History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft

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Ethan Doyle White
  • East Sussex, United Kingdom: 
    Sussex Academic Press
    , December
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Although its birth was quite recent, Wicca is nowadays a particularly dynamic religious movement. In Wicca. History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Ethan Doyle White, archaeologist and researcher in Pagan studies at University College London, offers a general portrait of this tradition by summarizing writings of both practitioners and academic scholars.

After an introduction that concentrates mainly on terminology (the etymology of the word “Wicca” itself and the notion of “Witchcraft” to designate it) and the way in which Wicca is conceptualized (as a “Pagan,” “nature-based,” and “occult” movement), the book is divided into three parts. The first part, “Wiccan History,” focuses on the development of the Wiccan movement, from its creation in Great Britain during the late 1940s to its transnationalization in the rest of the world in the 1960s. Wicca was founded by Gerald Brousseau Gardner (1884-1964), a former colonial official, after his return to England (chapters 2 and 3). Passionate about esotericism, Gardner shaped his own “magico-religious” system (5) by combining several pseudo-historic, cosmological, and ritual elements, including the theory of a Palaeolithic fertility cult that had remained clandestine throughout history; Aleister Crowley’s ceremonial magic; and Freemasonry, Spiritualism, and the teachings of the Theosophical Society. While growing locally during Gardner’s lifetime, Wicca was also spreading internationally, due to two factors: the migration of British practitioners to other countries, mainly in the United States and Australia, and the publication of the first guides to the tradition, allowing individuals to self-initiate (chapters 4 and 5). Under the massive influx of feminist, gay, and ecological activists, Wicca took on its current form in the 1970s and 1980s  (chapter 6). It is now a magical religiosity that focuses on nature and is divided into different branches, according to their origins (such as “Gardnerian Wicca,” which claims a direct lineage to Gardner), membership (with certain groups restricted to only women or gay men), and theological orientations (such as “Reclaiming Witchcraft,” a form of feminist “ecospirituality”). From the 1990s on, Wicca gained in popularity, particularly among teenagers, through the success of movies and TV shows about Witchcraft, the release of additional self-initiation guides, and the increasing use of the Internet to share information about Witchcraft (chapter 7).

The second part of the book, “Belief and Praxes,” presents central elements of the cosmological and ritual Wiccan system. As a magical religion, Wicca is based on two principles: the use of magic, which allows practitioners to manipulate natural energies for various purposes by using ritual techniques and morality ethics (chapters 8 and 11), and the veneration of a divine couple, the “Great” or “Horned God” and the “Great Goddess” (chapter 9). Wicca relies on two types of organizational modalities: those who practice in groups (called “covens”) under the direction of a “High Priest” and/or a “High Priestess”; and solitary practitioners (chapter 10). Wiccan ritual practices are very diverse: magic rituals focused on various intentions; seasonal celebrations that follow the Wiccan liturgical calendar (the “Wheel of the Year”); and rites of passage that highlight births, unions, deaths, or any other important events (chapters 12, 13 and 14).

The third part of the book, “Wiccan Life,” discusses the major sociocultural characteristics of Wiccan community, now well established all over the globe. Through a review of scholarly literature, the process of “how” and “why” people convert to Wicca is detailed (chapter 15). Even if their spiritual trajectories are always singular, it seems that practitioners turn to this tradition for similar reasons: the worship of a female divinity, harmony with Nature, and the power of liberation and personal growth underpinning the use of magic. Other aspects of Wiccan community are also discussed: the number of Wiccan people and their socio-demographic profiles; the presence of Wicca online; its different legal status according to national contexts; and various manifestations of Wiccan culture, such as music, humor, or festivals (chapters 16 and 17). The book concludes with an overview of the study of Wicca that looks back at the first research on the Wiccan movement to its more recent development (chapter 18).

Structured around a solid framework and synthetic chapters, Doyle White’s book is an excellent introduction to Wicca that focuses on all of its essential aspects. Written in very clear language, accessible to neophytes and non-native English-speaking readers, it is marvelously well-referenced, with the position of their authors (practitioners or scholars) clearly stated. At the beginning of the book, Doyle White indicates that he would like to offer students, researchers, and curious readers an academic guide to Wicca: he completely won his bet by making this book a must-have resource for anyone interested in Wicca.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicolas Pierre Boissière is a doctoral candidate and lecturer in religious studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada.

Date of Review: 
December 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ethan Doyle White is an established Pagan studies scholar and trained archaeologist currently engaged in an interdisciplinary MPhil/PhD project in Early Medieval Studies at University College London (UCL).


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