Today, almost every second person you come across is Wiccan or Pagan or something like that. I've been reading commentaries by some people that have been living Wicca for decades, and it got me thinking about what we young'uns who call ourselves Wiccan are actually doing. Hopefully when you've read this page you'll realise the same thing I realised without wasting all the time I did.
So, on with the story. This revival of Wicca we're a part of started in the 1960s with Gerald Gardner, really, and only actually took off in the 1970s with people like Starhawk and Janet & Stuart Farrar. So, all this publicity was great, but people wanted to know more about what Wicca was and even how they could get involved - and so in the 1990s the 'Wicca 101 How-To Book' was born. These are the Teen Witch and Wicca and Witchcraft for Dummies books - you know what I mean, the ones that give a broad introduction and go into a little detail, then kind of stop. At this point, I'm going to get a little off track and clarify something before we go on - by 101 How-To Books, I don't mean the early attempts to open up the basic concept of Wicca such as The Spiral Dance (by Starhawk, first published in 1979) - these were not how-to books, but real attempts to describe this Earth-based belief system that incorporated both a God and a Goddess. 101 How-To Books are the real blow-by-blow instruction manuals from the good people at publishers like The Idiot's Guide and, to a slightly lesser extent, Llewellyn - these are very useful for people that need somewhere to start, but they have their limits, as you'll see in a minute.
Now, back to the 101 How-To Books. In these, you read about the existence of the Goddess and the God and how to Draw Down the Moon and the Sun and then about the sabbats, writing and doing rituals and spells, some correspondences and there's also usually a little divination thrown in. This is all wonderfully useful in the practice (that is, the actual design and physical performance) of ritual and magick, but they omit something very important that I didn't even realise was missing until I started Shadows of Oz and read back through these books to get a starting point for the ~120 pages I currently have. When I started to try and explain to others what had originally been explained to me by these books, I finally asked myself the question: what am I writing about? What is Wicca, really?
It took a little while, but eventually it dawned on me - these 101 How-To Books told me plenty about writing ritual and casting spells, but almost nothing about the core religion rejuvenated by the Gerald Gardners and Raymond Bucklands of the mid-20th century. This form of Wicca was much more... intense (for lack of a better word). Let me explain what I mean when I say "more intense" - today's generally accessible, 101 How-To Book Wicca doesn't go a lot deeper than consecrating the shiny wand you just picked up at your local occult/metaphysical shop. This is a useful skill, but there's so much more than that!
Again, let me explain. Beyond the spells and chants, there is a religious component - a big one - in Wicca. The cycles of the Earth are a big part of this foundation, and as such Wicca is in an almost-unique position among the religions of the world to directly address some of the most basic, primal aspects of our existence, including birth, death and sex. You can't get away from these things, and within Wicca you can feel comfortable that they are a part of the cycle of life and as such should be celebrated. Through the Wheel of the Year, the eight sabbats tell the story of the birth of the God, his sexual union with the Goddess (the Great Rite) and finally death of the God before it starts all over again with his rebirth. That should have been a clue for me, but it never 'clicked' that Wicca was deeper and more profound than the 101 How-To Books told me. I can understand how that got watered down since the 50s and 60s - I imagine the real thing is a bit risquÃ© for the Complete Idiot's Guide type of publisher, and it's not very politically correct in today's Christianised world to celebrate sex because it's a source of energy and of pleasure as well as being necessary for life. For those of you that are horrified at the thought of sex being a normal, natural part of life and even something sacred, remember two things: the Charge of the Goddess, which tells us "all acts of love and pleasure are my rituals"; and that at the end of the day, humans are animals and sex is a necessary part of any animal's life cycle. Homo sapiens is a species biologically classified as a part of Kingdom Animalia and there's no getting away from that. Finally, let me stress that Wicca does not teach that it's okay to go around having sex with whoever you want, that everyone should have orgies or even that it's necessary to be sexually active in any way, shape of form to be Wiccan - just that sex should not be thought of as sinful or dirty or something like that (there's an excellent chapter on this whole issue in Practising the Witches' Craft - Real Magic Under a Southern Sky, by Douglas Ezzy).
Similarly, death and birth are difficult topics and so are also glossed over in the 101 How-To Books - though not to the same extent. Death isn't as problematic as birth, probably because of the two it's the most removed from the subject of sex. Everyone is touched openly by death at some point, and so it's the least taboo of the three Big Issues and therefore more acceptable to publishers (and authors). Nobody really wants to think about it, if we're honest, but we can openly discuss reincarnation and Summerland and those things (if you want a real, open Wiccan/Pagan discussion about death, read The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, by Starhawk, M. Macha NightMare and the Reclaiming Collective). Birth isn't so easy - that's a process also hidden away, to a certain extent, and it's also very closely linked to sex. We can have open caskets and things at funerals, but not many people want to openly confront birth in that way - probably partly because it's a very personal experience, and partly because it's been thought for for millennia as a kind of 'secret women's business'. The whole event takes place (usually) behind closed doors, and the result is celebrated more than the experience. It's fine to celebrate the existence of a new life, but the way that life got here (both the act that created it and the manner in which it eventually came into the world) aren't acknowledged as being equally important (there's an excellent Wiccan take on birth in Practising the Witches' Craft - Real Magic Under a Southern Sky). This is where Wicca, for me, gets out in front of the other mainstream religions - natural processes, like sex, birth and death, are celebrated as being a part of the natural cycle of our lives and for being vital to our survival. Things that are this important shouldn't be swept under the rug - they should be celebrated for the amazing events they are.
Now that we've gotten the Big Issues out of the way, we should probably ask how we get into this deeper 'version' of Wicca. Well, a lot of it is thinking for yourself - if I hadn't thought about it and really gotten it straight in my mind, I might still be following the reasonably fluffy 101 How-To Book Wicca. If you want to start off down this 'deeper' path, you need a teacher (perhaps a coven or something) or the appropriate reading material to guide you. Some suggested reading can be found in my Book List, and I'm working to make Shadows of Oz itself a guide to this deeper path.