Wicca – A Modern Religion with an Ancient Past – The Sociology of Religion

Paganism is a broad and diverse nature-based, harmonious belief system. Within the Pagan structure there are a number of subgroups that choose a particular designation for themselves such as Witchcraft, witches and Wicca.

As mentioned in my previous blog, Paganism is a broad and diverse nature-based, harmonious belief system. Within the Pagan structure there are a number of subgroups that choose a particular designation for themselves such as Witchcraft, witches and Wicca. This is the focus of my next topic.

Although the term Witchcraft, witches and Wicca can be confusing, particularly because we tend to think about the “witches” that were burned at the stake starting in the 1400s, and continued until the last witch was killed into the 1700s. But in order to try to clarify a very confusing issue, Wicca can best be described as a modern religion based on pre-Christian Witchcraft traditions.  Most Wiccans are witches that practice white magic and worship Gods and Goddesses. But not all witches are Wiccans, although all Wiccans are Pagans. Much of the information, on Paganism and Witchcraft, and about how they lived and worshiped was lost due to the efforts of the Church in wiping out their existence from history. Efforts have been made in recent years by scholars and Pagans to reconstruct those beliefs to the best of their ability. Nonetheless, the modern version of Witchcraft, now mostly known as Wicca, is much different to that of the early days when witches were viewed as evil, by the Christian church.

Although Pagan rites and Witchcraft predate Christianity, there is a general agreement that Wicca first became a mass movement in 1951 with the publishing of the books by Gerald Gardner. He had been greatly influenced by Margaret Murray, an Egyptologist and anthropologist who researched witchcraft during World War I because she was prevented from working in Egypt. In part, what she discovered was that Witchcraft is a blend of many different polytheistic and/or nature-revering religions and spiritual persuasions based on a belief system and way of life (Greenwood, 2011), which stem from pre-Christian traditions originating in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales and 19th century occultism. It is maintained that Gardner with the help of people like Doreen Valiente, Dion Fortune, Ross Nichols, and other notable scholars, created present-day Wicca by merging a few ancient Celtic beliefs, seasonal holy days of celebration with modern material from ceremonial magick, and Masonic rituals. Although many Wiccans still believe they are connected to an age-old fertility religion of which those persecuted in the witch-hunts were also members, there is no reliable evidence of a continuous Wiccan presence from Celtic times to its current modern manifestation.

When Gerard Gardner explained what he thought about Wicca, he said the following: “Witchcraft was a peaceful, happy nature religion. Witches met in covens, let by a priestess. They worshiped two principal deities, the god of forests and what lies beyond, and the great Triple Goddess of fertility and rebirth. They met in the nude in a nine-foot circle and raised power from their bodies through dancing and chanting and meditative techniques. They focused primarily on the Goddess; they celebrated the eight ancient Pagan festivals of Europe and sought to attune themselves to nature” (Adler, 2006). Gardner had also claimed that he had been initiated in one of the last existing covens that had survived in secret over the years (Hutton, 2010). Through Gardner, the idea of the God and Goddess were solidified and Wicca became a religious movement.

Wicca is an all-embracing spiritual philosophy and way of life to its followers. The Wiccan religion is unique in that it lacks the hierarchical dogma imposed by most organized religions. The men and women are both respected and equal members of the priesthood. There is a balance between sexes, which allows for masculine as well as feminine leadership in the Wiccan priesthood. The covens meet and worship within a circle and individuals are encouraged to develop their own spiritual ideals and style of worship. Most Wiccans consider it immoral to impose their beliefs on others, let alone tell them how they should worship. Tolerating and respecting others is passed along to each new initiate in the form of the Wiccan Rede. In essence the short version of the Rede is “An Ye Harm None, Do As Ye Will”. This is known as the Wiccan golden rule (Sabrina, 2001). In its simplest form, Wicca is a religion of learning to honour the physical body and all of nature as divine and part of a whole interconnection of energies and forces. In its most complex form, it facilitates the creation process and permits the individual to manifest desire, in accordance with his or her own will. Simply put, Wicca helps people reclaim their personal power and spiritual individuality. Much of this is done through conducting rituals and seeking places where it is possible to visualize a connecting pattern of the universe.

In the past, rituals were celebrated during four great festivals; October 31 (Samhain), February 2 (Imbolg), April 30 (Bealtaine) and July 31 (Lughnasadh). These dates all correspond with the ancient Gaelic fire festivals that, according to Gardner, were either founded in honour of female deities or as in the case of the two winter festivals, the horned god, a natural-fertility figure (Greenwood, 2011). Today, there are eight standard rituals, known as the Sabbats, The Pagan Wheel of the Year. There are the four previously mentioned days, in addition to the Winter Solstice (December 22), Summer Solstice (June 22), Spring Equinox (March 21) and Autumn Equinox (September 21) celebrations. These occasions are set aside to honour a God and Goddess, through the use of symbols, working with magick, and giving thanks for the blessings they have received.

In Wicca, the Moon and its three phases often represent the Triple Goddess; the waxing moon, the full moon and the waning moon. Wiccans seek to connect with the power of the moon and by doing so, is not merely seeking to increase her power, but brings the Goddess into herself in a symbolic counterpart to the Christian Mass. This ritual is known as “Drawing Down the Moon”, a term taken from ancient Greece (Greenwood, 2011). For thousands of practitioners, Wicca is more than just a religion; it is a way of life, involving a complex mixture of magick (spelt this way to differentiate it with stage magic), rituals, customs, and reverence for deity. Today however, there is less stress on Witchcraft as a fertility religion and more as an environmental movement.

The Wiccan symbols that are used are believed to impart a greater understanding of universal truths and represent actions and desires. The four major symbols of Wicca are the wand, the dagger, the chalice, and the pentacle. The pentacle is the most distinctive and basic of Wicca symbols, which has frequently been mistaken as a satanic icon. The pentacle, as its name implies, is a five-point star within a circle. This circle is known as the fifth element, which typically represents either the Spirit or the Self, depending on the practitioner’s traditions. The pentacle is used to allow the practitioner to conceptualize their thoughts or manifest their desires. During rituals, items such as amulets, charms, and talismans are placed on the pentacle for blessing or charging (Sabrina, 2001). The wand can be used for divination (Tarot cards and Runes, etc.) and channelling magickal energy and symbolises divine wisdom. The dagger also known as the athame, represents the ability to separate things apart from one another, to make them distinct. Finally, the chalice, which some believe replaced the cauldron in more modern times, is the Wiccan symbol that represents the Great Goddess, the Mother of the Universe. Together, symbolically they stand for the four directions; North, South, East and West and the four elements; Air, Fire, Water and Earth. The four symbols and elemental powers assist in the magickal and ritual work of a Wiccan.

Wiccans try to perform all rituals and ceremonies out of doors where possible. However, living in Canada, with our climate and concern for personal safety, oftentimes, ceremonies must be done indoors. When the coven are together, they gather in a circle, which is often nine feet in diameter with candles on the circumference oriented to the four cardinal directions. An altar is placed at the center of the circle. Rites begin with a casting of the circle, in which the circle is outlined and purified, and the candles lit. A space is thus created within the circle; this is sometimes visualized as a sphere, or as a cylinder or cone. The purpose of this space is to confine healing energy until it is released. The purpose of the meeting may be to celebrate the full moon, a new moon, a Sabbat or a special Wiccan ceremony such as a handfasting, where two people would declare a binding union between themselves for a year and a day, or a parting of the ways ceremony, where in essence, it’s their version of a divorce. There is also what is known as the dedication ceremony which is when a person makes the decision to serve the God and Goddess and becomes a Wiccan abiding by the Wiccan Rede.

Although scholars and specialists have studied the religion and its followers and have searched its origins to give true meaning, society still has a lack of understanding of Wicca. But as a religion, Wicca celebrates life, is nature and harmony oriented, and worships the divine as personified in the form of a Goddess and a God. They view themselves as very peaceful, harmonious individuals who strive for a balanced way of life, which promotes oneness with the divine and everything that exists.


Adler, Margot. 2006. Drawing down the moon witches, druids, goddess-worshippers, and other pagans in America. New York: Penguin Books.

Farrah, Joel. 2004. La wicca: une religion qui s’inspire des cycles de la nature. Outremont: Les Edition Quebecor.

Greenwood, Susan. 2011. The illustrated history of magic and witchcraft: A study of   pagan belief and practice around the world, from the first shamans to modern witches and wizards, in 530 images. Leicestershire: Lorenzo Books

Hutton, Ronald. “Writing the History of Witchcraft: A Personal View.” Pomegranate 12, no. 2 (November 2010): 239-262.

Pearson, Joanne. 2007. Wicca and the Christian heritage: ritual, sex, and magic. London; New York: Routledge.

Sabrina, Lady. 2001. Exploring Wicca: The Beliefs, Rites, and Rituals of the Wiccan Religion. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books.

Cite This Article

Debbie Wiseman (2015). Wicca – A Modern Religion with an Ancient Past. The Sociology of Religion. [http://sociologyofreligion.sociology.org/wicca-a-modern-religion-with-an-ancient-past/]

By: Dr. S.

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