Wicca and witchcraft are part of a larger contemporary religious movement called paganism (or sometimes neo-paganism). There can be some confusion when using the terms witchcraft or Wicca because not all practitioners agree about what these mean. For some, the terms are synonymous. For others,Wicca is but one version of witchcraft referring to those structured traditions that are directly associated with the British traditions begun by Gerald Gardner and Alex Sanders.
Witchcraft and Wicca, as pagan religions, draw on myths and traditions attributed to pre-Christian Europe. Of particular influence are nature-based practices (cyclical festivals based on agriculture, moon cycles, herbal healing), occult practices (divination and magic), and mythology about ancient deities with a focus on the goddess (or goddesses) as primary in a pairing with a less emphasized god (or gods). Deity is also immanent, rather than transcendent. This means that the goddess is right here within the natural world. In fact, the earth is said to be the body of the goddess. What is meant by the natural world is everything on and in the earth-including humanity. The goddess is not understood as some otherworldly being, inaccessible and distant. She is believed to be within each and every one of us-as is the god-in our very physical bodies. This idea implies that all of the natural world-including humanity-is sacred and needs to be treated as such. Thus, many witches tend to be involved in ecological movements and political action against racism, homophobia, sexism, and such. The largest pagan group today is Wicca, which began in Britain in the 1940s and 1950s when civil servant Gerald Gardner began reviving what he believed to be an ancient religious system maintained in secret from the Stone Age until the present. As part of the modern pagan movement,Wicca was influenced and shaped by a Western magical or mystery tradition that has spanned Western history.
One of the highly significant influences on modern paganism in general, and the development of Wicca in particular, is the Romantic Movement of the 1800s. It was during this time that many Europeans and Americans turned to exalting nature, the irrational, and the feminine as understood and admired in ancient Greece. It was during the Romantic period that the classical goddesses of Greece and Rome were transformed from goddesses of civilization (the city, learning, justice, etc.) to aspects of one great goddess of nature.
Along with the romanticizing of nature and the goddess, came a popularization of occultism, which was due largely to the French scholar Eliphas Levi's work beginning in the 1850s. Levi blended mystical traditions such as the Kabbala, Tarot, and ancient Egyptian systems of magic, along with the traditions of the Knights Templar and the mysteries of the Holy Grail. Gardner's construction of Wicca in the 1940s and 1950s brought together these existing traditions and practices to create a new religion. This new religion has new members go through various initiation rituals through which they gain secret knowledge at each of three levels. Those at the top levels, high priestesses and high priests, have authority over those below them and are charged with the spiritual guidance of those in their coven (ritual group). With the help of Doreen Valiente, one of Gardner's high priestesses, Gardner's new religion became increasingly popular in Britain as a revived "indigenous" magical tradition.
Though there were pagan groups early on in the history of the United States, paganism and witchcraft began gaining popularity there when Wicca traveled from Great Britain to the United States. In the United States and Canada, witchcraft became more eclectic (that is drawing from multiple and varied ancient and occult traditions) and less structured than it had been in Britain. This is not to say that there are not traditional Wiccan covens operating in North America. However, Wicca and paganism in general gained popularity largely in countercultural groups that disdained hierarchy and structure. These groups, such as environmentalists, anarchists, feminists, and pacifists, took the principles, mythologies, and ritual practices of Wicca and removed the hierarchical, initiatory structure to create new traditions and nontradition-affiliated covens, often claiming the name witchcraft rather than Wicca. It is also in North America where solitary witchcraft (practicing without a coven) gained numbers.
In North America, witchcraft has often been closely associated with contemporary goddess spirituality, which grew out of the feminist critique of the Judeo-Christian,Western religious tradition. The main criticism of this tradition was that it is patriarchal and, as such, perpetuates social systems which devalue women. The Judeo-Christian tradition is based on dualisms that posit an essential opposition between male and female, spirit and earth, mind and body, and light and dark and rank these opposites so that male, spirit, mind, and light are considered to be superior to female, earth, body, and dark. This is evident, it is said, in the figure of the "Father God"-the masculine divine. It also shows up in practices such as keeping women from positions of authority within churches and synagogues. Many feminists who make this criticism choose to look for examples of female divinity from various traditions and incorporate these images into new religious traditions to fit North American (mostly urban) contexts-religions that focus on the female.
The term witch is often used as a symbol of defiance in the face of the deliberate destruction by mostly Christian officials and state authorities of women of power, women who had knowledge of the earth and the body, and women who were midwives and herbalists. To use the term witch as a positive image is, then, to take the history of the mistreatment and subjugation of women and turn it on its head. It is to proclaim loudly that, yes, women do have power and, no, it is not evil. Because of this female focus, many think witchcraft is only for women. Contrary to this opinion, there are many men involved in witchcraft who find the need for a shift in the power dynamics of Western society. Many of these men realize that fighting the subjugation of women is not just a "women's issue," that all are affected when women and men are set in opposition to one another.
Witchcraft and Wicca have become increasingly popular in North America through television, movies, and popular press. Teenage girls are particularly attracted to these traditions, largely because they allow for a female self-identity that is strong, powerful, and holding spiritual authority, an identity that many girls do not find elsewhere.