The origins of the modern Craft

It is a long running joke in many non-Wiccan quarters, ‘Wicca, an ancient religion since 1952’, but is that mocking sentiment true? It is certainly correct that this belief system came to the public’s attention in the 1950’s via the penmanship of retired civil servant Gerald B. Gardner, but did he actually invent Wicca as a new belief system?

Personally speaking, I don’t think Gardner invented a new religion as such, but he certainly drew together many aspects of ancient belief systems and fused them together for the modern world. It isn’t so much that Wicca is new, indeed some of its elements go back many thousands of years, it is simply that ancient beliefs have been drawn together and presented in a more contemporary way.

Any serious study of Wicca will immediately show that it is steeped in ancient Celtic and pre-Celtic traditions. What Wicca has done is to remove the more horrific aspects of ancient pagan belief, such as the practice of head hunting and human sacrifice. These were very much a part of the pre-Roman Druidic religion in the British Isles and have no place in the sophisticated modern world.

Whilst these old beliefs are steeped in the worship of nature and local sprites and gods, at the same time they are also steeped in far too much innocent blood. That of course can also be said for certain of the more established religions, who even now, in the twenty first century, continue to shed innocent blood in the name of religion. Wiccan's would not for a minute contemplate such fanatical horrors as they believe every individual finds their own unique path to the ultimate truth. They respect all other religions as being simply alternative paths to the eternal divine.

In times of Celtic inter-tribal warfare in the ancient past, the heads of the defeated dead enemy were hacked from their shoulders and all too often, so were the heads of captured prisoners, such was the veneration of the head in ancient Celtic society. Academics argue as to what the exact fascination with heads meant, but as there are no written records from pre-Roman Britain nobody can really say for sure. However, human skulls have been discovered in wells and rivers all over the Celtic world, suggesting a definite link with the element of water. To people in the modern world, it all seems rather barbarous, horrific and gruesome.

Some important Wiccan tools

In modern Wicca the black handled knife known as the Athame and the white handled Boline, could be seen as evocative reminders of a more bloodthirsty past, even if today they are purely ceremonial and are never used with harmful or malicious intent. Most Wiccans firmly believe that the Athame, which is usually associated with the element of Fire, is a purely ritual tool and should be blunt and not used to cut anything or draw blood.

However, there are also those who believe it should be sharp because it is a knife and is designed for that purpose, and given its past history should draw blood at least once. That to my knowledge is a minority view amongst Wiccans, although there is no reason why the knife itself should not be sharp whilst remaining unblooded. Many believe that as the Athame is used to channel one’s personal energy during the rituals of the Craft, it should never be blunted. What the Athame should definitely never have is a plastic handle. It should always be made from the products of nature and most are made from bone, wood, cord or leather. Never purchase a cheap Athame. Purchasing something of quality that will last a lifetime will give you better results and more personal satisfaction over time. If you have the technical ability, you can of course make your own Athame and Boline, and what could be more unique and satisfying than that?

The black handled Athame and the white handled Boline

The Boline, usually associated with the element of Air, is always sharp and used for any practical cutting purpose particularly in reference to herbal lore. It is also used to carve sigils and symbols within the circle. The Boline interestingly has its ancient origins in the Key of Solomon, a fact acknowledged by Gerald B. Gardner himself. As with the Athame, it should be of good quality and made from natural materials. Plastic is not conducive to the flow of energy and will insulate you from it, just as it insulates electricity in wiring. That kind of disconnection is not good for Wiccan ritual or any utilization connected with the Craft.

The Sword has obvious roots as a weapon in the ancient past and as such, has a blood soaked history. In modern Wiccan practice it is often used to cast a circle and to channel power and energy. It is mostly used by covens and out in the open. For more confined spaces the Athame is used. The Sword is generally associated with the element of Fire and represents divine justice. Again there is the blunt versus sharp debate, along with a little symbolic blood-letting. One thing that all would agree upon is that the Sword should never be used in a confined space, be it blunt or sharp, the potential dangers are just too great. Nobody wants an unintentional human sacrifice on their hands.

The Cauldron is a very interesting item used in Wiccan ritual and it is associated with the element of Water. Despite that, the Cauldron will often be used to contain fire when working outside and for holding candles when inside. A small version can often be seen upon an altar where it represents the element of Water. It is also used to hold water as a symbol of the Goddess and for the practice of scrying and divination. To the ancients the Cauldron was also a very important and magical artefact, and was associated with life and water symbolism, just as in modern Wicca. Water is a regenerative force, vital for the success of agriculture, and was seen as such by the ancients. It is no surprise that the water gods were powerful, widely worshipped and the recipients of human sacrifice.

In ancient times, the Cauldron also had a much darker and more sinister side. The Cimbri, a northern Germanic tribe, considered it as holy and would hang captured enemies above the Cauldron, slit their throats and bleed them dry into the receptacle. It was also not unknown for a human sacrifice to be drowned in a Cauldron. These cauldrons could be extremely large. One found in a Jutland bog had a capacity of some 600 litres. This ancient sacrificial use of the Cauldron gave the container the dual role of life and death, mirroring the element of water which can sustain life but also take it.

Druidic Ritual

Sacred groves were not just places of druidic ritual. They were often dark and fearsome temples that ran red with the blood of human sacrifices, who were brutally murdered to appease the gods. Many of these victims have turned up in ancient bogs where they have been extremely well preserved and often display signs of being bound, hit on the head, strangled and drowned.

Water held a real fascination for the ancients, lakes and rivers were seen as entrances to the underworld. Water itself was seen as the bringer of life and fertility to the land. It is no coincidence that many amazing archaeological finds over the years have been found in past and present bodies of water, where valuable items were ritually deposited. The story of King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake has its roots in these ancient beliefs. It is no coincidence that the sword Excalibur was thrown back into the lake from whence it came, after the death of Arthur.

Celtic belief was entwined in nature itself. It was a world full of gods and deities who were known by myriad names. Even natural features of the landscape were sanctified, right down to individual trees. The revival of Druidism in the modern world is a mere pastiche of what it once must have represented. Thankfully today it is more about hugging trees and watching the solstice sunrise at Stonehenge, than garrotting sacrificial victims and spiking their heads.

Modern Druidism is also very much based upon conjecture, as the original Druids themselves left no written records of their own. Theirs was a spoken religion, handed down through the ages by word of mouth and committed to memory. The only contemporary knowledge we have of the Druids and their practices was usually written by their enemies in the classical world, and anti-Druidic propaganda is definitely not the way to the truth.

The Heart of Wicca

At the heart of Wicca is the belief in the Goddess and the God who represent masculinity and femininity, but they also represent the dual aspects of existence and the balance of nature. This interestingly, sets up some fundamental conflicts in terms of the modern world’s acceptance of homosexuality. Some Wiccans accept it, some don’t but the justifications from each faction are certainly interesting to hear.

Many practitioners of Wicca also believe in a single unifying force within the universe of which the Goddess and God are earthly manifestations. It is often referred to as the ‘Source’, that great unknown of creation from which all that we know, and that which we are yet to know, originated. That unknowable entity is actually the basis of most of the world’s major religions, even if it is called by different names. Various pointless wars continue to be fought over which version of the supposed truth is correct.

The ancients believed in the power of the elements which is only natural for a society whose religion was born from the importance of the seasons to agriculture. It was quite literally a matter of life or death in the Neolithic period onwards. The sun and the sky were of extreme importance to the people of the Iron Age and the ancients knew that the world was always in motion. They observed it in the sun rising and setting, in the procession of the seasons of the year and in their own aging.

In Iron Age Britain this process was represented by the symbol of the wheel and in modern Wicca, we have the Wheel of the Year. The two are entwined and directly linked across the millennia. It is the drawing together of the ancient and the new in a great continuum.

The Wiccan 'Wheel of the Year'

Another crucial aspect of ancient belief was that of fertility and abundance. In Celtic belief Triplism was at the very centre and represented enhanced power and life itself. It is unclear exactly why the number 3 was such a potent symbol for the Celts, but it was well represented across the Celtic world. In modern Wicca we have the triple goddess represented as Maiden, Mother and Crone, the very cycle of life itself. Each year the Goddess is reborn and the cycle continues, it is a human way to look at the turning of the year and of our own passage through time.

The Horned God

In modern Christian belief the Devil is often portrayed as a goat headed, cloven hooved, zoomorphic manifestation of all that is evil and wicked. This was a deliberate attempt by the early Christian church to discredit the ancient beliefs that saw a zoomorphic entity with antlers or horns as a representation of all that was masculine, strong and fertile. The most famous Celtic representation was the stag-horned god Cernunnos, who represented prosperity, fertility and fecundity and also epitomised British and Gaulish woodlands. In modern Wicca the Horned God is strongly linked to Cernunnos and is to all intents and purposes, one and the same entity. From this ancient root we also get the modern entities of the Green Man, Jack in the Green and Herne the Hunter. The Wiccan Horned God is not wicked or evil or a representation of the Devil, that is an invention of the Christian church. It is simply a symbol of abundant life itself and of the great cycle of life, death and renewal that will continue until the end of life on Earth.

All the major ancient celebrations and the modern Wiccan Sabbats are shadowed by Christian celebrations and saints days. This was a deliberate act of the early church and made it much easier to convert pagans to Christianity. The Winter Solstice and Yule has become the modern Christian Christmas, Imbolc has become Candlemas, Ostara has become Easter, Beltane has become Walpurgis Night or May Day, the Summer Solstice became St. Johns Day, Lughnasadh became Loaf Mass - a Christianized harvest festival, and Samhain has become All Hallows Eve or that dreadful imported commercialized pastiche now called Halloween.


The one real aspect of Wicca which defines it to many is that of casting spells, and it is an aspect greatly misunderstood by those not initiated into the Craft. Wicca and Witchcraft are usually, but not exclusively, one and the same. They are usually two sides of the same coin. As soon as the word witchcraft is mentioned, people outside of Wicca tend to take an often negative view. Unfortunately they have been subtly indoctrinated by black propaganda over thousands of years, to view those who weave spells and make magick - and this has included those who merely concoct ancient remedies from herbal lore for the cure of afflictions and ailments - as being bad or evil and acting with dark satanic intent. It simply isn’t true.

Wiccan Craft ritual

All it really means is projecting energy in order to influence the future path of events. One of the basic tenets of Wiccan lore is that of three fold return. If magick is worked with negative intent to harm another person, it will come back to the spell weaver three times over. 


But let us not just focus on magick, which is only one aspect of the Wiccan belief system. Wicca is a nature religion and gives equal value to herb lore and natural healing along with divination, whether it is via the Tarot or some other manner. It all comes together in a way that promotes co-existence with the natural world in a sustainable way. It is about respecting nature as the mother of all living things on Earth. In that, Wiccans are in tune with the core beliefs of the ancients who understood that concept very well indeed, given their more intimate relationship to the land.

Wicca is a very peaceful and tolerant belief system it has never spawned crusades, witch hunts, burnings, inquisitions, ranting clerics or suicide bombers, and does not seek to impose its beliefs upon others at the point of a sword. What it does seek is a sense of harmony and tolerance amongst all people, and a respect for the planet that nurtures and sustains us. Wicca is free thinking and creative. It recognizes that we all travel our own path to the great unknown that awaits us all, as we complete our individual circles of life and enter the Summerland.

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©Copyright - James of Glencarr