Wicca - traditional vs. non-traditional practice in 2001

(c) 2001 by Forest and Joe Butera

This article has been written for the purpose of drawing attention to a trend we have witnessed over the past ten years of new-comers to the Wicca moving further and further away from traditional Wiccan beliefs and practices. This article is not directed toward the numerous solitary practitioners of Wicca and members of eclectic Wiccan groups whom we admire for keeping the essence of Wicca intact.

We have heard endless reasons for the changes that are made, many of them are quite reasonable. But at some point one must ask: Is it still Wicca? And if it isn't . . . why call it Wicca? (For details on some of the differences between traditional and non-traditional forms of Wicca see this page.)

When we first looked into witchcraft in 1972 we found only one book on the topic in the public library in Annapolis, Maryland. And though the book mentioned that covens of witches did exist we had no way of finding anyone who actually practiced it. The practice of witchcraft and Wicca began to spread in the United States in the 1970's but was mostly underground and communication between witches was by word of mouth only.

When we began to study Wicca in 1990, it was becoming more popular but most people had still not heard of it. There were still relatively few books on Wicca available at that time. None were geared toward kids and most were written by experienced witches who were members of traditional Wiccan covens. Traditional Wiccan covens do not admit anyone under 18 and some have a minimum age limit set as high as 26. The information being passed on in 1990 varied little and was in keeping with the concept of Wicca put forth by Gardner and his coveners.

In the late 1970's and throughout 1980's a number of new authors began to emerge and some were combining Wicca with other ideas and practices such as Native American, women's spirituality and Jewish mysticism. The authors continued to call their practices "Wicca" though they had begun to move away from the traditional Wiccan practices and ideals. In the 1990's we began to see not only a proliferation of new books on Wicca but also a number of movies and television shows about teen-aged witches which sparked a huge interest in Wicca.

In the early 1990's we were beginning to see a proliferation of new teachers in Wicca who had studied only a short time in a traditional coven, or who were, themselves, self-taught. In most cases these people were thrust into the role of teacher by friends begging them to share what little knowledge they had. "Covens" were formed spontaneously rather than through the traditional practice of "Hiving Off" (The process where a Wiccan who has studied for a long time, achieved the level of Third Degree Initiate, and is given permission from his or her High Priest and High Priestess to start a new Coven.)

The past decade has seen enormous change in how Wicca is learned and practiced. Ask most 12 to 24 year olds what Wicca is today and they will probably tell you, "It is a religion". If they are at all interested in Wicca personally they will probably tell you it is about witches and doing spells, and they might even know it has something to do with gods, goddesses and the Earth. More and more people are choosing to follow their hearts to an Earth-based path such as Wicca. For some Wicca is exactly the right path. For others, Wicca is close to what they want so they change a few things and make it their own. This is wonderful, however, as more and more new-comers remove bits and pieces of the religion and then pass on their version, the result is that little of the original Wicca remains. People are finding and creating paths rich in personal meaning, but the meaning of Wicca has been lost in the process.

As late as five years ago most people calling themselves Wiccan had at least read a few books on the subject. Now we are seeing a trend toward young people claiming the title merely because they find the idea of being a witch fun or exciting. They have probably seen a couple of movies on witchcraft and watch the television show "Charmed". If they are very ambitious they may have skimmed over a website or two on Wicca, but most have not read any books on the subject. If they have "studied" Wicca more than a month or two they have probably started their own website on Wicca. Most of them have not even heard of Gerald Gardner and have no idea what Wicca actually is.

Now anyone with a computer can go onto the Internet and find literally thousands of WebPages with "Wicca" in the title. A very small percentage of these pages are actually written by traditionally trained Wiccans. In addition to the WebPages there are dozens of chat rooms going at any given time with "witch" or "Wicca" in the title. I have spent literally hundreds of hours chatting with people in these chat rooms and have only met a few traditional Wiccans in them. There are plenty of people in the chat rooms who attempt to teach Wicca who have no training in it themselves and there are thousands of kids willing to believe anything they read or are told on the Internet.

Unfortunately the number of people desiring to learn and/or practice Wicca greatly outnumber the teachers available and qualified to instruct all of these new would-be Wiccans. I do not blame these new-comers for pushing ahead and learning what and where they can. Learning Wicca can be very exciting and fulfilling. However, the result has been that practices and beliefs are being labeled as "Wicca" and passed on as such when they have little or nothing in common with Gardner's original design.

From the early days of Wicca there have been many sincere teachers who want nothing more than to share their knowledge of Wicca and their connection with the gods and goddess with others. At the same time there have been some here and there who have become teachers for the sense of power and control it can give them over others. We have seen that type running covens and now we see them running chat rooms as well. We are now seeing self-taught Wiccans, with no knowledge of the origins and traditional ethics of Wicca, who have been practicing and/or teaching for 10 years and in the process have greatly confused hundreds of new-comers.

Now I find young people who have never read a book on Wicca telling me what Wicca is and isn't in no uncertain terms. Any attempt to pass on actual information on the origins of Wicca is met with disbelief hostility. Somewhere along the line someone decided that Wicca was an "anything goes" religion and that it can be whatever a practitioner wants it to be. Indeed a person can do whatever they like and invent their own religion. It makes no sense though to create a new religion and call it "Wicca" when Wicca has been long established with a set outline of ethics, beliefs and practices without which it isn't Wicca. These self-taught Wiccans become the default "authorities" by virtue of being the loudest and most visible. To make matters worse they pass on their version of "Wicca" allowing their "students" to believe that no other version has ever existed.

At what point is "Wicca" not longer "Wicca"?

From its beginnings, Wicca has had standards which most, if not all, traditional Wiccans agree on. Most of these standards have been lost along the way so that the current styles of "Wicca" being practices by self-taught Wiccans bears little resemblance to Gardner's original concept. There are a few things which have remained, but, from a traditional point of view they are outweighed by the changes.

Even modern, self-taught Wiccans still celebrate the eight Sabbats (or at least know of them). They still honor the Full Moon (or know they should). They have at least heard of the Wiccan Rede and the Law of Three-fold Return. Most are aware that Wicca involves some kind of acknowledgement of a god and goddess. They are all aware that magic and spells and casting Circles are involved, and that Wiccans usually refer to themselves as "witches". That is about where the similarity ends.

A majority of new Wiccans have never heard of Gerald Gardner. They believe that Wicca itself is a stone-age religion. They believe that the Wiccan Rede is optional. They "initiate" themselves, start Covens, declare themselves High Priest or High Priestess and initiate others without having any idea what initiation actually is or the responsibilities that come with it. They hand out "spells" to anyone who asks and demand that other Wiccans give them spells under the assumption that all Wiccans are obligated to share their knowledge with anyone else claiming to be Wiccan.

Most new Wiccans have never worked on a personal basis with a specific god or goddess. Most have no idea what invocation is or they have the wrong idea. They do not understand why they should invite a god and a goddess from the same pantheon to their rituals. You will find new "Wiccans" who claim to still be Christian as well as Wiccan. You will find new male "Wiccans" calling themselves warlocks. New "Wiccans" freely exchange "Books of Shadows" which they create and store solely on their computers.

Modern Wiccans will collect tools and other items for their altars and have no concept of the symbolism behind the item itself or the materials from which it is composed. They will faithfully use an herb or candle called for in a spell which they read in a book, but have no idea why that particular herb or candle color is being used. They have no idea what centering and grounding is, the impact of fasting before ritual, or why using seasonal foods for Sabbat feasts might be relevant.

If they do claim to follow the Wiccan Rede and/or the Law of Three-fold Return they are likely to believe it only pertains to working magic. Many have not figured out how to integrate Wicca with their lives and view the religion as something they "do" rather than a way of life, but they are sure to wear a pentacle around their neck to make sure everyone knows they are "Wiccan". They toss around the greeting "Blessed Be" without having any idea of where it comes from or what it means. Many have decided that one-on-one teaching is unnecessary and that all the secrets and mysteries of Wicca can and should be found in books.

What we have now is thousands of people claiming the title of "Wiccan" who have little or nothing in common with traditional Wiccans and who are unaware of, or who have rejected most of what Wicca has meant for 50 years. The result is that the label of "Wiccan" has become virtually meaningless. Traditional Wiccans can no longer introduce themselves as "Wiccan" without expecting people to make a lot of inaccurate assumptions about them and their beliefs and practices. Where ten years ago the most prevalent misconceptions about Wiccans were that we are "satanists" or do animal sacrifice. Now we have to deal with people assuming we are living in a dream world of levitation spells, gothic melancholy, and have 15 year old High Priest and High Priestesses running our Circles. I am not sure which is worse.

Eliminating confusion and moving on

Since the beginning of Wicca, seekers have found their way to traditional teachers though it sometimes meant many years of waiting and patience. Traditional Wicca has always drawn those who are interested in the roots of the religion, in mythology, in meditation and seeking a greater understanding of life and nature. But now, the path that a seeker of traditional Wicca must follow now is cluttered and obscured by the abundance of misinformation and unqualified teachers which are much more visible than the traditional teachers. This should not be a serious hindrance since we believe that the teachers and students are brought together by the gods themselves, but there are steps that we can take to make the way a bit more clear.

Our intention is not to encourage elitism among traditional Wiccans since we believe that traditional Wicca is no better or worse than other forms of Wicca - it is only different. Nor am I suggesting that we can stop anyone who wishes to use the title "Wiccan" from doing so. I am happy for anyone who finds a fulfilling path regardless of what it is. My only objection to applying the word “Wicca” to the various and diverse modern practices is that causes confusion, not just for Wiccans and would-be Wiccans themselves, but also with the greater public which is becoming more and more aware of the existence of Wicca and other neo-pagan religions.

If we can make a point of saying “traditional Wicca”, when that is what we are specifically referring to, I think it will go a long way toward eliminating the current state of confusion and conflicting images which come to mind when discussing Wicca. It is important to be clear in your respect for the beliefs that others hold, but I think we do have a right to attempt to preserve the original concept of Wicca.

To understand traditional Wicca more fully please read, “The Heart of Wicca” by Ellen Cannon Reed.


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