This article was written after reading yet another argument about whether a tradition was Wiccan. Not all Wiccans will agree with my ideas, but here they are anyway.
I am often surprised at some of the messages and essays I come across while reading Wiccan sites. Lately I seem to be reading lots of arguments about why a certain tradition isn’t really Wiccan. I would like to make a sweeping generalization and say that, in general, Wiccans are accepting of other religions and of the multiple denominations within those religions. So why is it difficult to accept different denominations, also called traditions, within Wicca? I’ve read arguments saying that Celtic-based Wicca isn’t valid, or Fairy Wicca, or Sexa-Wicca, or Silver RavenWolf’s version of Wicca, or whatever tradition it is fashionable to dismiss this week. Why is this? Is there not a set of core beliefs that we can define, and say that any group that claims to Wiccan and adheres to these beliefs is indeed Wiccan.
First, let’s take a look at why we label certain denominations as belonging to the same faith. On the ReligiousTolerance.org page Christian Faith Groups: From the Amish to The Way, Christians groups are described as any who “…sincerely, thoughtfully, seriously, and prayerfully regards themselves to be Christian.”1 In defining Pagans in her book Wicca 333, Kaatryn MacMorgan uses the following definition: “…any person, thing or religious group that defines itself as Pagan.”2 While I believe these definitions are valid, I think one more thing needs to be taken into consideration – the recognition and adherence to a core belief or series of beliefs shared by all followers of the religion. In the case of Christianity, it can be argued that these core beliefs are Jesus as the messiah and the Bible as God’s word. Christian faith groups do not all agree on the nature of Jesus’ divinity or the interpretation of some of the scripture, but they are all still Christian. A similar assertion can be made for Buddhist sects, for example. While their ideas of how to reach Nirvana or the Pure Land may be different, there are still ideals they all hold in common (Life is suffering, for example), and this is what makes them all Buddhist.
So how does this apply to Wicca? We can say that a Wiccan tradition is any tradition that sincerely believes themselves to be Wiccan. But I’d like to examine a small sampling of Wiccan traditions to see if we can discover a set of core beliefs that will take us beyond this simple definition. There are some traditions that a majority of Wiccans agree are Wicca: Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and of course, their own tradition (Universal Eclectic Wicca (UEW) in my case). So what is this core that makes all these, and many other traditions, Wicca? If we can discover this core, then perhaps we can discover which other traditions are valid Wiccan traditions.
To discover this core, I’m going to make a couple of assumptions. Firstly, I will assume that Gardnerian is the base form of Wicca. I will make the assertion that it is where all other Wicca has grown from, but it is not the “ultimate” or authoritative form of Wicca. I am also assuming that the rumours about Alex Sanders are correct, in that he did manage to somehow get a copy of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows and base his tradition on it. This gives me two traditions that we can say for sure are Wicca, and also are known to share some characteristics. I am also going to bring in my tradition, Universal Eclectic Wicca, giving me a third tradition, which may or may not share characteristics with the Gardnerian or Alexandrian traditions. So, if I can find core ideas that these three traditions share, I should be able to say that apply to other Wiccan traditions. It’s not a perfect exercise, but I can only work with traditions I have knowledge of.
Firstly, I can say that all of these traditions recognize and honour the God and Goddess. The names used within the groups may vary, and in the case of UEW, each Wiccan may have a patron and matron deity, but they all recognize the Lord and Lady. None of these traditions insist of the worship of one above the other, although individual practitioners may have a deeper personal relationship with either the Lord or Lady without neglecting the other. I’d also like to suggest that recognition of both the light and dark side of the Lord and Lady are required in these traditions. If they Lord and Lady are embodied in nature, and nature contains both things we see as being light and “good” as well as those that are dark and “bad,” then it only makes sense for the Lord and Lady to encompass both good and bad.
When it comes to rituals, each of these traditions can be quite different, but the basic structure remains the same. A Circle is cast, the elements/Watchtowers/etc. are called, the ritual proper performed, Cakes and Ale/Simple Feast/etc. eaten, and the Circle released. What then, from this, can we say is required for the tradition to be Wiccan? I will suggest that the performing of rituals are required, on certain days for certain reasons (see next paragraph for these days), as well as following some sort of general framework. I believe the framework I presented, with the possible addition of other elements, is a suitable suggestion.
This brings us to a discussion about when and why the rituals are preformed. I believe for a tradition to be Wiccan they must recognize and celebrate the eight Sabbats – Samhain, Yule, Imbolg, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lamas, and Mabon. These Sabbats need to be celebrated on two levels. The first would be as recognition of the changing seasons – the turning of the Wheel of the Year. The second level would be to tell the story of the evolving relationship of the Lord and Lady, possibly incorporating the story of the Holy and Oak kings. I think both levels are required, because celebration without recognizing the Lord and Lady would make the tradition non-Wiccan (yet still Pagan) according to my first assertion. In the same vein, not recognizing the changes in nature closes our eyes to similar changes in the Lord and Lady, making the tradition more likely to be some other sort of Pagan denomination.
The last criteria, to me, would be recognition of and adherence to the Wiccan Rede. These few simple words, “‘An it harm none, do what thou will,” have caused a great deal of misunderstand and debate. Irregardless, I believe that it is an important core belief of all Wiccan traditions, regardless of how they decided to interpret them. (For my interpretation, read this essay.) Some may argue that the original Gardnerian’s did not follow the Wiccan Rede. While it is true that Gardner did not mention it in 1959 when he wrote The Meaning of Witchcraft, he did say the follow:
[Witches] are inclined to the morality of the legendary Good King Pausol, “Do what you like so long as you harm no one”. But they believe a certain law to be important, “You must not use magic for anything which will cause harm to anyone, and if, to prevent a greater wrong being done, you must discommode someone, you must do it only in a way which will abate the harm.3
From this quote, it is obvious that Gardner is promoting an ethic very like the current Wiccan Rede, if not exactly the same. Alexandrians recognize and follow the Rede, according to the Farrar’s A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches’ Handbook4. UEW also follows the Rede.
However, none of these traditions are limited to the Rede alone. Gardnerians also have the Old Laws, which apparently can be found in some Alexandrian Book of Shadows as well. UEW has the Five Points of Wiccan Belief and the 15 Creeds. Many individual Wiccans, if not the tradition as a whole, recognize the Law of Return. While none of these traditions have exactly the same moral guidelines, they all follow similar ideals. It is also important to notice that these additional guidelines do not contradict the Rede, but rather enhance and complement it.
I have not discussed the structure of the tradition as being important in determining if it is indeed Wiccan. I don’t see the internal structure of a coven as being particular important to anyone other then those involved. While I do agree that a High Priest and High Priestess are necessary for group work, if for no other reason then to have clearly defined leadership to organize the rituals and teaching, I don’t believe that any other offices are strictly required. And when it comes to Solitary members of traditions (where a tradition allows them), the subject of structure does not apply at all.
I could also suggest that certain beliefs are required for a tradition to be Wiccan. For example, they must believe in reincarnation or the Summerland. Or I could claim that certain tools are required, or that the tools must be used in a certain way. But to me these are smaller details and not core beliefs. It is common for people following the same religion to have slightly different beliefs in regards to non-critical issues, as well as having different ways to worship. When these beliefs become too different, then one can say the people belong to a different denomination, but they are still members of the same religion. This is true of many religions including Wicca.
I have suggested that the core beliefs of Wicca are: a belief in the Lord and Lady, a similar ritual framework, celebration of the Sabbats, and following the Wiccan Rede. The three traditions I have examined – Gardnerian, Alexandrian, and UEW – include all these elements. And they also fit into our initial definition, that is they are groups that claim to be and believe themselves to be Wiccan. Any further beliefs, structures, and ideals a tradition may hold, as long as they are not contradictory to the core beliefs, are what make the traditions unique.
1. Religious Tolerance.org – Christian Faith Groups: From the Amish to The Way.
URL: http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_cf.htm [June 2003]
2. Kaatryn MacMorgan, Wicca 333, 2003, pg. 123.
3. Gerald Gardner, The Meaning of Witchcraft, 1988, p 127.
4. Janet & Stewart Farrar, A Witches’ Bible: The Complete Witches Handbook, 1996, Section 2, pg.135. (Previously published as The Witches’ Bible Compleat.)