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Many Masks of Wiccan History

Author: Sorita d'Este [a WitchVox Sponsor]
Posted: November 2nd. 2008
Times Viewed: 7,447

“I realised that I had stumbled upon something interesting; but I was half-initiated before the word, ‘Wica’ which they used hit me like a thunderbolt, and I knew where I was, and that the Old Religion still existed.”

From: The Meaning of Witchcraft, Gerald Gardner

Wicca encompasses an entire worldview and way of life. It is an experiential system of magick, mysticism and spirituality that is practiced by people all over the world today. As an initiatory magickal tradition it first came to the public’s attention in the 1950’s at the hands of retired British civil servant Gerald Gardner. As can be seen from the opening quote, Gardner claimed that he had been initiated into a coven in the New Forest area of England and that what he was writing about and teaching was based on the rituals he encountered there. Some researchers have dismissed this claim over the years as a flight of fancy, and claims and counterclaims abound about the “real” origins of what has become known as Wicca today.

Whilst debating the possible starting point of the Wiccan tradition amongst some students in late 2001, it occurred to me that the evidence which was being used to support the various theories was primarily based on the people who were the early public face of the tradition and their contemporaries. Yet this is a tradition that is also called a ‘Craft’ and which is an experiential tradition where personal experience is paramount for the understanding of the practices and beliefs. So why were we debating the origins of the tradition in terms of who said or did what? It is the practices that hold the key to the origins of Wicca, for they are the heart and body of the tradition.

From that moment on my husband David Rankine and I set about systematically researching the origins of the practices and beliefs, which were passed to us through our initiators and colleagues, as well as in published materials. Our preconceptions were constantly challenged as we explored the origins of the practices and beliefs from different angles in an effort to find possible solutions to the question of when and where the tradition may have originated. We separated the rituals into their component parts, then looked at each individually and even divided them up into smaller parts, before finally putting it all back together creating a colourful mosaic with our findings in our book Wicca Magickal Beginnings published in early 2008.

Faced with several possible interpretations based on the evidence we correlated, it became clear that although it remained possible that Gerald Gardner may have created the tradition, it was certainly not that plausible in comparison to some of the other conclusions that we reached. In fact, at this stage of our research we feel that it is most likely that Gardner was not that much of a charlatan after all, but that his accounts of initiation into an existing tradition, upon which he later expanded, were truthful. When stripped right back, without the many additions and evolutions it has undergone since the 1950’s, Gerald Gardner’s ‘Witch Cult’ appears to predate him by at least some years, or even possibly quite a few decades.

Based on the information we discovered in our research, which often supplemented and sometimes contradicted existing views, we concluded there were five possible origins for the Wiccan tradition. Of these some were highly unlikely, but we wanted to consider every angle with our practice-based evidence. The possible origins were that the Wiccan tradition was the survival of a British system of folk magick; that it was the final form of a tradition of European Witchcraft with its roots in classical Greece and Rome; that Gerald Gardner and his associates invented the tradition; that the Wiccan tradition was a continuation of the Grimoire tradition; or that the Wiccan tradition was the continuation of a Victorian ceremonial magick system.

The first conclusion, of it being derived from a British folk magick system, we dismissed due to the lack of a coherent body of practice. Individual techniques were sometimes similar, but these were scattered geographically and not part of a system of practice. There has been a great deal of discussion on the influence of cunning folk on Wicca. However we felt that any material, which may have found its way into Wicca from the cunning folk, was largely grimoire derived in the first place, as many of the cunning practices were. Also we may note that cunning practice was very much solitary, unlike the group-based dynamic of the Wiccan tradition, and that it was actually practiced as antithetical to witchcraft.

Likewise we discarded the idea of European roots from the classical Greco-Roman world due to the lack of similarity between such witchcraft and the Wiccan tradition. This is most evident in the malefic nature of the practices of ancient witchcraft, which is directly opposed to the life-positive ethic of Wicca. The practices are entirely different, and there would have been some level of similarity between the two, even allowing for evolution or change over the centuries. Additionally the witchcraft practices postulated in the writings of significant authors like Michelet and Murray put forward the idea of a religious cult, as opposed to a magickal tradition, which is what Wicca was.

As we have already mentioned, when all the evidence was considered, we did not feel that Gerald Gardner had created the tradition, though he did add more contemporary material to it, which he felt was in keeping with the flavour of the tradition. We should also observe that Gardner became involved in any magickal groups he could find, and had many significant acquaintances in the worlds of magick and folklore. Gardner’s naďve comments about the way magick works in his writings do not suggest a man who created a system from scratch, whereas adding material from existing works is far more plausible. This is particularly evident in the way some of the material is used out of context, which fits with it being added by someone who was not that familiar with magickal practice.

The most plausible conclusion, based on the form and nature of the practices was that the Wiccan tradition was a continuation of the Grimoire tradition, synthesizing material from several Grimoires together to form an elegantly simple and practical system of practical magick. Such a synthesis occurred with Francis Barrett’s classic work “The Magus” in 1801, and it is possible this may have provided some of the inspiration and material for whoever united the techniques from disparate Grimoires to form such a seamless basis for the tradition. As all the core practices in Wicca are grimoire derived, this is the most logical argument. This would then indicate that the magickal beginnings of Wicca as a tradition are probably in the nineteenth century. Considering the explosion of magickal traditions, orders, literature and personalities found in this period, this is not really surprising.

Finally, the fifth conclusion, that it was the continuation of a Victorian ceremonial magick system was dismissed as the magick of orders such as the Golden Dawn provided minimal input into the Wiccan tradition, and then probably as later additions by Gardner or his associates. All of the material derived from the writings of Aleister Crowley came from several specific books, and the Golden Dawn material was published by Israel Regardie in the late 1930s, though it could also have been provided by one of the many dozens of ex-Golden Dawn (or derivative group) initiates who were around at the time.

Of course we realise that for some this would be a controversial conclusion, and as such we present the practice-based evidence in this volume in a way that allows for individual interpretation. We also focused on the component parts, which were common to all the traditions, both esoteric and exoteric, that we have personal knowledge of. These parts form the bones of the tradition, which were already present when Wicca became public in the 1950s, and do not include the many later additions that have occurred in the subsequent decades as Wicca has transformed from an esoteric magickal tradition to an exoteric pagan religion, or indeed group of religions. The global impact of Wicca has been felt not just in its proliferation, but also in the many other pagan traditions, which have drawn heavily on its techniques and beliefs to expand their own corpus of practices.

Whilst some of the material in Wicca Magickal Beginnings will undoubtedly be of interest to those with a casual interest in this modern tradition of witchcraft, the bulk of it is aimed at people who are practitioners and who, like us, want to develop a deeper understanding of the origins of their practices and beliefs. Through an honest understanding of our history, we are after all better able to build on its foundations and take it forward in and with the light of truth.

Wicca Magickal Beginnings, Sorita d'Este and David Rankine, Avalonia 2008
(Full Biography of sources are cited in the book and are extensive)

Copyright: (c) Sorita d'Este 2008


Sorita d'Este

Location: Glastonbury, England


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