The Ancient Roots of Wicca

Table of Contents


  1. History and Philosophy of Witchcraft
  2. Beliefs
  3. Tools, Clothing, and Names
  4. Getting Started
  5. Covens and Rituals
  6. The Sabbats
  7. Meditations, Dreams, and the Minor Sabbats
  8. Marriage, Birth, Death, and Channeling
  9. Divination
  10. Herbalism
  11. Magick
  12. The Power of the Written Word
  13. Healing
  14. Getting Set Up
  15. Solitary Witches

History is static, even though it seems to be constantly changing. What really changes is our understanding of it as new scholarship discovers old truths, and theories are developed or abandoned. Some things, however, will always be lost to us and only best guesses will give us direction. The past is constantly shaping our future, and so it is important to have a firm grasp of our history as Wiccans. Doing so provides us with wisdom to fall back on in times of uncertainty, and it honors those who have given their time, knowledge, and lives to the Old Ways.

The Wiccan Myth

In Wicca, there is a romanticized history of an unbroken line of the ‘wise ones’ from the times of the paleolithic. Some claim that Wicca is descended all the way from the Gravettian people of 22,000+ years ago. This theory is often credited to Margarete Murray, but it was popular with several scholars from her time and before, but unlike the others, Dr. Murray’s theories came under visceral attack, which lead to much of her research being disputed, and her methods discredited. Since so much of her work was the basis for the early understanding of Wicca and its roots, our history and our legitimacy have always been under attack. Do not let that discourage you.

The legitimacy of Wicca comes from the merits of its tenets, and the spiritual fulfillment it provides to its practitioners. Our religion is still the “Old Religion”, and we can trace its roots back to the dawn of time, because we revere the nature that the oldest religions did, even if we do it differently, and even if that ‘unbroken line’ is, in reality, fragmentary. We worship the same Horned God of the Hunt and Mother Goddess of the Earth that early man did, and that every civilization since has. This idea is not one of historical fact, but of theological perspective, and we will explore that further in a future lesson. For now, it is important to bare this in mind as we explore the history of Witchcraft.

When our history comes under attack, remember that many religions hold on to false histories, or histories that can never be proven. Christianity has the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve. Catholicism believes that the line of Popes descended unbroken from St. Peter (despite 400 years between the birth of the Church and the time of St. Peter), Mormonism believes the Native Americans are the lost tribes of Israel, and the list goes on. When they defend their belief in ‘fuzzy’ history, they are not considered radical, and neither should Wiccans. The strength of Witchcraft, however, is that we are not bound by our history. We shrug our shoulders when our history is attacked because we are not bound by any ancient edicts or dogma. Ours is a modern, living, adapting religion.

The Old Religions

One of the earliest religions was called Animism, which is the belief that everything has a spirit. The wind, the river, the mountain, the bear, the squirrel, everything. Even abstract concepts such as leadership and hunting had spirits. We can see this in ancient cave paintings of horned figures and carvings of small figures. An important spirit to the early humans was the spirit of hunting, often depicted in cave paintings as a horned figure. This God of Hunting was revered, and rituals were performed before great hunts in the hope that he (and we base the idea of ‘he’ off the fact that typically only the male animals had horns) would show favor to the humans. And the so the God of Hunting or the Horned God became very important, and he shows up in many cultures in many forms, from Cernunnos to Pan to Freyja (who carries an antler).

The survival of the hunters and gatherers of the paleolithic times depended heavily on being able to reproduce, and on the reproduction of the herds they hunted. Like all other things, fertility also had an incarnation, and the Goddess of Fertility become important. Without her, without the Mother Goddess, the people and the animals would die out. The Mother Goddess is seen in ancient carvings of ivory and limestone, called the Venus figures, with exaggerated reproductive organs. As humans developed agriculture, this Goddess became even more important, and she is seen in every cultures, sometimes multiple times in the same culture, from Freya, to Demeter, to Isis.

Humans eventually developed the theory of the afterlife, and this can be seen especially in the Gravettians, who are some of the earliest known people to have practiced burials of the dead, often coloring them with red ochre and placing them in the fetal position, ready for a rebirth. One theory (of many) of how this concept was conceived is dreams: after death, a loved one appeared to be sleeping, and the people knew that when they slept, they dreamed. But to them, this dream world was not an imaginary place, but a real one, and upon death you left your body and stayed there. The God of the Hunt also became the God of Death and Rebirth. We can see that in Woden, Cernunnos, and Osiris.

As these early religions developed, they became more complex, and hierarchies of the spirits formed. The God of Hunting and the Mother Goddess usually took a place at the top, but as societies become more autocratic, the ‘head’ god often became a god of sovereignty and nobility, such as Odin or Jupiter, and the God of the Hunt remained in the wild. The Mother Goddess, however, maintained her status, from Frigga to Juno. As civilizations spread and changed and advanced, the roles of the Gods became ever more complex, and they were no longer simply the God of the Hunt or the Mother Goddess, but like humans, took up many facets. Thunor is a God of Protection and of the Harvest. Woden is a God of Death, Wisdom, War, Poetry, and much more.

At the lower end of the hierarchy the spirits of the land were seen on a more personal level. Essentially still animism, these spirits were known as Elves, Alfar, Dryads, Nymphs, Fae, and many other names. Although not necessarily elevated to what we might consider a ‘God’, these spirits were still divine. This idea that all things are divine, from the higher Gods to the common Spirits, is still a tenet of Wicca today.

The complexity of the spirit world meant that there would be those who could understand it better, and these people became priests of the divine Nature, known variably as shamans, medicine men, druids, etc. In Saxon times, they were known as the wicce (female) and wicca (male). We believe that we are priests of nature, and so we are known today as the (now gender-neutral) Wicca, or Witches in modern English (as opposed to Old English). The ability to take herbs and transfer their divine qualities to another, or the ability to commune with the spirits of the land, were defining features of this priesthood. These defining features, however, would be turned against them as Christianity became dominate and swept across Europe, and the witch trials began.