Today, the meanings of the terms Wiccan, Witchcraft, Neopagan and pagan are quite blurred; there has even been a great deal of disputation (occasionally amounting to confusion) among scholars.
Pearson (2000) has with some success clarified the central issue: “Wicca, Paganism and witchcraft are not synonymous… despite their commonalities.” She has here drawn a distinction: “Wicca is esoteric, and Paganism is its exoteric manifestation.”
Wiccans have used “pagan” to identify people who were dedicated to the path of a nature-based religion, but who were without systematic initiation. In today’s society, however, the term “pagan” has been adopted by individuals and groups of such diverse practices and beliefs that there is little common ground. Yet that ground — the simple common factor of exclusion from the so-called “great” religions — has been insufficient to support a “pagan ethic” among those identifying themselves as pagan or neo-pagan (or Neopagan).
Introduced approximately half a century ago, Wicca draws its roots from the Western esoteric traditions. At the foundation of Wiccan belief is the premise that everything in the universe, both manifest and unmanifest, is inherently interconnected and that Spirit is both immanent and transcendent. Wiccans are both pantheistic and animistic. Many Wiccans believe in reincarnation, a cycle of life, death and rebirth.
As a religion, Wicca offers what all religions offer: a philosophy of life, a sense of the place of human beings in the cosmos, an understanding of our relationship with the plant and animal kingdoms of our planet and home, and a form of worship through which we can participate in the mysteries of the life force and fulfil our needs for shared human activity by doing this with others (Crowley, 1996, p. 3).
While Wiccans find the sacred in all of the universe, most localise immediate reverence in nature, the earth, the moon and the sun. They aggregate in circles when celebrating and worshipping in order to honour the cycle of life they perceive both in nature and in their own lives. Their holy days are taken to be rites of passage, marking the emblems of each cycle, solar and lunar events known respectively as “sabbats” and “esbats”.
Belief in free will and in the ability to affect this systemic universe leads to the belief in magic, generally defined by many in the Wiccan community as “the art of creating change in accordance with will” (Harrow, 1999, p. 110), or as “the art of changing consciousness at will” (Starhawk, 1982, p. 13).
As a mystery religion, Wiccan practices maximize the opportunity for the personal experience of the mysteries. The profound personal journey of self-realisation and conscious evolution performed by a Wiccan initiate is one of the highest forms of magical intention. Janet and Stewart Farrar sum it up well: “To the witch, self-development and the full realisation of one’s unique yet many-aspected potential are a moral duty” (1986, p. 136).
Initiation into increasingly deeper mysteries is done in stages, otherwise known as the degree system (frequently three-tiered). Vivianne Crowley, Wiccan priestess and psychologist, gets to the heart of the matter: “The Pagan mystery religions were systems through which their initiates came to understand the true nature of reality and also their own inner nature: who and what we really are. Through exposure to teaching, ritual and symbol, the doors of perception were opened; the windows of the soul were cleansed; and unto the initiate were revealed the mysteries of the Gods and of their own inner psyche: all they were and all they had the potential to be (1996, pp. 2-3).”
There is no centrally accepted theology or dogma in Wicca. Accordingly, individual Wiccans are encouraged to develop their own relationship with the divine. Most incorporate both polytheism and monotheism, drawing upon the myths and spirituality of multiple cultures. The divine is also seen by many as a multifaceted One (called by some the Goddess); others choose to interact with countless male and female facets of the divine One.
Within Wicca, many “paths” are recognised, including Traditional Wicca (e.g., Gardnerian, Alexandrian, Hereditary), feminist Witchcraft (e.g., Reclaiming, Dianic), eclectic Wicca, and solo practitioners known as “solitaries”. It is clear, then that within Wicca there is extensive diversity; but there is enough common ground to build a value system, including regulatory ethics for Wiccan offices.