Wicca – an Earth-based religion that honors a deity that is divided into male and female spirituality known as the God and Goddess and gives reverence to the Earth. Throughout history, witches have faced persecution because of misconceptions about them and their practices. But Wicca and witchcraft have survived and ate going strong. Wicca is one of the fastest-growing religions in the United States today.
You probably have a sense of some of the history of Wicca and witchcraft. Maybe you have heard about Salem, Massachusetts. Watched TV shows about the beautiful housewife twitching her nose, or the young teenage girl discovering her powers. Some of the information about the history is not pretty – accusations, trials, tortures, imprisonment, and death.
The start of Wicca
To find the beginning of Wicca, we have to look at before Christianity, before the Roman and Greek empires, before their pantheons of deities, and before recorded history.
Anthropologists have found small carved female figures that date from the Paleolithic period, more than 20,000 years ago. These figures are found all over Europe. The Venus of Willendorf is a famous example. Scholars believe she represented fertility to prehistoric societies. Cave paintings from the same time depict animals, people, and a half man half animal figure with horns that some anthropologists have come to call the “God of the hunt”. A few cave paintings seem to show rituals, with people dancing in what looks like animal costumes. It is believed these people used rituals to encourage animals to multiply and plants to grow. Shamanism, the practice of contacting spirits through dreams and meditation is probably the oldest religion. Their rituals grew to include drumming, dancing, chanting, and often fire.
By 350 BCE, an ancient people of the west and central Europe became known as the Celts. They developed a priestly class known as Druids. Like Shamans they knew about the non-physical world. There were Druid healers, midwives, ritualists, and astrologists. It can be said that Wicca traces back to these Druids.
During the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (AD 306–337), Christianity began to transition to the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, as the Roman Empire grew, the number of Druids dwindled.
Pope Gregory I (540 – 12 March 604)
(commonly known as Saint Gregory the Great.)
Gregory is known for instituting the first recorded large-scale mission from Rome, the Gregorian mission, to convert the then largely pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. He had more than 10,000 people baptized and had churches built on the sites of pagan temples. He felt that people would continue to gather at these sites, but, instead of worshiping in the old ways, they would be led by prayer by one of the priests, This led to many hybrid religions – pagan holidays had Christian holidays put onto the same day. Originally known as the Spring Equinox, the word Easter parallels the German word Ostern which is derived from Eostre or Ostara, the Anglo-Saxon Goddess of Spring. Yule is one of the oldest winter solstice festivals, with origins among the ancient Norse thousands of years ago. It was not a festival per se but a marking of the passage of time.
So how did Yule become Christmas? King Hakon (920-961)of Norway, who was a Christian, passed a law that the Christian Christmas Day and the Pagan Yuletide celebrations were to be henceforth celebrated at the same time. While this only impacted the Norwegian territories it illustrates how these festivals were intentionally combined into one celebration.
To keep the beliefs and teachings of the Christian Church doctrines in check, several popes hired inquisitors, men whose job was to root out people who did not correctly follow the Church.
Wicca Persecution Begins
In 1484, Pope Innocent the 8th wrote a letter about witches. Earlier popes had also written about witches, but because of the advent of the printing press, this papal letter was reproduced and widely spread. The letter complained that the people or the clergy were not taking the threat of witches seriously.
Pope Innocent’s letter paved the way for Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger to publish the Malleus Malleficarum or The Witches’ Hammer.
Before 1400 it was rare for anyone to be prosecuted for witchcraft, but the increasingly common prosecution of heresy and failure to fully defeat these heretics paved the way for later criminal prosecution of witchcraft. Belief in witches was widely accepted in European society. Previously, those convicted of witchcraft typically suffered penalties no harsher than public penances such as a day in the stocks, but their prosecution became more brutal following the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum, as witchcraft became widely accepted as a real and dangerous phenomenon. The most severe prosecutions took place between the years 1560 and 1630, largely ending in Europe around 1780.
Particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries an intense debate on the nature of witches preoccupied demonologists across Europe and they published many printed sermons, books, and tracts. The Catholic Church played an important role in the shaping of debate on demonology, but the discourse was not much affected by the Reformation. Martin Luther was also convinced about the reality and evil of witches and facilitated the development of Protestant demonology.
A further law was passed in 1604 during the reign of James I who took a keen interest in demonology and even published a book on it. The 1562 and 1604 Acts transferred the trial of witches from the Church to the ordinary courts. The English witch trials of 1612,1616,1633,1645, and 1649 were all prosecuted under this act. The 1692 Salem Witchcraft trials used the 1604 Witchcraft Act to prosecute people.
The Wiccan Rede…
- Bide the Wiccan Laws we must In Perfect Love and Perfect Trust.
- Live and let live. Fairly take and fairly give.
- Cast the Circle thrice about to keep the evil spirits out.
- To bind the spell every time let the spell be spake in rhyme.
- Soft of eye and light of touch, Speak little, listen much.
- Deosil go by the waxing moon, chanting out the Witches’ Rune.
- Widdershins go by the waning moon, chanting out the baneful rune.
- When the Lady’s moon is new, kiss the hand to her, times two.
- When the moon rides at her peak, then your hearts desire seek.
- Heed the North wind’s mighty gale, lock the door, and drop the sail.
- When the wind comes from the South, love will kiss thee on the mouth.
- When the wind blows from the West, departed souls will have no rest.
- When the wind blows from the East, expect the new and set the feast.
- Nine woods in the cauldron go, burn them fast and burn them slow.
- Elder be the Lady’s tree, burn it not, or cursed you’ll be.
- When the Wheel begins to turn, let the Beltane fires burn.
- When the Wheel has turned to Yule, light the log, and the Horned One rules.
- Heed ye flower, Bush, and Tree, by the Lady, blessed be.
- Where the rippling waters go, cast a stone, and truth you’ll know.
- When ye have a true need, hearken not to others’ greed.
- With a fool, no season spend, lest ye be counted as his friend.
- Merry meet and merry part, bright the cheeks, and warm the heart.
- Mind the Threefold Law you should, three times bad and three times good.
- When misfortune is enow, wear the blue star on thy brow.
- True in love ever be, lest thy lover’s false to thee.
- Eight words the Wiccan Rede fulfill: An ye harm none, do what ye will.
deosil or sunward (clockwise) was considered the “prosperous course”, turning from east to west in the direction of the sun. The opposite course, anticlockwise, was known as widdershins.
enow : an archaic word for enough.
The Wiccan Rede is merely a guideline; there is no universal set of rules or ethical standards for today’s Pagans, so not all Pagans follow the Wiccan Rede. An early version of the Rede was made famous by Doreen Valiente in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, Lady Gwen Thompson published her version of the Rede in the Green Egg, a Pagan magazine; she credited her grandmother, Adriana Porter, with the original work.
Stereotypes of Wicca
Now that we have gone over the history of Wicca we feel it’s a good time to discuss the stereotypes that are implied, why the stereotypes came about, our practices, some items that are commonly used in rituals or day-to-day life, and then last we will do the Q&A.
So when you think of a witch, what is it you think of? Brooms? Robes? A black cat? Cauldrons? Spellbooks? Ever wonder where these stereotypes come from? Well, lucky you, we have the answers!
Let’s start with the broom
Now it is not child-ear-friendly, but we will do our best to censor it. How brooms started out for witches… Well, back in the day, they used many plants to create drugs. They didn’t have a way to tell if something was poisonous or not, so the only way to find out was to test it. Anyone who has worked in medicine or Healthcare hopefully knows there are multiple ways to administer medications (or absorb toxins, in this case) and the “5 Rights.” I imagine these are implied today because of the accidental deaths that came with “Hey, let’s see if this works!”
Medicine can be absorbed by swallowing a tab/capsule, sublingual (tucks under the tongue and dissolves), intramuscular, intravenous, through the eyes, ears, and nose, and put in other areas of the body. One mixture that was common was a hallucinogenic that was made up of tropane alkaloids. What are tropane alkaloids? They are a bundle of plants that cause specific side effects, including deadly nightshade, henbane, mandrake, and jimsonweed. They could be turned into an ointment that gets absorbed through the skin. The effects of this made a person feel they were flying like they were disconnected from their body, and the effects were greatest if absorbed through sweat glands and where mucus membranes are present, such as the ‘rear end’, and for women the “front end.”
We all have seen the outfits back then, well for women, they would put ointment on the broom handles and would sit on them. The sensation of this high was flying, so when they had the brooms between their legs, they would run around “flying” much like the children with their fake horses. It made them feel apart from this world and in their own place.
In 1966, Gustav Schenk experienced this high, and here is the report given. “My teeth were clenched, and a dizzied rage took possession of me…but I also know that I was permeated by a peculiar sense of well-being connected with the crazy sensation that my feet were growing lighter, expanding, and breaking loose from my own body. Each part of my body seemed to be going off on its own, and I was seized with the fear that I was falling apart. At the same time, I experienced an intoxicating sensation of flying…I soared where my hallucinations – the clouds, the lowering sky, herds of beasts, falling leaves…billowing streamers of steam and rivers of molten metal – were swirling along.”
It was mostly women who knew about herbs and plants that did this, which is why it’s female witches on brooms. Women back in those times would help the sick and dying and would try herbs as remedies. Nowadays, the broom symbolizes the status of the house. When it’s hung above a doorway, it is said to keep the bad company away. If it falls over, it’s letting you know that something bad is going to happen. It’s an omen. We use it to cleanse the house and sweep away negative energy.
So what about the robes and the hats?
To be frank, the original attire of witches was in the nude. It is felt that being nude inspires a sense of oneness with nature and the earth. It’s how we come into the world, and nothing is more natural than being born. As for the hats, back in ancient Rome, the Catholic Council got together and decided the Jews needed to wear a “judenhat,” which was a cone-shaped hat. It was used to tell the Jewish community apart. Unfortunately, the Jews were targeted and burned alive. The artwork depicts that Jews wore these hats while performing Satanic rituals and being burned alive, which caused another divide between religions. Both Jews and Witches have been hunted down the same throughout history.
Cats and Wicca
During the 14th century, cats were worshiped as gods. It’s pretty standard practice back then and even now. We all know it’s the cats’ way or the highway. Originally, black cats were thought to be good luck. However, eventually, like the women riding brooms, cats were associated with nighttime brews because they are nocturnal creatures that hunt at night. The Christians began to kill black cats as they were a sign of the devil, and it was believed that black cats helped gather the devil’s magic. The witches were so in tune with nature that they enjoyed the cat’s company at night and felt no animal should be harmed. No research can confirm this, but I believe it’s because witches use catnip and have a warm fire for the cauldron. We all know it’s really us that serves cats.
Cauldrons, Spell Books, and Wicca
Cauldrons have a pretty basic and boring history, to be honest. Everyone back then used them. It’s what your meals were made in. It brought the family together. It was the center of the home. It’s why Pagans believe the cauldron symbolizes the Goddess and her womb. It’s where the nutrients come from to provide for the family. Although cauldrons are not cooked in too often today, it’s still a symbol we use on our alters, and we use them to hold our herbs, spices, and incense. Generally much smaller cauldrons though.
They do have spell books or rather a book of shadows. The wonderful thing about paganism is there’s freedom. You don’t have standards to stick to. You can make it your own. Our book of shadows is where we write down any spells, chants, herbal notes, gem/stone maintenance, their purposes, what you prefer at the altar, and so forth. Any celestial events are fun to write about.
The religion, beliefs, and practices are purely for good intentions. There is nothing good that comes from dark or black magic. Wiccans are peaceful spiritualists. They are the daughters and sons of ancient rituals and descendants of those who were not captured. Also, they are growing in numbers, and we are happy to answer any questions. So mote it be.