There are many conflicting opinions and theories surrounding the history of Wicca, and now I’m going to add my own. I don’t do this to muddy the waters even further. Rather, I do it in hopes that my thoughts will help stimulate your own desire to figure out what is really true.
In general, there are two opposing camps when it comes to the idea of what is the true history of Wicca.
The first group believes that Wicca has been practiced more or less as is since prehistoric times. They generally claim that the modern Celtic-inspired words and holidays we now use were also used by Palaeolithic man. Often cave paintings are used as evidence of Wiccan practice, in the tradition of Margaret Murray. This group will then often skip forward to the Inquisition and Reformation, claiming all (or at least most) of the people killed were Wiccans and/or pagan witches. Often, Gerald Gardner is only mentioned in passing, if at all, as “revealing” Wicca to the modern world.
The second group usually believe either Gerald Gardner created Wicca himself or that he used the New Forest coven as a base on which he built further rituals. This group also often recognizes the influence of ancient religions and spiritual practises as providing the inspiration for modern Wicca. They also recognize the influence of late 19th century and early 20th century secret societies and the ritual magic movement, specifically the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune. (Note that Crowley could not have written Gardner’s Book of Shadows, as the two didn’t meet until May 1947. This was too late. It is clear, though, that Crowley’s work strongly influenced Gardner. Gardner even obtained an O.T.O charter.1)
There are, of course, those people who believe a combination of both types of history, with each contributing in varying degrees. My thoughts essentially fall here. I recognize the influence of ancient religions on Wicca, especially the idealized Goddess-based society. It encourages the popular imagination, and gives an ideal to strive toward. I am really a romantic at heart, but I also desire cold, hard facts, and I have yet to find any to fully support the fact that this idealized society ever actually existed. Sadly, I discount Merlin Stone’s book When God Was a Woman, and arguments about cave paintings, ancient Wiccan rites, and the “Green Man” in English churches (a similar figure can be found there, but it’s purpose is different) just don’t stand up under scrutiny. So it is a bit of myth that adds some colour to Wicca’s background, but nothing more.
I also find it exceptionally hard to believe that prehistoric people, centred mainly in Africa, would use Celtic words and celebrate the Sabbats. Especially since there would not have been four distinct seasons there.
I do recognize the influence of secret societies on Wicca. The initiation rite of Masons, as presented in Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon, is very similar to the first degree initiation rite of Gardnerian Wicca. There is also an obvious influence of ritual magic, Aleister Crowley and Dion Fortune, among others, in many early Wiccan works. I see this as being most obvious in the ritual tools, which share many similarities to the tools used by a ritual magician. I find it unlikely that if peasants in a poor rural areas where practising Wicca, they would be able to afford and hide such fancy tools, or make use of often complicated correspondences. I believe Gerald Gardner was familiar with ritual magic and societies like the Golden Dawn and the O.T.O, and made use of their teachings and structure in creating, or perhaps modernizing, a small older faith which was practised by the New Forest coven. These similarities in ritual form and tools also occur because Wicca, like these other paths, are part of the Western Mystery tradition. Since they developed in the same atmosphere, so to speak, it isn’t surprising that they have some similar elements.
In The Triumph of the Moon, Mr. Hutton presents an excellent argument for the collective creation of a Mother Goddess and a Father God, as well as a synthesis of “high” magic and “low” magic. These together, he argues, lead to the creation of Wicca, along with other factors, of course. While I don’t necessarily agree with all his points, I do agree that Wicca is a modern religion based on older faiths and ideals. These older faiths, and their practises, provide a strong base to Wicca to build upon, allowing it to be a modern religion suited to modern people, but with a strong respect for the past.
It seems to me that for many people it is important for their religion to have long and established history. Perhaps this is why some Wiccans insist that Wicca has existed since prehistoric times. To me, a person who loves to study ancient history, having a long history for my religion isn’t as important. Many religions, from Christianity to Shinto, have histories that include horrific acts against practitioners and non-practitioners alike. While recognizing this is important, and noting that it does not make the good acts any less significant, it does show that having a history doesn’t make something better. I feel the tenants of a religion are what matters. It is important for me to have deities that I can understand and relate to, as well as values and a structure that I can believe in. And while Wicca may have a short history of approximately 50 years, or longer depending on your view of its history, it is a religion that meets my spiritual needs.
1. Lawrence Sutin, Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley, pg. 409