The Origins of the Wiccan Religion

In 1954, a retired British government worker named Gerald Gardner claimed that he had been initiated into an ancient nature religion based on pre-Christian European paganism. The practitioners of this religion were operating under the name New Forest Coven. Gardner set about to revive and repopularize this witchcraft religion by writing and publishing a book called “Witchcraft Today,” in which he reconstructed and rewrote the fragments of remaining ritual and lore from the New Forest Coven.

He referred to the religion as “witchcraft,” and to its adherents as “the Wica.” Gardner claimed that this latter term was introduced to him by existing members of the New Forest Coven, and that its use was what keyed him in on the possibility that “the Old Religion still existed.” He believed, as do many modern scholars, that this term derived from the Old English term “wicca,” which is the etymological predecessor to the modern term “witch.”

There is some debate as to the veracity of Gardner’s claims to having revived an original European matriarchal pagan religion. A few authors have argued that Gardner invented the rites and rituals of the Wiccanreligion from whole cloth, appropriating elements of known ancient religions and occultism as needed. However, most scholars agree that Gardner made his claims in good faith. It seems most likely that Gardner had actually been initiated into an early 20th-century revival of the Old Religion he sought, rather than a pure survival of an ancient European tradition.

Although he published the religion’s premises in order to preserve the Craft for future generations, Gardner saw “witchcraft” as a mystery religion that required initiation in order to be properly understood and practiced. A British expatriate named Raymond Buckland gained initiation into the new Wiccan rites from Gardner’s own coven, called the Isle of Man, and brought the teachings of this coven back to the United States. Wicca gained popularity rapidly in the United States, where a cultural and spiritual revolution was in progress.

Since the early 1960s, a variety of new incarnations of Wiccan-derived paganism have spread widely. Many of these have owed their origin to Gardnerian initiates who started their own covens and performed their own initiations. Other popular forms of Wiccan practice have derived from self-initiated practitioners and mystics who have created their own forms of nature religion based on the original published materials from Gardner and others. Today several such lineages and derivations of Garderian Wicca are in widespread practice around the world.