Wicca is a Neopagan religion and a religious movement found in many different countries, though most commonly in English-speaking cultures. It was first publicised in 1954 by a British civil servant named Gerald Gardner after the British Witchcraft Act was repealed. He claimed that the religion, of which he was an initiate, was a modern survival of an old witch cult, which had existed in secret for hundreds of years, originating in the pre-Christian Paganism of Europe. Wicca is thus sometimes referred to as the Old Religion. The veracity of Gardner's claims cannot be independently proven, and it is thought that Wiccan theology began to be compiled no earlier than the 1920s. Various related Wiccan traditions have since evolved, or been adapted from, the form established by Gardner, which came to be called Gardnerian Wicca. These other traditions of Wicca each have specific beliefs, rituals, and practices. Most traditions of Wicca remain secretive and require members to be initiated. However, there is a growing movement of Eclectic or Solitary Wiccans who claim to belong to the religious movement, but do not believe any doctrine or traditional initiation is necessary in order to substantiate the claim.
Because there is no centralised organisation in Wicca, and no single "orthodoxy", the beliefs and practices of Wiccans can substantially vary, both between individuals and between traditions. Typically the main religious principles, ethics and ritual structures are shared, since they are key elements of both traditional teachings and published works on the subject.
Wicca as a magical religion
Wicca is a religion, and although its adherents often identify as witches, Wicca and witchcraft are not necessarily the same thing.
Wiccans may worship a Goddess and a God, or just a Goddess; they observe the festivals of the eight Sabbats of the year and the full-moon Esbats; and they have a code of ethics that most live by. Wicca is thus generally considered to be distinct from witchcraft, which does not of itself imply any specific religious, ethical or ritual elements, and is practiced in various forms by people of many religions, as well as by some atheists.
Wicca does, however, incorporate a specific form of witchcraft, with particular ritual forms, involving the casting of spells, herbalism, divination and other forms of magic. Wiccan ethics require that magical activities are limited to good purposes only.
According to Gerald Gardner, the religion derives from a secret but widespread witch-cult of early modern Europe, which incorporated all of the key religious beliefs and ideals and the distinctive ritual structures found in modern Wicca. While this historical interpretation is now much criticised, it makes it difficult to conclusively say whether Wicca is a religious form of witchcraft or a religion incorporating witchcraft.
While most Wiccans practice magic, a few do not, and do not identify as witches. Similarly, many Wiccans, though not all, call themselves Pagans, though the umbrella term Paganism encompasses many faiths that have nothing to do with Wicca or witchcraft.
Wiccan views on divinity
It is commonly understood that most Wiccans worship two deities: the Goddess, often associated with Gaea or Mother Earth, and her consort the God (sometimes known as the Horned God). These two deities are usually thought of as equal complements to each other, and together represent all aspects of the universe. Depending on the tradition followed, the names of the God and Goddess vary widely, usually based on mythological figures. A few examples might be Cernunnos and Brigit from Celtic mythology or Hecate, Lugh, Diana and many others.
The exact names of the Gods of traditional Wicca remain an initiatory secret according to current Gardnerians and they are not given in Gerald Gardner's books about witchcraft. However, from the collection of Toronto Papers of Gardner's writings investigated by American scholars such as Aiden Kelly, many have come to suppose that their names are Cernunnos and Aradia, as these names are used in the protoype Book of Shadows known as "Ye Bok [sic] of Ye Arte Magical". 
Some Wiccans, particularly those following a solitary path, simply refer to their Gods as "The God and The Goddess". There are also Wiccan groups that acknowledge a unified supreme godhead. Usually referred to just as The One (such as in Scott Cunningham's Wicca: A Guide to the Solitary Practitioner), it has also been called Dryghten in Patricia Crowther's 1974 book Witch Blood!.
The partnership of the Wiccan Goddess and God is generally viewed as dynamic and complementary, with neither dominating, however in some traditions, such as Dianic Wicca, the Goddess alone is worshipped. In those traditions, the God plays either no role, or a diminished role.
A significant number of Wiccans from various traditions do not claim to be dualist, but practice some form of polytheism, often with particular reference to the European pantheons, the paganisms of which Wicca partly draws inspiration from. It has been noted by some authors that Wicca is becoming more polytheistic as it is maturing; embracing a more traditional pagan worldview. However, Wiccans may also be animists, pantheists, or indeed anywhere within the broad spectrum of Neopagan forms of worship.
There are different thoughts in Wicca regarding each of the Elements. Some hold to the ancient Greek conception of the classical elements (air, fire, water, earth) corresponding to matter (earth) and energy (fire) with the mediating elements (water, air) relating to the phases of matter (fire/earth mixtures). Others add a fifth or quintessential element, spirit (aether, akasha). The five points of the frequently worn pentagram symbolise, among other things, the four elements with spirit presiding at the top. The pentagram is the symbol most commonly associated with Wicca in modern times. It is often circumscribed — depicted within a circle, and is usually (though not exclusively) shown with a single point upward. The inverse pentagram, with two points up, is a symbol of the second degree initiation rite of traditional Wicca. In geometry, the pentagram is an elegant expression of the golden ratio phi which is popularly connected with ideal beauty and was considered by the Pythagoreans to express truths about the hidden nature of existence.
Each of the four cardinal elements (air, fire, water and earth) are typically assigned a direction, a color, and an elemental spirit. The following list shows common categorisation, but different traditions of Wicca may use different "correspondences":
Air: East, Yellow, Sylphs
Fire: South, Red, Salamanders
Water: West, Blue, Undines
Earth: North, Green, Gnomes
Some variations in correspondences can be explained by geography or climate. It is common in the southern hemisphere, for example, to associate the element fire with north (the direction of the equator) and earth with south (the direction of the nearest polar area). Some Wiccan groups also modify the religious calendar to reflect local seasonal changes; for instance, most Southern Hemisphere covens will celebrate Samhain on April 30th and Beltane on October 31st, reflecting the southern hemisphere's autumn and spring seasons.
Despite the popular negative connotations associated with witchcraft, Wiccans see their use of witchcraft as positive and good, and black or evil magic is viewed as antithetical to Wiccan beliefs and activities. In fact in all areas of behaviour, magical or otherwise, Wiccan morality can be summarised in the form of a text that is commonly titled The Wiccan Rede. The core maxim of that text states "An it harm none, do what thou wilt." ("An" is an archaic word meaning "if".) The origin of the Wiccan Rede is ambiguous, its earliest mention being at a meeting held by the witchcraft magazine "Pentagram" spoken by Doreen Valiente. Gerald Gardner suggested that it was taken by witches from the legendary ethic of the fabled King Pausol which was "Do what you like so long as you harm no one". Nevertheless, the similarity of the phrasing of the Rede (and explicit and verbatim phrasing of other texts) suggests that this statement is partly based on the Law of Thelema as stated by occultist Aleister Crowley.
Many Wiccans promote the Law of Threefold Return, a belief that anything that one does will be returned to them threefold. In other words, good deeds are magnified in like form back to the doer, and so are ill deeds.
Gerina Dunwich, an American author whose books (notably, Wicca Craft) were instrumental in the increase in popularity of Wicca in the late 1980s and 1990s, disagrees with the Wiccan concept of threefold return on the grounds that it is inconsistent with more than one law of physics. Pointing out that the origin of the Law of Threefold Return is traceable to Raymond Buckland in the 20th century, Dunwich is of the opinion that, "There is little backing to support it as anything other than a psychological law." Her own personal belief, which differs from the usual interpretation of the Threefold Law, is that whatever we do on a physical, mental, or spiritual level will sooner or later affect us, in either a positive or a negative way, on all three levels of being.
Many traditional Wiccans also follow, or at least consider, a set of 161 laws, commonly called the Ardanes. A common criticism of these rules is that they represent outdated concepts and/or produce counterproductive results in Wiccan contexts. Modern authors have also noted that these rules were the byproduct of inner conflict within Gerald Gardner's original coven over the issue of press relations.
Many Wiccans also seek to cultivate the Eight Wiccan Virtues as a guideline for their deeds. These are Mirth, Reverence, Honour, Humility, Strength, Beauty, Power, and Compassion, and are found in a phrase from Doreen Valiente's Charge of the Goddess, where they are ordered in pairs of complementary opposites, reflecting a dualism that is common throughout Wiccan philosophy.
Homosexuality is accepted in most traditions of Wicca: see Homosexuality and Wicca.
A recurrent belief amongst Wiccans is that no magic should be performed on any other person without that person's direct permission (excepting pets, which obviously cannot give explicit permission for such an act). This may stem from the Rede's declaration of "An it harm none, do what thou wilt", in that a person may not wish to have a spell cast upon them, and doing so without first obtaining permission interferes with their free will, which falls under the meaning of the word 'harm' as applied in the Rede. This is especially the case with love spells. Most Wiccans do not believe in performing magic on anyone in any circumstance without permission, although some Wiccans believe that white magic may be performed with or without permission (healing spells, etc).
Secrecy and initiation
Some practitioners of traditional initiatory Wicca consider that the term 'Wicca' only correctly applies to an initiate of a traditional branch of the religion (such as Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca) because solitary Wicca or eclectic Wicca are different in practice from the religion established by Gardner. However, the term has increasingly come to be adopted by people who are not initiates of a traditional lineaged coven. These non-initiatory Wiccans may undertake rituals of self-dedication, and generally work alone as solitary practitioners or in casual groups, rather than in organised covens. Thus non-initiatory Wicca shares some of the basic religious principles, ethics and the ritual system of 'traditional' or 'initiatory' Wicca, but not the organisational structure, or the belief that Wiccan initiation requires a transferral of power from an initiator. Therefore, some practitioners of traditional initiatory Wicca have adopted the term 'British Traditional Wicca' to differentiate themselves from this movement.
Organisation within Wicca
Some Wiccans join groups called covens. Others work alone and are called solitary practitioners. Some solitaries do, however, attend gatherings and other community events, but reserve their spiritual practices (Sabbats, Esbats, spell-casting, worship, magical work, etc.) for when they are alone. Some Wiccans work with a community without being part of a coven.
Many Wiccan traditions hold that the ideal number of members for a coven is thirteen, though this is not held as a hard-and-fast rule. When covens grow beyond their ideal number of members, they often split (or "hive") into multiple covens, yet remain connected as a group. A grouping of multiple covens is known as a grove in many traditions.
When someone is being initiated into a coven, it is also traditional to study with the coven for a year and a day before their actual initiation into the religion. Some solitary Wiccans also choose to study for a year and a day before dedicating themselves to the religion. Wiccans can also be "promoted" into higher ranks such as head priestess or head priest. Rank may be shown through coloured cords. Initiation ceremonies can include a dramatic aspect, such as a dramatic re-enactment of a myth (also known as sacred drama), a pageant, or a dramatic reading.
A handfasting ceremony at Avebury in England, on Beltane, 2005.In typical rites, the Wiccans assemble inside a magic circle, which is marked using various means, in a ritual manner followed by a cleansing and then blessing of the space. Prayers to the God and Goddess are said, and spells are sometimes worked. Traditionally, the circle is followed by a meal. Before entering the circle, some traditions fast for the day, and/or have a ritual wash.
Many Wiccans use a special set of altar tools in their rituals; these can include a broom (besom), cauldron, chalice (goblet), wand, Book of Shadows, altar cloth, athame (used in rituals to channel energy; it can be pronounced as AH-thom-AY, a-THAY-may, et cetera.), boline (or a knife for cutting things in the physical world), candles, and/or incense. Representations of the God/Goddess are often also used, which may be direct, representative, or abstract. The tools themselves are just that — tools, and have no innate powers of their own, though they are usually dedicated or charged with a particular purpose, and used only in that context. For this reason, it is usually considered rude to touch another's tools without permission.
A sensationalized aspect of Wicca, particularly in Gardnerian Wicca, is that some Wiccans practice naked. Though many Wiccans do engage in rituals while skyclad others do not. Some Wiccans wear a pure cotton robe, to symbolise bodily purity, and a cord, to symbolise interdependence and rank. Others wear normal clothes or whatever they think is appropriate. Robes and even Renaissance-Faire-type clothing are not uncommon. Still others wear robes with Stoles which represent their Tradition and/or standing within the Tradition.
Wiccans typically mark each full moon (and in some cases new moons) with a ritual called an Esbat. They also celebrate eight main holidays called Sabbats. Four of these, the cross-quarter days, are greater festivals, coinciding with old Celtic fire festivals. These are Halloween or Samhain (pronounced sow-en or sow-ain), May Eve or Beltane (or Beltaine), Candlemas (or Imbolc, Imbolg, Oimelc) and Lammas (or Lughnasad, which is pronounced LOO-nah-sah). The four lesser festivals are the Summer Solstice (or Litha) and Winter Solstice (or Yule), and the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, sometimes called Ostara (or Eostar or Eostre) and Mabon. See also the Wheel of the Year.
The names of these holidays generally coincide with (or directly draw upon) ancient pan-Germanic and pan-Celtic holidays held around the same times. Ritual observations may include mixtures of those holidays as well as others celebrated at the same time in other cultures- there are several ways to celebrate the holidays. These eight holidays (or festivals in some cultures) tend to be found in more than a few European culture groups before the invasion of monotheist missionary efforts. In this respect, Wiccans have a link, albeit tenuous, with their ideological ancestors.
Wiccan weddings can be "bondings", "joinings", or "eclipses" but are most commonly called "handfastings". Some Wiccans observe an ancient Celtic practice of a trial marriage for a year and a day, which some traditions hold should be contracted on Lammas (Lughnasadh), although this is far from universal. This practice is attested from centuries ago in the fourth and fifth volumes of the Brehon law texts, which are compilations of the opinions and judgements of the Brehon class of Druids (in this case, Irish). The texts as a whole deal with a copious amount of detail for the ancient Celtic tribes in the Isles.
History of Wicca
The history of Wicca is much debated. Gardner claimed that the religion was a survival of matriarchal Pagan religions of pre-historic Europe, taught to him by a woman known either as "Dafo" or "Old Dorothy". Doreen Valiente identified these as a single person, Dorothy Clutterbuck, however modern researchers such as Philip Heselton have theorised that Dafo and Clutterbuck were two separate individuals. It has been posited by authors such as Aidan Kelly and Francis X. King that Gardner himself invented it, following the thesis of Dr. Margaret Murray and sources such as Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches by Charles Godfrey Leland, and incorporating practices of ceremonial magic. While Clutterbuck certainly existed, Ronald Hutton concluded that there was no evidence for her involvement in Gardner's Craft activities. Since then, however, new evidence presented by Philip Heselton makes her involvement seem more likely, and suggests that while Gardner may have been mistaken about the ancient origins of the religion, his statements about it were largely made in good faith. A widespread theory  is that after Gardner retired from adventuring around the globe, he encountered Clutterbuck and her New Forest coven in the region. He was supposedly initiated into the New Forest coven in 1939, where he stayed for years until England's ban on witchcraft-related books was repealed. At this point, and later claiming to fear that the Craft would die out, he worked on his book Witchcraft Today, releasing it in 1954. He followed it with The Meaning of Witchcraft in 1960. It is from these books that much of modern Wicca is derived.
While the ritual format of Wicca is undeniably styled after late Victorian era occultism (even co-founder Doreen Valiente admits seeing influence from Crowley), the spiritual content is inspired by older Pagan faiths, with Buddhist and Hindu influences. Whether any historical connection to Pagan religion exists, the aspiration to emulate Pagan religion as it was understood at the time certainly does.
Due to historical suspicions, it is seems very likely that Gardner's rites and precepts were taken from other occultists and was not in fact anything new to the world. There is very little in the Wiccan rites that cannot be shown to have come from earlier extant sources. The original material is not cohesive and mostly takes the form of substitutions or expansions within unoriginal material. Roger Dearnaley, in An Annotated Chronology and Bibliography of the Early Gardnerian Craft, describes it as a patchwork.
Philip Heselton, writing in Wiccan Roots and later in Gerald Gardner and the Cauldron of Inspiration, argues that Gardner was not the author of the Wiccan rituals but received them in good faith from an unknown source. (Doreen Valiente makes this claim regarding the "basic skeleton of the rituals," as Margot Adler puts it in Drawing Down the Moon.) He notes that all the Crowley material that is found in the Wiccan rituals can be found in a single book, The Equinox vol 3 no. 1 or Blue Equinox. Gardner is not known to have owned or had access to a copy of this book.
Some, such as Isaac Bonewits, have argued that Valiente and Heselton's evidence points to an early 20th century revival predating Gardner, rather than an intact old Pagan religion. The argument points to historical claims of Gardner's that agree with scholarship of a certain time period and contradict later scholarship. Bonewits writes, Somewhere between 1920 and 1925 in England some folklorists appear to have gotten together with some Golden Dawn Rosicrucians and a few supposed Fam-Trads to produce the first modern covens in England; grabbing eclectically from any source they could find in order to try and reconstruct the shards of their Pagan past. Crowley published the aforementioned Blue Equinox in 1919.
The idea of primitive matriarchal religions, deriving ultimately from studies by Johann Jakob Bachofen, was popular in Gardner's day, both among academics (e.g., Erich Neumann, Margaret Murray) and amateurs such as Robert Graves. Later academics (e.g. Carl Jung and Marija Gimbutas) continued research in this area, and later still Joseph Campbell, Ashley Montagu and others became fans of Gimbutas' theories of matriarchies in Old Europe. Matriarchal interpretations of the archaeological record and the criticism of such work continue to be matters of academic debate. Some academics carry on research in this area (such as the 2003 World Congress on Matriarchal Studies). Critics argue that such matriarchal societies never actually existed and are an invention of researchers such as Margaret Murray. This is disputed by documentaries such as "Blossoms of Fire" (about contemporary Zapotec society).
The idea of a supreme Mother Goddess was common in Victorian and Edwardian literature: the concept of a Horned God — especially related to the gods Pan or Faunus — was less common, but still significant. Both of these ideas were widely accepted in academic literature and the popular press at the time. Gardner used these concepts as his central theological doctrine and constructed Wicca around this core.
Wicca has developed in several directions since it was first publicised by Gerald Gardner. Gardnerian Wicca was an initiatory mystery religion, admission to which was limited to those who were initiated into a pre-existing coven. The Book of Shadows, the grimoire that contained the rituals, was kept secret and was only obtainable from a coven of proper lineage. Despite the fact that several versions of the Book of Shadows have now been publicly published, many traditions of Wicca still maintain strict secrecy regarding the book and certain other aspects of the religion.
Raymond Buckland introduced modern Wicca to America after moving to Long Island. Buckland enlarged the Book of Shadows, adding further degrees of initiation which were required before members could found their own covens. Interest outstripped the ability of the mostly British-based covens to train and propagate members; the beliefs of the religion spread faster by the printed word or word of mouth than the initiatory system was prepared to handle. 
Other traditions appeared that gradually brought more attention and adherents to the extant Neopaganism movement. Some claimed roots as ancient as Gardner's version, and were organised along similar lines. Others were syncretic, incorporating aspects of Kabbalah, romanticised Celtic Pagan concepts, and ceremonial magic. In 1971 "Lady Sheba" (self-styled "Queen of the American Witches") published what she claimed was a version of the Gardnerian Book of Shadows, although the authenticity of this book has never been validated. Increasing awareness of Gardner's literary sources and the actual early history of the movement made creativity seem as valuable as Gardnerian tradition. 
Another significant development was the creation by feminists of Dianic Wicca, or feminist Dianic Witchcraft. This is a specifically feminist, Goddess-oriented faith that had no interest in the Horned God, and discarded Gardnerian-style hierarchy as irrelevant. Many Dianic Wiccans felt that witchcraft was every woman's right and heritage to claim. This heritage might be best characterized by Monique Wittig's words on the subject: "But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent." This tradition was comparatively (and unusually for that time) open to solitary witches. Rituals were created for self-initiation to allow people to identify with and join the religion without first contacting an existing coven. This contrasts with the Gardnerian belief that only a witch of opposite gender could initiate another witch.
The publications of Raymond Buckland illustrate these changes. During the early 1970s, in books such as Witchcraft - Ancient and Modern and Witchcraft From the Inside, Buckland maintained the Gardnerian position that only initiates into a Gardnerian or other traditional coven were truly Wiccans. However, in 1974, Buckland broke with the Gardnerians and founded Seax-Wica, revealing its teachings and rituals in the book The Tree: The Complete Book of Saxon Witchcraft. This tradition made no claims to direct descent from ancient Saxons; all of its then-extant rituals were contained in that book, which allowed for self-initiation. In 1986 Buckland published Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft (colloquially known as "Uncle Bucky's Big Blue Book"), a workbook that sought to train readers in magical and ritual techniques as well as instructing them in Wiccan teachings and rituals. Unfortunately, even after Buckland wrote his revised edition of this book there were still many errors from his original work that were never updated.
The first Wiccan Wedding to be legally recognised in the U.K (by the Registrars of Scotland) was performed in 2004.
Gerald Gardner is credited with re-introducing the word Wicca into the English language, although he himself used the spelling 'Wica' in his published work of 1954, and that only sparingly, usually just calling his religion 'witchcraft'. The spelling 'Wicca' is now used almost exclusively, Seax-Wica being the only major use of the four-letter spelling. The word's first appearance within the title of a book was in Scott Cunningham's Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner in the late 1980s.
Wicca was previously an Old English word (pronounced 'witcha'), meaning a male witch or wizard; wicce was a female witch (see also Völva), and wiccecræft was witchcraft. Its earliest known use is in the circa 890 Laws of Ælfred. Earlier origins of the word are uncertain, however, and are much disputed.
The most likely derivation is through the Old English word wigle (sorcery, divination) from the Indo-European root *weg (liveliness, wakefulness). Gardner and other writers on Wicca have proposed a relationship with the Old English words wita 'wise man' and witan 'to know', asserting that witches had once been regarded as the "wise" people; Wicca is often called the "Craft of the Wise" in allusion to this derivation. Still others claim a derivation from the Indo-European root *wei which connotes bending or pliance (from which we get the words 'wicker' 'willow' and 'witch-elm'), suggesting the concept of magic as a "bending" of forces of nature.
The word wicca is associated with animistic healing rites in Halitgar's Latin Penitential where it is stated that
Some men are so blind that they bring their offering to earth-fast stone and also to trees and to wellsprings, as the witches teach, and are unwilling to understand how stupidly they do or how that dead stone or that dumb tree might help them or give forth health when they themselves are never able to stir from their place.
The phrase swa wiccan tæcaþ ("as the witches teach") seems to be an addition to Halitgar's original, added by an eleventh-century Old-English translator.
Discrimination and persecution of Wiccans
Religious persecution By persecuting group:
By victimized group:
Ancient Greek religion
According to the traditional history of Wicca as given by Gerald Gardner, Wicca is a survival of the European witch-cult that was persecuted during the witch trials (sometimes called the Burning Times), and the strong element of secrecy that traditionally surrounds the religion was adopted as a reaction to that persecution.
Since then Margaret Murray's theory of an organised pan-European witch-cult has been discredited, and doubts raised about the age of Wicca, and many Wiccans no longer claim this historical lineage. However it is still common for Wiccans to feel solidarity with the victims of the witch trials, and being witches, to consider the witch-craze to have been a persecution against their faith. 
In modern times, Wiccans have been incorrectly associated with black magic and Satanism, especially in connection with Satanic Ritual Abuse hysteria. The Bible (Leviticus 20:27 A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them and Exodus 22:18 Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live) may incite Christians to be less than sympathetic toward neo-Pagans in general. Wiccans also experience difficulties in administering and receiving prison ministry, although not in the UK of recent times.
Because of the popular negative connotations associated with witchcraft, many Wiccans continue the traditional practice of secrecy, concealing their faith for fear of persecution. Revealing oneself as Wiccan to family, friends or colleagues is often termed "coming out of the broom-closet".