In prehistoric times, people respected the great forces of Nature and celebrated the cycles of the seasons and the moon. They saw divinity in the sun and moon, in the Earth Herself, and in all life. The creative energies of the universe were personified: feminine and masculine principles became Goddesses and Gods. These were not semi-abstract, superhuman figures set apart from nature: they were embodied in earth and sky, women and men, and even plants and animals.
This viewpoint is still central to present-day Wicca. To most Wiccans, everything in Nature -- and all Goddesses and Gods -- are true aspects of Diety. The aspects most often celebrated in the Craft, however, are the triple Goddess of the Moon (Who is Maiden, Mother and Crone) and the Horned God of the wilds. These have many names in various cultures.
Wicca had its organized beginnings in Paleolithic times, co-existed with other Pagan ('country') religions in Europe, and had a profound influence on early Christianity. But in the medieval period, tremendous persecution was directed against the Nature religions by the Roman Church. Over a span of 300 years, millions of women and many children were hanged, drowned or burned as accused 'Witches'. The Church indicted them for black magic and Satan worship, though in fact these were never a part of the Old Religion.
The Wiccan faith went underground, to be practiced in small, secret groups called 'covens'. For the most part, it had stayed hidden until very recent times. Now scholars such as Margaret Murray and Gerald Gardner have shed some light on the origins of the Craft, and new attitudes of relgious freedom have allowed covens in some areas to risk becoming more open.
How do Wiccan folk practice their faith today? There is no central authority or doctrine, and individual covens vary a great deal. But most meet to celebrate on nights of the Full Moon, and at eight great festivals or Sabbats throughout the year.
Though some practice alone or with only their families, many Wiccans are organized into covnes pf three to thirteen members. Some are led by a High Priestess or Priest, many by a Priestess/Priest team; others rotate or share leadership. Some covens are highly structured and hierarchical, while others may be informal and egalitarian. Often extensive training is required before initiation, and coven membeship is considered an important commitment.
There are many branches or 'traditions' of Wicca in the United States and elsewhere, such as Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Welsh Traditional, Dianic, Faery, Seax-Wica and others. All adhere to a code of ethics. None engage in the disreputable practices of some modern 'cults', such as isolating and brainwashing impressionable, lonely young people. Genuine Wiccans welcome sisters and brothers, but not disciples, followers or victims.
Coven meetings include ritual, celebration and magick (the 'k' is to distinguish it from stage illusions). Wiccan magick is not at all like the instant 'special effects' of cartoon shows or fantasy novels, nor medieval demonolgy; it operates in harmony with natural laws and is usually less spectacular -- though effective. Various techniques are used to heal people and animals, seek guidance, or improve members' lives in specific ways. Positive goals are sought: cursing and 'evil spells' are repugnant to practitioners of the Old Religion.
Wiccans tend to be strong supporters of environmental protection, equal rights, global peace and relgious freedom, and sometimes magick is used toward such goals.
Wiccan beliefs don not include such Judeo-Christian concepts as original sin, vicarious atonement, divine judgement or bodily resurrection. Craft folk believe in a beneficient universe, the laws of karma and reincarnation, and divinity inherent in every human being and all of Nature. Yet laughter and pleasure are part of their spiritual tradition, and they enjoy singing, dancing, feasting, and love.
Wiccans tend to be individualists, and have no central holy book, prophet or church authority. They draw inspiration and insight from Nature, tradition, the arts, literature, science, and personal experience. Each pracititoner keeps a book or journal in which s/he records magickal 'recipes', dreams, invocations, songs, poetry and so on.
To most in the Craft, every relgion has its own valuable prespective on the nature of Diety and humanity's relationship to it: there is no One True Faith. Rather, religious diversity is necessary in a world of diverse societies and individuals. Because of this belief, Wiccan groups do not actively recruit or proselytize: ther is an assumption that people who can benefit from the Wiccan way will 'find their way home' when the time is right.
Despite the lack of evangelistic zeal, many covens are quite willing to talk with interested people, and even make efforts to inform their communities about the beliefs and practices of Wicca. These books may be of interest: (Ask your librarian.)
Witchcraft Today by Scott Cunningham
Drawing Down the Moon by Margot Adler
The Spiral Dance by Starhawk
Positive Magic by Marion Weinstein
What Witches Do by Stewart Farrar
Witchcraft for Tomorrow by Doreen Valiente