Wicca & Paganism

witches“Many seek the true Gods … in dark rooms, arcane stud­ies, ferocious secrecy. If they reach their true goal they will find themselves standing in the sun under a clear blue sky, on the banks of a river—5000 years ago—sing­ing and dancing for joy, heart brimming with love …”

— Harold Moss

Wicca is closely related to Neo-Paganism, and the histories of the two movements overlap considerably. However, the two are also distinguishable. According to religious studies scholar, Jo­anne Pearson, Wicca is at once central to and on the margins of Neo-Paganism (as well as on the margins of the occult). For this reason, Neo-Druid elder Isaac Bonewits described British Tradi­tional Wicca as “Meso-Paganism,” in contrast to Neo-Pagan­ism.

Wicca is an initiatory mystery religion that blends esoteric ritual forms with pagan mythology and Witchcraft folklore. Com­mon characteristics of a Wiccan tradition include duothe­ism, gender polarity, eight seasonal “sabbats,” ritual drawn from ceremonial magic—including casting a circle and calling the quar­ters—and the practice of magic or “magick.” Wicca was founded in England by Gerald Gardner in 1951 and was im­ported to the East Coast of the United States in 1963. Gardnerian and Gardnerian-derived forms of Wicca (called “British Tradi­tional Wicca”) are initiatory traditions, which means that a per­son has to be initiated by a “coven” in order to become Wiccan.

When British Traditional Wicca was imported to the United States, it was transformed by some into an eclectic “Neo-Wicca,” which was heavily influenced by the Counterculture, feminism, the environmental movement, Jungian psychology, and the mythol­ogy of poet, Robert Graves. Wiccan mythology and ritual forms were adopted by American Neo-Pagan groups that began emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s independently of Brit­ish Traditional Wicca. For a number of reasons, including market­ing decisions made by publishers of Neo-Pagan books and the adoption of Neo-Wiccan ritual forms by influential Neo-Pagan organizations like the Church of All Worlds and the Cove­nant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS), Wicca came to be conflated with Neo-Paganism. Only later did some Neo-Pagans begin to consciously differentiate themselves from Wiccans.

Neo-Paganism is distinguishable from British Traditional Wicca in that it is:

  • eclectic, rather than traditional
  • open, rather than initiatory
  • more celebratory than esoteric
  • distinctly environmentalist/ecological

One thing that distinguishes British Traditional Wicca from Neo-Pagans is the degree of influence of esoteric traditions like the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.). “Esotericism” (also called “occult­ism”) refers to a nexus of related quasi-religious move­ments, the common trait of which is the notion that secret or hid­den knowledge is available only to a small, elect group and only through intense study. This knowledge often takes the form of a system of hidden correspondences between levels of reality. Brit­ish Traditional Wicca is rooted in this esoteric tradition. Neo-Pagan­ism inherited some elements of esotericism from Wicca, but tends to de-emphasize them. Neo-Paganism tends to be more nature-oriented and celebratory than British Traditional Wicca.


In their survey of Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern Amer­ica (1987), Robert Ellwood and Harry Partin distinguished esoteric Wiccan groups from nature-oriented Neo-Pagan groups:

“The former are the more antiquarian; they love to dis­cuss editions of old grimoires, and the complicated histo­ries of groups and lineages. They delight in precise and fussy ritualism, though the object is the evocation of in­tense emotional power …

“The pagan nature-oriented groups are more purely roman­tic; they prefer woodsy settings to incense and they dance and plant trees. They are deeply influenced by Rob­ert Graves, especially his White Goddess. They are less concerned with evocation than celebration of the god­desses they know are already there. The mood is spon­taneous rather than precise, though the rite may be as beautiful and complex as a country dance.”

Elsewhere, Ellwood distinguished “occult groups,” which “offer initiation into expanded consciousness through a highly struc­tured production of internal experiences and impartation of knowledge,” from Neo-Pagan groups, “that promote a new vi­sion of [humankind’s] relation to nature, the archetypes of the unconscious, and the passions.” According to Ellwood and Partin, Wicca exists in the middle ground between the esoteric groups and the nature-oriented Neo-Pagan groups. Similarly, Wouter Hanegraaff states that Wicca gradually and almost imper­ceptibly shades into non-Pagan esotericism.

According to the authors of a study of American Neo-Pagan social identities, Danny Jorgensen and Scott Russell, by the late 1970s “a thoroughly Americanized, increasingly visible, self-aware ‘Neopagan movement’ had emerged, distinct from British Traditional Wicca.” Writing in 1997, in We Emerge: The History of the Pagan Federation, James Pengelly et al. state that “exoteric Paganism” [i.e., Neo-Paganism] had come to stay and had “em­braced a constituency far beyond Wicca.” Three years later, in “Demarcating the Field: Paganism, Wicca, and Witchcraft,” Jo­anne Pearson stated: “The formative period for [Neo-]Paganism is now over. As [Neo-] Paganism has grown considerably in popu­larity, it has come to consider itself autonomous from Wicca.” Pearson concludes, “Although Wicca has been intri­cately bound up with the development of exoteric Paganism, there is increasing evidence of growing differentiation between the two.”

Updated 2019

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