It may come as a surprise to you that many of the anti-witchcraft laws that were responsible for the Burning Times in Europe were not officially removed from the book until the mid-twentieth century!
During the 1950s in England, the primary tradition of modern Wicca came into its own and since that time the Craft has been expanding and growing in the light rather than the dark shadows to which it was so long confide thanks to Christian persecution.
Although Wiccans still struggle under the erroneous association with satanic worship, in the opening years of the 21st century, more people are willing to say they follow the Wiccan path.
Finding source material to begin your studies is no more difficult than walking to the occult section of any major bookstore or typing the word “Wicca” in your favorite search engine.
The difficulty is in sorting out the material that comes to you in this fashion. In this chapter, I hope to paint for you in broad strokes the parameters of the modern Wicca “scene” to help you take your first steps down the path if this is the direction in which you feel called to walk.
In its modern form, there are many Wiccan traditions just as there are denominations in Christian churches. Many Wiccans find comfort in following one set path, while others draw on the elements of many traditions in solitary practice. Here are some brief descriptions of some of the major variations of the Craft.
Gerald Gardner was a British civil servant with an interest in folklore, magic, and the occult. He claimed that his beliefs and practices were learned from the New Forest Coven into which he was initiated in 1939. At the time, the Witchcraft Act of 1735 was still in effect, making the group illegal, so its activities were secret and the membership small.
In 1951, the witchcraft laws were repealed, paving the way for Gardner to publish his first book, Witchcraft Today in 1954. Gardnerian Wicca is considered to be the first of the modern traditions to be codified and the one from which all others are in some way descended, especially in the UK, Europe, and Commonwealth countries. Sometimes Gardnerian Wicca is referred to as British Traditional Wicca.
The tradition follows a system of degrees for mastering the Craft. New members must be initiated by a coven, therefore all Gardnerian groups can trace their lineage back to Gardner’s original New Forest Coven. Much of the work is “oath bound” and remains strictly within the confines of the coven, where members work Skyclad (unclothed.)
Traditionally, Gardnerian covens have 13 members and are led jointly by a High Priestess and High Priest.
Members are forbidden from sharing the names and personal information of other members, or of confirming that they are indeed members.
This tradition teaches the core ethical guideline of the Wiccan Rede and although there are organized rituals, there is no dogma. Each member must discover for themselves the meaning of their ritual experiences as an aspect of their individual path.
Alex Sanders, known popularly as the “King of the Witches” founded this tradition in the 1960s with this wife, Maxine Sanders. It is, in most aspects, identical to Gardnerian Wicca, but there is a greater emphasis on ceremonial magick and greater eclecticism is allowed. The attitude, as described by Maxine Sanders is, “If it works, use it.”
Working Skyclad is optional, but the rite of initiation, and of earning degrees (typically three) is followed. In some Alexandrian covens, a fourth degree or preliminary rank is used called the “dedicant” or “neophyte.”
In truth, the distinction between Alexandian and Gardernian covens is blurry at best and many priestesses train their students in both traditions. There is, in fact, a deliberate fusion of the two called the Algard Tradition.
Mary Nesnick, who was initiated in both the Gardnerian and the Alexandrian traditions fused the two into Algard Wicca in 1972. It is widely regarded as redundant, since in practice this version is largely Gardnerian.
There are very few Algard covens in either the United States or Great Britain and even covens that operate with a thriving mix of the two traditions do not self-identify as Algard.
This fusion is most clearly seen in the work of Janet and Steward Farrer whose books Eight Sabbats for Witches and A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches’ Handbook are listed in the Suggested Reading section at the back of this book.
Although very similar to the Gardernian tradition, Georgian Wicca was founded in the United States by George Patterson in Bakersfield, California in 1970. He claimed to have been influenced by Celtic traditions derived from his work with a coven in Boston after World War II.
It is a somewhat more flexible tradition in that members may write their own rituals. As in the Alexandrian tradition, working Skyclad is optional. Initiation is required and members are still oath bound.
Raymond Buckland, a High Priest in the Gardnerian tradition, founded Seax-Wica after moving to the United States in 1973. This variation is based more heavily on Saxon traditions and allows for valid initiation either by a coven or through self-study.
Buckland was the author of numerous books on witchcraft, including Buckland’s Complete Book of Witchcraft, published in 1985.
Also spelled Fairy, Faery, and Faerie, the Feri tradition was brought to the United Sates in the 1960s and is typically associated with small working groups and solitaires. One of the most notable initiates of this tradition is the author and activist Starhaw, best known for her work, The Spiral Dance.
Known as the feminist movement of Wicca, the Dianic tradition emphasizes reverence of the Goddess in her three aspects. Many of the Dianic covens are for women only.
The tradition was founded by Zsuzsanna Budapest in the 1970s and is an egalitarian and matriarchal tradition that combines elements of the Gardnerian tradition with folk magic and feminist principles.
Other traditions you may encounter include:
- Celtic Wicca, which emphasizes the magicand healing abilities of elemental spirits, gnomes, fairies, plants, and minerals.
- Asatru(Northern Way) based on the Norse pantheon and involving Old Norse dress for ritual work.
- Pictish, which is a solitary Scottish nature tradition.
- Strega, that draws traditions dating back to 14th century Italian teachings.
While not a complete list, these descriptions certainly should give you an idea of the variety inherent in the world of Wicca.
Covens and Coven Life
A working coven is comprised of 3-20 witches with one or two leaders knows as the High Priestess or High Priest. There will also be members of the group called Elders, who have attained all of their degrees and remain within the group as the most experienced members.
Elders may or may not serve in an advisory capacity when the group is faced with any major decisions or is dealing with any kind of upheaval that requires the intervention of a “council.”
The purpose of the Coven as a community is to perform rituals and magic in accordance with the tradition they follow and to initiate and educate new members through a series of degrees. Every coven is independent in its own right.
As you begin to consider joining a coven, you will want to know what tradition the group follows.
Earning Your Degree
When as a neophyte, you approach a coven with an interest to join, you’ll generally receive an invitation to come to an open ritual. This is always the order in which the introduction should occur.
If a coven approaches you to join, decline! Properly run covens do not solicit members.
After a few visits to open events, you should communicate your ongoing desire to join at which point the group will meet and decide whether or not they should accept you as a dedicant.
Typically covens will not take anyone under 18 years of age especially if they do not have the support and consent of their parents.
When a neophyte joins, a member of the coven becomes their teacher. For the next year and a day, the neophyte studies to earn their First Degree Initiation at which point they are formally accepted as a member.
Dedicants are typically expected to attend meetings, study the craft, get to know the coven members, live by the Wiccan Rede, and be oath bound.
They are watched closely for the seriousness with which they approach their study and for how their energies merge into the greater energy of the coven.
Neophytes should NEVER be presented with any “requirement” or hinted requirement that they must grant sexual favors to any coven member including the High Priestess or High Priest.
During a dedication ritual neophytes choose a craft name that will be used at meetings and within the pagan community.
All members of a coven must enter the circle in an attitude of love, harmony, and perfect trust for the group to be what it is meant to be — a tightly woven magickal and spiritual family.
The second degree is earned a year and a day after the first. Coven members who have attained their second degree are allowed to begin teaching. The third degree is earned in another year and a day, and at that point the status of High Priestess or High Priest has been attained.
At that point members can, if they so desire, break off and form their own covens or remain and share responsibilities within the home coven.
Ongoing Coven Membership
As an aspect of ongoing coven membership, eight Sabbats and 13 Esbats are celebrated per year. You can expect there to be at least two meeting per month. Failing to attend a ritual of which you are to be a part could ruin the occasion for the entire coven, so there is a serious responsibility attached to being a part of a Wiccan group.
Neophytes may be given chores by their teacher like running errands before a ritual observance, for instance buying candles, or perhaps cleaning the covenstead (meeting place) before the gathering.
Covens, like any religious group, are also involved in their community and may undertake public service projects together. There’s also plenty of room for fun, like potluck suppers and other “family” gatherings. Just because it’s called a coven, this is still a very “congregational” setting with all the attendant responsibilities and engagements.
Solitary practice is attractive to many coming to the Craft since they can, in the privacy of their own study, draw from a single tradition or merge the parts of many traditions that speak to them, thus designing a uniquely personal system of worship.
There is one line of belief that holds that the majority of witches in history have been solitaires, with covens actually being a more modern phenomenon. Some historians argue that the Catholic Inquisition actually invented the idea of a “covent” as the evil counterpart of religious communities like “convents,” thus fitting their dichotomous theological interpretation.
There is certainly a wealth of published material on the subject of Wicca available in book form and online. Solitaires can even strike a middle ground in what might otherwise be lonely study and connect with like-minded students in online discussion forums.
Self-study of the craft can be a combination of all of these things as well as workshop and courses that can be found online or in local metaphysical bookshops. Such stores are an excellent resource for finding out about Wicca in your community.
At the back of this book, you’ll find a beginning list of suggested readings, as well as websites to help you begin your exploration of the Craft.
Other Forms of Witchcraft
Understand that not all people who self-identify as witch are Wiccans and not all Wiccans necessarily think of themselves as witches.
There are also self-styled “eclectic” witches who pull for a huge variety of traditions and do not plug into any one way of following their path other than what they create for themselves.
These are typically people with a deep appreciation for nature, a thriving interest in the mythology of multiple cultures, and a sense of attunement with the energy and forces of the Universe.
Hereditary witches inherit their sense of the path from traditions passed down from generation to generation within their family unit. These witches have access to a long and unbroken chain of beliefs that may well reach back to the old pagan religions.
These forms of practice, though rare, are a wellspring of evolved belief and may be purer in nature than anyone realizes.
All approaches, however, can find their place in the world of Wicca, which strongly emphasizes that there is one path or one right path. We are all given a path to walk and the means to discover it. That is the true Wiccan way, and what draws so many people to this faith.
Pros and Cons of Covens
Covens provide a support system for those new to the Craft, as well as a source of information and mentoring from more experienced members. There is both structure and camaraderie. New initiates work toward earning higher degrees until they reach the rank of High Priestess or Priest.
However, for some people all of those perceived positives turn them away from coven life. If you do not like to be tied down to a schedule or have the responsibility of attending meetings, a coven may not be for you.
It’s also important to find out, in advance, if a coven does any work Skyclad. Although ritual nudity is always a choice, some people are simply too uncomfortable with the practice.
In a coven, members are held accountable for remaining within the group’s tradition and abiding by its laws. Infractions can result in removal from the community. Also, if you tie yourself to one tradition and then decide another is your true path, you’ll have to start your degrees over.
A coven is governed by the same dynamics that apply to any group. Some people are, by nature, joiners and others are loners. Wicca makes ample accommodation for both.
Pros and Cons of Solitaire
If you follow the Wiccan path on your own as a Soltaire you can move at your own pace, perform ritual in any state of dress or undress, and design your own rituals as your studies lead you.
Mentoring guidance will have to come from different sources, including books and online materials, and you must be prepared for the fact that coven witches may not regard you as a true follower of the Craft.
There is, however, a major advantage of privacy, particularly if you live in an area, like the American Bible Belt, where the association with the Wiccan faith is very negative among large numbers of the population. This is also true within individual family structures where your relatives may disapprove of your chosen path.
Remember that the goal of the Wiccan belief is to live in harmony. I am not advocating lying about your faith, or necessarily hiding it, but there are times when following the Wiccan Rede – “An it harm none, do as you will.” – may mean practicing your faith out of sight of those who would perceive it as a harm.
This is, of course, a highly personal decision, but particularly in the beginning, if you are being distracted by a constant need to defend your studies, that defensive posture alone will generate negative energies and create harm for you as well as others.
Wicca is not a “secret” faith, not do Wiccans have anything to hide, but you must realize that by following the Craft, you are practicing what is widely regarded as an “alternate” religion and one that many people hold to be suspect.