“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.”