Witchcraft has been a mysterious part of the occult for many centuries. Known in modern times as Wicca, a nature-based religion, witchcraft has survived, evolving despite doubt and fear. Wicca can be considered a useful resource in contemporary women’s identities because, for centuries, Wicca has given women a sense of power and divinity. To understand the reasons for this notion, one must look to the history surrounding women and witchcraft, the differences between traditional, patriarchal religions and Wicca, the view of the witch in popular culture, and Wicca’s rituals.
The word ‘witch’ in Old English meant “one who casts a spell. ” (Simpson and Roud 2000, p 395) This encompassed those using any type of magic, good or bad. However, in most contexts, ‘witchcraft’ means using magic to harm. Folklore has contained the fear of witchcraft throughout history. In the fifteenth century, it was considered dangerous enough to prosecute individuals who practiced witchcraft. This was done because it was believed that witches had a pact with the devil.
In 1542, witchcraft was first declared a crime in English law. The crime no longer existed when the Witchcraft Act was repealed in 1736. From that point on, the fear of witches was considered ‘superstitious. ‘ (Simpson and Roud 2000) Modern witchcraft, or Wicca, was founded by Gerald Gardner. Gardner was introduced to the occult in 1936, and joined a witch’s coven in 1939. A few years later in 1946, Gardner published a novel which described witchcraft’s beliefs and rituals.
Gardner depicted witchcraft as worshiping a goddess first and a god second, putting emphasis on the female, forming in covens governed by a high priestess, and believing in reincarnation. The Folk Lore Society, however, dismissed Gardner’s accounts, claiming that Gardner’s depiction of witchcraft was totally unlike the traditional English witchcraft beliefs. Despite this claim, Gardner’s description is the most widely accepted image of witchcraft today. (Hutton 1999)