Many people lovingly refer to Wicca as “the Old Religion.” Some will even tell you that it’s a tradition passed down through the centuries, kept hidden during the dark years of the Christian Church’s persecution of Pagans until it could safely emerge once again in modern times. This impression of an ancient lineage is one of the things that initially attracts some people to Wicca. After all, in our noisy, materialistic, industrialized world, don’t many of us feel a longing for an older, wiser, more mystical way of life? But what do we really know about the origins of the Wiccan religion?
In a literal sense, Wicca is not an ancient practice, or even a very “old” religion at all. It actually dates back to the mid-20th century, though many of the influences that it draws from are considerably older. The history of Wicca can really be viewed in two ways: the actual story of its founding in England in the 1940s and 50s, and the broader, somewhat mythical narrative of a timeless quest to understand and connect with the divine source at the heart of Nature’s mysteries. While only one of these angles can be factually verified, both are important to truly understanding the origins of Wicca.
A key figure in the history of Wicca: Gerald Gardner, spiritual pioneer
The birth of the religion that came to be known as Wicca is attributed to an English civil servant, author and occultist named Gerald Gardner. Born in 1884, Gardner traveled widely in his youth and became interested in anthropology, archaeology, folklore, and eventually spiritualism and other occult subjects. He belonged to several clubs and societies related to these interests, including a Rosicrucian Order which he joined in 1939. Here he met some friends who were part of an even more secretive inner circle, and who revealed to Gardner that they were a coven of Witches. He was initiated into the coven in September of that year.
Several years earlier, in the early 1920s, a popular theory had been traveling in anthropological circles about an ancient pagan religion that had been nearly stamped out by Christianity, but was still being practiced in secret pockets throughout Western Europe. Margaret Murray, the anthropologist who advanced the theory, called the religion a “Witch-cult,” and asserted that the surviving practitioners were organized into 13-member covens. When Gardner met the New Forest group, he was sure that they must have been one of the remnants of this ancient pre-Christian religion, and he wanted to do his part to ensure the Witch-cult’s survival into the 20th century.
A new religion is born
During the 1940s, Gardner continued to be interested in a wide range of religious and spiritual traditions and ideas, but he was deeply impacted by his experiences with the New Forest coven. Eventually he founded his own coven, which he named Bricket Wood, and began creating a new incarnation of the ancient Witch-cult, drawing inspiration from a wide range of sources, including the New Forest coveners, elements of Freemasonry and ceremonial magic, and the work of other occult figures, including Aleister Crowley and Cecil Williamson. One major addition that Gardner developed ultimately became one of Wicca’s most important elements: the worship of both a Goddess and a God, who were equal to each other in all ways. This was quite unique indeed after millennia of male-dominated, patriarchal religions!
Gardner never called his new-yet-old religion “Wicca.” He did sometimes refer to the members of his coven as “the Wica,” which was an Old English term for sorcerers and people skilled in divination. But the tradition itself was always referred to as Witchcraft, often shortened to “the Craft,” or else “the Old Religion.” It didn’t become known as Wicca for at least another decade, as it spread to the U.S. and Australia.
By then, new variations on Gardner’s creation had been developed by his followers and by other occultists, some of which now barely resemble the original Bricket Wood coven. In fact, many in the UK who still follow Gardner’s traditions as they have been passed down from covener to covener refer to their practice as British Traditional Witchcraft. These Witches regard “Wicca” as something entirely different, tending to describe it as an American invention. Elsewhere in the world, however, this original form of Wicca is known as Gardnerian Wicca.
The wider view
Although Gardner is recognized as the father of the modern Witchcraft movement, and was certainly one of its greatest advocates in the public sphere, he obviously didn’t do it alone. In fact, there are many important figures in the history of Wicca. Plenty of his friends and colleagues were part of the collaboration, including Patricia Crowther, Lois Bourne, and Doreen Valiente, as were other occultists of the mid-20th century such as Robert Cochrane and Raymond Buckland. Indeed, the full history of Wicca and its development could fill volumes, and still the whole story would likely never be told!
Furthermore, much of the inspiration that Gardner and others drew came from knowledge, ideas and practices developed by several older groups dating back to the British occult revival of the late 19th century, and before that, back to the 13th century. And those Middle Age occultists were, in fact, working with ideas and material from ancient civilizations.
So even though no evidence for Murray’s Witch-cult theory was ever found, and no unbroken tradition of occult practice dating back to antiquity seems to exist, the case can be made that there was some kind of spiritual “lineage”—perhaps an eternal divine essence—strong enough to hang on through the centuries of Christian domination and reappear in modern times. Whatever the case, for those who practice Wicca, the quality of the experience is indeed timeless.