Although there is a tendency in popular understanding to associate Wicca with witch hunting and the Christian church it is far more accurate to turn the historic lens much farther backward.
When we go past the time of Christ, past the Romans and Greeks, we enter a period before recorded history when people lived in closer accord with the earth. At that time here was a reverence for the spirit inherent in everything from the towering oaks to the running rivers and streams.
It is in those Paleolithic times that the real roots of Wicca can be found, in earth religions that followed the passage of the seasons and honored earth as the life giving mother.
The Early Earth Religions
Some of the carved goddess figures archaeologists have unearthed in Europe date back 20,000 years. Often called Venus figures, they are rich with emblematic fertility, making it clear that even those prehistoric societies held the power to impart life to be a powerful and wondrous thing. Without question, the feminine principle was central to the ritual life of these early peoples.
Our prehistoric ancestors likely had very practical reasons for creating ritual, for dancing in the light of the fire with painted faces or crating elaborate cave paintings. They were asking the earth to provide them with plenty, animals to hunt and plants to harvest.
As man grew in his understanding of the world around him, and as his societies became more complex, so did his rituals. Individuals emerged who were believed to be more directly in contact with the divine power of the earth, more capable of communing with her and carrying to her the needs and concerns of the people.
These intermediaries, or shamans were soon believed to possess magic and the ability to connect with the spirits of the dead. They walked the spirit path in trance and meditation, coming back to this plane with message and new knowledge.
By around 350 B.C.E., the shamans of the Celtic peoples of West and Central Europe were known as Druids, a deeply metaphysical priestly class in possession of a refined body of knowledge.
The Druids were not just priests, but also healers, predictors of the weather, givers of law, and Europe’s first astrologers. It was believed the Druids could foretell the future and their magickal prowess is still held in awe today.
The Rise of Christianity
These early religions were set on a collision course with emerging Christianity when the Roman Empire adopted the Christian faith as the official state religion in 371. Just as the Empire grew at the point of the Roman sword, so did the new faith. Local priests and the Druids themselves were killed in the name of spreading the new “word.”
Pope Gregory I (540-604) was a major force in the Christianization of Europe, but his approach was shrewder than that of the Roman government. He ordered Christian churches built on the sites of old pagan temples giving people the familiarity of old sacred locations paired with new religious instruction.
This led to the development of a kind of hybridized religion that was outwardly Christian but retained many of the tenets and observances of the older faiths that had been supplanted. One of the clearest manifestations of this blending is the cult of the Virgin Mary, still called “Our Lady” today in a clear echoing of the old reverence for the goddess.
In time, however, as Christianity threatened to become too fragmented, the need to impose orthodoxy led subsequent popes to employ inquisitors to stamp out beliefs and practices that strayed too far from those that were officially sanctioned by Rome.
It was at this juncture that the church and so called witches collided. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII issued a letter (called a papal bull) about the threat of witchcraft. This action paved the way for the first of many waves of witch hunting in the coming centuries in both Europe and the New World.
These vicious actions were carried out in accordance with the instructions contained in a witch hunting manual, the Malleus Malleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger.
Kramer and Sprenger used Pope Innocent’s papal bull as the introduction to the Malleus Malleficarum. They were, in fact, German monks who worked as inquisitors for the church. Their book, written in three parts, first appeared in 1486 and promptly touched off hysterical mass persecutions of accused witches.
Part 1 of the Malleus Malleficarum explains the great danger witches pose, but it also states clearly that NOT believe in witches is itself a heresy. Part 2 lists the types of witches as well as their evil acts including having carnal relations with the devil.
In Part 3, Karmer and Sprenger laid out the legal means necessary to try and convict a witch as well as outlining means to test (torture) an accused witch effectively to elicit a confession.
In the subsequent waves of witch executions, about two-thirds of those killed were women. Modern witches refer to those days as “the Burning Times.” Traditionally it has been estimated that 50,000 people were killed, but more modern scholars suggest the real number could have been as high as 9 million.
Ongoing Witch Trials
The Burning Times were only the opening chapter in a long period of witch hunting. In 1604, King James I of England passed a Witchcraft Act making the crime a hanging offense. Remember that King James also oversaw a major translation of the Bible.
It is believed that his fear of witches was so great, he ordered the verse, “Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live,” to become, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Even though James later changed his mind, the damage was done and the law he enacted remained in place and was not repealed until 1736.
In the intervening years in England there were witch trials held in 1612, 1616, 1633, 1645, and 1649. It was in this same period that witch hysteria was transplanted to America where the infamous Salem witch trials were held in 1692.
Into the Shadows and Out
Even though the last execution of a witch in Europe occurred in Poland in 1793, pagans or practitioners of the Old Religion, the direct ancestors of today’s Wiccans, went deep underground, generally with covens having no interaction with one another out of fear of persecution.
It was not until 1954 when Gerald Gardner published his book Witchcraft Today that a new tradition of witchcraft was born and what we know today as Wicca began to emerge from the shadows. To many, Gardner is considered the founder of modern-day Wicca.
Today there are many traditions in Wicca, including Gardnerian and Seax-Wica built on the work of Raymond Buckland. There are more than 5,000 books listed in Amazon’s catalog alone on the subject of Wicca and we now live in a world where the faith can once again be practiced in the light.
Modern Wicca is an all-inclusive and tolerant faith. It is not evil, and it is not Satanic. It does rest on an ancient tradition, and in its practice is gentle and earth loving. In an age of global warming and horrible crimes committed against mother earth every day, perhaps the golden age of Wicca is yet to come.