans draw from different cultures and this is neither new nor exclusive to Wicca.
The final part of the statement that the polytheistic religions mentioned would never have combined to form one faith. That may be true, but religions have developed and changed and merged in countless ways. Syncretism combines different, even contradictory, beliefs. Ancient peoples adopted foreign cults and merged identities all the time. This is how we had the cult of Cybele in Greece, the worship of Isis in Rome, and Celtic Sirona paired with Roman Mercury in Celtic Britain.
“The basic tenants of Wicca are fairly reasonable – and the ideas it has are also acceptable, but truthfully as far as a religious faith goes it’s not really built on much and it ignores a lot of the fact that traditional witchcraft was based on a system of Folk beliefs that involved ‘white’ and ‘dark’ magick. Wicca attempts to practice without the left hand path and unfortunately, both paths are needed. Ever seen a person try to paddle a canoe using one side?”
Because the tenets and ideas are not mentioned, I won’t speculate on what the author means in the first half of this statement. Let’s focus on the second half.
This is an interesting criticism because, for years, one of the most important characteristics of Wicca was the idea of polarity. It was built on the dualistic approach to deity: a God and a Goddess. Its mythic Wheel was based on their divine relationship and their sacred union is embodied and re-enacted in the Great Rite.
Aside from becoming more polytheistic, Wiccans have also become critical of their own religion. Some Wiccans conclude that this gender binary excludes GLBTIQ peoples. They have changed or eliminated it. The idea of balance has remained, however.
Wicca is influenced by many things including folk magic along with medieval grimoires and ceremonial magick. It’s not that Wiccans don’t practice the Left Hand Path. It’s that we don’t generally bother with the language of white or black magick. It’s all just magick to us. My right hand and my left hand serve the same master.
“I think Wicca helps people get interested into the practice of witchery and in that way it’s not awful, but again this was a religion completely fabricated in the 1950s by Gerald Gardner.”
Gardner, an occultist in his own right, claimed to be initiated into a practising coven in September 1939, a group that has become known as the New Forest Coven. He went on to form the tradition we’ve come to know as Gardnerian Wicca and from which other forms of Wicca have developed.
There is a preoccupation with the idea that Gardner invented Wicca. This is not new. The arguments over authenticity having been going on since Gardner went public. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, Robert Cochrane claimed that his family had been practitioners of an ancient pagan witch-cult since at least the 17th century. He positioned himself as a Traditional Witch who practised an older and more authentic form of witchcraft than Gardner’s Wicca. Cochrane’s claims have been refuted by members of his family and historians. Either way, it makes no difference to adherents of Gardner’s or Cochrane’s. The lived experience of people is more powerful.
What’s ironic about these objections from Traditional Witches is that Wicca has almost the exact same mythic history. Wiccans have long drawn inspiration from ideas about medieval European witchcraft and some still erroneously assert we come down from the feared and respected cunning folks that lived on the fringes of their villages. In reality, folk magic was equipped by ordinary men and women who often saw themselves as enemies of witches and used magic to combat evil forces.
So what is the difference between Wicca and Traditional Witchcraft?
It’s not an easy question to answer. Traditional Witchcraft is allegedly an older, more authentic form of Witchcraft than Wicca, but it’s a claim that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. There is little evidence that any traditional religious witchcraft existed in pre-modern Europe, and folklore and magic have always been part of the human experience. When she was a girl living in the American South, my friend’s grandmother hung snake skins on the fence to keep the Devil away, but that didn’t make her a witch. The claims are especially suspicious considering how much Traditional Witchcraft looks like Wicca.
Since Gardner, Wicca has grown to encompass various traditions and eclectic forms. Traditional Witchcraft is diverse as well. Traditional Witchcraft tries to set itself apart from Wicca in structure. Traditional Witches don’t have an initiatory degree system, cast a circle, call quarters, etc. Except when they do. Some might say, “Well, those aren’t really Traditional Witches”, but they identify themselves as such and lacking any formal authority, who is and isn’t a real anything is just a matter of feelpinion.
One oft-repeated difference is that Wicca is a religion (or a priesthood, depending on your perspective) and Traditional Witchcraft is a magical practice. But there’s a lot of overlap here. The magical practice of witchcraft – that is, the use of spells, the invocation of spirits, and so forth – is part of Wicca, and many Traditional Witches are spiritual/religious.
Another common definition of Traditional Witchcraft is “not Wicca”. So, it becomes about identity. For whatever reason, Wicca is not the path for them. Some people just want to be Witches without the circle, the degrees, the Rede, and all that other Wiccan stuff, and that is fine. And some Witches do all that and still don’t want to call themselves Wiccan and that’s fine too. Sometimes we adopt or create the labels that we feel describe us best. For example, a Red Witch might describe someone whose work centres on sexuality; a Sea Witch might describe someone whose witchcraft is strongly related to the moon and the tides.
Here is another image posted by the same young man as above.