Many will tell you that it is "whatever you want it to be". Others will tell you it is another word for witchcraft. Still others might say it is a particular Pagan religion with a lot of room for personal expression.
I disagree with all these people.
Like many others, I started out in Paganism with books that claimed witchcraft was a religion. Many used the words "witchcraft" and "Wicca" interchangeably. I thought, as these books had told me, that I was a Wiccan. I was wrong. And so were the books I was reading. It came as a shock to me to learn, in my teen years, that non-fiction books were capable of lying to me. I was under the impression that facts were checked before publication. For some publishers, apparently, this isn't considered important.
So I had learned, way back when, that books on Neo-Paganism were capable of being full of shit. I was still, however, unaware of the reality of what Wicca truly was. I was unaware for ages after I stopped identifying as a Wiccan. And for this reason, when I finally discovered Wicca, some five or six years after discovering Paganism, I wasn't cast into a sort of identity crisis. Instead, once I absorbed what I had discovered, I was fascinated. And it is important for me to share this information with you, not just because the misinformation on Wicca is so rife and so widespread, but because Wicca is such a fascinating and amazing religion, and it saddens me that so few people are actually aware of it.
From what I have read and learned over the past five or so years, it is apparent to me that Wicca is an orthopraxic, oath-bound, initiatory, experiential, coven-based, fertility-focused, ditheistic mystery witch-cult, in which all members are clergy of a lineaged tradition. I will go into detail as to what all these mean in relation to Wicca, and occasionally provide some quotes from Gardner to illustrate what I'm saying.
Some religions are known as "orthodox", "correct belief". If you believe the right things, you're a member of that religion. This applies to, for example, wider Christianity, and various sects therein; if you believe Christ is your Lord and Saviour, you are a Christian (although not necessarily a very good Christian).
Wicca, as a religion, is orthopraxic - "right practice" rather than "right belief". There is a "correct way" to do things in such a religion; you have to know what these things are and do them properly to be a part of that religion. Wicca works along these lines. There are specific ways to make and consecrate, and yes, use, particular tools. There are specific ways to cast and consecrate a circle in Wicca and invoke deities and perform ritual. These things are part of what is referred to as "the Core"; you can add to it, according to the rules of Wicca, but not take away from the core. If you do, it ceases to be Wicca.
You need to be initiated into a Wiccan coven to know this orthopraxy, because Wicca is Oathbound.
Much of what defines Wicca as a religion (which, as we have seen, is orthopraxy) is oathbound. Each Wiccan, upon initiation, swears an oath to keep secret the orthopraxy of Wicca unless to a person who is "a proper person, properly prepared"*. This means it is only taught to others if they have been initiated. The oath is considered very important, and very serious - you are expected to keep it even if you leave Wicca as a religion. Those who break it are ostracised (though I have never heard of an individual breaking oath, save Buckland, who apparently came close enough that he is very much disliked by many Wiccans).
This oath means that Wicca is not in books. There are books about Wicca, perhaps detailing what it involves from an outside perspective, perhaps giving an idea of what Wicca is like with similar rituals and concepts, but no published book and no website contains any actual Wiccan material. Generally, what you see is Wicca-flavoured information, often Pagan and often witchcraft, but not Wiccan itself. This information is described as "Outer-Court". This is foundation info, relevant to any number of witchcraft traditions or forms of Neo-Paganism, but it is not Wicca. Outer-court information is taught to Seekers before initiation as a grounds upon which they can build, and what an Outer-court entails will differ from coven to coven.
As to why this information is published under the name of Wicca when it isn't Wicca at all... it depends. For some publishers, it's about money. Wicca sells, so "Wicca" is what people get. Eclectic Neo-Paganism doesn't sell; it's not pithy enough. For some authors, they have learned from books that said Wicca is another word for witchcraft, or whatever you want it to be, or similar... they learned it this way, and when they come to write a book themselves, they pass on this misinformation. At this point we're several decades deep in people spreading misinformation that they learned from books written by people who learned from books full of misinformation. They have been genuinely misled, and go on to mislead others.
Gardner mentions the fact that Wicca's rites are oathbound on page 24 of Witchcraft Today:
If I were permitted to disclose all their rituals, I think it would be easy to prove that witches are not diabolists; but the oaths are solemn and the witches are my friends. I would not hurt their feelings. They have secrets which to them are sacred. They have good reason for this secrecy.
This means that it is a religion practised in a group, that one needs to be formally brought into via initiation. In this case specifically, a Wiccan coven lineaged through initiation to the New Forest Coven into which Gardner was initiated, or more often, to Gardner himself. This initiation brings one into the religion, and declares one as a witch and a priest or priestess. It introduces one formally to the gods. Initiation in Wicca is absolutely essential; even were you to obtain Wiccan rituals and oathbound Wiccan information, as a non-initiate you would not be "properly prepared", and not ever able to fully understand it. The fact that Wicca is initiatory means that, however wonderful one's faith, if you haven't been initiated into a coven that traces its initiatory lineage (High Priestess --> High Priest --> HPS --> Gardner) all the way back to Gardner, then you are not a Wiccan.
Gardner himself stressed the importance of initiation:
Witch meetings today may take place anywhere that it is convenient, and only people who have been initiated into the cult are allowed to be present.
-- Gerald Gardner, The Meaning of Witchcraft, pg 16
I take simply to mean that they were told, "If you want to come again, you must be one of us, that is, be initiated, initiation is a requirement for membership and then you will be a fairy". Now in France, as in Scotland, a large number of people spoke of 'fairies" when they obviously meant witches. It was a more polite term, and in Scotland any communication with "fairies" was taken as an admission of dealing with witches, that is, with the "heathen", the People of the Heaths, who practised the Old Religion and worked magical rites.
-- Gerald Gardner, The Meaning of Witchcraft, pg 120
Wiccan initiations, along with other Wiccan rituals, are experiential and impart mysteries.
(We'll go over these at the same time as they are interrelated.)
Mystery religions, such as Wicca, are centred around the teaching and re-creating of experiences called "Mysteries". A Mystery is an experience that changes you and your perceptions; it alters you forever. Mysteries aren't specific to Mystery-religions - every religion will involve them at some level, and every person has experienced them in their lives. Mysteries can be small, or they can be huge. A sunrise can be a Mystery, in fact several Mysteries; it is different depending on whether you stay up for it or wake up early to experience it. In Heathenry, the Runes are Mysteries. In his book "Living Wicca" (ironically, as you will have discovered by now, not actually about Wicca), Scott Cunningham details a particular Mystery, that of watching an apple tree grow. Those interested in the concept of Mysteries may find his example helpful.
Mysteries cannot be told or explained in words; instead, they must be understood through experiencing them. Someone can tell you about a Mystery in words, and you can nod and think you get it. Then, years later, you will experience something that causes an epiphany and suddenly you actually get it, on a deep, soul-deep level, and you understand it with all of yourself. You grok it, inside and out.
A Mystery-religion is one structured around a series of Mysteries, and recreating these for the initiate. The rituals are built to impart a Mystery and practised the same way each time in order to do this properly; they are experiential. This means that the teachings and Mysteries are transferred over via experiencing these rituals; the things taught via experiential rituals cannot be taught in words. The beliefs a Wiccan holds, therefore, are based on what they have experienced during Wicca; as I've mentioned before, Wicca is more about practice than belief, and this is why. Without the training and context given by a Wiccan coven, these rituals will not impart the Mysteries in the same way, so the rituals by themselves will be of no use to you... or at least, will not be useful in learning Wicca. A different ritual will impart different Mysteries, which is fine - but only Wiccan rituals will impart Wiccan Mysteries, and thus these rituals are the only way to experience - and therefore to learn - Wicca.
"Ye may not be a witch alone", say the Ardanes*. Well, a witch, you certainly can - a Wiccan, certainly not. Entirely aside from the fact that you cannot initiate yourself, the rituals of Wicca are structured in such a way that they cannot actually be performed without a couple of other people. The coven is therefore absolutely necessary to the practise of Wicca, and some people will travel hours to meet with their coven for each ritual and celebration.
Even if you have been initiated into a coven, and experienced the rituals, you cannot in a real sense practise Wicca alone. You are a Wiccan, certainly, and what you do on your own time may be worshipping the gods of Wicca and it may be heavily influenced by Wiccan material and what you do in coven, but it is not in itself Wiccan practice. Wicca is simply made to be performed in a group, and there's no way around it.
Wicca is not, as many would have you believe, "nature-based". Its primary focus is specifically fertility. It is fertility that Wiccans honour, and not the earth or generalised nature. Fertility is indeed a part of nature, and it is through the lens of fertility that other aspects of nature are recognised in Wicca. The cycle of birth, sex, death and rebirth are involved, and as humans we subjectively understand fertility through our own bodies. For this reason, sex is involved.
Not necessarily intercourse, you understand. But certainly there is a lot to do with sex in Wicca. It's very difficult to have fertility without sex. Wiccan rites do contain sexual activity and sexual context. This context is such that a non-initiate may not recognise an element of a Wiccan (or even Outer-court) rite as being sexual in and of itself. It can be subtle. However, it can also be overt; the Great Rite itself, an element of third degree initiation, involves intercourse. Rituals are nearly always performed naked. First-degree initiation involves the five-fold kiss, including mouth to genital contact.
This underlying and essential sexual content is one of the reasons minors are not initiated into Wicca. That level of personal and emotional maturity is essential, as well as for legal reasons. It is also a reason why Wicca does not appeal to a lot of people. If sexual elements of rituals make you uncomfortable, Wicca is not the religion for you.
Wicca is a religion of two deities. It is not monotheistic, nor is it polytheistic. The deities of Wicca are not mix-and-match. These two deities have specific names, but they are referred to among non-initiates as just the God and Goddess, or the Lord and Lady (sometimes the Lord and Lady of the Isles). Importantly, these two deities are specific.
Quite a few Wiccans are soft-polytheistic, in that they believe "all gods are one God, all goddesses are one Goddess". Whether or not they feel that way (and as Wicca is orthopraxic, they have every right to), Wicca itself is in a sense hard-polytheistic, in that the deities worshipped are not interchangeable with other deities, but are very specific. They are not worshipped as archetypes, but as distinct entities. To slot a deity from a different religion into the positions occupied by these gods would change the orthopraxy of Wicca significantly, so that it would no longer be Wicca. (It would also be very rude; the gods of Wicca would have their rituals usurped, and the gods slotted into those positions would be forced into roles they would not normally occupy, perhaps even a sexual relationship with another deity they did not like!) For this reason, anything that claims to be, for example, "Celtic Wicca", simply is not.
Of course, that does not mean that a Wiccan is unable to worship other deities. The gods of Wicca are not "jealous" deities, and often Wiccans maintain relationships with other gods and goddesses outside the context of Wicca.
How Wiccans understand their gods will differ, of course, given that Wicca is experiential. An individual Wiccan might be soft-polytheistic, hard-polytheistic, monotheistic and so forth. Nevertheless, Wicca the religion is itself hard-polytheistic in that its deities are specific and unchanging.
Gardner, on his gods being specific deities of the British Isles and known truly only to initiates:
I have already told of the belief of the Wica in the Ancient Gods of these islands. This not mere superstition or a figure of speech. Initiates will understand me when I say that the Gods are real.
Of course, the Craft of the Wica is not the only group which seeks to contact the Gods. There are other occult groups which use a similar technique, and their aims are the same, namely to bring through the Divine power to help, guide and uplift mankind at this dangerous and exciting turning-point in human history.
But, so far as I know, these groups generally work with the Egyptian and Greek Gods and Goddesses, and I cannot think that these contacts are as powerful here as they would be upon their native soil; whereas the divinities of the Craft of the Wica are the Ancient Ones of Britain, part of the land itself.
-- Gerald Gardner, The Meaning of Witchcraft, pgs 260-261
Gardner described his religion as a witch-cult. All Wiccans, therefore, are witches. "Cult" in this situation describes a form of religion in which observable elements of religion (ritual, devotional acts, etc) are very important; we have seen already that this is true of Wicca.
All Wiccans are considered "clergy", that is, priests and priestesses. Even a brand new initiate is clergy; there are no "lay-people" in Wicca. Every member of the religion directly serves the Lord and Lady of Wicca as priesthood. For this reason, becoming a Wiccan is a massive and life-long commitment. It is, in many ways, a job - the gods have requirements of you that you must fulfil. To a Wiccan, being a priest is not about status or whether or not you are better than someone else, but a role of service to the gods, and to other members of your coven.
This is another reason why minors are not initiated; becoming clergy is such a heavy burden and such a big commitment that it is important that each neophyte is in a position to be able to make that choice, something few teenagers are really able to do. Many covens won't even initiate until someone is at the very least 21, and often older, because of the import placed on this decision and the way one's life changes after initiation. Mental, emotional and spiritual maturity and stability are essential.
I've mentioned this throughout this article. "Lineage" refers to initiatory lineage, rather than blood lineage - it's who initiated you, and who initiated them, all the way back through Gardner. Gardner himself was initiated into a witch-cult we know as the New Forest Coven, and from what he learned from them coupled with what he knew from Ceremonial orders, as well as what he had read in books such as "The Golden Bough" and Murray's "God of the Witches", Gardner created what we now know as Wicca. He was, in addition, the first to use the term "Wicca" as in modern English, which he first spelt with just the one C.
Wicca as Gardner created it is known as the Gardnerian Tradition. From this traditions others broke away, differing from Gardner's Wicca in flavour or tone but maintaining the Core necessary to define themselves as Wiccan. Each can still trace their lineage of initiation back to Gardner. This is important; there are quite a few traditions of witchcraft that claim to be traditions of Wicca, and are not. Legitimate traditions of Wicca are: Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Mohsian, Central Valley, Silver Crescent, Kingstone, Daoine Coire, Assembly of Wicca, and Majestic. Some - and I stress "some" - covens of the witchcraft traditions of Blue Star and Georgian may also have legit Wiccan lineage and maintain Wiccan core, but it depends on the initiatory lines of the covens' priesthoods and whether the core of Wicca is passed on, so many Blue Star and Georgian covens are witchcraft covens, but not Wiccan covens. (I know that's a bit confusing but I felt it was important to mention.)
It's also important to note that even if a coven claims to be, for example, Alexandrian, it may not be authentically so. If one is looking for a coven to join one should always ask for information necessary to obtain an oath. The coven will then give you some form of their initiatory lineage or similar; you can take this information to a Wiccan website or mailing list such as Amber and Jet and ask if there is anyone there who can provide a vouch for the coven. (That person will then correspond with you personally to ask for the information you have obtained from the coven.) This is why lineage is considered important; it means all Wiccans are aware of who else is Wiccan if they are given their lineage, and those Seeking Wicca are able to ascertain whether the group they are thinking of joining is legit or not.
Lineage always goes "man --> woman --> man". That is to say, Wicca is "Cross-gender initiatory". If someone claims a lineage that does not follow this pattern, it's pretty clear that they are not Wiccan.
Gardner wrote on cross-gender initiation:
The witches tell me: "The law has always been that power must be passed from man to woman or from woman to man,"
-- Gerald Gardner, Witchcraft Today, pg 69 (lulz)
He wrote also on vouches as a concept:
They have no regular system of passwords, that I could discover, to recognize each other by. But at initiations there were certain words required to pass you into the circle, and there are certain catchphrases that could be used as such; of course a knowledge of the mysteries would prove that you were initiated. Actually, they all know each other, or are introduced, so they do not need passwords.
-- Gerald Gardner, Witchcraft Today, pg 116
So, there we have it. That is Wicca as I understand it. After to coming to learn about Wicca, I do not and cannot consider any other religion "Wicca"; these other religions are different and distinct, and should appreciate themselves as specific religions rather than lumping themselves together under a word that does not describe them.
Those interested may look further into Wicca via the following links and ebooks:
Amber and Jet
The New Wiccan Church
Gardner's Meaning of Witchcraft
Gardner's Witchcraft Today
A Message to Those who Consider(ed) Themselves Wiccans
If you feel in any way that I have just insulted your faith somehow, please rest assured that this is not the case. I have no interest within the scope of this subject to in any way slander what you do or believe, nor do I have any interest in its validity. I am sure that whatever religion you practise, it is both valid and personally fulfilling The only issue is the word used to describe it - there's no reason to use the word "Wicca" when it's not properly applicable.
I realise that one's sense of identity can be tied up in the words one chooses to apply to oneself or what one does, so I can understand why this sort of revelation would be unsettling or upsetting. I apologise if you feel upset or angry.
Responses to Common Rebuttals
If Gardner was initiated into a witch-cult, how did he also create Wicca?
The witch-cult into which Gardner was initiated, or at least claimed to be initiated, wasn't Wicca as we know it. The Mysteries theoretically remain the same, but the rituals do differ; Gardner by his own admission rewrote the rituals as he found them "fragmented", and added a great deal of stuff from his own experiences in Ceremonial magical orders into which he had been initiated. Gardner is considered by most Wiccans to have created Wicca and this is backed up by the work of historian Ronald Hutton among others. There is the possibility that there are surviving covens descended from New Forest that don't go through Gardner; apparently there are individuals descended from New Forest whose knowledge of the Mysteries of Wicca is considered such that lineage is often now considered legit if it traces to New Forest rather than to Gardner. In practice, however, lineage is almost guaranteed to trace through Gardner (and indeed thence on to New Forest). Having said that, the New Forest coven of Gardner's day is typically considered pre-Wiccan rather Wiccan itself; there was simply so much added by Gardner that they are often thought of as different witch-cults.
Gardner didn't invent Wicca, he just popularised it, so what he says doesn't apply.
Let's say this is true. (It probably isn't, but let's say it is.) Gardner found out about Wicca through the New Forest Coven into which he was initiated. When Gardner wrote all that stuff about the import of initiation and how it was a mystery religion and so forth, that would apply to New Forest also. There's no reason why it wouldn't. Even if the New Forest Coven stretched back several thousand years (unlikely), that doesn't change the nature of Wicca in any way. All the things Gardner wrote on Wicca remain the same; we really don't have any sources prior to Gardner that say Wicca is anything different.
Okay. So what if it is? Wicca isn't interested in numbers or converting others. No one is going to break their oaths and change Wicca to appeal to more people just so they can bring in higher numbers, especially since it is a priesthood and involves service to deity.
Wicca is a religion that requires you to love and trust the people you worship with. And be naked with them. They're not going to swing open the doors to everyone with an interest in magic. They have the ability - and as far as some are concerned, the duty - to be picky about who they accept into their religion as their brothers and sisters. If this is something you really want, you'll find a way to work for it.
If you don't like that it's elitist, fine. You don't have to join. You can look down on them for it all you want, if you don't mind the mild hypocrisy.
The God and Goddess accept me.
Fine. That doesn't make one a Wiccan, though. Even if we assume that you're worshipping the same gods as the gods of Wicca - and there's no way to know that unless you were to be initiated and confirmed for yourself that the gods you are worshipping now are the same gods as you worship within Wicca - the way in which you're worshipping them is quite different. Given that Wicca is primarily an orthopraxy, that means you're worshipping the same gods within the structure of a different religion. To draw a couple of analogies... it's like worshipping the gods of the North in Asatru, and worshipping them in Seax. VERY different religions, but (ostensibly) the same gods. Or even Christianity vs Judaism: same god, different religions.
Wicca has changed since Gardner's day.
Well... no. It hasn't. Wicca remains the same as it always has; what changes have taken place are enough to distinguish different traditions, but not to change the core. Those traditions that drop the core, or change it significantly, are no longer Wicca and not permitted to pass on the teachings of Wicca as per their oaths. What has happened, in the past half-century, is that other forms of religious witchcraft have based some of what they do on what Gardner wrote about his religion, or just adopted the title as a name for what they do, however different their religion is from Wicca. These people are not a part of Wicca, and never have been, so they have no ability to change it or even access its teachings. They're just misusing the name and generalising it to apply to what it does not.
Thanks for reading through, folks. Those of you who are either upset or indignant at this time, take a relaxing breath. I know this is a subject that inflames passions. I will be deleting any angry comments, so if you want a response, please be calm and polite.