A Brief History of Witchcraft

Which Wica is Witch?

I’ve come across many online articles, essays, posts, and Tumblr accounts that prattle on in detail of how Wicca is not Witchcraft and all of the myriad things that distinguish the two. Since I describe myself as a sorcerer and my magical practice as sorcery, watching the degree to which witches will argue amongst themselves over whether they are witches or not can be confusing at best, but I recognize that this is an expression of the Problem of Authenticity that plagues modern witchcraft and pagan movements. There is a lot to unpack in this issue, from bad scholarship and creation myths to lineage disputes and politics, but people will do what they can to define their group in relation to others, I suppose.

The Creation of Wicca

Wicca is a religion created by Gerald Gardner Doreen Valiente sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The bad scholarship of the time had developed the intriguing theory that the mishmash of inconsistent and incoherent testimony accumulated from the torture of Jews and other inconvenient peoples accused of witchcraft actually described a consistent, cohesive, and organized pre-Christian, pan-European pagan religion, which survived in secret across Europe. What the ignorant Christian Oppressors called witchcraft was actually Gardner claimed to have found a hidden group that practiced the ways of this Old Religion, who initiated him into their group before vanishing into obscurity. Luckily, with Valiente to help fill in some gaps in his source material, Gardner was able to form his own coven of Witches, and initiate others who were interested in the Old Ways. Later there were some rifts that formed, and some of Gardner’s students formed their own covens and traditions by modifying his material and adding their own.

Gardner’s etymological research traced the word witch back to the Old English word wicce (“a woman who does harmful magic”), and he used that word to describe the practitioners of this new Old Religion, and to distinguish them from the mythological witches of lore. For the most part, he referred to the religion itself as Witchcraft — calling the religion “Wicca” didn’t catch on for some time.

Wicca v Witchcraft

There seem to be three major types of non-Wiccan witchcraft out there. One consists of non- or self-initiatory types of witchcraft that follow much of Wicca’s ritual structure, but distance it from explicitly religious practices, i.e. it doesn’t involve worship of deities or adherence to certain mythic stories that Wicca incorporates. The second is a number of Traditional Witchcraft movements that claim to predate Gardner’s creation of Wicca. The third is a movement of politically based practices that utilize the image of a witch as an underdog resistance figure. I’m mostly going to be talking about the first two.

Many of the eclectic witchcraft traditions and practices that have emerged that explicitly rejected “religious” language and metaphors will refer to witchcraft as a “practice” or “craft” instead of a religion. That is to say, they are stripping the layers of religious devotion and myth from the magical technology. The distinction is made between Wicca as a religion and Witchcraft as a practice that Wicca uses in its religion. And there’s a problem with this.

Due the ubiquity of Protestant thought in the US and UK, there is a conflation of religion with belief. Magical religion, especially pagan religion, is rooted in praxis at least as firmly as doxis, if not more so. It is very clear that Gardner regarded Witchcraft as a religion that relied upon the devotional and mythic elements just as much as the magical and ritual parts. I have seen frustration over this point from older Witches who cannot figure out how you can have Witchcraft that isn’t Wicca — from their perspective you can’t, because it is literally the same thing. The fact that eclectic witchcraft derives most of its magical technology from Wiccan theory and rituals only further complicates things.

Traditional Witchcraft movements also distinguish themselves from Wicca, and more rightly so. The claim here is that these traditions predate Wicca’s emergence in the 1950s. The implication here is that they have other connections to groups that have retained the secret knowledge of the ancient Witch Cult, and in some cases shade is thrown at Gardner for adding inauthentic material to his religion. These groups do not derive their material from Wicca, although much of the ritual and mythic structure is similar.

Bad Scholarship

One of the major criticisms of Gardner is his source material. Professor Ronald Hutton has thoroughly documented how Gardner created his Old Religion from ritual material he got from Aleister Crowley rolled in bad scholarship and dusted in folklore and naturism. There is no evidence to support the theory that a pan-European Witchcraft Religion existed at all, let along survived in secret. There is no evidence that the group Gardner claims to have been initiated into was such a survival group, or indeed even presented itself as such — it seems to have been an occult lodge similar to the Freemasons or the OTO or the Golden Dawn or many other such groups that were popular at the time.

And I’d like to explicitly state that this is not an attempt to discredit or defame Wicca as a religious practice, but merely to point out that it is a modern creation despite its initial claim to an ancient and unbroken lineage. It is hardly unusual for new religious movements to claim to be inheritors of secret ancient spiritual teachings via obscure gurus or secret chiefs or ascended masters — honestly hidden covens sounds much more plausible than most. Ironically, clinging to discredited histories harms credibility more than a lack of a continual, unbroken lineage. (Even more ironically, the fact that Gardner got most of his material from Crowley and his brand of ceremonial magic, means that Wicca is the part of a long lineage of western occult practice.) And the fact that I have to explicitly state that being aware of the real history of Wicca is not an attack on Wicca is also part of the problem.

Wicca is highly influential in the larger Pagan community, to the point that its rituals and mythology have formed kind of a standard praxis (to the chagrin of some). And some people are attempting to distance themselves and their practices from that. Eclectic Witches do so by rejecting the mythic and devotional parts of Wicca, usually while accepting current scholarship regarding Wicca’s origins. Traditional Witches who claim to predate Gardner’s Old Religion will sometimes assert that they are part of an authentic lineage that Gardner talked about but was not a part of, doubling down on historical claims but evading problems with Gardner’s sources. (Unfortunately, such groups either draw on the same or similar sources and scholarship to Gardner, or have proven unwilling to come forward with their sources beyond “My grandmother taught me.” Either way, the evidence is very lacking.)


John Beckett wrote a blog post about how Pagans can build a more authentic foundation for our respective religious traditions. He makes some good points and misses others, but what I’m interested in is the fact that he was compelled to write the post in the first place. Paganism seems to have issues with authenticity, especially initiatory paganisms. (Initiatory religions are pretty much required to be concerned with authenticity, since discussions of “who initiated you?” and lineage will eventually come up.) And that is something that Wicca has to deal with a lot — first when an initiatory religion was opened to non-initiates (via leaked texts), and then when scholarship demonstrated the inaccuracies in its founding myths.

For some, attacking the scholarship was a way to maintain authenticity — there are a few pseudo-scholarly attempts to discredit Hutton’s work, none of which are successful. For others, distancing themselves from Wicca offered a way of maintaining authenticity — you could claim the good technology while dismissing the flawed mythology.  In the end run, though, a religion is as authentic as its adherents, and magic is as authentic as the results it gets. And I think that’s one of the reasons the whole issues seems odd to me: Hutton’s work did nothing to negate the religious experiences of Wiccans across the globe (nor did he expect or want it to), and frankly it did nothing to invalidate the magic of anyone using that system.

So yes, Wicca is Witchcraft, and Witchcraft is Wicca. Even though Wicca isn’t Witchcraft and Witchcraft isn’t Wicca. If you think what you do is different enough from what someone else does that you don’t want to call it that, then don’t.  But arguing about what labels we use doesn’t usually get us anywhere. If someone uses the same label you do but you think what you do is different, “That’s not how I do it” is a perfectly reasonable way to explain it, and further justification isn’t required.



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