Tuesday, 3 April 2012

"Wicca", "Wica" and the war of words...

Christianity. Buddhism. Islam. Each of these three words conjures up a mental image of a distinct set of different religious beliefs and practices to anyone with even the most basic understanding of Religious Studies. The word "Christianity" evokes imagery of Christ, the crucifixion, the Eucharist, while that of "Islam" brings to mind images of the Ka'bah, Arabic calligraphy, and - in our unfortunate world of rampant western Islamophobia - events such as 9/11.

Words are powerful things.

What, therefore, do people imagine when the word "Wicca" is mentioned ? Pentagrams? Naked women? Devil-worship? I suspect that such imagery would be prominent in the public imagination throughout the western world, where contemporary Paganism remains a small and much misunderstood religious minority. Nevertheless, today's musing is not about the views of cowans, as non-Wiccans have become known. Instead, I wish to talk about how practicing Pagan Witches, those who might call themselves Wiccans, Witches, Crafters, Old Religionists, or whatever else, understand and interpret the term "Wicca".

As both an archaeologist with a particular interest in the world of Anglo-Saxon England and an amateur Pagan Studies scholar, I became particularly interested in the actual term "Wicca" back in 2009, the same year that I commenced upon my studies at University College London. I proceeded to delve into its origins, resulting in the publication of my very first academic paper; "The Meaning of 'Wicca': A Study in Etymology, History and Pagan Politics", in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 12(2), after a pretty grueling peer-review. For those interested, that paper can be found online here, at  http://www.equinoxpub.com/POM/article/view/10024. Unfortunately, I cannot afford to pay for it to become an open access article, and so it shall remain hidden behind a paywall until you, the reader, hands over the rather lofty sum of £12.00. It's a shame, but that's just the way it is.

Being of a distinctly leftist bent, I disliked the idea of knowledge being withheld from those who could not or would not pay for it, and so rewrote my 8000-word academic paper in a 2000-word popular format. I wanted to share my findings with the world. What's more, I thought that my findings were actually really important for the Wiccan and wider Pagan community in understanding their own history. I'd uncovered information that was, at that time, available nowhere else, not even in Professor Ronald Hutton's seminal work The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (1999). I offered up my popular article to Marion Pearce, the editor of British-based Pagan magazine Pentacle, in whose pages I had published a couple of articles dating back well into my teenage years, dealing with small-p 'pagan' art and the wondrous occult author Alan Moore respectively. Unfortunately, this seemed to be at the same time as Pentacle hit a snag, and for the moment at least it appears to have ceased publication, meaning that my article probably won't see the light of day for quite some time. Impatient as I may be, I did feel that this was a sad state of affairs, as I'd really love to see the Pagan community discuss and debate my findings and interpretations, so that they could point out any flaws or queries regarding my work. For this reason, I have decided that my first post upon this new blog of mine should be used to lay out what I have unearthed, in the hope that it reaches the wider Pagan community, for whom I really hope it shall be of some interest, and indeed benefit.

What do we mean by "Wicca" ?

It seems very clear from even a cursory examination of the published books and magazines within the Pagan genre that within contemporary Pagandom, and more specifically within the community of modern Pagan Witches, there are two distinct views on what the term "Wicca" constitutes:

  1. The first uses "Wicca" to refer specifically to Gardnerianism, the initiatory lineage of Pagan Witchcraft stemming from Gerald Gardner back in the late 1940s/early 1950s, as well as to its direct offspring, such as Alexandrianism (founded by Gardnerian initiate Alex Sanders in the 1960s) and Algard (founded by fellow Gardnerian initiate Mary Nesnick in the 1970s).
  2. The second uses "Wicca" in a much wider sense to describe the entirety of the Pagan Witchcraft religion, i.e. all those groups and solitaries who venerate a Great Goddess and/or a Horned God, commemorate seasonal-based festivals known as Sabbats, and practice magical rites in a circle based in part on earlier Ceremonial Magic. Under this definition, Gardnerianism, Alexandrianism and Algard are still considered to be "Wiccan", but so is Dianicism, Reclaiming, Feri, and a multitude of other traditions, including those DIY Crafts purported by Scott Cunningham and Silver RavenWolf.

From what I gathered from my discussions with other occultists and Pagans and also by perusing various blogs and forums online, there was an almost universal belief that the former of these definitions was older and in many respects more "authentic", while the latter definition only emerged following the explosion in the number of solitary practitioners in the 1970s and 80s. To put it bluntly, the research that went into that paper turned this widely held viewpoint on its head! What I discovered was that in fact "Wicca" had originally been used to cover the entire magico-religious Pagan Witchcraft movement, and that only later had it been re-appropriated by certain Gardnerians wishing to forge for themselves a distinct - one could perhaps argue 'special' - place within that wider movement. How did this happen, and how have so many contemporary esotericists become so misinformed ?

But Gerald Gardner first used the term "Wicca"...

It may well come as a surprise to many that dear old Gerald Gardner (1884-1964), homophobic Tory, liberated nudist, and Wiccan pioneer, never, ever used the term "Wicca" (or so contemporary scholarship can ascertain!). Such a fact is in direct opposition to a claim which is all-too-often repeated in Pagan and wider esoteric circles. Indeed, in all of his published writings Gardner only ever referred to the Pagan Witchcraft religion, which was then only in its infancy, as "witchcraft", the "cult of witchcraft" and the "witch-cult"; in the latter he was clearly influenced by the writings of Egyptologist Margaret Murray, whose seminal proto-Wiccan text The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) was a clear influence on his thought and on the history which he crafted for his Craft.

Gerald Gardner in the Magicians Room of his Museum of
Magic and Witchcraft,  located in Castletown, Isle of Man.
This image was published in the Museum's
guidebook, (C) Gardner .

On the other hand, Gardner did refer to the practitioners of that Pagan Witchcraft religion as "the Wica" - note the single c! Under this category he included both members of his own 'Gardnerian' tradition (a term that was apparently only coined in 1964, the year of his death, by his rival Robert Cochrane) as well as the practitioners of the various other Pagan Witchcraft traditions that popped up in the 1950s and 60s, run by the likes of Charles Cardell, Sybil Leek and Bob Clay-Egerton. In his own words:

  • ""the Wica" referred to "the 'wise people',  who practice the age-old rites and who have, along with much superstition and herbal knowledge, preserved an occult teaching and working processes which they themselves think to be magic or witchcraft." 

He claimed to have learned this word, "Wica", from the New Forest Coven of practicing Pagan Witches whom initiated him in 1939, and while there is still a debate as to whether they were a real group or a little white lie of his, there can be no doubt that he was still using "Wica" as a word when he propagated his Gardnerian Craft through the Bricket Wood Coven and other groups during the 1950s.

This term, "the Wica", spelled with only one c, therefore referred to the community of Pagan Witches. It is completely separate from the word "Wicca", spelled with two c's, that is now typically used to denote the religion itself.  The belief that Gardner used the term "Wicca" to refer to his Gardnerian tradition really is one of the biggest misconceptions regarding Wiccan history still floating around. Only last week I was chatting to Philip Heselton ~ author of the excellently researched Wiccan Roots (2000), Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration (2003) and the new two-part biography of Gardner, Witchfather (2012) ~ in a London pub on one of his few trips down to the capital, and he told me of how often he had had to correct people about Gardner's use of "Wica" rather than "Wicca" ! Clearly, its a misconception that requires clearing up.

So if not Gardner, then where did "Wicca" come from....

As much as I hate to admit it, the short answer is that I'm really not sure. Worse still, I fear that in fact we will never know where and when the term "Wicca", spelled with two c's and referring to the contemporary Pagan religion, actually first emerged. The earliest trace of it that I am aware of was highlighted by the British Gardnerian Melissa Seims in a pioneering 2008 article of hers published in Michael Howard's influential Craft magazine The Cauldron; delightfully, the article in question is actually available for free on her personal website at  http://www.thewica.co.uk/wica_or_wicca.htm. Within this article, Seims noted that the term "Wicca" can be found in an advert placed in the paranormal-orientated Fate magazine and dated to 1962. Within the context of this ad, it was used to advertise a tradition a tradition of Pagan Witchcraft centred in Cardiff, Wales. Seims thought that the advert was connected to the tradition propagated by Charles Cardell and his 'sister' Mary, but in my paper I have expressed scepticism regarding such a claim.

What I can say with much more certainty is that by the mid-1960s, more and more Pagan Witches were referring to the Craft as "Wicca" both publicly and privately. Within Alex Sanders' Alexandrian tradition, which was centred first in Manchester and then in London, the term was also in common usage by both Alex and others; it was for instance used in the famous Alexandrian initiate Stewart Farrar's book What Witches Do: A Modern Coven Revealed (1971). It was also around this time that Gavin and Yvonne Frost founded their "Church of Wicca" after moving from Britain to the United States, but unfortunately I was unable to contact them to find out more regarding how they first learned of the term. In all of these usages, it is clear that these occultists are referring to the Pagan Witchcraft movement itself as "Wicca" rather than using this term to specify a select group of lineaged traditions within that larger movement.

The concept that only some practicing Pagan Witches could refer to themselves as "Wiccans" appears to have emerged in the midst of the revolutionary changes that rocked the Craft during the 1970s, particularly in the United States. The rise of the Dianic Wiccan movement that merged elements of the traditional Wiccan religious structure with the political message of Second Wave Feminism, accompanied by the increasing number of self-dedicated practitioners who learned their practices from published texts by the likes of Paul Huson, Lady Sheba, Doreen Valiente and Raymond Buckland, led many Gardnerians to reassert themselves as the true inheritors of Gardner's legacy, and as maintainers of his lineage, which they traced back to the New Forest Coven, and from that back to the Murrayite Witch-Cult. The re-appropriation of the term "Wicca" in specific reference to their tradition can be seen as a part of this process. In turn, many members of the non-Gardnerian Craft traditions such as Dianicism, Feri and 1734 simply didn't use the term "Wicca" widely, instead preferring the more emotive, and more controversial, banner of "witchcraft". Ironically, it was they who were using terminology that would have been more familiar to Gerald Gardner than the Gardnerians themselves!

Concluding thoughts: Where now for the Pagan community ?

If, as I hope, my findings reach a wider Pagan audience, then it will undoubtedly have ramifications - however small - for how the term "Wicca" is more widely used. The claim that Gardner invented the term or adopted it from the New Forest Coven has been shown to be poppycock, and can no longer be legitimately used to support the argument that "Wicca" should only truly be used in reference to Gardnerianism and its initiatory offspring. Similarly, I have been able to highlight the fact that the more inclusive definition of "Wicca", one which welcomed all the Pagan Craft traditions into its midst, was the older of the two by at least a decade. Does this ultimately invalidate the argument that only Gardnerianism-Alexandrianism can be considered to be "Wiccan" ? What too, of the impact on the Pagan Studies discipline; will scholars working in this area recognise the wider context in which they use the term "Wicca" ?

So, with this (rather lengthy) post over, I warmly welcome a discussion on such issues and how they may affect the Pagan community in future. What are your views? I'd love to hear them, in particular from Pagan Studies scholars as well as practicing Pagans and others active in the esoteric scene. However, please note that I am not interested in any direct criticisms of my argument on a scholarly level unless you have previously studied my paper in The Pomegranate; I will deem such attacks to be simply internet trolling and deal with them thus (I regretfully include this proviso as a result of some of the more purile attacks that have been launched at Pagan Studies scholars like Ronald Hutton and Caroline Tully in recent months, particularly following the publication of Ben Whitmore's Trials of the Moon). Of course, if you have read my paper and take issue with something in it, then again, I'd be interested to hear from you. Constructive criticism is always appreciated. :)