Here is my attempt to bring some light on the cloudy and complicated backstory that is the evolution and development of Wicca.
While some parts of Wicca can be said to be based in traditional Witchcraft, Wicca is a young religion. Gerald Gardner founded Wicca in the 1940s after claims of having been initiated into the New Forest coven in 1939.
The Wiccan heritage is rich but does not rely on many historical sources, but rather often a rather romanticized image of witchcraft, influenced by now outdated researchers and scholars such as Margaret Murray and Robert Graves. These authors wrote extensively on primitive matriarchal religions, although modern scholars now claim such religions are merely works of fiction. The idea of a Mother Goddess and a Horned God, however, were prevalent images in Victorian and Edwardian culture, assumingly influencing the idea of the God and the Goddess pair in modern Wicca.
Modern Wicca is based on one part classical occultism and one part New Age thought. Gardner published the book Witchcraft Today in 1954, after the laws against witchcraft where lifted in Britain. He was clearly influenced by Murray’s idea of an underground surviving witch-cult but also by traditional British occultism. Gardner claims in his book to have been initiated by a coven of practising witches, but there is little to no evidence of this coven actually being centuries old as Gardner claims. Some writers, such as Isaac Bonewits, argue that the New Forest coven and Gardner’s work should be viewed as part of an early pagan revival.
The Victorian era occultism has heavily influenced the rituals of Wicca – even Gardner’s initiate Doreen Valiente saw the impact that Aleister Crowley and Ceremonial Magick had on the ritual works. Another notable influence is the New Age thought of importing concepts from the eastern religions, in this case reincarnation as well as the extensive use of meditation techniques.
Evolution of Wicca
Gardner started his own coven Bricket Wood Coven in circa 1946, acting as a High Preist with “Dafo”, also a member of the New Forest Coven, as a High Priestess. Around this time Gardner invented the Book of Shadows, a ritualistic workbook sacred to the practitioner or coven, although he claimed ancient origins. In 1953 Doreen Valiente was initiated to the Bricket Wood Coven and she later helped Gardner to re-write the Book of Shadows by exempting a lot of the more heavily Crowley-influenced pieces and also adding poetry such as the Charge of the Goddess.
Around the same time, other witches and occultists emerged, claiming to be part of an unbroken lineage of witchcraft, calling themselves Traditional Witches. And thus began the long falling out between Traditonal Witchcraft and Wicca.
During the 1960s Wicca began to spread around the world and it migrated to the USA through an english ex-pat known as Raymond Buckland along with his wife Rosemary. Also non-Gardnerian covens, as the off-shots were now known, began to spread. In the 1970s solitary practice became a valid path as public figures such as Valiente wrote self-initiations and published them.
In 1986 a US court ruling stated that Wicca was a religion and should be treated as such.
Wicca gained a lot of popularity thanks to the movie The Craft, released in 1996, portraying four young witches and the use of their powers. The following year Buffy the Vampire Slayer started to air and in 1998 the TV-series Charmed began; both shows becoming major hits in many countries. Although a lot of traditional practitioners were outraged by the pop-culture portrayal of Wicca and Witchcraft, those shows and movies were the first contact a lot of young people had with the art of magick.
Books directly aimed at a younger audience also emerged at this time. 21st Century Wicca by Jennifer Hunter, Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner by Scott Cunningham and Teen Wicca: Wicca for a new generation by Silver Ravenwolf. Much debate has been had over these books and their contents, most notably over Silver Ravenwolf’s books and their impact on the seeking teenager. (But that is a whole different blogpost…)
Today Wicca is alive and kicking, much thanks to the internet where websites such as Witchvox.com and the communities on tumblr and the like help solitary practitioners to feel less alone in their craft.