You keep using that word. I do not think it means, what you think it means. William Goldman, The Princess Bride.
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet; William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet,” Act II, scene ii.
The oft-debated history of the emergence into the public eye of Wicca, following the publication of Gerald Gardner’s non-fiction works on the subject,1 and the later inﬂuence of Alex Sanders and others upon that movement, has been much written about, and has been the focus of much recent research.2 The ongoing disagreements on the precise relationship of Gardner, Sanders and other figures of the time to the traditions of the Wicca, and to what went before them (what we might call Wiccan prehistory) is not relevant to this work. What suffices, is that by the early 1960s there was an appreciable degree of public knowledge of the Wicca, which has continued to grow since.
More important to this work is the question of what exactly Wicca is? At the time of writing, common usages could be defined as follows:
- The priesthood of a collection of related mystery tradition, fertility cults, practicing cross-gender initiation and witchcraft, holding a shared initiatory lineage to certain covens in the New Forest region of England.
- Any form of witchcraft (that is to say, a synonym).
- Modern Pagan witchcraft.
- Forms of Pagan witchcraft and/or religion including; those of the New Forest lineages, those of the New Forest lineages but which do not continue the traditional practices, and others which have been heavily inﬂuenced by what is publicly stated by or about members of the New Forest lineages.
There are also some rougher definitions that we may argue are used in practice, though they tend towards imprecision; with people perhaps using it for any form of witchcraft tied to a specific religious view, any form other than Satanic witchcraft (generally because the speaker frowns upon Satanism), and other even vaguer distinctions based on whichever aspects the speaker sees as particularly Wiccan, perhaps even excluding those Wiccans close in practice to Gardner, Sanders, the Mohs, etc.
These latter definitions are hardly definitions at all, but the very difficulty with such definitions recurs repeatedly in works on Wicca and modern witchcraft, as demonstrated by attempts at a firmer definition relying heavily on imprecise terms, and making no stronger statements than “most” or “practically all.”3
This work focusses on the first and fourth definition, and the relationship between the two movements so described. Since all witchcraft so described owes something to the inﬂuence of Gardner’s publications and activities, albeit in different ways, I refer to such witchcraft as a whole as Post-Gardnerian Witchcraft.4
In this work, Traditional Wicca will be used to refer to the first; those which continue the lineages and practices. While the term British Traditional Wicca has been suggested by the New Wiccan Church as a more specific term,5 which is gaining currency, this term is not presently widespread outside of the US and Canada, and raises its own difficulties.6 It is as a compromise between the advantages of that term and concision, that I use the term Traditional Wicca. For reasons that will be given below, the term Innovative Witchcraft will be used for those forms of Post-Gardnerian witchcraft which are not Traditional Wicca.
The very definitions would entail that Traditional Wicca preceded Innovative Witchcraft, (if we dismiss testimony from a few groups that claim a long lineage and that Gardner borrowed wholesale from them, increasingly a position only of the most marginal traditions7), and implies a relationship in which the cultural and technological borrowings are entirely in one direction. This is often accepted by practitioners of both, though obviously with differing opinions on the value of this split.
As we look closer, this becomes less clear. To begin with, it is not entirely clear from Gardner’s writings just what the relationship between witches generally and those he refers to as The Wica is.
To a modern Traditional Wiccan reader today, it certainly seems that The Wicca, the most common spelling in current usage, are those particular witches with which Gardner was personally familiar, and who accepted him as one of their own. This reading however hinges on turns of phrase rather than any explicit statement, so those who would claim, The Wicca, as a term within witchcraft for all witches will point to exactly the same passages to make their counter-arguments.
A related complication is that, at that time, Traditional Wiccans often wouldn’t have accepted many practitioners of other forms of witchcraft, including Innovative Witchcraft as witches. In particular, the self-initiated, or those of a lineage which ultimately derives from a self-initiate, would not be accepted as witches as, “only a witch can make a witch.” With knowledge of the older non-Wiccan forms of witchcraft being limited due to the relative lack of communication, Wicca was indeed seen as synonymous with witch, for the simple reason that only Traditional Wiccans, to apply the term retroactively, were seen as witches at all. Stewart Farrar not only described Wicca as an internal term witches use for their religion, in his first book on the subject, but admitted that he knew nothing about the lines now labelled Traditional Initiatory Witchcraft, save that they work robed.8 Such an admission would not be seen in a book on witchcraft today. This is partly because not every author would be as honest as Farrar in ever admitting ignorance on any matter, even when they should be! Partly also, Farrar was new to the Craft, being initiated in the course of his writing the book, and not at that time claiming expertise, but rather to be writing as a reporter. Mainly though, the availability, if not always the quality, of information obtainable by even the most cursory inquiries today is vastly beyond what was available to the most devoted of seekers at the time, until they managed to make personal contact with someone of the Craft.
That many Traditional Wiccans maintain a claim to the term as explicitly referring to themselves alone, now that they will recognise others’ claims to being witches, seems likely to have in part be by comparison with lines, such as those of Feri, the various lines claiming descent from Robert Cochrane, and those who claim a family tradition. Were the only people claiming to be witches the Traditional Wiccans on the one hand, and the self-initiates on the other, then perhaps if the times had still changed in such a way that many Traditionals were more inclined to recognise some outside of their own lines as witches, they would also have ceded the word wicca to them. However, this same increase in acceptance of those outside of Traditional Wicca came alongside a greater knowledge of the determinedly non-Wiccan lines, such as those mentioned above, and non-English speaking lines like Stregaria. Indeed, such increasing knowledge of those lines would in itself have led to their no longer thinking of themselves as the only witches in the world. As such, the reässessment that acknowledged witches outside of New Forest descended lines would necessitate a reässessment of just what Wicca meant, to reﬂect the fact that other witches do not use the word. To many Traditional Wiccans, the most obvious answer to that reässessment would be that The Wicca were those people they had always known as such. Those using the name without New Forest lineage and practice were seen as no more Wiccan after this more tolerant reässessment than they were before.
The counter-argument from those of Innovative Witchcraft is that wicca is the same as the Anglo-Saxon wiċċa9 and hence simply is the word for witch. This is probably true,10 but even so we do not speak Anglo-Saxon! If the word computer can change so much in less than a century that it now only refers to electronic machines, and the people who once had computer as their job-description are largely forgotten, then surely wicca could have changed to mean only some witches over the course of a millennium.
Yet, precisely the same logic gives those in Innovative Witchcraft that wish to use the word the final argument that words change and the word is now used as they use it, at least as one sense amongst others.
There is a difficulty in determining just which stream a practitioner belongs to or a text describes. While people who have lineage and training clearly descended from a Traditional Wiccan tradition and maintain it as their sole practice are definitely Traditional Wiccans, and autodidactic self-initiates are clearly Innovative Witches, not everything is as clear-cut.
Traditional Wiccan method has always been capable of making use of techniques, views and wordings from elsewhere. While the insistance upon core traditions makes it less ﬂuid in this regard than Innovative Witchcraft, there is no reason why material developed by Innovative Witchcraft would not find its way into the practices of a group of Traditional Wiccans, though it may not be considered “core.”
More problematic still is the large number of people who engage in both Traditional and Innovative practice, or which have done one or the other at different points in their lives. Since this includes some of the writers that have had the greatest inﬂuence amongst both this can be particularly important.
Additionally, the very borrowing of views and techniques from Traditional Wicca into Innovative Witchcraft, combined with the fact that most Innovative Witches are starting from a tabla rasa when they come to construct their practice, means that a Traditional Wiccan expressing a personal opinion as a Traditional Wiccan may have a stronger inﬂuence upon Innovative Witchcraft than upon Traditional Wicca, while quite definitely remaining Traditional in his or her own practice. As such, while the author is Traditional Wiccan the inﬂuence will be largely upon the other stream under consideration. Defining any such artefact as firmly belonging to one stream or the other becomes close to impossible, and comparison with other sources must be a guide.
Further, the sympathies of many Traditional Wiccan authors, particularly those with the most inﬂuence upon Innovative Witchcraft, may be more firmly with that stream than with Traditional Wicca when it comes to dissemination of information—after all, they may cover matters in books that Traditional Wiccans are going to learn during coven training anyway, and so it is the Innovative Witches that are the audience. Worse still, their sympathies may change over time; Raymond Buckland, for example, is notable as both a defender and attacker of self-initiation at different times of his life. Indeed, an author’s sympathies are unlikely to be polarised in a simplistic manner, but rather a perfectly human complex of different views on different topics.
Deeper problems come from the implied assumption that Traditional Wiccan practice has been essentially static, while all deviations can be viewed as innovation. It is certainly true that Traditional Wicca represents a more narrowly defined range of practices, but it is not immune to history. One oft-referenced point is the attitude to homosexuality that Gardner exhibited and many repeated, which has been largely removed by the progress made by the Gay Rights Movement in changing the attitudes of Western society generally and countercultures in particular. Even more notable is the relative promiscuity of initiations of both Gardner and Sanders,11 and of the first generation of their initiates, compared to the speed with which elevations would be performed. Traditional Wiccan elders are now generally more cautious in this regard, while Innovative Witchcraft will contain many who will repeat the speed of elevation found in the early public history of Traditional Wicca, as well as containing some who start identifying themselves as Wiccan pretty much immediately upon learning about it.12
Another difficulty, is that with Wicca entering into the popular lexicon, it could be adopted by people with a lineage outside of Post-Gardnerian Witchcraft, who are hence outside of the scope of this work, but without clear indication that this is so. Forms of witchcraft other than Traditional Wicca have always been with us. The boundaries and definitions quickly become matters of opinion, and as such whether a cunning-man, an otherwise devout Christian who uses folk magic, a magic worker who is outside of any other defined tradition or ceremonial method, and so on is or is not a witch, is in each case open to interpretation. Since wicca is sometimes treated as a synonym of witchcraft, these other forms of witchcraft are sometimes also labelled wicca, sometimes against the protests of the practitioners, but often by the practitioners themselves. If we are to consider this retroactive labelling, there is a danger of opening the scope to the point of meaninglessness.
Finally, by 1974 we also had the emergence of Seax-Wica,13 which makes use of the same word, but since it looks to Saxon culture, it is natural for it to adopt the Anglo-Saxon word wiċċa as a sort of “independent reclamation.”14 The separate use of the word, justified differently to that within Traditional Wicca, would probably have helped to diffuse and widen its use generally.
Well before this time though, we had several inﬂuences affecting the use of the word.
The first is the mismatch, between the number of people made aware of Wicca by public personalities such as Gardner, the Sanderses, the Bucklands and the Farrars, and the number of people who could train would-be initiates, or at least refuse them training in such a way as to reduce the risk that they would not, as Aidan Kelly puts it, “start an imitation based on Rosemary’s Baby if they weren’t let in.”15 Hence, despite a rate of initiation and elevation that would be remarkable today, there were still disappointed seekers who had a sense of what they wanted, but were left to their own devices.
A second is the distribution of the Pagan Way material, intended to relieve this difficulty, much of which was clearly Wiccan-derived, and yet clearly also not subject to the same restrictions on transmission.
A third was the publication of Lady Sheba’s The Book of Shadows, which makes use of the word Wiccan16 and contains several passages generally attributed to Doreen Valiente or otherwise claimed as belonging to Traditional Wicca.17
Each of these factors led to there being people outside of Traditional Wicca, but being inﬂuenced by it in practice to greater or lesser degrees.
A crucial point was the introduction of the concept of Self-Initiation. This would allow people to not just work with such material prior to eventually meeting a teacher; or to produce a personal practice from them, that sufficiently met the needs of someone who doesn’t feel called to be initiated into a tradition; but went beyond this, and enabled them to claim an initiation without any contact with initiates.
At this point the split was complete. There were now two different groups, who were calling themselves Wicca, who need not have any contact with, and increasingly not even much awareness of, each other.
The split made, further severance was inevitable, due to something that long existed within Wicca, and indeed all forms of witchcraft; the practical willingness to make use of just about anything that works.
This has been noted already, in terms of the difficulty in precisely determining whether particular people are Traditional or not, without strong knowledge of their practice. Obviously, it leads to a great deal of variety within Traditional Wicca, but is balanced by traditions providing a framework with which to attach any such innovations and borrowings.
Without the insistence upon tradition, and indeed with some aspects of the traditions remaining out of reach, the new strains of Wicca-inspired witchcraft naturally came to value borrowings and innovations more highly still. From the perspective of Traditional Wicca the result is a very eclectic mix indeed.
If anything is typical of these strains of witchcraft, it is this high value placed on innovation, whether continual or in the formation of a body of lore that would then crystallise into something that could be passed on as a new tradition. While Traditional Wiccans often label such strains Eclectic witchcraft, there are several problems with this term. The first, is that from another perspective, one might label Traditional Wicca eclectic; what else would an outsider label traditions in whose liturgy one can find material originating with Kipling, Shakespeare, Leland, Crowley, Freemasonry and The Carmina Gadelica,18 if only in turns of phrase, or which for public god names pair the Gaulish Cernunnos with the Tuscan Aradia?19
The second, is that within these strains, eclectic is used to refer to people who deliberately take their cultural and magical practices from a very wide range of sources, in a highly syncretistic manner. Non-traditional witches who concentrate upon a particular pantheon would often not consider themselves eclectic, but rather as Celtic, Germanic, Norse, Egyptian, Hellenic or whatever other culture or material they most closely identified themselves with. Often this would be the case, even if some of their gap-filling was quite definitely eclectic by any stretch of the word—they would view this more as an eclectic borrowing into an otherwise non-eclectic practice; or as being eclectic with a small ‘e’, where deliberately more varied borrowings would be Eclectic with a large ‘E’.
Finally, the term could reasonably be applied to forms of witchcraft which have not borrowed anything from Traditional Wicca, do not self-describe as Wicca and have had little impact upon the history of either of the strains examined here, nor the public view of them, and as such are not of interest to this work.
To avoid this difficulty I am using the term Innovative Witchcraft for these strains of witchcraft. It has the advantage of being a generally positive term, while at the same time it does not entail an insult to Traditional Wicca by implying that the Traditional Wicca are not innovative; I feel that Traditional Wiccans would generally agree that while they value innovation, they do not value it over their traditions, and hopefully therefore none will take offence if I cede that word to other strains of witchcraft.
It has the difficulty of not using the term Wicca, and as such appearing to take sides in the debate on whether this term applies to them or not. The term Innovative Wicca though while not just finding objections from the other side of that debate, could also raise objections from those Innovative Witches who agree that the word Wicca does not apply to them, while almost everyone who claims the term Wiccan also claims the term witch.20 While part of the concept of this work is to examine two groups which both use the name Wicca, some groups who do not use that word share much the same history.21
Innovative Witchcraft could be applied to a form of witchcraft that was developed from pure inspiration, or was inﬂuenced by non-New Forest traditions like Feri, in much the same way that those examined here were inﬂuenced by Traditional Wicca. While a possible difficulty with the term as a general coinage, such forms of witchcraft being beyond the scope of this work removes the difficulty here, if nowhere else.
This scope excludes a variety of religious and magical practice whose origins are outside of anglophone culture, including many where the aptness of the label witchcraft is debated. It also excludes The Regency, its descendants, and other modern forms of witchcraft which have a lineage dating back long enough to either predate Gardner, or at least date to avoid the inﬂuence of the large amount of post-Gardnerian material now in circulation, without having to be deliberate in such exclusions.
Where people have been inﬂuenced by both Wicca and other forms of witchcraft, determining whether to consider them in scope or not is, by necessity, somewhat arbitrary. With the Roebuck Tradition, for example, while the Finnins received training from Ed Fitch and initiation from the Mohs, their primary identifiable inﬂuence was from the Clan of Tubal Cain,22 and so I deemed that tradition to be outside of my scope. On the other hand, much the same could be said about Starhawk and her Reclaiming tradition, with Feri being a greater direct inﬂuence than Wicca.23 Ultimately, the inﬂuence that Starhawk had on others who were also strongly inﬂuenced by Wiccan sources, or who identify as Wiccan, was such that I could not ignore her.
A consolation is that in attempting to not just examine those works that have gained the largest degree of fame or notoriety, but also to at least touch the surface of the large number of publications, including the vast number of web publications, that come especially from the Innovative streams of witchcraft, it is inevitable that I will exclude a large amount of informative material, no matter how I define the scope.
Where terms like Wicca and witchcraft appear in italics in this work, as they do frequently above, I am considering them as terms, and examining them as signifiers rather than what they signify. Where I use the term Wicca unqualified by the adjective Traditional I am deliberately leaving the definition vague, and using it in a way which holds whether or not one includes any or all Innovative Witchcraft in that. At no point do I attempt to define the terms witch or witchcraft, except in so far that it is taken to include all Traditional Wicca and practically all Innovative Witchcraft; debates on whether some practitioners of Innovative Witchcraft should be considered so far removed from Traditional Wicca, as to not be witches at all, and to just what further practices outside of any Post-Gardnerian inﬂuence should be considered witchcraft, I have also deemed out of scope.
- [Gardner 1954] & [Gardner 1959]
- For example; [Heselton 2000], [Hutton 1999], [Heselton 2003] & [Hutton 2003] between them reflect two positions in an ongoing debate on just what can be justifiably said on the matter by historians.
- e.g.; [NWC 2004]
- Clearly then, I mean Post-Gardnerian as in “after Gardner” rather than “after the Gardnerian Tradition.” Hence Gardnerians are also Post-Gardnerian in this sense.
- op cit.
- e.g.; [WIK 2006] (editors notes for page on “British Traditional Wicca”) Here an attempt to define “British Traditional Wicca” for an encyclopædic entry raises an objection from someone who understands the similar (and identical when initialised) term “British Traditional Witchcraft” as referring to non-Wiccan traditions native to Britain.
- E.g. [Anon 2004]
- [Farrar 1971]
- The use of diacritical dots on C’s in Anglo-Saxon words to indicate the /ʧ/ sound now normally represented with the spelling CH is a modern convention, not an original feature of the language. It has the serendipitous advantage of resulting in the Anglo-Saxon wiċċa being distinguished in spelling from the Modern English wicca, and I use the convention purely for this convenience.
- It is just about plausible that the word is some sort of independent coinage that, while probably cognate with the Modern English witch and the Anglo-Saxon wiċċa, is not the same as either. The one argument in favour of this suggestion is that Gardner describes the word as one he heard, not read, and wiċċa is pronounced /ˈwiʧːɑ/, not /wɪkə/ as the modern wicca is.
- If we accept Gardner’s claim that it is not his own coinage, it remains considerably more likely that the Anglo-Saxon word was adopted from a textual source and then pronounced as if it were modern English, perhaps influenced by Skeats’ Etymology being quoted in [Leland 1891], a work that would have obvious interest to a witch. If this was the source, then at the earliest the New Forest Coven or an ancestor coven could have adopted the term is 1891, though other sources for the word have been in existence for the entire history of the English language, so wicca could have been adopted from wiċċa before that date.
- [Hutton 1999], [Guerra 2008] & [Farrar & Farrar 1984]/[Farrar & Farrar 1996]
- This could be argued to be a lesson that keeps being learned by new groups. Those with a Traditional training have the advantage of learning about the issues raised from their teachers, while Innovative Witches repeat the mistake. More reasonably though, one could argue that there are benefits to such speedy initiation which are more pronounced when a tradition has fewer members than when it has grown, and hence new groups repeat conditions also experienced by Gardner and Sanders, in which the benefits of such rapid progress outweighs the problems.
- [Buckland 1974]
- Though perhaps Sax Wiċċecræft would have been a closer term for the stated intent?
- [Kelly 1994]
- [Sheba 1971]
- Compare with material described as such in [Farrar & Farrar 1984].
- [Farrar & Farrar 1984]
- For that matter the Mohs used the term American Eclectic Wicca, to describe their practice prior to eclectic becoming more strongly connected with those who were outside of Traditional Wicca.
- There are some exceptions; [Silverlotus 2004] for example claims, “I am Wiccan, but I am not a Witch.” Such people would appear to be devotees of some form of Neopagan religion which is faith-based rather than practice-based, and which includes little or no practice of magic, though it often would include a belief in the efficacy of magic, and a tolerant view of those who do use it. While they also represent a Post-Gardnerian stream of philosophy, they are by definition outside of the scope of the current work.
- There may even be a difference of opinion within the same tradition, or even the same coven, on whether the term applies.
- [Finnin 2008]
- [Starhawk 1979]