Wicca was founded by Gerald Gardner in Britain. We commonly give 1954 as the founding year because this is when Gardner published Witchcraft Today, his first non-fiction book on the subject. Some date it as early as 1939, the year Gardner claimed to have been introduced to the faith. Often, it’s just easier to say “mid-20th century” or “about 70 years ago.”
According to Gardner, he was initiated in 1939 into the New Forest Coven, where he helped reassemble fragmentary teachings of a much older religion. It is likely he joined some sort of group around that time, and it probably influenced him. however, there is no evidence that any group was teaching what Gardner went on to teach, nor that there has been a historical religion that resembles Gardner’s.
It’s well known today from where his primary influences came:
- 19th-20th century ceremonial magic, particularly that of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
- The ritual structures of masonry, also adopted by magical orders
- 19th century Romantic views on ancient pagan mythology
- Margaret Murray’s concept of an ancient, religious witch-cult
Wicca also bears some influence of older pagan (and non-pagan) traditions, but they are pieces – sometimes tiny pieces – fit together into new meanings and context. For example, Wicca recognizes Celtic holidays as its four Greater Sabbats, but the meanings, practices and overall framework are considerably different.
Wicca vs. Witchcraft
Gardner’s religion was initiatory, and Gardnerian Wicca continues to be today; if you’re not a member, you can’t participate. Other initiatory Traditions also emerged, and Gardner embraced them as being branches of the same Old Religion, even if they bore little resemblance to his own religion. This is one of the reasons why Wicca and witchcraft became synonymous early on: they were all seen as coming from a common source.
Not all of these groups, however, saw themselves as being similar to Gardner’s religion. Thus, Wicca and witchcraft slowly started to separate into different contexts. Eventually, groups considering their practices to be witchcraft further divided into those who worked magic, who remained witches, and those who practices were largely religious, which then went on to find other names for themselves.
Meanwhile, information that had entered the public sphere started attracting yet more believers who embraced Wicca even though they had not been initiated into any Tradition. These believers are now known as Eclectics, and they learn from books, the internet, and more informally from other Wiccans than those trained within a Tradition.
While most Wiccans accept Eclectics as legitimate Wiccans, they are still some Traditionalists who believe being Wiccan requires training and initation within a Tradition.