Few spiritual paths have been so maligned, and for so long, as witchcraft. During the “burning times” in Europe and North America, tens of thousands of people — some accounts say millions, mostly women and girls — were executed as witches. Even today, many practicing witches hide their beliefs for fear of persecution.

An Anglo-Saxon word, wicca means wise. Some Wiccans and witches practice in groups or covens, but others observe their beliefs in a solitary fashion. Like the druids, Wiccans revere nature and attempt to live in harmony with the Earth and the cosmos. Although Wiccans observe certain customs, rituals, and practices, it is a flexible and living religion, with no dogma, no sacred texts, and no laws save one: Do no harm.

The eight Wiccan holidays, known as sabbats, mark the passage of the sun through the sky and are celebrated when the sun reaches certain degrees in the astrological calendar. These dates align with the old Celtic holy days:the solstices and equinoxes, and the cross-quarter days that fall halfway between these four spokes in what’s known as the Wheel of the Year.

Magic is central to the practice of witchcraft. When casting spells, witches work with the forces of nature, with divine powers, and with their own inner wisdom. Wiccan magic relies heavily on symbolism. An object may represent a person or an intention. An herb might symbolize a particular emotion, and a candle of a certain color could stand for a desired outcome. The person casting the spell imbues the symbols with power.

Although many people erroneously connect witchcraft with black magic, Wiccans are less likely than non-witches to practice the black arts because they understand the boomerang effect of misusing power. As the Wiccan Rede states, “What ye send forth comes back to thee.” Like their ancestors in pre-Christian Europe, today’s Wiccans focus on magic that involves healing, protection, the knowledge of plants, and divination through the tarot, astrology, runes, a pendulum, or other oracles.

A New Look at an Old Religion

Wicca is actually a new religion based on an old one. Its heritage dates back to the “Old Religion” of pre-Christian Europe, especially that of the early Celts. Its roots also dig deeply into prehistoric times and the ancient fertility goddesses worshiped by Paleolithic peoples. However, Wicca itself developed in the twentieth century and gained a following during the 1960s and 1970s as feminism emerged. Like all belief systems, Wicca continues to evolve, and various branches, each with somewhat different views, already exist.

Although Wicca is a pagan religion, not all pagans are witches. Originally, pagan was a derogatory term used by Christians to describe country people who upheld the old religions. Generally speaking, pagans take a polytheistic view of divinity and recognize the sacred in nature. Additionally, Wiccans consider themselves witches, but not all witches are Wiccans.

“Spells … go one step further than most forms of psychotherapy. They allow us not only to listen to and interpret the unconscious, but also to speak to it, in the language it understands.” — Starhawk

Revering the Goddess

Perhaps the main reason for Wicca’s rapid growth is that it’s one of the few spiritual paths that honors both feminine and masculine deities. For women, many of whom were raised in patriarchal religions, Wicca offers balance and equality. “In Wicca, the Goddess is seen as the creator of all that is,” explains Debbie Michaud in The Healing Traditions & Spiritual Practices of Wicca. “She represents the power of the feminine, and a way to connect to all life on this planet.”

The Goddess is depicted in three aspects — maiden, mother, and crone — that signify the three phases of womanhood. Wiccans also see Mother Earth as a manifestation of the Goddess. God, the masculine principle, is considered to be the Goddess’s equal and is often viewed as her consort; both energies must be present for wholeness to exist. The Goddess is linked with the moon, the God with the sun. Many Wiccan rituals and sabbats are based on the changing relationships between the Earth and these heavenly bodies.

A male witch is not called a warlock (a Scottish term that means “oath breaker”). Instead, he is also a witch. Although women outnumber men in Wicca, men are welcome and even encouraged to follow this spiritual path. Some covens are headed by both a high priestess and a high priest.

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