Thursday, January 29, 2009

From Witchcraft to Wicca in Two Easy Decades

Several years ago, an enthusiastic new seeker introduced herself on one of the Houston Pagan lists, expressing interests in Wicca and Egyptian mythology and looking for some direction. Before anyone who actually gave a shit could offer so much as a book recommendation (Circle of Isis by Ellen Cannon Reed, in case you were curious), our Self-Proclaimed Grandmaster of All Things Occult spoke up:

"Wicca is a made-up religion. Gerald Gardner invented it."

Now, a good chunk of the list members identify as Wiccan, so I expected some sort of negative response to this statement. Instead, it was an almost unanimous, "Yep, pretty much, what he said, case closed." The few people who attempted to offer alternative perspectives were quickly shot down, the degree of vitriol utilized dependent upon their individual histories of dissent.

As you may have guessed, an upcoming point in our continuing discussion will involve Wicca as everyone's favorite metaphysical whipping boy. But before we delve into that hot mess, I think it's important to understand how a practice originally described as Witchcraft ended up with the name Wicca.

The word "wicca" made its first modern print appearance way back in 1891, as an etymological footnote in Charles Godfrey Leland's Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling:

"As the English word witch, Anglo-Saxon Wicca, comes from a root implying wisdom, so the pure Slavonian word vjestica, Bulgarian, vjescirica (masculine, viestae), meant originally the one knowing or well informed, and it has preserved the same power in allied languages, as Veaa (New Slovenish), knowledge, Vedavica, a fortune-teller by cards, Viedma (Russian), a witch, and Vedwin, fatidicus."

Margaret Murray, the next author to write about Witchcraft as pre-Christian religion, never used the word "wicca" at all in her works (although as an Egyptologist, she probably would have enjoyed Circle of Isis, too). Instead, she consistently referred to the "Witch Cult," as did Gerald Gardner when he began writing on the subject in the late 1940's.

Gardner wrote five books during his life: three about Witchcraft, two of which were non-fiction. The first, his novel High Magic's Aid...

...I have to interrupt myself here. If you've never read this book, it's worth checking out, if only for its historical significance. And the fact that anyone who was that bad at composing hideous, faux-medieval dialogue more than likely did not have the wherewithal to create a supposedly "ancient" religion out of whole cloth. Seriously. But back to what I was saying...

... his novel High Magic's Aid described a secret brotherhood of Witches (no mention of "wicca"), while his next book, Witchcraft Today, detailed his personal speculations on the history of the modern Witch cult, specifically the one into which he'd been initiated.

This is where things get a little confusing. But stay with me.

In general, Gardner referred to the people who initiated him as Witches, although he sometimes called them "The Wica." Critics often latch onto this as a spelling error, citing that he probably meant to say "The Wicca," and that's certainly a workable theory... except that in his following book The Meaning of Witchcraft, Gardner does use the word "wicca" a total of five times when discussing the etymology of the word "witch," just as Leland had done. Five times, compared to mentioning "The Wica" 17 times in the same book and three previous times in Witchcraft Today. The possibility of spelling errors aside, it seems clear that Gardner saw a distinction between the Anglo-Saxon wicca and "The Wica" of his tradition.

So how did we get from "The Wica" to Wicca?

Proofreading, apparently.

In 1970, transcripts of a series of lectures given by Alex Sanders were circulated among students of the Alexandrian tradition. In this series, Sanders talked extensively about being one of "The Wicca"; whether by Sanders or his scribe, the debatable "spelling error" had been corrected. In 1971, Stewart Farrar, himself an initiate of Sanders, compiled these lectures, added his own thoughts and experiences, and published the now-classic What Witches Do, in which he used Wicca (no "the") and Witchcraft interchangeably.

The name stuck. And so we find ourselves today.

This is why I get so apoplectic when the local know-it-alls blather on about how "Gardner invented Wicca." Gerald Gardner was just a Witch. Alex Sanders and Stewart Farrar, though, now they invented Wicca.


Siobhan said...

Just to be ABSOLUTELY clear that I get this:

1. Gardner did NOT invent the religion now known as Wicca

2. The religion now known as Wicca was based on Gardner's books

3. Someone else called it Wicca

And my WVW is "restor". Awesom.

Evn said...

1. Correct.

2. More on what was known of his practices than on his published books, but other than that, correct.

3. Correct.

Evn said...

Oh, and "restor" = most appropriate WVW ever.

Livia Indica said...

Even if Gardner, or Sanders or Farrar invented Wicca I've never found that to be a good reason to write it off. Every religion was made up at some point.

miakoda said...

Interesting ... I've been watching the 'net chatter about Wiccans leaving the path with a strange fascination akin to staring at a train wreck in progress. As a non-W, I'm looking forward to hearing your perspective on all this.

Entertaining and enlightening. You win, sir!

Deborah said...

In an (excellent) essay that includes a long aside about a spelling error, you should be well and truly embarrassed to have misspelled Stewart Farrar's name.

Evn said...

Well, fuck. Let me fix that right now.

Pitch313 said...

a.) I don't think that Gardner (or any other single person) "invented" Neo-Pagan Witchcraft or Wicca. But I do think that a relatively small set of various people in the recent past did.

b.) "Wica" may not be a spelling error, exactly. what if Gardner heard the word spoken but never saw it in writing. Then "Wica" would be an effort to indicate how the word sounded using the everyday English alphabet.

"Wicca" was probably the word spoken. But we from later can't be absolutley certain that this is the case. It might have been a different yet similar sounding word.

Evn said...

what if Gardner heard the word spoken but never saw it in writing.

Pitch, that's certainly a possibility. At the same time, he wrote in TMOW: "There is no work in French exactly corresponding to our 'witch', which in the original Anglo-Saxon possessed two forms, 'wicca', (masculine), and 'wicce', (feminine)." So if anything, he was familiar with the word in written form.

Siobhan said...

Every religion was made up at some point.

Not only is this absolutely true, but I also have a personal pet peeve about assuming that "the ancients" had all the wisdom. I am fully willing to admit ancient knowledge has value when I feel it does, but we can't forget that "the ancients" kept slaves and "the ancients" stoned people to death (ok, "the moderns" do that too, but you get my point).

Bo said...

In Old English it is of course pronounced with a 'ch' - witch-a, witch-eh, not wickah, wickeh.
('witch' is just the middle and modern english spelling of OE wice. Same word, in the same way that hus is house, and hlaf is loaf, etc.)

Evn said...

In Old English it is of course pronounced with a 'ch' - witch-a, witch-eh...

Exactly. While Gardner's "Wica" seems to have been pronounced "wickah", and he seems to have understood the difference between the two.

That said...

(And we're bad people; we realize this.)

...Whenever a Pagan pops up on one of the lists and refers to him/herself as a "Real Wytche," Co-Witch A. and I call each other and go, "WHEEEEEEEEchah! (jazz hands)."

And then we laugh until we can't breathe.

Again, we're very, very bad people.

Le Cornichon said...

Yup, I think just like the historical changes of Hindu Buddhist, Sumerian, Greek , Roman and early Christian (etc. etc. etc.) sects -or cults as they like to say- had different names for centeralized belief variations, usually on the same theme, there have been (and will continue to be) a lot of changes in exactly what practices and beliefs fall under the accepted "Wiccan" category, its inevitable some one is goung to step forward and say "so and so invented this or that" Obviously simply putting a name to it and actually creating it are of course two very different things. It's like the person who first coined the term "Christianity" certainly didn't invent that particular mix of pagan and possibly personal teachings of Jesus. And Buddha. And Mithra. And... Don't get me started! (hands on hips, tapping one foot)

Pitch313 said...

It just makes me wonder, if Garnder knew the Anglo-Saxon words and spellings, why did he write

Was he being coy or cute or trying to mislead? I mean, if I were trying to spell out the word "wicca" after I'd only hear it, I'd probably get a "CH" in there.

Whatever. We're "Wiccans" now!

Evn said...

Gardner claimed the "Wica" spelling came from the Witches who initiated him. Where they got it is anyone's guess. (I want to say Philip Heselton has some thoughts on it, but I'll have to go back and re-read his books to confirm.)

Yvonne Rathbone said...

Someone recently told me that the fact that the word "Zeus" is related to Latin "Deus" proves the Greeks worshiped the Christian God. Sigh. Words. What are they, anyway?

Siobhan said...

You ARE a tease, because I check every day for the next installment, and it's not here yet.

This is not the time for me to be practicing my patience.

Evn said...

It'll be up soon, I promise! Just had an ├╝ber-busy weekend.

Siobhan said...

excuses, excuses.

I guess I'll get back to practicing my patience.

Evn said...

Practice makes perfect. ;)