Paganism, Wicca, and Witchcraft

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What is Wicca?

Wicca doctrine is an earth-based belief system based on Pantheist pagan beliefs. It was founded by Gerald Brosseau Gardner in the early 20th century as practices that were recombined in an Eclectic structure. Although many accept that Witchcraft Today by Gardner was first published in 1954, the origins of Wicca need to be more carefully analyzed. The English “Witchcraft Act,” which dated back to the 15th century, was officially abolished in 1951. The spiritual and esoteric societies established during the late 19th century and early 20th century contributed greatly to this development. Prior to this, Gardner was accepted to the much-disputed New Forest Coven in 1939 and later formed his own coven after leaving in 1948.

Many things have been written about Wicca. Because of the use of solitary practice, as well as an initiation system, it’s open to subjective interpretations, but that pluralistic and eclectic approach also has some limits. Wicca has some basic principles as a religious system:

Belief in Gods and Goddesses

As well as being explained as blessing and accepting the masculine and feminine wholeness of creation from the perspective of a one God and Goddess concept, it could also be explained in a polytheist way. As is understood from the Pantheist or Panentheist structure, an Atheist practitioner is apart from the Wicca system, but can be named as a “Witch.”

Accepting “Wiccan Rede”

See: What is “Wiccan Rede”? 

Believing in the “Three-Fold Law” or the “Law of Return”

See: What is the “Three-Fold Law”?

Accepting a Nature-centered understanding and the concept of forming a relationship with the Natural Laws

Accepting the existence of Magick (Maji)

Despite this, practicing magick is not required, and many Wiccans accept magick but do not practice it. At its core, Wicca consists of esoteric practices that don’t require magickal acts, but rather a deep understanding and devotion.  Deep work on Rede, grasping the doctrine’s different perspectives and aspects in the awareness of ritual practices, and in-depth psychology can be examples of that.

Self-awareness and self-discipline play a big role in Wicca, so it’s a belief system that is far removed from dogmatism and directly based on experience. Its philosophy’s essence is experiencing and practicing the creative energy intimately, instead of using some prepared guidance.

The ritual and equipment used vary with tradition and practitioner

Any sources used to gain information (books, the Internet, etc.) should be examined carefully while remembering the responsibility belongs to the practitioner. Some Eclectic and Solitary Wiccans do not accept “Rede” and the “Three-Fold Law,” and it’s a matter of debate. The difference exists between the practitioners of the initiation tradition and the subjective interpretations of the solitary practitioners. Because of the increasing interest in the west, many books have been published about Wicca, overshadowing the real discipline. On the other hand, realizing what is right or wrong requires both personal attention and the ability to perceive what is really behind the scenes. No matter how much it is discussed, the turning of “knowledge” into something very easy to reach leads us back to the question of what knowledge itself is. The most valuable elements of mystic doctrines consist of the statements that are left behind or not yet expressed.

Wicca has a three-level initiation process

As a mystic tradition, Wicca includes self-transformation, the inner practices the esoteric manner requires. Gardner did not exclude eastern esotericism, western traditions, folkloric practices, shamanic notions and exercises, or kabalistic and ceremonial magick practices from his system. The first high priestess he worked with, Doreen Valiente, rearranged these ceremonial and cabbalistic elements while removing some aspects, and she developed a more Pagan-based system, which still survives today. It should also be considered that, although Wicca’s core might appear to be a combined philosophy, it has a deep and serious tendency to collect the pagan beliefs and practices of the past from a revisionist perspective and support them with other sources, such as ceremonial exercises.

Etymology

The origin of the word “wicca” is the word “wic” or “weil,” which means to direct and give shape in Old English. Wicca is the masculine form of “wise man.” The feminine form of the word (wise woman) is “wicce.” Thus, the practitioners of the Dianic tradition named themselves as “Dianic Wicce.” Interestingly, Gardner never used the word, but for the sake of etymology he made use of the word “wica” (for the first time in The Meaning of Witchcraft in 1959). This word is related to the word “wych” in the Saxon language. The etymologic roots of the word “witch” are the elements “wit” (to know) and “wych.” Moreover, Wicca was originally pronounced as “witchae” or “witcha,” which is phonetically closer to the word “witch.” 

For example, in the 11th century Old English translation of the Halitgar Penitentiary, which belongs to the early Latin period, we come across the expression, “swa wiccan tæcaş” that has been added by the translator. This must have been a deliberate addition, because it shows us beyond doubt that in the 11th century there were still “’wiccan teachers” who continued the pagan tradition, and the Christian clergy were aware of them. Had this not been the case, there would be no need to make this addition to the text and renew the ban.

 So, it’s possible to imagine pagan religious practitioners who were named “wiccans” long before Gardner. Leland also used that word in his works prior to Gardner.

What is Witchcraft? 

In the past, Wicca and witchcraft were words that seemed interchangeable, but now there are clear differences between them, and it’s incorrect to use them to refer to each other…

Witchcraft is not a belief system, but rather a combination of practices. It has been practiced in every culture, community, and corner of the world. In terms of theology, it is a method of practice and way of life rather than a religion. A witch can be an atheist, Christian, or Muslim, although these religions forbid such practices. Witches do not accept the ethical rules of Wicca, Wiccan Rede, and the Threefold Law. Wiccans can consider themselves as witches, but never the opposite.

The base practice in witchcraft is directing and focusing energy by will power, so it cannot belong to a belief. Although the word “witch” appears to represent only females, it’s applicable to both sexes. (See: What is a “Warlock”? for the name incorrectly used for male witches.)

The “hereditary” part of witchcraft refers to the practices of witches who learn from family traditions passed between generations. In the 1960s, after the abolishment of the “Witchcraft Act” in England, many claimed to practice hereditary witchcraft, but there is little solid proof. Today, witchcraft is not hereditary, but a skill that individuals improve depending on their abilities.

The “Burning times” is the name that today’s witches and wiccans gave to the period of persecution by the Inquisition to commemorate the victims killed by burning, hanging, or torture. Although the exact number is debatable, the official death toll is around 250,000 people. It isn’t known how many of these victims were actually witches. Their confessions are not reliable, as the declarations were made under torture. Although most victims were women, men, children, and even animals were also included. The underlying reasons for the accusations included diseases (such as the plague), the Church’s war against heretical practices, and often a simple accusation from an aggrieved neighbor. As a result, many villages were wiped out. Midwives and women who could practice herbal healing methods were often accused, despite the Church having earlier accepted that witches could heal and control natural events. It is very difficult to reach sound judgments about this period without evaluating the political, economic, and sociocultural aspects. There were many dynamics and many factors were the result of interactions between these dynamics. Today, people who are “accused” of witchcraft in certain areas of India and Africa are still murdered. In fact this persecution, which is identified with a certain period in history, can be said to be continuing today with societal changes and inhibitions.

In Anatolia, witchcraft has followed a totally different path. The dictionary translation of the word “witch” is “cadı,” which in local legend identifies entities that pursue the living and harm them, such as ghouls. A corresponding word in Anatolian society, “ebe” (midwife), denotes healers who were respected and often sought for help.

What is a “Warlock”? 

The word has been mistakenly used to define a male witch. Although it’s been used to define a male magician or witch by the inquisition, in modern Wicca, it means “oath breaker” and covers both males and females. From this perspective, it could be said that the word “warlock” has undergone a negative meaning shift.

There are two opinions about the origin of the word. One claims that the word comes from Anglo-Saxon and the Old English word “wǣrloga” (meaning one that breaks faith). The second possibility is that the word is Scandinavian and derives from “var’lokkur” (meaning one who communicates with spirits). It is described this way in the “Saga of Eric the Red,” which was written in the 14th century.

Although it’s a controversial word, because of the negative connotations it evokes, the first definition is usually accepted.

What is Paganism?

Paganism is a humiliating term that was used to define religions other than the official religion of Rome. It comes from the Latin word “paganus,” which means “rude villager.” Today, people who believe in polytheism have proudly embraced the term to define themselves. In Christianity, it is used to define people who do not accept the church’s dogmas, as well as Muslims and Jews. Today, the word “paganism” describes the earth-based polytheist religions, which are divided into multiple groups (Asatru, Huna, Shamanic practices, Santeria, practices other than monotheist religions, etc.).  For example, Wicca is a pagan religion, but not every pagan is a Wiccan. Similarly, witchcraft cannot be counted as a pagan practice if the practitioner has no pantheist or polytheist belief.

What is a “Cowan”? 

Traditionally, the word “cowan” (plural: cowen) is used to define people who are outside of the doctrine and not initiated. It does not have negative connotations because it is simply used to denote persons who are uninitiated. The word is believed to be of Scottish origin and means “a person who does not have competence in any subject.” Because this word can also apply to a person who builds a structure without the benefit of a formal education, it has also been used by masons as a metaphor.

What is a “Coven”?

A coven is the name of a group of people that gather and practice Wicca and Witchcraft.  Today, covens are independent groups who are not under any absolute authority.

A coven is a community where the members come together with respect and faithfulness. Being a part of a coven is a serious matter, because both psychic and karmic bonds are established, and decisions are made in harmony with the members’ common opinion. When the number of the members increases, members at a higher level can start a new coven. The new coven may continue the tradition of the “mother” coven, or it may choose an entirely new path. In certain traditions, when the high priestess of the mother coven lays the foundations for three or more new covens, she becomes called a “witch queen.”

 Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote on this subject:

…The word “coven” has been transformed from the Latin word “convenire” and is used to denote the meaning of “coming together.” However, different traditions may use different words for groups; for instance the Scottish tradition and Asatru do not use the word coven, etc.

Interestingly, the word “coven” has been translated into Turkish as “kovan” (meaning beehive), and I honestly quite like it. In the land where the Mother-goddess cult, along with the cult of Artemis, has survived the longest, the latest symbol for Artemis and Magna Mater has been the “bee queen.” The figure of the bee, as illustrated in the symbol of the city of Izmir (Smyrna), can be observed frequently on sculptures depicting Artemis. The word “kovan” agrees with this meaning exactly.

What is the Book of Shadows? (BOS)

Traditionally, the Book of Shadows is the name given to the magick and ritual journal that belongs to a tradition or coven. It is protected by the high priestess or priest and can be hand copied by initiates/dedicants. Belonging to a specific tradition, its rules, practices, ethics, informative materials, and ritual forms are written in the Book of Shadows. Today, practitioners name their journals—where they write their experiences, notes, practices, and rituals—as the Book of Shadows. In Wicca, initiates are allowed to add their personal writings only after hand copying the main book. Sometimes, that part is called a “grimoire” and is distinct from the BOS.

Even though the name has interesting associations in popular culture, these books are nothing more than journals belonging to groups or individuals. Their main value lies in the fact that, enriched by experience, they are unique texts documenting people’s maturation and transformation through the teaching. In this respect they have little value to outsiders, and it is almost impossible for one to see a true copy.  There’s a belief that copies should be burned with their owners when they die. There are exceptions, however. For example, Gardner’s BOS passed to Doreen Valiente. It had been restructured between 1954–1957 by Gardner and Valiente and was used by Alexander Sanders, who founded the Alexandrian tradition. Today, many traditions are based on this kind of interaction.

What is “Drawing Down the Moon”?

This is the name given to a special ritual performed at the esbats (see: “What is Esbat” and “What is Sabbat”) by the high priestess during a full moon. It is especially used to embody the energy of the Goddess or make use of the moon’s energy in lunar practices. In certain practices, the high priest performs a version named “drawing down the sun.” This practice is completely different to a standard esbat: Reaching the required visualization and state of consciousness requires focusing pure will using special gestures and methods.

Who is a High Priestess/Priest?”  

In Wicca and some witchcraft traditions, the title of High priestess is given to people who are initiated at the third degree. This title can also be found in the priestess status of pagan religions. The initiation ritual is sometimes called “the great rite.” The High priestess represents the highest authority in Wiccan tradition, which has a mostly matriarchal structure. She is the representation of the goddess in rituals and responsible for calling the energy of the goddess in special rituals, such as “Drawing Down the Moon.” 

Counter to cult establishments, she has the duty of counselor and is responsible for the education of the other initiates in the tradition. This is comparable to managerial positions in organizations where labor needs dividing. In essence, she takes on the responsibility for the organization of a group based on interpersonal cooperation and intragroup communication. Considering the esoteric aspect of this responsibility, this is a duty that requires long years of practice and can only be fulfilled by people who are capable of meeting its demands in accordance with an ethical framework. She is also the spokeswoman for the decisions that the coven’s elders make.

The title of High priest is given to male initiates in the same position. His duty is to help the High priestess and support her in the coven’s studies. He is in an equal position with other male initiates in the coven. In rituals, he is the representation of the God form, and he’s usually responsible for maintaining order and peace in the coven.

In certain traditions, these titles are given to couples who have been practicing together for years and who are both initiated at the third degree.

What is the “Three-Fold Law”?

This is peculiar to the Wicca doctrine, and other than being a metaphysical and physical principle, it’s an ethical concept that informs how an act’s results return to the original person in a three-folded way.

Although it seems similar to karma, it’s a quite different concept. Karma accepts that every act has an inescapable result, but the three-fold law means the result is returned three times more powerful. This is where it differs from karma. Furthermore, karma persists through all of an individual’s incarnations, but the three-fold law only applies to the life we currently live.

Karma is a universal and evolutionary doctrine that revolves around all of a person’s incarnations if the person in question believes in it. The three-fold law concerns only the current life time if the person in question believes in that. The elder laws, by their nature, are supposed to function irrespective of a person’s beliefs; nevertheless, I will follow the eclectic approach.

What is “Wiccan Rede”?

Rede is the basic Wiccan teaching of, “An it Harm None, Do as Ye Will.” Rede doesn’t command Wiccans to not harm anyone or anything, but it does say that an act is acceptable when it doesn’t harm anything or anyone. It’s not a pacifist saying, but instead charges ethical responsibility to the practitioner.

Rather than being a rule, Rede is advice. It has been often confused with Aleister Crowley’s law of Thelma (“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law”) or said to be an alternative version of it. In reality, they are not similar. They’re the ethical codes of two completely different systems.

What are “Esbat” and “Sabbath”?

Esbats are celebratory meetings that are repeated every full moon. They are not to be confused with the eight great cyclical festivities. Some traditions repeat those meetings at the new, waxing, and waning moons.  

Sabbath has a different meaning to the Hebrew time of worship and rest that lasts from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday. During the middle ages, the Inquisition accused everyone who refused the dogma of the Catholic Church with heresy. This included members of other monotheistic religions, which led to the term Sabbath being misdefined as a result.

According to Doreen Valiente in An ABC on Witchcraft (1973), the word Sabbath comes from the chanting of “sabai” or “evoi sabai” that was made in Dionysian rituals (from the title of Dionysus, Sabadius). It is also the name given to the celebration of pagan beliefs that place the seasonal circles at their center.

I would like to add a personal note here:  

Aside from Dionysus, Sabazios has been accepted as a Phrygian god who entered the Greek pantheon later through being identified with Dionysus. The Greeks have many explanations depicting the festivities that take place in relation of this god’s connection to the cult of the Phrygian mother goddess, Matar (Kybele). Even though the cult’s nature and properties are disputed, it is beyond doubt of Anatolian origin. If Valiente’s theory is correct, the Anatolian connection and the effect of Anatolia on paganism are once more encountered. Indeed, when investigated thoroughly, it is seen that Anatolia has been the primal source of many teachings. The subjects we are discussing are not alien to Turkey. On the contrary, they are familiar because Turkish culture has the same roots and shares many of their aspects. 

The celebrations occur eight times a year:

  • Samhain/Halloween — October 31
  • Yule/Winter Solstice — December 21
  • Imbolc/Candlemas — February 2
  • Ostara/Spring Equinox — March 21
  • Beltane/Mayday — May 1 (sometimes 30th of April with Walpurgis Night)
  • Litha/Summer Solstice — June 21
  • Lughnasadh/Lammas — August 1
  • Mabon/Autmn Equinox — September 21

Among these dates, when calculated astronomically, there may be slight difference in days. Because the celebrations are also rituals, they must be in harmony with the astrological calendar.

Sabbaths are usually divided into two as greater and lesser. The lesser sabbats are Ostara, Mabon, Litha, and Yule, all of which involve the solstice or equinox. The greater Sabbats are Imbolc, Beltane, Lughnassadh, and Samhain, and these are the four main Celtic festivals. According to Margaret Murray, Celts were never able to develop a system that was completely focused on the Sun. That’s why lesser Sabbaths, which are astronomically focused on the sun, came into their traditions later. Murray connects this to the Saxons, whom she calls “solstitial invaders.” When they fled Rome’s pressure, they started interacting with Celts and the other clans. Still, she argues that since equinoxes cannot be seen from Britain, they just accepted the solstices, but all these arguments are subject to great controversy. Most other pagan traditions do not discriminate between “lesser” or “greater,” and for the traditions in the Mediterranean zone, this discrimination is completely unnecessary and ridiculous.

Despite this, the applications of birth and death, the step to adolescence and the rites of passage, and hand fasting (a joining of lives/pagan marriage concept) play an important role in the Sabbaths.

Here follows a little extra information about each of the eight festivals, as they possess a detailed and rich symbolism:

Mabon, the name given to the autumn equinox, starts with god going underground after the last harvest. This starts the period of time god spends in the land of eternity, which some may call “summerland,” until god is resurrected again in spring.

Samhain, celebrated on October 31, is the festival where the eternal mysteries of death, rebirth, and life are experienced. The goddess prepares for the rebirth of god and the dead by going underground.

Yule is the celebration of the rebirth and return of god.

Imbolc, known as a light festival, heralds the end of winter and celebrates the goddess’s power to restart life.

Ostara, celebrated on the spring equinox, announces the beginning of spring and the blossoming of nature. The goddess here is in the aspect of a life-giving mother.

Beltane is a fertility festival. Its most important ritual is known as hieros gamoshomus dei, and great rite. Beltane is a celebration of the holy unity of god and goddess and the cosmic harmony born from it.

Litha, celebrated on the summer solstice, is the great festival of the masculine form of creation. Its power peaks on this very day and starts to weaken in the seasonal cycle.

Lammas is the first harvest festival of the year. Its main points are ancient laws, karma, the three-fold law, and other concepts.

What is Pentagram?

The pentagram is the five-pointed star drawn inside of a circle. It is used as a magical symbol because of its representation of the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) and the power uniting those elements (ether/aether). Drawing it upright refers to the complementary property of the fifth element. The shape of the star in the circle (representing a cosmic egg) is a metaphor of the wholeness of man and the universe, the microcosm and the macrocosm…

In another pagan description associated with the apple, one of the secrets inside the apple tree (the tree of wisdom) is considered sacred for the goddess. Other than its importance in ceremonial practices, its most important feature is, contrary to popular belief, its symbolization of The Mother Goddess as the five-pointed star. This is related to the representation of the Mother Goddess by the Sun and Moon, in connection with Ishtar, which has passed to the Western language as “star,” and Venus. The four elements are complementary, and together they point to the primal life-giving force of the goddess. The symbolism in alchemical practices takes this direction as well.  In Anatolia, the goddess Kybele’s (Matar Kubileya) ideogram is a cube, and her seal is a five-pointed star.

In folkloric tradition, the pentagram has a protective power against evil, such as the evil eye in Anatolian tradition. In Hebrew tradition, it represents the first five books of the Old Testament (the Torah) and is known as the “Star of Solomon” by ceremonial practitioners. Incorrectly, it’s thought to be same with the 6-pointed star, the hexagram. The pentagram has been accepted to be the holy symbol of the Goddess by Druids. In Christianity, it continued to be used as a protective symbol and was used as a motif in churches until the time of the Inquisition. With the Inquisition, the meaning of the symbol underwent a great change, but it’s been used in Hermetic tradition, Renaissance and Tarot symbolism, Alchemical studies, Freemasonry, and many other esoteric orders. It’s an important symbol that needs to be deeply and widely studied.

The use of a reversed pentagram shows a high level of initiation and has a positive meaning in some traditions. The pentagram can be used apart from the monist approach and can represent a dualist point of view in a neoplatonist sense.

A pentacle is a disk on which a pentagram symbol is drawn. It’s a tool used to symbolize the earth element or god and goddess form, as well as the harmony between macro and microcosms.

Traditionally, in four-element and elemental practices, the form of the ritual and tools to be used are considered deeply. Pentacles and pentagrams might be considered to be important features of the circle-casting period. When considering the tools used in esoteric practice, it should be kept in mind that tools cannot be evaluated independently of the particular initiatory or practical purpose of the individual or the tradition that is going to make use of them.

What does “One Year and a Day” Represent?

 Here is an excerpt from another article I wrote on this subject:

…traditionally giving the initiate/dedicant a time interval of one year and a day. This is used in many different places and generally used as a symbol for representing the time that constitutes the preparation period. 

At present, some Wiccan traditions take this period of time as the basis for providing the initiate with intense preparatory education, and at the end of the period, they realize the initiation ceremony.

However, the term “one year and a day” should probably be preceded by “at least,” because the necessary preparation period varies according to the individual, and it might take years or a much shorter period of time. I must stress again that this expression is symbolic rather than descriptive… 

Finally, it should be said that conducting research, gathering information, and learning is a process, so it takes time and this is not limited or rule bound. Those who have experienced the initiation process will have a deeper understanding of what I mean. When the subject is “paganism,” there is no period of waiting unless by personal choice, but there is such a period when the subject is a tradition or an order. There is a beautiful saying about this from the eclectic establishment:  “…The Lord and Lady make you Priest or Priestess, but I make you an Initiated One.”


Frequently Asked Questions

Do you believe in Satan?

Satan is the production of the absolute good and evil dualism in monotheistic religions. It’s a concept that has no place in Pagan and Wiccan belief systems. So naturally, we cannot accept a concept that does not even exist in our belief system.

In Wicca, individuals are responsible for their own actions. Good and evil are concepts unique to humanity, not to gods or goddesses. No one can force individuals to act in a way against their own will.

Some mysteries about darkness and death are wrongly discussed from the dualist point of view. Darkness symbolizes unconsciousness (in terms of analytic psychology: shadow, collective, and personal unconsciousness), nothingness, emptiness, and the universe’s primordial origin. In Esoteric tradition, the individual has to face that, know it, and reconcile with it, and the advanced degrees of the doctrine contain practices that focus on it.

Are Wicca and Witchcraft cults?

A cult is a community of people who blindly follow a leader. This sort of leadership does not exist in either Paganism or Wicca, and as a philosophy, pluralistic attendance is always stressed.

Can witches fly? 

When they board an airplane or use a paraglide, yes! This belief originates from how some herbal mixtures in the Middle Ages included large amounts of hallucinogens, resulting  in exaggerated folktale imagery of flying witches.

At present such descriptions are used to symbolically denote the practices on the astral plane.

What are white and black magick?

As is often repeated, “Magick is the art and science of causing change according to will.” (A.C.) Thus, the magick that is focused in the direction of someone’s will has no color. It can only be said to be good or evil according to the purpose of the practitioner. Apart from these, we could label it with all of the colors of the spectrum, but there isn’t such a description.



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