Tracing the Origins of the
Modern Wiccan Movement

© Spotlight Ministries, 2003

Many Wiccans will often claim that the Wiccan religion is an ancient pre-Christian religion. Such an assertion is usually made to give an air of maturity, and hence authority to the religion. It is most certainly true that there were many pre-Christian religions that worshipped a Goddess, and it is entirely possible that a hereditary tradition could have been passed down throughout the ages, but such a position is very difficult to prove. The Encyclopedia of Magic & Witchcraft states:

"It is now fairly well established that modern witchcraft was formulated in the early 1950's. A significant minority, however, claim that they do belong to an unbroken inherited tradition, that comes to them through their own family rather than any social inheritance. Scholarship on this subject has so far failed to provide any proof to support these claims." (The Encyclopedia of Magic & Witchcraft, p. 206).

It would appear that Wicca can be traced to more modern times, mainly from one man - Gerald Gardner. Phyllis Curott observes:

"Contemporary Wicca is a modern, vital, dynamic religion. This statement flies in the face of the myth of our origin that many have subscribed to for a long time…There have been some thorough and carefully researched work published recently…that challenges the belief that modern Witchcraft is a historically unbroken, organized, hereditary tradition that can be consistently traced back to a golden era of matriarchy and worship of a single Great Goddess. However, there have always been individuals who claim they were initiated in traditions which remain hidden behind veils of secrecy - and there may indeed be hereditary traditions waiting for a safer time to emerge…The fact is that the origins of much of our current practice can be traced back to the creative genius of Gerald Gardner who surfaced publicly in England in the late 1940's and early 1950's…" (Phyllis Curott, Witch Crafting, pp. 5-6).

Doreen Valiente was initiated into the Craft in 1953, by Gerald Gardner, and eventually served as his high priestess. Gardner claimed that he had been initiated into an ancient tradition of Witchcraft by a Witch called "Old Dorothy", in 1939, in the New Forest, England. However, despite what Gardner himself claimed, it seems that even at the very beginning of her involvement with Gardner, Valiente had some doubts about the validity of some of the things he said:

"Valiente said that her initiation was virtually identical to that described in High Magic's Aid except that it included something called "The Charge" (a ritual utterance from an invoked deity) which she recognized as containing passages from Leland's Aradia and parts of Aleister Crowley's writings. When she confronted Gardner with the inclusion of this material, he replied that he had had to supplement the fragmentary material from the old coven."(The Encyclopedia of Magic & Witchcraft, p. 200).

It appears that Valiente continued to doubt Gardner's claims of the origins of at least some of his teachings throughout her life. An example of this is seen in a speech she gave at the Pagan Federation Conference, in Croyden, England, on November 1997:

"At first I did not question anything Gerald told me about what he said were the traditional teachings of the Old religion. Eventually, however, I did begin to question, and to ask how much was really traditional and how much was simply Gerald's prejudices." (Doreen Valiente, Pagan Federation Conference, Croyden, England, Nov. 1997, as quoted in Wiccan Wisdom Keepers, p. 34).

"Another teaching of Gerald's which I have come to question is the belief known popularly as 'The Law of Three'. This tells us that whatever you send out in Witchcraft , you get back threefold, for good or ill. Well, I don't believe it. Why on earth should we assume that there is a special law of Karma, which applies only to Witches? For the Goddess' sake, do we really kid ourselves that we are that important? Yet, so I am told, many people, especially in United States, take this as an article of faith. I have never seen it in any of the old books of magic, and I think Gerald invented it." (Doreen Valiente, Pagan Federation Conference, Croyden, England, Nov. 1997, as quoted in Wiccan Wisdom Keepers, p. 34).

As Valiente herself seemed to recognize at her initiation ceremony, the ideas for Gardner’s religion seemed to come from a number of wide and varied sources. Some of the sources that researchers have identified are as follows:

The latter source is particularly interesting, as Aleister Crowley was an infamous Black Magician. Today, however, most Wiccans would seek to distance themselves from anything to do with black, or “left hand path” magick. Concerning the influence of Crowley on Gardner Susan Greenwood notes that:

"As an initiate of Aleister Crowley's Ordo Tempi Orientis (OTO), Gardner was also deeply influenced by Crowley’s ideas and, according to one view hired him to write witchcraft rituals for him." (Susan Greenwood, The Encycopedia of Magic and Witchcraft, p. 190).

Likewise, Doreen Valiente also admits:

"Indeed, the influence of Crowley was very apparent throughout the (Wiccan) rituals." This, Gardner explained to her, was because the rituals he received from Old Dorothy's coven were very fragmentary, and in order to make them workable, he had to supplement them with other material. (Source:

Even the Wiccan phrase "an it harm none, do what thou wilt" appears to be a modified version of Crowley's "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law".

Another point worth mentioning here from the list of possible sources for modern Wicca is found in Margaret Murray.

Christian author Brooks Alexander writes:

“Murray [Margaret]...established the terminology of the “Sabbat” and the “Esbat.” She contributed the concept that the witch cult was organized into “covens” of 13 people, consisting of 12 witches and their leader or priest.” (Brooks Alexander, Witchcraft Goes Mainstream, p. 198).

So, the above concepts and terms only came into being during Murray’s time (1863-1963) and were consequently taken up and promoted by Gardner.

Despite Gardner’s original claim that the Witchcraft he was initiated into was an unbroken line of ancient Paganism, the evidence would appear to suggest that he actually combined a number of various sources, some possibly ancient but the vast majority were new, to make a brand new religious movement – Wicca. Despite the belief in a Goddess being prominent in ancient times, it simply cannot be maintained that Wicca is an ancient pre-Christian religion as no evidence can be brought forward to demonstrate that such a belief system, with its intricate ceremonies and ritualism, ever existed until Gardner introduced it to the world in the 1950’s.

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