Wicca is a rapidly growing religious movement, which is a modern day version of ancient religious precepts that far predates both Judaism and Christianity, and whose basic tenets and beliefs go back to the earliest days of humanity.
From the time religious thought was first conceived, early humanity was fascinated with the concept of female power, as only women had the ability to reproduce.
Before men realized their role in reproduction, ancient societies were largely matriarchal, based on the awe that men held towards women, who were seen as the life-givers of the fledging human race. As a result, early human spirituality revered an all-female conception of Deity, a Goddess, which represented fertility to the nascent human species. Many early paintings, carvings and statues depict this early Mother Goddess, which includes a bloated womb and enlarged breasts, obviously in honor of women's ability to reproduce humanity, and intended for use in fertility rites.
Women also had the important role of educating the children, forming the rudiments of language, leading the tribe's religious rites and probably formulating the early cultural mores and taboos of these early, pre-industrial gentile societies. As a result, the Mother Goddess came to embody intellect and the arts as well.
Since the men were considered more expendable, they were relegated to the important but extremely dangerous task of hunting. They would often wear animal skin with antlers or stag horns on top to get close to a herd of bison or antelope. This led to the eventual creation of a male aspect of Deity, the God of the Hunt. He was depicted as having horns and hooves (and sometimes other animal characteristics, such as a tail), to exemplify his connection with nature, and was modeled on the appearance of the disguised hunters. This image of the Horned God was later severely bastardized by the Roman Catholic Church into the evil entity known as the Devil, or 'Satan.'
When horticulture and later, agriculture, eventually supplanted hunting as the main form of sustenance for the tribe, the God of the Hunt became the God of Agriculture, and the image of the Green Man, visually represented as a male face in the form of foliage, came into being in some societies (and remains a fairly familiar image in the British Isles to this day), and the replacement of antler and stag horns with goat horns came to personify the God. This later led to such god-forms as the Greco-Roman Pan (and his horde of satyr brethren) and the Celtic Cernnunos.
Still, the female Goddess was held in higher prominence than the God. During these early days of humanity, it is believed by modern archeologists that many rituals were performed to the Mother Goddess, primarily to insure the fertility of the tribe's women and possibly also to heal the sick, and the God was probably called upon in these rituals to increase the abundance of game for the hunters and to increase the success of the hunt itself (early cave paintings by Cro-Magnon tribes clearly depict the hunting rituals, showing the tribe members dancing while dressed in animal skins, the leader or "high priest" of the ritual disguised in fur and horns to play the role of the Horned God). Later, the God was probably called upon ritually to insure a good and healthy crop for the tribe. These early exercises in what is today referred to as magick greatly evolved in scope and purpose over time, and early societies eventually developed rituals designed to utilize the energy inherent in nature into granting people whatever they desired, personally as well as collectively for the entire community or tribe. In its earliest days, people utilized magickal ritual for primarily communal purposes, beginning with, for example, a good supply of game for the hunt (as described above) and, after the agricultural revolution, for favorable crop in the planting seasons. As time passed, and human society became more and more complex, the original monotheistic Goddess, and the latter duotheistic reverence of the Goddess and God, were sub-divided into numerous different deities, both female and male, all of which represented a different culturally significant aspect of the society's lives and ethics (i.e., a god/dess of wisdom, love, combat, writing, etc.), and thus religious structure became more polytheistic.
The early simple folk magick would eventually evolve into more complex rituals for personal use, for individuals to gain things such as health, love and material wealth, finally becoming what we know today as Witchcraft, Ceremonial Magick and many other forms.
When the primitive communistic societies were eventually replaced by private property and class-divided societies, men slowly began to seize power, particularly after learning of their role in reproduction.
However, the early Pagan religions still reigned supreme in these new economies, and the Goddess and God were given many personalities comprising numerous different aspects of each society. Thus, as described above, the Goddess and God were subdivided into different pantheons of lesser gods and goddesses that embodied various aspects that were culturally significant to a given society.
For example, each society had a god/goddess of war, of love, of agriculture, of prosperity and commerce, of the sea, of death, etc. The richest pantheons belong to the Greeks/Romans, Norse/Germanic, Celtic, Egyptians, Native Americans, Japanese, Africans, and many others. Several of these pantheons of gods and goddesses are still revered today by various Pagan religions (the subject of these beings being real entities or merely metaphorical subdivisions of the Goddess and God will be the focus of another section).
Many of these societies, particularly the Celtics and Norse, held women in high regard in society and their goddesses had every bit as much importance as the male deities.
However, towards the end of the Roman Empire, the monotheistic, patriarchal religious tendency known as Christianity began, and it grew from a relatively small group of religious rebels led by the great prophet Jesus Christ into a huge political power base. This new religion worshipped an all male personification of a single Deity, and it eventually fully established the patriarchal society that we still see (albeit to an increasingly lesser degree) today.
[Note on Monotheism: The concept of monotheism wasn't new during the twilight years of the Roman Empire, but was first envisioned much earlier by the Egyptian pharaoh Achnaton (also sometimes referred to as Amenhotep IV in the history books) during the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, and he called this single all-male conception of Deity Aton. This began the original mistake of monotheism, the ousting of the female aspect of Deity from the consciousness of its followers, and made the social concept of a patriarchy far more acceptable to its adherents; it rejected the concept of duotheism, which would have given equal respect to the female aspect of divinity. It should be noted that it's very curious that neither Achnaton nor Christ envisioned a gender neutral conception of a single Deity (as a few open-minded Christians are slowly beginning to do today), which would have prevented a huge amount of the social strife and disempowerment that women have suffered from in the following centuries up to the present day. The worship of Aton eventually fell out of favor in Egypt, and a return to polytheism was instituted. Most major re-evaluations of religious thought, as well as the creation of new and radical religions, occur during times of social, economic and political turmoil, such as when a particularly powerful nation-state or socio-economic order is dying out. Egypt wasn't in too major a situation in this regard at the time of the 18th Dynasty, or Achnaton's cult may have gone much further, and modern day monotheists may be invoking his name as their holy savior rather than Christ, and still referring to their conception of Deity as "Aton" (or an anglicized variation thereof) instead of simply "God." However, when Christ began his religious mission and started gathering his Apostles during the final days of the Roman Empire, his timing couldn't have been better, for it was a time when the world economic order, then based on chattel slavery, was collapsing (to soon be replaced by a new world economic order, feudalism) and the political structure and social stability of Rome was becoming chaotic. Many new religious orders in addition to Christianity, such as the cult of Diana, began forming, which is similar to the phenomenon of bizarre cults (such as the ill-fated cult of David Koresh) and new religions (such as the resurgence in Pagan faiths like Wicca, Asatru and Druidism) which are appearing today, and slowly growing and thriving, now that the current economic world order, capitalism, is likewise starting to collapse, and much political and social turmoil is occurring as the established norms and religions of our society are now slowly being questioned by an increasingly disheartened population. Had Christ been born in the Heroic Age of Greece during its stable economic period, his then radical religious ideas would probably have gone nowhere, and Christianity may have ended up as a forgotten footnote in history. The success of virtually all new religious movements have always been dependant on the social, political and economic circumstances of the nation-state and time period in question in which they appeared. Jesus Christ was obviously inspired by the earlier, albeit temporary, success of Achnaton, in attempting to create a religion centered around a single universal male Deity, only this time the new God image was conceived as being totally good (the new monotheistic Deity's petty, human-like qualities, and his totally evil counterpart Satan, were added much later, once the Roman Catholic Church fully entered its political stage during the feudal era, and Satan was retroactively inserted into the history of Jesus by the writers of the Bible to establish this being's legitimacy as a "threat" to the devout followers of Christianity). Judaism and Islam, as well as Christianity, owe a tip of the hat to Achnaton and his religious conception, even though none of these three dominant religious tendencies acknowledges his "contribution" to their particular conception of Deity and world history today. There are even rumors that a very old and long vanished cult that predated the Pagan civilization of Sumeria/Mesopotamia, the oldest recorded human civilization accepted as authentic by all modern archeologists, had established a monotheistic faith around an all-male Deity called Mithra, and this was expounded upon in the fictional fantasy novels written by Robert E. Howard about the "Hyborian Age," an era posited to exist about 10,000 years ago, and whose authenticity has yet to be accepted by modern historians, and it is not known if Achnaton's society would have had any knowledge of the Mithra cult, which may or may not be the earliest conception of all-male monotheism in human history, as well as an unknown major example of monotheism in human history, but that doesn't change the fact that Achnaton created the first monotheistic religious tendency to be very well documented in history, and would have been known to Roman historians during the time of Jesus, who was quite well educated, as well as a reported master of psychic abilities.]
The new monotheistic Christian religion of Catholicism, which became a powerful political force after the fall of the slave economies and the rise of feudalism, co-existed with Pagan religions for many centuries, and finally waged a brutal war to stamp out all vestiges of these older religions in a conflict known as the Crusades. The Roman Catholic Church perverted the word "Pagan," which derives from the Latin word paganus, and literally translates into "country dweller," into meaning an anti-Christian and "unbeliever."
Today, many people still incorrectly believe the word to be synonymous with atheism, or the belief in no Deity or deities of any kind, with a strict adherence to scientific materialism, and total rejection of all aspects of spirituality and metaphysics.
Goddess was excised from the religious consciousness of the masses, to
resurface later to the Roman Catholics in the subordinate role of the
Mary. Jesus Christ himself was deified, his teachings perverted and
image transformed into the "son of God." He became the Christian
of the Sun God, an old Pagan tradition of a beloved male deity born to the
Goddess who is killed and resurrected after death (important Pagan Sun
include Dionysus/Bacchus [Greek/Roman], Balder [Norse] and Osiris [Egyptian]). The Pagan image of the Horned God
transformed into the visualized appearance of "Satan," or the Devil, the evil being and avowed enemy of the Christian God, who only "evil"
(i.e., non-Christians) worshipped, and who had allegedly dedicated his metaphysical existence to totally undermining and destroying the moral turpitude of loyal Christians.
Pagan attitudes such as openness of sex and reverence for women were drastically attacked in order to keep the masses under the control of the Church clergy. Now, sex and nudity were considered sinful and abhorrent to the new God image, and women became little more than property to the males, becoming third class citizens, losing all property rights and unable to serve in the clergy until the 20th century (at this time, the beginning of the 21st century, women still cannot serve as priests in the Roman Catholic religion, today still the most influential of all Christian denominations, though the politically right wing fundamentalist "born again" Christians, such as Pat Robertson and his ilk, are becoming very influential nowadays as well).
These aforementioned alterations in the cultural mindset, particularly in America and England, continue to a lesser degree into the present time. Beginning roughly in the 11th century, the Christian knights known as the Crusaders began storming across the Western and Northern world to convert all Pagan tribes to Christianity through sheer brute force and violence, and making the way safe for the missionaries of the Church to come in and "re-educate" the survivors of the carnage. However, certain small groups of Pagans survived in remote areas and in the smallest villages, and continued to practice the "old" ways in relative secrecy, despite the mass destruction of the major rich Pagan cultures such as the Druids (the religious priesthood of the Keltoi, or Celts) and the Norsemen (or Vikings). By the late 15th century, however, Witchcraft officially became illegal, and the Church stopped at nothing to eradicate it from the Western world completely. The people were told that Satan was hiding around every corner, waiting to seduce innocent and devout Christians to his "evil" ways, and that the Church had to take drastic measures to stamp out the menace at all costs. This created one of the first of the many politically motivated social hysterias to occur in the New World, and was the origination of the term "witch-hunting," and gave the ruling class of the time an excuse to trample on the civil rights of society at large [this is very similar to the many hysterias engendered by the American government and media, such as the white slavery hysteria of the 1890's-1900's, the "Communist" and homosexual hysterias of the 1950's, and the pedophile and terrorist hysterias of the present era, which proves that social terror tactics are used by our current government in a very similar manner to the theocratic societies of the past, and for the same purpose...creating a public hysteria and inflated "menace" that is so severe and terrifying, the masses are told, that drastic measures, i.e., harsher laws, stronger police powers and erosions of our much sought after civil rights must be enacted to stamp out the menace, and the panic-stricken general public happily complies and even participates with a large amount of finger-pointing and using the new laws to their advantage to ruin the lives of people they dislike, the same as the people of the earlier centuries did in accusing folks they disliked of Witchcraft...how little things change over time]. Over the next two hundred years, people across Europe and America were put to death en masse merely for being suspected of practicing Witchcraft, which was purported to support the infamous Christian political boogeyman, Satan. Most of these individuals were definitely not even truly Pagans, but were devout Christians who were merely accused of being Pagans, often by jealous and spiteful neighbors with a personal vendetta. These unfortunates were subjected to some of the most brutal and horrific tortures ever inflicted by one human against another, and they were forced to confess to the charges, after which they were summarily executed for the crime they "confessed" to, and most were either hung or burned alive at the stake (others were killed by dismemberment, drowning, further torture and other equally unpleasant means). Further, the terror tactics were not only used to wipe out the last vestiges of Paganism by the Church, but also to attack practitioners of emerging rival Christian sects, such as the Protestants, many of whom were tortured and murdered after being accused of practicing Witchcraft while visiting a Catholic village; the in-fighting between different Christian denominations also caused much chaos upon American and English society at the time. This murderous and insane anti-Paganism crusade created one of the earliest of the many "holocausts" in the New World. All of the few remaining real Pagans were understandably driven into hiding, and Paganism and Witchcraft (as well as the practice of almost all magick) was driven far underground and more or less eliminated from the public awareness by the end of the 17th century, and was completely discredited further from the materialist Scientific Revolution that emerged fully in the past four centuries, after the end of the Renaissance. For the most part, the Crusades succeeded in converting most of the Western and Northern world to Christianity (despite often violent resistance by the Pagans), leaving nothing more than small, scattered groups and a handful of solitary practitioners of Paganism alive in the remote countrysides, and the Inquisition more or less completed the task of the Church by ensuring that the few remaining Pagans were driven so far underground in fear and hiding that they simply vanished from the world scene with no one to pass the "old" religion on to. The several claims in the 20th century by both academic scholars and Neo-Pagans that a few witches survived and passed on their lineage to the present day are nothing more than unproven rumors, and it can unfortunately be said that the Church did it's grisly job quite well. Confirmation of this is the fact that when the laws against Witchcraft were finally repealed in the 18th century, and when the U.S. Constitution was written, which guaranteed religious freedom in the newly formed nation of America, no "underground" members of the Pagan religion emerged from hiding to set the record straight. Christian beliefs, values and cultural mores (not to mention the laws inspired by them) were just too ingrained into the mindset of the citizens of this new nation, including the incorrect and stereotypical beliefs of Pagans being evil "devil worshippers," the Mother Goddess image lived on only in the extremely subordinate image of the Virgin Mary, the Horned God image was believed to be analogous to the Christian image of Satan, the old polytheistic deities were now considered to be mere objects of myth, and women, who were often mainstays of the Pagan societies, were legally and culturally servile to the men of the new nation. Thus, if a tiny handful of Pagans truly remained in existence as rumors have suggested, they understandably remained deeply in hiding. It wasn't until the mid-20th century, when a new generation of Pagans would emerge and challenge the still dominating but slowly declining Christian mindset, that the "old" religion in a new guise returned to lay claim to the belief systems of the Western and Northern worlds once more. Hence, even this new nation, with "religious freedom" written into law, was not considered a safe place for the "old" religion, as dominated as it was in both culture and laws by Christian doctrine (some of the American laws, however, such as the idea of a bourgeois democracy, were acquired from the Athenian society of ancient Greece, and the concept of a speedy trial by jury and other legal procedures, such as due process, which was an ideal utilized by the Norsemen, were indeed of Pagan origin; the women's liberation movement of the Civil Rights era in the late 20th century was a regaining of rights that were common to the female gender in most of the Pagan societies). Hence, by the end of the Inquisition late in the 17th century, the Church believed that all vestiges of the old Pagan religion was successfully defeated, and the brutal attempt to stomp out the influence of “Satan” was relaxed to a large extent. However, despite this defeat of Paganism, it wasn't the permanent end of the "old" religion .
In the late 19th century, the Spiritualist movement, the birth of a new science known as parapsychology and the formation of non-traditional religions such as Theosophy (formed by the eccentric mystic Madame Helena Blavatsky, and which exists to this day) began renewing interest in the occult, and Christianity was slowly being challenged, but not to a major extent in the 19th century.
In the year 1921, Dr. Margaret Murrary wrote a book entitled The Witch Cult in Western Europe, which officially identified Witchcraft as an ancient fertility religion that had no connection to Satan and devil-worship, thus challenging a common and cruel misconception rampant in our still Christian society. She followed this up ten years later (1931) by a second book, The God of the Witches, where she made claims that the religion remained in an unbroken line to this day (these claims have never been substantiated, and are controversial). In 1951, the last of the old Witchcraft laws in England were repealed (and the last of these mostly dealt with matters of fraud, anyways).
In 1954, the modern Wiccan, and perhaps the modern Neo-Pagan movement and "New Age" in general, began with the publication of Gerald Gardner's book Witchcraft Today. Here he revealed himself to be a witch, and that he was in fact initiated into a coven of a long line of witches (a claim that is now being disputed heavily by even the Pagan community). Nevertheless, despite some of Gardner's more questionable claims, his book introduced the Wiccan religion to the public. The name "Wicca" was first given in a book written later in the 1950's by Gardner, and this term is alternately described as meaning "craft of the wise" or taken from the Celtic phrase "to bend."
Gardnerian was the first Wiccan tradition to take root in Europe and America, and it was soon followed by other prominent branches, such as Alexandrian, Dianic and Eclectic (which is actually a 'non-tradition'), to be followed in the 60's by a resurgence of interest in Celtic and Norse deities in particular, leading to Wiccan traditions centered around them (Norse Wicca, despite its reverence of the Norse deities, has no connection with another growing Pagan religion, Asatru, which keeps the old religion of the Vikings alive and worships the Norse Gods, just as Celtic Wicca has no connection to the ancient Pagan religion of Druidism, which worships the Celtic Gods, and is now also enjoying a resurgence in the West).
By the 1970's, Wicca had developed into one of the fastest growing religious movements in an era of many people who are determined to cast off the encroachments of Judeo-Christian society and its continued attacks on sexual freedom, women's liberation, youth liberation (a budding movement in its infancy that even not all Pagans yet ascribe to, which will ultimately lead to the re-extension of civil rights to youths, who are doing much to help the growth of Wicca; youth liberation should be a major focus for Wiccans today, but the movement has only recently begun).
Also, Asatru arrived on American shores in the 70's, and a resurgence of Druidism also began to emerge beginning in the late 80's, thus increasing the spread of Paganism in general across our still largely Judeo-Christian society. This once unchallenged set of virtues is now once again being questioned by more progressive-minded religious tendencies, despite its lack of official organization and its separation into many different traditions.
As the 20th century is now officially over, all of the Pagan religions, including the many Wiccan traditions (as well as others, such as Asatru and Neo-Druidism) are now continuing to grow in number. It may well be that the 21st century will become the era when the Pagan religions again come of age, and eventually cast off the domination of the Judeo-Christian mindset which still rules America and England.
For a description of what Wicca is specifically, and what the commonalities and differences of its traditions are, refer to the section What is Wicca? elsewhere on this site.