|First of all, let me give you the usual caveats and disclaimers
that set the context for any discussion of the Wiccan religion. Wicca is
a decentralized religion; there is no central authority that can dictate
what Wiccans should practice or believe. Each coven is autonomous, and
in the case of solitary practitioners, each individual is autonomous. Therefore,
the identity of the Wiccan religion is based on mutual recognition - that
is, groups and individuals are Wiccan to the extent that they can recognize
each other as practicing more or less the same religion. Because of this
relative definition, the actual beliefs and practices tend to change and
evolve over time.
Having said that, there are some practices and beliefs that are fairly
common among Wiccans. The occasions of the major rituals are pretty universal,
though the details of how the rituals are performed vary tremendously.
Major ritual occasions include the Sabbats (eight seasonal festivals, spaced
evenly throughout the year), Full Moons (sometimes called Esbats, though
the word Esbat is also used in other ways), and Rites of Passage.
The eight Sabbats are usually observed as celebratory rituals marking
the changing of the seasons. The Wiccan year starts at sunset on October
31 (Samhain or Halloween), though there is a great emphasis on the year
as an unbroken cycle, so the status of the New Year festival is only slightly
elevated above the other sabbats. Each sabbat technically extends from
sunset on the eve of the sabbat to sunset on the day of the sabbat, though
we usually don't take the exact timing too seriously - since it's rare
to get Wiccan holidays off from work, most of us hold our rituals as near
to the date of the sabbat as our schedules will allow.
Full Moon rituals vary considerably; some groups use the Full
Moon as a time for working magic (for healing, or personal growth, or encouraging
difficult situations to work out okay). Some of us use the Full Moons as
a time to invoke our gods to speak to us directly. For some groups, the
Full Moon is a time for teaching and learning.
Rites of Passage include rites specific to the religion (i.e.
initiations) and rites that mark other major events in the course of a
person's life. Initiation rituals may formalize an individual's dedication
to the Wiccan religion, or acceptance of a new level of responsibility
within the religion. Initiations may or may not confer membership or rank
in a particular coven or group of covens. The number of initiation rituals
depends on the tradition, three being most common. Some groups emphasize
the basic equality of their members by having only one initiation; others
have added more grades as they refine and extend their body of teaching
Other rites of passage include the usual sorts of things you find in
any culture - child blessing, coming of age, marriage (we call it "handfasting"),
and funeral (or "requiem") rites. Again, details of the rituals vary considerably,
and may be tailored to the needs and desires of the individuals involved.
Wicca is primarily an experiential religion; our rituals and training techniques
aim to produce a consistent body of experience, but different people will
draw different conclusions about what those experiences mean. Thus there
are several sets of beliefs, some of them contradictory, that are available
for consideration within a Wiccan framework.
The Gods: Wiccan literature and rituals often make reference
to The Goddess and The God, or to The Gods generally, or may mention any
number of Goddesses and Gods by name. So a Wiccan may be a polytheist,
worshipping many gods and goddesses. On the other hand, many Wiccans
are of the opinion that all the goddesses that have ever been worshipped
are really a single Goddess known by many names, and likewise all the (male)
gods are really manifestations or aspects of a single God. Furthermore,
it is not uncommon for Wiccans to continue this line of thinking by saying
that the Goddess and the God are two halves of a single, universal divine
force. So Wiccans can be polytheists, duotheists, monotheists, and
pantheists, all at the same time. Opinion also varies as to exactly
how "real" the gods are - some see them as nothing more than psychological
archetypes, others see them as very real beings capable of physical manifestation.
Some take the middle ground, saying the gods are real, in the sense that
they are transpersonal, but they are not physical beings; so their effect
on the world only comes through their ability to indirectly influence the
actions of living things.
Nature: In addition to anthropomorphic images of deity, Wiccans
also speak in more abstract terms of the sacredness of Nature. To
some extent, this is the spiritual corollary of the scientific "Gaia hypothesis",
first proposed by James Lovelock in the 1960's, which basically states
that in order to fully understand geological, meteorological and oceanological
processes, it is necessary to think of the entire ecosphere of the Earth
as a single living organism that exhibits some kind of intelligence.
As far as I know, no scientist has seriously suggested that this "intelligence"
is anything like human intelligence; what they have in mind is more like
the intelligence of a thermostat. On the other hand, they haven't
really ruled out a more complex sort of global intelligence, either.
Wiccans universally think of the natural world as sacred, and worthy of
respect. Some go farther and worship Earth as the Great Mother Goddess,
from whose body all living things have emerged, and to whom all will return
when they die. Earth is also sometimes spoken of as Mother of the
Gods, from whom all other gods and goddesses descend (this idea comes by
way of ancient Greek religion).
Magic: The Wiccan religion is permeated by the idea of magic.
However, the word magic remains largely undefined. For some Wiccans,
magic is nothing more or less than a set of psychological techniques that
have stood the test of time: the use of inborn psychological archetypes,
associative thinking, and meditative techniques to marshall the mind's
powers, focus the attention for effective problem solving, and promote
communication between different parts of the brain. Other Wiccans
believe in more miraculous sorts of magic: action at a distance, clairvoyance,
precognition, things that non-Wiccans might describe as "supernatural"
(to a Wiccan, if these forms of magic exist, then they are part of nature,
and thus they are not supernatural). People who are unfamiliar
with the magical worldview may think of magic as simply not-science, but
that is a gross oversimplification. The magical worldview and the
scientific worldview overlap to a considerable extent; the apparent contradictions
stem from a difference in priorities. Science is concerned with objectively
observable phenomena, which can be validated by predictably reproducing
an effect. Magic, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with
subjectively experienced phenomena, and unique events may be highly significant
in a magical context. Therefore, magic and science, when properly
understood, should complement each other nicely. The confusion comes
when magic appears to make truth claims about objective physical phenomena,
or when science crosses the line into interpreting subjective experience.
Reincarnation: Much of the imagery and symbolism of Wicca revolves
around an implicit acceptance of the idea of reincarnation. Natural
cycles are equated with the cycles of our lives: as midnight is followed
by sunrise, and winter is followed by spring, so surely death must be followed
by some form of rebirth. And in between dying and being born, Wiccan legend
speaks of the Summerland, a place where the souls of the dead find rest
and renewal, and reunion with those who have gone before, and eventually,
the strength to return again. That's the legend. Do Wiccans
actually believe this? Well, some do, taking the legend more or less
at face value. Others see it more philosophically, taking the idea
of reincarnation to mean that nature wastes nothing: the atoms of our bodies
will return to the Earth, and will eventually be incorporated into other
living things. Still others are inclined to believe that there is
some essence of a person that survives death, and all of our religious
ideas about the afterlife are clumsy metaphors for something that cannot
be described plainly, because our minds and our senses cannot quite comprehend
the reality of it.
The Law of Return: This bit of Wiccan lore says "What you send
out will return to you threefold". It is presented as a law of nature,
and expresses a deep belief in the interconnectedness of all things.
On one level, this is common sense: if you're mean to people, people will
be mean to you. If you're nice to people, people will be nice to
you (after they get over the surprise). If you poison the land and
the sea, you poison yourself. If you tend the land with care, the
earth will send up life-giving fruits to nourish you. On the other
hand, it's fairly easy to think of apparent counterexamples: cases where
villains prosper while good-hearted people suffer. But no one said
the return would be quick.