Historical Summary of Wicca

The actual origins of the Wiccan religion are shrouded, but whether by time or by secrecy, none can definitively say. There are theories afoot as to our origins that claim the religion is well over 10,000 years old, perhaps as many as 35,000. There are also theories that place the beginning of Wicca in the hands of Gerald Brosseau Gardner in England during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, giving Wicca an age of no more than 80 or so years. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your point of view), the secrecy that has surrounded the Craft has contributed to a lack of solid documentation in our history. Conversely, that secrecy has also allowed practitioners of our religion to survive, so the heart of Wicca could come forward to the modern day. Regardless of your point of view, the lack of documentation has hampered, if not crippled, efforts to reconstruct our past.

It is beyond the scope of this writing to deal with the possible paleolithic origins of the Craft. For a study of the ancient matrilineal practices of our race, we recommend Eisler’s The Chalice and The Blade. We will also not be presenting the impact of the Inquisition, which we call the Burning Times, on our people. Interested parties are directed to research the subject either by performing a Net Search, or in the library. We ask you to bear in mind that most histories are written by the winners, and to realize that most of the victims of the Burning Times were not Witches; they were usually Christians who were unfortunate enough to be accused, and an accusation was more than sufficient.

Most, if not all, American Wiccan lineages can be traced to Gerald B. Gardner, an Englishman who was primarily responsible for bringing Wicca to the public eye during the 1950’s. It is believed by some that Gardner was initiated into the New Forest Coven circa September, 1939. Believing that Wicca was in the last stages of decline into extinction, he requested permission from the coven Elders to “go public” with Craft. He was denied. As a compromise, however, he wrote a fictional piece, High Magic’s Aid, which was published in 1949 under the name “Scire”. In it, many of the practices of his coven were allegedly revealed.

In 1951, the Witchcraft Acts were repealed, largely due to the very popular Spiritualist movement. Under the Acts, mediums and spiritualists could be prosecuted as frauds, and several prominent members of Parliament and other officials were strong believers in mediums. The repeal of the Acts, however, also set the stage for the resurgence of the Craft. In 1954, Gardner’s Witchcraft Today was published. The Craft grew steadily during the 1950’s, and The Meaning of Witchcraft, Gardner’s second non-fiction book on the Craft, was published in 1959. All was not peaceful within the then-fledgling Wiccan community, however. Disagreements about the publicity Wicca was getting, and about how to handle an increasingly-hostile Fleet Street media caused a schism within the movement in the summer of 1957. Gardner was the nominal head of the pro-publicity faction, while the more secretive opposition was nominally headed by Doreen Valiente, who had been Gardner’s High Priestess. Gardner remained influential in the Craft throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s, though his health, which had always been somewhat frail, deteriorated. During the winter of 1963-64, Gardner wintered in Lebanon, which was more peaceful in those days. He boarded the SS Scottish Prince in February of 1964 for his trip home, but died of heart failure while in the Mediterranean. His body was offloaded and buried at the next port of call, Tunis. The original burial site was redeveloped into a park, but before this happened, a High Priestess named Eleanor Bone learned of the plan while she was vacationing in North Africa. She collected funds from other British Witches and had Gardner’s remains moved to another nearby cemetery, where they rest to this day.

Doreen Valiente was initiated in 1953 by Gardner. From almost the time of her initiation, she operated as the High Priestess of the “main coven”. Very early in their relationship, she demonstrated to Gardner that she recognized the sources of much of his ritual material, a fact that did not please him at first. Concerned with what she perceived as a preponderance of “Crowleyanity” (a reference to Aleister Crowley, whose OTO rituals had a great influence on some of Gardner’s early material) in the Book of Shadows, Valiente remarked to Gardner that she would like to see some changes to the Book. Gardner dismissively agreed, perhaps thinking that she couldn’t produce better work than he had already shown her. He was wrong.

Stripping out most of Crowley’s words, Valiente created poetic versions of some of Wicca’s most moving pieces, including the Charge of the Goddess. Much of what modern American Gardnerians use in ritual owes at least something to Doreen Valiente. She has written several works including The Rebirth of Witchcraft in 1989. This book forms the core of many Wiccan covens’ historical data, as it is written in a no-nonsense manner by a person who was actually there.

On September 1, 1999, Doreen Valiente passed into the Summer Lands from her home in Brighton, UK.

This history would not be complete without a short recounting of the controversy that still exists within the Wiccan community over whether Gerald Gardner actually received this religion from those who came before him, or whether he made it all up out of whole cloth. The truth may never be known, but research continues. One of the most prominent, and perhaps notorious, of the researchers was Dr. Aidan A. Kelly. Kelly performed research on Gardner’s library at Ripley’s in Toronto during the early 1970’s. He concluded that all of the material present in the current Book of Shadows could be traced to other sources that were in Gardner’s library. Writing of his work in Crafting the Art of Magic Book I, published in 1991, he presented a side-by-side comparison of current BoS material with that from a book found in Gardner’s library entitled “Ye Bok of Ye Art Magical,” which Kelly claimed was a manuscript of the BoS. His work has been blasted by more conservative Gardnerians, and another researcher, Donald H. Frew III of California, has found evidence that certain works Kelly claimed were in Gardner’s library were in fact not there. Thus, the contoversy remains.

Most Wiccans, if asked, will answer that it doesn’t matter. Wicca is a genuine, fulfilling religion, whether it is 10,000 years old, or was invented last Tuesday.

-Robert James, originally writing under the name BlackHawk, HP, Dragon’s Weave
Copyright© 1996

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