20th Century Witchcraft: The religion of Wicca

When looking into the contemporary effects of the representations of witchcraft, it’s important to take into account the cultural and religious implications. Wicca, a neo-pagan religion, was debatably established in the 1940s, a surprisingly current development. Despite this, as an officially recognised religion in the UK, its got an interesting and complex history.

Margaret Murray’s 1921 landmark text, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), was largely and immediately disproved, but remains a cultural pillar for those interested in witchcraft. The book explained Murray’s hypothesis that until the 17th century there was a religion, much older than Christianity, which all over Western Europe had supporters both among ordinary people and the ruling classes. Central to the worship of this religion stood a horned god with two faces, known to the Romans as Janus or Dianus. The idea of a witch cult that until early modern times managed to survive, is now largely obsolete. Most but not all modern scholars of witchcraft generally dismiss it, agreeing that it is very unlikely that such a witch-cult really existed, or that this cult or religion came to an end because the Christian church wanted to eradicate the followers of a pagan tradition. However, it is a text which inspired a great amount of questioning in the information that had been provided about witches through history and across literature. It inspired a greater interest in the religion, which really took foundation in the 1940s, and the influence of her witch-cult theory in both religion and literature has resulted in her title of the “Grandmother of Wicca”.

The 1940s saw the foundation of Wicca by a man named Gerald Gardner. Shortly before the outbreak of war, he became acquainted with a group claiming to be witches and was initiated into the New Forest Coven at nearby Mill House. It proved to be a turning point for Gardner who, from that time, devoted himself to promoting his new-found religion. Biographer and Wiccan initiate Philip Heselton said: “He wasn’t a religious pioneer. What he did was to publicise it and write about it and he gradually became known through that and people made contact. He initiated quite a lot of people into the Wiccan culture. He felt it was important that it survived.” After the war Gardner returned with his wife to London where he wrote a number of books, the best known being Witchcraft Today. Published in 1954, it offered readers an insight into the history and practices of the witch-cult and offered the press a feeding frenzy. Heselton added: “There were headlines about lurid rites and evil black magic but, in actual fact, quite a lot of people saw through it. He got lots of letters as a result of that, which helped him enormously.”
Gardner’s theories were drawn from numerous sources, including Freemasonry, magical orders such as the Golden Dawn and fellow occultists, including Aleister Crowley.
He also formulated the Wicca calendar of eight festivals, bringing together existing festivals from different traditions. By the time of his death in 1964, Gardnerian Wicca, as it became known, had spread to the United States and beyond.

Doreen Valiente was one of the most respected English witches to have influenced the modern day Pagan movement. In her book, Where Witchcraft Lives (1962), she examines Witchcraft in Sussex, laying the foundations of the modern day Witchcraft movement. As Gerald Gardner is now commonly thought of as the ‘Father’ of contemporary Witchcraft, so Doreen is known affectionately as the ‘Mother of Modern Witchcraft’. As well as Gardnerian Wicca, the 1960s also saw the establishment of Alexandrian Wicca, the religion growing and evolving with varying denominations and covens.

The 1960s also coincided with the era of second wave feminism: Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell, shortened W.I.T.C.H., wasn’t associated with the witchcraft religion, but instead a political movement. It was the name of several related but independent feminist groups active in the United States as part of the women’s liberation movement during the late 1960s. The name W.I.T.C.H. was also sometimes expanded as “Women Inspired to Tell their Collective History,” “Women Interested in Toppling Consumer Holidays,” and many other variations to do with gender and social reform. Its members opposed the idea advocated by radical feminists that feminist women should campaign against patriarchy alone. Instead, W.I.T.C.H argued that feminists should ally with a range of left-wing causes to bring about wider social change in the United States. Various scholars have suggested that in embracing the iconography of the witch, W.I.T.C.H represented forerunners of various forms of feminist-oriented modern Paganism such as Dianic Wicca.

The 1970s also linked with second wave feminism, the denomination of Dianic Wicca becoming popular among women especially. The movement started with Zsuzsuanna Budapest in Los Angeles, witchcraft becoming popular in countries outside Great Britain. Dianic Wicca is a combination of witchcraft and feminism, Budapest considering witchcraft as every woman’s birth right. The movement took its name from Diana, the Roman goddess of the moon, the hunt and nature, and was also known to be the virgin goddess of childbirth and women. ‘Susan B Anthony Coven #1’ was the first feminist and women only Wiccan coven, linking to historical correlations between witchcraft and the independence of women through the association of a prominent social reformer and women’s suffrage movement.

This brand of Wicca attracted Starhawk, a famous Pagan writer. She took Dianic Wicca and mixed it with other elements to create the tradition of Reclaiming. It was still female centred, but included different elements i.e. Norse/ new age/ fairy tradition. Still empowering women without leaving out everyone else. Reclaiming is an organization of feminist modern witchcraft, aiming to combine the Goddess movement with political activism (in the peace and anti-nuclear movements). Reclaiming was founded in 1979, in the context of the Reclaiming Collective (1978–1997), by two Neopagan women of Jewish descent, Starhawk and Diane Baker, in order to explore and develop feminist Neopagan emancipatory rituals.

The 1970s saw the expansion of the religion and coinciding with other net-pagan beliefs: Raymond Buckland introduced Norse tradition into Wicca, bringing in Gods such as Odin and Freya into the prayer rituals. He later formed his own tradition dubbed Seax-Wica which focuses on the symbolism of Anglo-Saxon paganism.

The 1980s saw progression in the recognition of Wicca as a certified religion, 1985 being the foundation of the Lady Liberty League. This movement saw pagans working to protect the rights of witches and pagans over the US. Similarly, 1986 was the year that Wicca became an officially recognised religion in the United States, due to a practicing pagan prisoner protecting religious freedom.

The 1990s saw the impact of popular culture on the perspective of witches. Such films and television series were released as Practical Magic (1998), Charmed (1998), Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997) and The Craft (1996). These films had huge cult followings, and they often featured the ‘girl power’ vibe of the third wave feminist movement, demonstrating the correlation between uprisings in female power and witchcraft. More on these topics will be explored in another blog post, focused on contemporary representations of witchcraft.

The 1990s also saw many technological advancements, such as the rise of the internet, where Wiccans could join online covens and social networking sites such as ‘Witchbox’. 1995 saw the first American Wiccan wedding, whilst the first wedding in the UK occurred in 2004.

In the United States, the American Religious Identification Survey has shown significant increases in the number of self-identified Wiccans, from 8,000 in 1990, to 134,000 in 2001, and 342,000 in 2008. Wiccans have also made up significant proportions of various groups within that country; for instance, Wicca is the largest non-Christian faith practised in the United States Air Force, with 1,434 airmen identifying themselves as such. However, Wiccans have encountered opposition from some politicians and Christian organisations including former president of the United States George W. Bush, who stated that he did not believe Wicca to be a religion.

The concept of witchcraft and the belief in its existence have existed throughout recorded history. They have been present or central at various times, and in many diverse forms, among cultures and religions worldwide, including both “primitive” and “highly advanced” cultures, and continue to have an important role in many cultures today. Whilst I, personally, am not a member of such a religion, it’s interesting to look at the recognition of witchcraft as a certified religion today; whilst some have distanced themselves from the idea of demonic and satanic correlations, others (both men and women) have found the idea of witches appealing, tens of thousands of people identifying as a witch in the UK alone.


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